Seen Along the Edges–Ethnobotany of Queen Anne’s Lace

One way I stay enchanted it to know more about individual species…

The Ecotone Exchange


By Neva Knott

Queen Anne’s Lace can be seen along the edges. This weed, herb, or wildflower provides the fine goods trim for wood lots, disturbed areas such as fields, bramble patches, sidewalk strips, un-mown vacant lots, and meadows. Individual plants grow to be about four to five feet in height, and shoot out in a radial pattern from the ground. The flower opens to a flat top supported by a triangular arrangement of stems that attach to the main stalk. In this position, the flower appears mostly white, yet the underpinnings remain light green in tint. Characteristically, there is one small blue-black dot in the center of the now-mature flower. As the flowers move to seed stage, they are gathered inward on themselves, as if in a tight fist. At this stage, the coloration is somewhat light green, but not bright. In some instances, a flower will cup under…

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How do we come at the environmental mess educated and enchanted?

By Neva Knott

Five and a half years ago, I wrote a post entitled Losing Hope. In planning for the website move-and-improve (we’re going to SquareSpace soon…please follow along), I worked with a lovely branding coach, Caroline Mays at Switchblade Lemonade. In my work with her, I wrote this: “Part of the story is admitting to being crushed under the weight of it all…and the message behind that is let’s make it manageable. So. Many. Options. Also, empowerment.”

The options are what I believe in…and the stories behind all of the positive options individuals and organizations are leveraging to empower themselves in the face of climate change…and the other parts of the mess we’ve made of the natural world.

Those are strong statements, but true. We made the mess…and we can clean it up…and we’ll feel a heck of a lot better when we do. Not much is worse than feeling disempowered, because, well, that’s victimhood.

My goal with The Ecotone Exchange has always been to get the word out about the positive things happening for the environment; that is my evergreen mission.

To shift a bit…another snippet that came out of my work with Switchblade Lemonade is the statement that we have to come at the mess educated and enchanted.

Formal education, perhaps. I’ve certainly got it, but I’ve come to realize, too, that much of what I do to empower myself in the face of environmental degradation comes from awareness and common sense. The cheat sheet in my knowledge is that my dad was an ecologist/naturalist; but…human culture didn’t know everything about environmental science we do today. And that is where the shame on us comes in…we know enough; scratch that–we know more than enough.

Here are the key words of the mess and stopping us coming at it educated:

Want. Greed. Profit. Business As Usual.

Enchanted…what’s that even mean?

In under-grad (1988), at The Evergreen State College, I read The Reenchantment of the World by Morris Berman. The book had come out recently, in 1981. It’s one that has stuck with me…at least Berman’s premise that humans must adopt a “participatory consciousness” in nature for society and the planet to survive.

Here’s a bit of the publisher’s synopsis:

“Arguing that the holistic world view must be revived in some credible form before we destroy our society and our environment, [Berman] explores the possibilities for a consciousness appropriate to the modern era. Ecological rather than animistic, this new world view would be grounded in the real and intimate connection between man and nature.

Here are the key words (also from the synopsis) of the mess and stopping us from coming at it enchanted:

“…the mechanistic idea that we can know the natural world only by distancing ourselves from it”

“…man…as an isolated observer [of the cosmos]”

To take this out of conceptual language:

The “mechanistic” view puts nature as a cog in the industrial goods-and-services world, yet detached from its own system of services, those we now call ecosystems services, which are things like soil filtration of pollutants as water moves from an urban street into a river.

An “isolated observer” is one who sees nature only as a place to go for recreation, only as a place that is other, rather than as the foundation of live on planet Earth. Sadly, I would argue, most of us–especially since the explosion of our screen-lives, have stopped even “observing.”

So here’s my five-day participatory consciousness challenge for you:

Today, listen to the birdsong and use whatever earth-science education you have to connect yourself to that species…and find some enchantment in the rhythm of the sounds.

Tomorrow, find one flower and study the coloration of it and connect it to anything you know about the psychology of color…and find some emotional ease in looking at that color in nature, as it exists in the big mystery of how life is made and lived.

Day three–find one leaf that is showing its first blush for spring. Remember what you know about how that leaf helps to carry water from sky to ground. Marvel at that simple yet complex process.

Day four–look at something ground level, a squirrel, a worm, an acorn. What part does it add to the whole? How does that species’s participation in the life process mimic your own?

Day five–observe something that is “natural” but human-build, like a lawn. Contrast it with your observations from days 1-4, and imagine what would happen if that thing existed with more connection to nature.

I would love to read comments about how this went for you.

Previous posts about my dad’s work:

People, Wildlife and the Environment

The Lessons My Dad Gave My Seventh Grade Class–In 1973

Orangutans and Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

Big news here at The Ecotone Exchange…we will soon be migrating to SquareSpace, on a freshly designed platform. There, I’ll continue to deliver top-notch blog posts for you and I will be launching my writing studio business. If you would like to follow me there, please sign up in the side bar to follow with your email address (even if you follow now via your WordPress reader).

