Wednesday, February 29, 2012

seeing the forest

Envirothon is a program for high school youth in which teams study ecology and environmental science and complete a community project. The teams compete at a state meet, scored on their project and on a landscape interpretation exam done cooperatively by each team. In Michigan, the county Conservation Districts support their local teams. So thanks to our local Conservation District and two wonderful young women, Amanda and Crystal, who volunteer their time to coach the team (both of whom work for other, local environmental agencies). State winners go on to compete in the Canon International Envirothon. I’ve been involved as a “resource professional” with our local Envirothon team for a dozen years or so. I help the students learn about forest ecology. Last night I talked to the team about a variety of topics in that area, but concentrated on forest succession and the role of shade tolerance/intolerance in forest dynamics. Later that evening, I mentioned to a colleague that I had been explaining shade tolerance/intolerance to high schoolers and that they seemed to understand it now. He said “I think the 5th graders I was explaining it to today also understand it.” I realized that he and I were not just explaining an ecological concept, we were not just helping future adults learn about forest management. We were also helping them develop their sense of place. We’re surrounded by forests. Many people just see them as pretty collections of trees. By helping these students know a little bit about how the forests function, we’re helping them see more than a pretty collection of trees. They can now see a functioning ecosystem. They now feel more a part of the forest. At least that’s our hope.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No Really, It’s OK to be Rural.

I see that a group of young people in rural Kansas started a group they are calling Power Ups: Rural by Choice. You can find them on facebook but add the ‘rural by choice’ to your search or you’ll get a lot of links about characters in various animations. It’s good to see young people embracing rural living and extending it beyond the farm world. The farm lifestyle is essential for sustaining our rural areas, but we also need to show young people that there’s a rural lifestyle for those who don’t live on a farm. A recent project of the PowerUps is to host entertainment events to “connect individuals open to adventure and looking to meet new people.”* They’ve chosen to call these events “Saturday Night Initiative for PowerUp Entertainment” which they call “SNIPE hunts.” The name is catchy but I probably would not have selected it. “Snipe hunts” are kind of a mean prank played on city kids. And up here we really do have a bird called a snipe that really is very interesting to go out and look for when one is out watching the woodcocks do their displays in the spring. We host an event in the spring (well, spring here meaning there’s still snow patches on the ground) for our students in which they come out for various fun activities, including watching the woodcocks. I mentioned to one student from a large town in lower Michigan that we’d also get to at least hear the whoop whoop whoop of the snipes. She almost got angry with us thinking that we were pranking her. We had to work hard to convince her that there really is a bird called a snipe and we would hear it. It turned out OK with her since we did hear the snipes and saw the woodcock display. Best of luck to the PowerUps on their project to connect young people in rural communities. The urban placemakers talk about attracting young people via “1000 Nights of Fun” (2 weekend nights x 50 weeks per year x the 10 years between the time they get out of college and the time they settle down family-wise). I don’t think rural areas need to provide 1000 nights of fun but they do need to be able to say to young adults, in the words of the Statler Bros, “Now don’t tell me there’s nothing to do.” *Quotes are from the PowerUps: Rural by Choice facebook page which also describes PowerUps as “21-39 year olds who are rural by choice. The PowerUp movement is about recognizing the value of PowerUps who have made a conscious decision to embrace and enhance the rural communities in which they live.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thoughts while skiing this morning

Time away from the usual routine, even just a 45-minute ski on campus, lets thoughts bubble up. Here's today's mind wanderings for what they are worth. My contribution to the lexicon I don’t text much. When I do I don’t tend to use lots of LMFAOs or such terms. But now I find myself wanting to contribute SOYOL to the texting lexicon. For the past few weeks, the ski conditions have been, well, not so good. I don’t want to say crappy because any skiing is better than no skiing. Last week it was nothin' but ice - all glide, no kick. Tuesday of this week was even worse – so sticky that I had to walk down the hills and snowballs built up on the skis. Yuck. But I did not give up. I soldiered on. I knew that hard work would pay off eventually (when I tell my students that hard work pays off eventually they respond, ‘but lazy pays off now’). The payoff was today. Steady snow showers lent a snow-globe appearance to campus. Wet flakes, but not too wet. With the trail packed from Tuesday’s labors, it was just enough kick, just enough glide. Smooth downhills with just enough speed to be fun, not so much to be 'too much fun.' Gliding down one hill I said “Oh Yea!” outloud. I think I’ll go out on the campus loop again this afternoon. I hope to say oh yea out loud again. Home and Away With a nice day skiing, I found myself wondering if I’d like to drive the 40 min north and pay the trail fee to ski at the special ski place. It is special and offers vistas and long trails not otherwise available. It's a several hour time commitment. Hmmm. Skiing my favorite, local, free, just-my-own places is fun, too. Maybe I’ll make the extra effort to go to the special place, maybe I’ll stick by home. I know someone who loves to hunt. He has an away place he goes to hunt. Briefly he lived on some acreage upon which he could hunt but then hunting wasn’t so special. Apparently it had to involve going somewhere else and making a weekend of it, not just an evening on the home place. Making Lemonade? When we have prospective faculty members on campus for interviews, we joke with them about our winters if they are from areas without what we would call winter. We want to make sure they won’t run off after the first heavy snowfall or the first -20F temps. I don't think it's really an issue. They are afterall applying for university faculty jobs. They are smart enough to know that the eastern Lake Superior area woult have winter. Years ago, I was on a job interview where winters are not at all reliable. The interviewer knew that I do like my winters. He asked whether I could stand the lack of winter. I replied that cross country skiing is what we do up north because the cycling season is short. Then I thought to myself whether cycling is just something to do when the cross country season is too short?