Why Restore A Riparian Zone?

By Neva Knott

I spent Saturday, March 27 planting Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) and Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) in the riparian zone of the Clackamas River.  

Why? Because I was volunteering with Friends of Trees, something I love to do—planting trees makes me feel empowered in the face of overwhelming environmental degradation and the big environmental problem—climate change. 

Why does replanting a stream bank matter in terms of environmental degradation? A specific important feature of the Clackamas River riparian zone is salmonid survival. Salmon are a key species of the Pacific Northwest in terms of environmental diversity, cultural heritage, as a food source, and economically. Salmon connects all inhabitants of this bioregion, this place. They need cool, clean water to thrive.

And, for water quality, plain and simple, for humans, the landscape, and other species. It has been said that water is life; it takes clean water to sustain life. 

Clackamas River riparian restoration with Friends of Trees, March 2021.
Clackamas River Planting Area

Riparian zones are transitional areas between waterways and landscapes. Quite a bit of interesting ecological activity takes place in these important zones. The Natural Resources Conservation Service lists these benefits of a healthy riparian zone: 

  • Riparian areas help control nonpoint source pollution by holding and using nutrients and reducing sediment.
  • Riparian areas are often important for the recreation and scenic values. However, because riparian areas are relatively small and occur in conjunction with watercourses, they are vulnerable to severe alteration and damages caused by people.
  • Riparian areas supply food, cover, and water for a large diversity of animals and serve as migration routes and stopping points between habitats for a variety of wildlife.
  • Trees and grasses in riparian areas stabilize streambanks and reduce floodwater velocity, resulting in reduced downstream flood peaks.

Why this bank of the river? This area, just south of Portland, Oregon, is growing quickly with housing developments and complementary development. It is not only important, but necessary, to build human settlements in relationship to natural environments so that humans can reap the benefits of the ecosystems alongside non-human species. 

This riparian zone was covered in Himalayan Blackberry, an invasive species. While good for pie, and a seasonal food source for some wildlife, it is environmentally problematic. As a mono-crop that shades out other ground cover and shrubbery, it causes a lack of habitat complexity and refuge habitat. Complexity is necessary so that a range of species have a food source and accessible shelter across seasons. Also, plants live in community so habitat complexity also expands the functioning of the overall vegetation structure of the landscape. And, blackberry along a river provides poor stream cover—shade for fish species and temperature control of the water, whereas a fully developed plant community will provide shade and keep the water at the temperature salmonids need to survive.

Why is this important for urban development? A big reason for restoring a riparian zone on a slope and then steep hill like this one is erosion control. Erosion not only dumps soil into the river, causing silt and muddy water, through the process of erosion the bank falls away, increasing the risk of flood damage to homes. And I’m sure the farmer across the river from our planting site needs clean water for his cabbage crop.

Why native plants? They are adapted to the weather and the species who use them for habitat. They grow in a succession to build a plant community and forest. They don’t become invasive. The way that they grow and adapt increases soil quality, whereas invasive can deplete it. Also, the root structure of a complex plant community—one made of several species working at the ground, shrub, and tree levels—provides better water filtration at the root level. A diverse array of plants also provides year-round food for non-human inhabitants. 

Native plants hold a long history of connecting humans to nature—this is called ethnobotany. According to Native Plants NW:

  •  Oceanspray wood is a hard wood and was used by native peoples for tools and utensils like roasting tongs, digging sticks, fishing hooks, needles, canoe paddles, bows, spears, harpoon and arrow shafts, and construction pegs. 
  • Tall Oregon Grape berries are edible, full of pectin, and can be made into jam or wine. The roots and bark can be used for making dye. 

Besides, native plants are just pretty. Oceanspray blooms with cascading clumps of creamy white flowers. Tall Oregon Grape is a visual trifecta of glossy green leaves, deep purple berries, and bright yellow flowers.

Why write about this? A few months ago, while I was teaching Rachel Carson’s essay, “The Marginal World,” one of my students asked, “Do we need this knowledge?” Carson’s essay is a gorgeous description of ecology at the edge land and sea. My student was taken by the writing, and by the environmental storytellling Carson was doing, but still felt compelled to ask why? 

Why restore a riparian zone? 

Ecotrust, in their 2000 Action Report for the Clackamas River Basin Council, stated, “Community outreach and education should be aimed at creating awareness of the role of watersheds and key watershed issues, building support for community watershed efforts, and changing behavior patterns in ways that restore and enhance watershed health.” .

The knowledge we need is how each plant in each riparian zone protects each species—including humans—in our dependence on clean water for life. We have to come at the mess educated and enchanted. And we need to know how to empower ourselves in the overwhelm.

Big news here at The Ecotone Exchange…we will soon be migrating to SquareSpace, on a freshly designed platform. There, I’ll continue to deliver top-notch blog posts for you and I will be launching my writing studio business. If you would like to follow me there, please sign up in the side bar to follow with your email address (even if you follow now via your WordPress reader).

Why Bio-blitz?

By Neva Knott

Last weekend, I watched David Attenborough’s “witness statement,” A Life on Our Planet. I watched it with my nephew and my brother-in-law. It’s a rich expose of cause and effect of humans and our dirty deeds on the planet. But what I loved at the end was Attenborough’s insistence on biodiversity as the cure; rather, the way back to “re-wilding,” a concept that posits rebuilding the natural systems of the planet so that all species–humans included–can survive.

Biodiversity. Re-wilding. Sustaining life on this planet. Big work.

The shocking statistic Attenborough put ow is that 96 percent of animals on the planet are meat. Just four percent of animals on the planet are natural and wild. This statistic puts biodiversity into a shocking context. As A Life on Our Planet plays out, Attenborough explains why biodiversity matters to ecosystems, thus to all living species, thus to humans.

People can fix this. People, we can fix this…

Enter the bio-blitz. Science runs on data. To better understand needs at the landscape level–how to re-wild the planet–scientists (and then funding agencies and policy-makers) need to know what is happening on the landscape at the kneel-down, species-by-species level. This can’t be done with a drone; it takes human endeavor.

Here’s how:

Put iNaturalist on your phone.

Follow along for the iNaturalist City Nature Challenge 2021.

This seems easy…you walk around outside, take pictures of natural stuff, run it through the app, and submit it to the challenge.

This is big work for the planet, though. And for you–well, I participated in my first bio-blitz with Sandy River Watershed Council a couple of years ago to gather species data for restoration at 1000 Acres outside of Portland, Oregon. I learned new species, met some really cool people, and created information the Council could use to keep their work going.

This is big work for you, too. It is so danged easy to feel the doom and gloom. My mission with The Ecotone Exchange is to tell positive stories of the environment, and part of what qualifies a story as positive for me is that it is about empowering people in the face of climate change and other bad ecological stuff.

Besides, who doesn’t like to be outside poking around after being locked inside for a year due to COVID?

And on a good day, you get a photo like this:

I’d love to share some of your photos from the City Nature Challenge here on The Ecotone Exchange; just send them along through our contact page.

To Begin Again…Orcas, Grief, and Writing

By Neva Knott

Tahlequah dropped her calf the day before I boarded the plane to Maui. Tahlequah, an Orca whale, had birthed the first calf born to her pod in three years, but the calf lived only hours. As the world watched, Tahlequah carried the calf for seventeen days, constantly nudging it to the surface of the water. Finally, she dropped the calf and let it descend to the depths of the Salish Sea. 

Whale researchers tagged Tahlequah’s pod as the J-pod, one of three pods of Souther Resident Killer Whales that inhabit the waters offshore of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, BC. J, K, and L pods total just 75 whales in membership. They are starving. Experts at the Center for Whale Research estimate these Orcas have just five years to reproduce, to bear enough calves to maintain life. Only 25 percent of the calves birthed in the last 20 years have survived.

Pacific Northwest native tribes consider the Orca relatives. The Lummi tribe of coastal Washington state interpreted Tahlequah’s “tour of grief” as a “wordless warning from whales that, environmentally, time is running out.” It is clear that Orcas are facing extinction, as are the Chinook salmon they depend on for sustenance. The Southern Resident Killer Whales are dependent of the vitality of females, of Tahlequah.

Tahlequah, in translation, means “just two,” derived from the meeting between elders. Though the calf she carried was not an elder in the literal sense, it seems that Tahlequah’s carrying of the calf was a meeting of “just two,” one that symbolized both wisdom and mystery unknown to humans. The mother Orca carried her grief for 17 days and 1,000 miles—an exhibition of grief “beyond what experts have seen.” The symbolism of the fragility of life was not lost on people across the globe watching her.

Tahlequah dropped her calf the day before I boarded a plane to Maui, a trip I planned to relieve my own grief. I had not lost a child, but a lover. A friend. A man who’d influenced my life greatly for thirty years. I, like Tahlequah, had been carrying my loss. I knew that Maui and the ocean there would allow me to drop what I was carrying.

On the plane, I finished reading Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Like Tahlequah, Lincoln, in his grief, carried his son. He sat in the mausoleum and wept, holding the small body of his offspring. His tour of grief was private except for the ghosts who narrated the story, explaining, from their side of the veil, what it means to have passed on, what it means to watch the living grieve. 

One passage in the book has stayed with me, a narration of the lives the ghosts had lived, had left behind. The ghost narrators explain the contributions they’d made to community, family, the roles they’d held in life, and how their lives were cut short, disallowing them to fulfill their potential in these roles. Andrew had made those contributions, too.