Thursday, February 9, 2012


There's nothing unusual about a full moon. There's one every month. And of course a full moon has to rises/sets as the sun sets/rises. But it's not every month up here that the sky is clear in the morning and evening and the moon rise/sunset is just as I'm on the way home one evening and moon set/sunrise is just as I'm on my way to school the next morning. A big moon setting over a row of bare tree branches while the sun starts the new day. A big moon coming out to light up not just the night but also reflect off the snow into our windows. Nice show.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

a life lesson

Out snowshoeing with a colleague, scouting out a trail extension in Ashmun Creek Natural Area. Snowshoes offer a more heads up posture than XC skis for this work. I noticed a spray pattern of small poops about 15 ft in diameter. I'm looking down, puzzling over what would have made that. My colleague says 'look up.' Sure enough, there's Mr Porcupine sitting high in the tree, munching away on bark. Has to be a life lesson in that somewhere, just not sure what it is. Anyone care to fill in the life lesson?

Monday, February 6, 2012

All the law allows

Backwoods XC Skiing on lightly crusted snow. Gliding down an open hillside. If it was any more fun, it might be illegal.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An issue about our larger place

Today’s post isn’t so much about a place but about what we might end up doing to our overall place… I’m a teacher. You’ve heard of those teachers who went into the profession because they are optimistic and forward looking and want to help build the future. I’m one of those. Given my optimistic and forward looking nature, I like to think that we will gradually wean ourselves from fossil fuels. For a long time, the economists and free-marketers have been teaching us that we will transition away from fossil fuels because, as the remaining reserves gets so expensive to extract, we’ll switch to other forms of energy that make more economic sense. Putting it another way, they tell us that we won’t actually run out of fossil fuel, we’ll run out of easy and cheap to get at fuel and as the cost goes up as it gets harder and more expensive to get at, the alternatives will get developed. As I said, I am optimistic by nature. I see initiatives about energy conservation and see the work going on to develop and promote alternative energy sources. I see conservation initiatives and projects like Transition Towns. Some people are working hard to pave the way for alternatives to take over. But it seems that as fossil fuels get more expensive, we’re just turning to more expensive ways to get at them. We’re so excited about the supposed 100 years of natural gas in shale (but maybe it’s more like 20 years*) and the oil-field-bigger-than-Saudi-Arabia in the tar sands of Canada and the coal that only requires that we take the tops off the Appalachians to get to it. (And I won’t get into the geopolitics other than to mention the chill I felt when I saw a bumper sticker with a rude cartoon of what I guess was supposed to be a middle eastern person that said ‘Let’s Kick Their Ass and Take Their Gas’ – it makes my heart hurt to even write that down). So while my optimistic side sees a future of conservation and local, clean energy, there’s another image that creeps into my mind. President Bush was close when we said we’re addicted to fossil fuels. But I have another image. Instead of drug-addled addicts after that next source of fuel, I see us a zombies who will do anything to get our hands on some more fossil fuels. There’s too much riding on it to do otherwise. We will turn our precious ground water into poisons, we will industrialize our neighborhoods, nothing is too precious to endanger to get more fossil fuel. (In a recent interview on fracked-gas wells going into suburban neighborhoods, the interviewer asked the gas company rep, ‘but doesn’t a rig in a suburban neighborhood infringe on the rights of people to live in a suburb and not an industrial site?’ The rep answered, ‘I think those kinds of restrictions on drilling infringe on the property owners right to earn money off their property.’ So I guess zoning is a casualty of our desperation for natural gas. I guess the ‘kick their ass and take their gas’ can refer to suburban neighborhoods, too.) Is it corporate greed that driving this? I don’t think so. I think it’s our own greed. If you’re old enough, you know what Pogo said back in the 60s. We all want cheap energy. Very few of us are weaning ourselves off of it. We’re all zombies. (A clever poster after Exxon Valdez stated “It’s not the ship captain’s driving that caused the spill, it’s our driving that caused the spill”) So instead of criticizing the energy companies for what they’re doing, I guess we should be sending them thank you letters for going to such trouble and expense to feed our unquenchable thirst for fuel. But, wait. There is that other future of conservation and local, clean energy with justice for all. So how do we get there? One step would be to start being explicit and honest about the trade offs we’re willing to make. When we marginalize those trade offs, that next pool of fossil fuel sure looks enticing. Let’s face those tradeoffs honestly, and, in the words of the economists, put a market value on the externalities. Even that, though, requires that we become mindful, thinking people, not zombies. *