Tahlequah knew the death of her calf held this magnitude, that the loss of the calf’s life was a loss of potential, that the calf was the hope of continuance for the species, hope for the relatives and elders of the tribes along the Salish Sea.

What potential will be lost if the life of Orcas as a species is cut short? 

What potential was lost when Andrew died? 

What potential would be lost if I had kept carrying my grief?

In Hawaiian Native tradition, it is custom to take one last swim with a deceased loved one. Tahlequah took her last swim and I took mine. 

“In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet.” Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

On my last day on Maui, I stood in the ocean. I spoke to Andrew. I narrated the for him the intertwining of our lives via our long friendship, our sense of “just two.” I reminded him of all that he’d inspired me to do, I thanked him for saving me when I was a lost twenty-something girl looking for a place in an unfamiliar city. I told him how proud I was of him for living his truth, his dream. And I acknowledged what had been lost by his life being cut short.

I dropped my grief and let it descend to the depths of the Pacific. 

Shortly after Tahlequah dropped her calf researchers observed her chasing a school of salmon with her pod mates, though she and her pod still struggle to thrive.

Abraham Lincoln went on to command the Civil War and abolish slavery.

Now, I will begin again, to put words to the page, to tell positive stories of the environment.


Ode to Green Mountain College

By Neva Knott

The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—it was 2009, and Central Oregon, where I lived and taught, was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks.

The International School of the Cascades was housed in an old middle school, a smaller building that a traditional high school, more intimate, and designed for more interaction between teachers, students, and classes. All of us teaching in the program ate lunch together every day, also something different than what happens at regular high schools. For this mid-day meal we gathered in a small room off the health and math hallway and sat at round tables. On Wednesdays one or two of us cooked lunch for the group. This was pre-arranged at the beginning of the year and a nice break to one’s own leftovers. Given that we taught in an international program, the flavors were often inspired by other cultures, places, and the travels of the cook.

Many of us had moved there, to the small town of Redmond Oregon–population 24,000–to teach at the ISC. It was a magnet program for Central Oregon, drawing students from Bend, La Pine, Sisters, Madras, Prineville and all rural points in between. The ISC opened during the 2006/2007 school year, yet here we were, March 2009, talking about lay-offs. Cuts dug deep– into twenty percent of the school district, which meant that any teacher with fewer than four years in the district was fated to the unemployment line. Since most of us had moved there for the opening of the school, that meant the ISC team was all under threat.

I think by the time the actual day came some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.

So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”

So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.

I started this blog after graduating from Green Mountain with a Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies, Written Communication. My impetus was the need I heard over and over again in my studies: to communicate the science to the public. When I started the blog, the news cycle rarely included reportage on environmental issues, and those reported were all doom and gloom. I wanted to showcase all of the positive work I saw happening in the environmental world. The core of the content for The Ecotone Exchange has been written by fellow graduates of GMC.

We were all shocked to learn, just about a week ago, that our graduate school will close at the end of Spring term, 2019.

Green Mountain College was founded in 1834. It sits in the small, very small, town of Poultney, Vermont. The town is so small that, the first time I went for residency, the woman at the hotel told me to “turn left at the big rock” and I’d find campus. So small that a few years ago the college President funded a food co-op so the students would have a healthful grocery. So small that the College’s closing will likely wither the economics of the place.

Place-based ideology was a cornerstone of our work at GMC. The master’s program by design was innovative–low residency, conducted through online classes, so each student’s study would be set in the bioregion where he or she lived. Our training was designed to make us experts on our home landscapes.

At the beginning of each year, we attended residency in Poultney, giving us a chance to know our on-screen classmates, take face-to-face workshops from our professors, hike together, and play games at the town’s one pub each night. We all stayed at the Panorama Motel. It was during residency that now long-standing friendships were formed and the idea of this blog was born.

Green Mountain was innovative with other programs, too. The Sustainable Agriculture track had developed nicely by our second residency. The opening reception meal was all grown on site, cooked and served by chefs developing the concept of farm to table.

The campus itself is a place I’d hoped to visit time and again. Old and brick, welcoming and collegiate. Grounds that invite contemplation. But it seems that the days of small liberal arts colleges have waned. What saddens me the most is the suggestion that a niche focus on environmental studies was not enough; issues and ideas about sustainability cannot sustain this old school.

I still teach, and I worry that the value of education–the value of learning from experts for the sake of learning–is no longer a value.

What I do know is that those of us who completed the MSES program did important work there. I know that we carry a sense of scale of place, bioregional living, importance of the connection between humans and nature, advocacy, and science, into all that we do. That alone is legacy.

Swamp Yankees, The Greatest Generation, and the Nagging Problem of Affluence

An interior view of the author's 1770 home mid-process during rehabilitation. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010
An interior view of the author’s 1770 home  during the process of rehabilitation. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010

By Richard Telford

Early in my first year of teaching in northeastern Connecticut, more than two decades ago, I heard a colleague refer to her husband as a “typical Swamp Yankee.” He had acquired numerous lawnmowers in various states of disrepair and was slowly pirating parts from one or another to produce a working machine. It was the first time I had heard the term Swamp Yankee, but it would not be the last. Though it has historically been used largely as a pejorative, albeit a tempered one, I have come to see it as complimentary. In fact, I believe that a Swamp Yankee ethic, as I will try to frame it here, is a potent tool in the fight to mitigate the effects of the environmental crisis with which we are presently beset and likely always will be.

The exterior rehabilitation of the author's home nearing completion. All exterior work, including reframing, sheathing, siding, and finishing was done by the author and his wife. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010
The exterior rehabilitation of the author’s home nearing completion. All exterior work, including reframing, sheathing, siding, and finishing was done by the author and his wife. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2010

Ruth Schell, in the May 1963 issue of American Speech, published by Duke University, wrote what may be the only scholarly treatise on the term Swamp Yankee. Schell noted that the term appeared to have a limited geographic range in terms of popular use, largely confined to southeastern Massachusetts, northeastern Connecticut, and northwestern Rhode Island, the junction of the three states. In that region she found that a Swamp Yankee was seen as “a rural dweller–one of stubborn, old-fashioned, frugal, English-speaking Yankee stock, of good standing in the rural community, but usually possessing minimal formal education and little desire to augment it.” In communities where the term was most commonly used, she found that the colloquialism “refers very simply to a rural resident of Yankee descent and inclinations, who is of long and, generally, good standing in the area.” The more localized the term, the less focused it seems on education or the lack thereof, and this, for me, is a distinction that matters.

Front Room After
The same interior view as above, following rehabilitation. The brass light fixture at center was retrieved from the scrap metal pile at a local bulky waste facility. The staircase, which replaced a structurally unsound and lead-paint-laden one, was fabricated from church pews that had been removed during renovation from a local church. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2011

Having lived in northeastern Connecticut for the last 22 years, 14 of which have been spent rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, I have come to see myself as a full-fledged Swamp Yankee, a term which, for me, has no pejorative quality. For me, the Swamp Yankee ethic boils down to the practice of fully and wisely using all resources, both material and intellectual, and this, I think, becomes more critical each day as we continue to assess and understand more fully the deleterious effect our societal wastefulness has on the natural world and, ultimately, on ourselves. For my family, the Swamp Yankee ethic manifests itself in living frugally in economic terms so that we can live more fully in terms of living close to the land and to each other. We live only on my teaching salary, which allows for our kids to grow up in their own home. Our frugality manifests itself in buying nearly everything secondhand, doing nearly all home repairs ourselves (learned mostly through books), and, perhaps most significantly, in rehabilitating our 1770 farmhouse, which was being considered for demolition before I bought it. In simple terms, we have worked hard to distinguish between what we might want and what we truly need, and we have modeled that way of life for our children. As I note above, the benefits of our Swamp Yankee ethic extend far beyond the economics. Such an ethic rejects the disposability that defines our society, reducing our environmental impact significantly. For us, it is a kind of living governed both by necessity and by the desire to give to our children, and subsequent generations, a more sustained and sustainable natural world.

A United States government-produced propaganda poster promoting the planting of Victory Gardens during the Second World War. Source: United States National Archive, Identifier: 513659
A United States government-produced propaganda poster promoting the planting of Victory Gardens during the Second World War. Source: United States National Archive, Identifier: 513659

Tom Brokaw, in 1998, invoked the term “The Greatest Generation” to recognize the generation of Americans who had lived through the deprivation of The Great Depression and rallied to fight the rising Axis Powers both on the battlefield and through solidarity on the home front. Americans ran scrap metal drives, planted Victory Gardens, rationed basic staples such as sugar and gasoline, and halted commercial automotive production in deference to wartime production; they forewent luxuries in all forms to contribute to a cause on which the survival of civil society as they knew it hinged. In short, they provided an example of sustainable living in a world of limited resources, though their greatest concerns, understandably, did not center on the loss of biodiversity or the changing climate. They demonstrated a selflessness that is largely absent from American culture these days.

Those who challenge the validity of anthropogenic climate change, and even many who acknowledge it, might argue that the present environmental crisis is not comparable to a global war that precipitated the estimated loss of 70 to 80 million combatants and civilians worldwide. I disagree. At present, we are at war with ourselves, pitting consumption-driven self-interest against long-term sustainability. The evidence of this war is all around us, and the casualties are real, though not so easily quantified. According to the World Food Programme, for example, “Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.” To what degree is this number directly related to unsustainable agriculture, or to ecosystem changes rooted in anthropogenic climate change, or to government corruption that values self-interest over the environment? Consider, too, the long-term effects of the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan; or the cascading effects of the loss of polar sea ice due to rising ocean temperatures; or the plastics that comprise the vast majority of oceanic litter; or the widespread, global loss of biodiversity; or the poisoning of groundwater caused by the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. How can we quantify the loss of health and life that will occur for generations as a result of these and other manifestations of the environmental crisis we have wrought? How can we fail to see that this is a crisis of unprecedented urgency?

A political cartoon by Theodor Seuss Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, in which he critiques American isolationism at the outset of World War II. In particular, he takes aim at American aviator Charles Lindbergh, referred to as "Lindy" at the bottom of the sign, who led the America First Committee, which opposed entry into he war.
A political cartoon by Theodor Seuss Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, in which he critiques American isolationism at the outset of World War II. In particular, he takes aim at American aviator Charles Lindbergh, referred to as “Lindy” at the bottom of the sign. Lindbergh led the powerful America First Committee, which opposed entry into the war.

Seven decades after the end of the Second World War, though we lull ourselves daily into thinking otherwise, we stand at precisely such a crossroads faced by Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” In fact, the long-term stakes are higher. Climate change is not a brutal dictator whose rise to power can be abruptly halted. Nor can accelerated resource depletion, habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, or other dynamics of our present environmental crisis be cast in simple terms. Our assault on the environment, whether conscious or unconscious, is omnipresent. Yet it is also largely invisible to those who cannot or choose not to see it, rendering the threat even more potent. It is not just civil human society at stake, as it was in 1939; it is our long-term survival as a species, and the threat will continue for decades, perhaps centuries, or even millennia. It is easy to decry such a statement as alarmist, of course, but doing so ignores the staggering speed with which we are depleting resources and degrading the environment in ways that neither we nor the Earth itself can reverse.

The front cover of Ann Morrow Lindbergh's 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith. From the author's collection.
The front cover of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith. From the author’s collection.

In her 1940 book The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, facing the rise of Nazism, Communism, and Fascism in Europe, wrote the following: “In fact, on the average citizen, even more than on the expert, falls the responsibility of decision, in present issues, and the burden of its consequences.” Seventy-five years later, it would be hard to sum up more eloquently the dynamic of our present environmental crisis; we, as “average citizen[s],” cannot ignore the critical role we can and must play in solving complex environmental problems rather than exacerbating them. There is, though, a darker dimension to Lindbergh’s treatise, one that is especially pertinent now. In the closing pages, she writes, “Because of this tradition and this heritage, many of us hoped that in America, if nowhere else in the world, it should be possible to meet the wave of the future in comparative harmony and peace. It should be possible to change an old life to a new without such terrible bloodshed as we see today in Europe. We have been a nation who looked forward to new ideas, not back to old legends.”  Though she seems reticent to state it outright in the 41-page text, it is clear by the end of her Confession that she advocates for an isolationist course. This is not surprising, given that her husband, American aviator Charles Lindbergh, headed one of the most potent isolationist groups in the country, the America First Committee. In the closing pages of her treatise, Anne Morrow Lindbergh argues that, by remaining aloof of the conflict in Europe and by “giving up part of the ease of living and the high material standard we have been noted for […],” i.e. the loss of European luxury imports, America “might gain in spirit, vigor, and in self-reliance.” The hindsight of history bears out the flaws her argument, and the application of that history in the present leads to one inevitable conclusion: such aloofness cannot save us now, just as it could not have done so 75 years ago. We cannot, in our comparative affluence as a society, isolate ourselves from the effects of the present environmental crisis. If we do not face it openly and act on all scales to change course, we are ignorant or willful conspirators in our own demise.

The author's father, third from left, during his duty tour in the Philippines, 1944-1945.
The author’s father, third from left, during his duty tour in the Philippines, 1944-1945.

Our affluence as a society allows us in the short-term to keep at a distance many of the direct effects of anthropogenic climate change that others now face head on—desertification, increased vulnerability to catastrophic weather events, and famine, to name only a few—much as geography allowed America, for a time, to isolate itself from the upheaval fomented in Europe by the Axis Powers. But in both cases, the “distance” from the respective problems was and is illusory. We can only buy our way out of the problems of anthropogenic climate change—and of many other manifestations of the present environmental crisis—for a finite time. The sooner we stop trying to do so, the better. On the individual scale, an ethic forged along the lines of the southern New England Swamp Yankee offers a good starting point. On the societal scale, we must look to Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” and work to emulate their capacity to look away from themselves and toward the greater good. My father was born in 1926 and later served as a Staff Sergeant in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, so I grew up surrounded by his contemporaries. I think Brokaw got it right. But for us to emulate that generation and to face the environmental crisis with like selflessness and resolve, we must first see the crisis as a crisis. To do so, we must come to terms with a complex and oft-hidden enemy—ourselves.


The Rachel Carson Reserve

Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata). The Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” Ghost crabs actually spend the majority of their time out of water and use fine hairs on the base of their legs to wick up water from sand to wet their gills.

This past summer I visited a part of the North Carolina coast I had yet to explore in spite of being a lifelong resident of the state. My annual week long vacation was spent on Emerald Isle which is one of three communities on one of the southern Outer Banks islands and includes Pine Knolls Shore and Atlantic Beach. There are many historic and educational sites within a brief drive including one of the three North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Macon, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC and my most sought after site, The Rachel Carson Reserve.

Map courtesy of NC Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve as part of a brochure printed with grant funds provided by NOAA.

The Rachel Carson Reserve is located between the mouths of the Newport and North Rivers and directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. The main part of the site, just south of Beaufort, is a complex of islands which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marsh. In 1977, Beaufort residents, civic organizations and environmental groups came together and prevented the development of a resort on the reserve. The N.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 474 acres of Carrot Island that year. The State of North Carolina acquired Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The entire reserve is 2,315 acres.

A view of Beaufort through the cordgrass on the reserve, replete with periwinkle, a small marine gastropod (snail) that grazes on algae and detritus on the surface of plants and on the ground. They are food for many species of crabs and terrapins.

The reserve is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Rachel Carson Reserve is available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area. This is in keeping with the reserve’s namesake, who did research at the site in the 1940s.

Closer shot of periwinkle. I am fascinated by the multiple trophic levels that exist just among the varying heights of the cord grass. Estuarine ecosystems are quite rich.

Twice-daily, tides mix fresh and salt water in the reserve and create a very favorable estuarine environment for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The reserve is rich with coastal ecosystems including tidal flats, salt marshes, ocean beach, soft bottom, shell bottom, dredge spoil areas, sand dunes, shrub thicket, submerged aquatic vegetation, and maritime forest.

Devils Walking Stick
Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa), a native shrub tree that produces berries that can be consumed by many birds and mammals but are toxic to humans.

The reserve is located within the Atlantic Migratory Flyway and more than 200 species of birds, including rare species, have been observed there. The site is an important feeding area for Wilson’s plovers in the summer and piping plovers in the winter. The shrub thicket of Middle Marsh supports an egret and heron rookery. Wildlife on the island includes river otter, gray fox, marsh rabbit, raccoon, and a herd of feral horses. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates are found in the estuarine waters surrounding the site.

Indian Blanket
Beautiful Indian Blankets (Gaillardia pulchella) were all over the reserve.

I accessed the reserve by taking a guided hike with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included a boat to the trailhead and a pick up later. The hike was led by Benjamin Wunderly, Associate Museum Curator who provided lots of good information and species identification as we moved through the different ecosystems.

The feral horse herd, easily 500 yards or more away during the time of my hike. The horses travel to the parts of the reserve not usually accessed by humans during the hours that humans are likely to visit…because horses are smart like that.

Many visitors to the reserve are curious about the approximately 30 feral horses living on the island. No one knows exactly how they came to be there and there are many theories. Horses may have been on the islands as early as the mid-eighteenth century when Carrot Island was noted on a 1733 map of Beaufort. Horse Island was noted on an 1851 Sketch of Beaufort Harbor, administered under the US Coast Survey Office, most likely named as such because there were horses there.

The feral horses became the property of North Carolina when the land was purchased in the 1980s. The main food supply for these feral horses is Smooth Cordgrass – Spartina alternaflora and the primary source of fresh water is from holes the horses dig. The Beaufort reserve’s staff oversees the horse management. Individual horses are identified, photographed and maintained. Each horse is tracked for births, general health, social habits and eventually death. Beyond the birth control program, the horse population is treated as a wild herd.

Mr. Wunderly pointing out Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum), which the horses will eat in addition to the cord grass.

While chatting with Mr. Wunderly about the horses, I expressed my affinity for such mysteries. It does this soul good to know that in my home state there is a reserve where I can visit and spend an unlimited time pondering how something domestic came to be wild. No matter how long I ponder, I will never know the answer but the wild will remain so, thanks to the good efforts of good folks who came together to protect and preserve the Rachel Carson Reserve.

Feeling the Bite of the Bark Beetle

Text and photographs by Shauna Potocky

It is shocking. That is the only relevant descriptor—even for someone who has watched the forest turn under the pressure of drought and bark beetles, day by day. The once emerald canopy of spires continues to change, shifting from vibrant green to a pale dusty green-gray and finally to a burnt umber of brown-red. Single trees turn into patches, which turn into ridges or valleys and become full drainages of standing dead Ponderosa pines.

I have watched the Sierra National Forest change day by day, week by week, over the last four years. In 2014, as California’s drought labored on in year three, forest managers and fire agencies delivered the news that we would lose nearly 40 percent of the forest that year. When winter didn’t return again, for the fourth year in a row, the sound of people’s hearts breaking was audible and everyone in the region could feel the pressure mounting. By 2015, the forest along the western slope of the Sierra, and specifically in the foothill communities of Madera and Mariposa Counties, was poised for a massive die-off. Literally, on a daily basis, I watched trees succumb to the lack of water, which leaves them defenseless to burrowing bark beetles.

In a press release, Governor Brown recently stated, “California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history.” In response, the Governor’s office of California declared a State of Emergency because of the unprecedented die-off. In October of 2015, estimates indicated approximately 22 million dead trees with potential increases as the drought and beetle kill continues.

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. Photo by Shauna Potocky
Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. 

Bark beetles are opportunistic, able to take advantage of stressed and weakened trees, particularly during drought. They bore into a tree, and if the water pressure within the tree is not adequate and the tree is unable to mount its defenses to force the beetles out, they can then establish themselves, damaging the tree, which can result in its death.

This crisis of lack of water, increased wildland fires and the nearly unstoppable spread of bark beetle infestation, has made me seriously question: what good can come of all this?

California’s drought and the unprecedented tree die-off of the state’s forests may be the environmental issues needed to help people fully understand and engage in proactive and nimble resource management. As pressure increases on limited water resources, and the state’s forests succumb to the perfect storm of environmental pressures resulting in an increase of wildland fire hazards,  we need management strategies, skilled professionals and citizens poised and empowered to make decisions that will lead to long-term sustainability of resources.

In the fire scar along Bass Lake, California. Photo by Shauna Potocky.
In a fire scar on the edge of Bass Lake, California. 

Management Matters

When Euro-Americans settled in the Sierra Nevada, their suppression of fires dramatically shifted the fire regime and density of biomass within the forest ecosystem. Fire had been a natural occurrence on the landscape, returning in regular intervals, which served to thin the forests and recycle nutrients by burning woody debris that had settled on the forest floor. The local tribes of the Sierra utilized fire as a tool on the landscape; they used fire to manage meadow lands, clear space around important tree species and to manage the health and production of various plants they depended on.

The western slope of the Sierra Nevada ecosystems evolved and are adapted to fire as a natural part of the landscape. Some species of plants and trees possess substances that provide them with fire resistance. In the case of the Ponderosa pine, the tree possesses, several adaptations, which include bark that sheds easily and features a crown structure that prevent them from burning or torching during low intensity fires. Alternatively, others species require fire as a necessary element of their reproduction cycle, needing fire or heat to open their cones or clear the forest floor providing space and nutrients for germinating seeds, such as Giant Sequoias.

When fire is suppressed in these ecosystems, it allows forest debris to build up and create large fuel loads under stands of trees, increasing the risk of large, hot wildland fires such as the Rim Fire or the Rough Fire—as observed in recent years in the Sierra Nevada.

Fire suppression also allows the forests to become overgrown, with large numbers of trees in densely packed areas, forcing them to compete for resources such as light and water. In these densely packed stands, trees become more susceptible to stress and disease—consider the analogy of children with a cold virus all in one classroom—when in contained spaces or areas, it is much easier to spread an illness, or in the case of bark beetles, an infestation.

Low water levels, dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. Photo by Shauna Potocky.
Low water levels and dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. 

What the drought and beetle kill is creating, besides anxiety and pressure, is movement. Governor Brown stated, “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.” Today, there is significant movement as citizens launch Fire Safe Councils and Firewise Communities, while federal and state agencies proactively address issues, reevaluate management practices and provide funding as well as resources to mitigate hazards, easing the burden of overwhelmed communities and agencies. From grassroots efforts, county participation and state and federal support, work is being done on a daily basis to address the issues, on the ground, at all levels.

Reintroducing fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads, restore natural fire regimes. Photo by Shauna Potocky.
Fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads and restore natural fire regimes. 

So as I look out over the forest from where I write, and see the mix of oaks and pines. A tartan pattern of green and dead, it seems a long stretch to pull some positive parable out of this situation, yet, I honestly believe this has been a critical turning point for California. For people who seemed yet untouched by drought, fire, forest management practices, and climate change, this has been the reality check, reaching into all walks of life and emerging as the situation that is moving the needle.

We are poised to take a serious compass baring and find a new direction that inspires us to address critical issues collaboratively, engage them in a timely way and manage our resources wisely in order to minimize crises. We are better together, pulling resources and knowledge, leveraging skills and the best we each have to offer to address water use, battle the bark beetle and our old ways of thinking.

It is an unprecedented time and we need to shift the paradigm from crisis management to sustainable management; we have the resources, the knowledge and the people to do it, now we need the resiliency, political systems and backbone to make this shift, because the challenges will keep coming and together we can do better in facing them; the drought, bark beetle and resulting wildland fire hazard might just be what gets us there.

Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.
A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.
The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne's article, "Life or Death for the Harp Seal." Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.
The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne’s article, “Life or Death for the Harp Seal.” Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.

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