A brief greeting from Cohort 7, and a bit of BioBlitzing

Cohort 7 is still new to the Rogue Valley. In fact, we aren’t even all here yet. Soon, we’ll all be united in Ashland, and soon we’ll all introduce ourselves more formally and completely here. For now, know that we who are here have wasted no time in exploring the wonders of Southern Oregon. As proof, here’s a short video from a BioBlitz some of us participated in at Crater Lake a few weeks ago. We were on the hunt for lepidoptera: butterflies and moths. Check back for more soon! We can’t wait to share what we’re doing.

Lepidoptera from Chaney Swiney on Vimeo.

Stargazing Together by DeviantArt user WolfsMoonrise

Counting the Stars

I don’t know if there is anything more humbling than walking outside on a clear night and spending a good few minutes looking up at the sky. Have you ever tried to count the stars? I have. I think I got to twenty two before I gave up. Okay, I might not be the one you want to be out there counting the stars, but that’s why we let the experts do that!

For those of us who aren’t experts, here are a few tips on how to start building your own astronomer skills!

- Go out stargazing on a clear night as close to a new moon as possible. Light from the moon washes out a lot of the stars that you could see otherwise.

- If possible, choose a place far away from civilization to reduce the light pollution. In an increasing number of cities, it is impossible to see any stars because of the light pollution. To find out more about an interesting effort to decrease light pollution, check out www.darksky.org

- Don’t have a telescope? Take binoculars! They help you get a closer look at the stars and see more than you could with the naked eye.

- Don’t forget a star chart! Print a free evening sky map off http://www.skymaps.com

- Allow your eyes at least ten minutes to adjust to ‘night vision’ once you get outside. If possible, use a red light to look at your star chart so that your eyes can stay adjusted.

Stargazing Together by DeviantArt user WolfsMoonrise
Stargazing Together by DeviantArt user WolfsMoonrise

Stars and constellations trending in the northern hemisphere right now:

- Orion’s Belt – look for these three distinct stars right in a line, and you can make out Orion shooting his bow and arrow

- Big Dipper – this famous ladle is pretty easy to spot overhead, pointing to the North Star, Polaris

- Jupiter – Just above Orion’s head lies the bright and beautiful planet of Jupiter, which at its closest to Earth is still 390 million miles away!

- Sirius – Technically the brightest star in the sky, this one shines just to the left of Orion, and is part of Canis Major, the Great Dog. (for all you Harry Potter fans out there, you might be surprised how many character names come from stars and constellations!)

- Make-your-own – Who says scientists are the only ones allowed to ‘connect the dots’? Go for it!

Happy stargazing!

Jason 2

Let the fungi do the work!

Spring is on its way! Time to work in the garden! Or for some, the farm. This is a particularly exciting time. I love excuses to play in the dirt. I crave the smell of the Actinomycetes (don’t let the “-mycetes” fool you; these are bacteria, not fungi) at work in the soil. You know that certain smell of exceptional soil? Sure you do! And so the ultimate question comes, “To till? Or not to till?”

As you may or may not know, I am particularly partial to fungi. So I’m going to argue that you should not till, for the sake of the fungi…and so you can be more lazy!

Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi penetrate a plant’s roots and extend into the soil in search of water and nutrients to exchange with the host plant for sugars. Another cool thing about AM fungi: they produce a chemical called glomalin, which is also referred to as “soil glue.” Glomalin, as you might have guessed, is sticky and contributes to holding together soil particles. This helps add texture to soils, which is important for aeration and moisture flow. And it turns out that AM fungi might be key components in agricultural systems that require less fertilizer.

Jason 1

(AM fungi growing from a plant root)

Drs. Mike Lehman, Shannon Osborne, and Wendy Taheri studied arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in agricultural systems and suggested farmers consider partnering with these fungi in their recently published research supported by the USDA titled: “Fall Cover Crops Boost Soil Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi Which Can Lead To Reduced Inputs.

Cover crops are plants that cover the dirt (who’d have thought?), reducing the evaporation of moisture from the soil and holding the soil in place, resisting erosion. Cover crops can be used as “green manure” by cutting the plants and letting them fall and compost in place. The cover crops often can be directly planted into the soil, rather than clearing the area first. This all helps provide a stable living environment for soil organisms. As the soil gains an infusion of life over time, the chemistry changes and different sorts of nutrients become available as worms, bacteria, insects, fungi and other life grow and die in the soil.

Jason 2

(an example of cover crops between annual greens)

But this new infusion of nutrients from this influx of life in the soil means nothing to a plant that cannot take in many of these nutrients. There can be a lot of phosphorous in the soil, but it has to be “fixed,” or “available,” in order for plants to uptake it. So it should be pretty clear how beneficial a partnership with fungi can be for some plants. These fungi can take in the phosphorous in the soil that is not available to plants and make it available to the plant. It’s quite an amazing relationship.

So what does this mean for the gardener or farmer? Well it means several important things. First of all, this means that if plants can develop these fungal relationships, they are likely to require less input. This means less fertilizer is needed, whether it be organic or chemical fertilizer. This translates to money saved! Another thing to consider is that too much phosphorous in the soil decreases the active arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Just another reason why it’s better to err on the side of too little, rather than too much.

Second, in order for these systems to develop in the soil, the soil cannot be repeatedly disturbed. This means no tilling, if possible. If the soil is not suitable for planting, rather than tilling, “fork” the land with a broad-fork to open the soil up a bit. Then apply some organic matter, usually in the form of compost. This can then be sheet mulched over and planted. Here is an example of sheet mulch, although they do not have to be this complex:

Jason 3I also have to mention compost teas. Compost teas can be a way of inoculating soils with beneficial fungi and bacteria. Compost teas are made by literally making tea with compost while pumping air through the water in order to promote the life of beneficial aerobic bacteria.

Jason 4

(brewing compost tea with aquarium air pumps and a 5 gallon bucket)

Spores often pass through to the tea from the compost. Spores can also be purchased and added to the tea (or to potting mixes if one is container gardening). Then the liquid is just sprayed onto the soil and plants in the area.

So, the moral of the story is: as this gardening/farming season gets going, consider partnering with your soils and optimizing the diversity of life in your soils, ultimately fostering those arbuscular mycorrhizal relationships, as well as many other bacterial and fungal relationships, and perhaps making the work of it all a little easier! Trust the biology and let it work for you!

from expatchild.com

I wish I was back home! (or, how to deal with homesickness as an educator)

from expatchild.com
from expatchild.com

We were all out contra dancing.  It’s a type of line-dancing with a lot of twirling and jumping and partner-changing.  I loved watching the kids bump into each other and help each other learn the dances.  It was fast-paced.  If you didn’t keep up, you were likely to cause a train wreck.  I was watching the blur of young and old couples, when a finger jabbed my side.  It was Rachel.

“Eliza is crying and she’s calling her mom to tell her to pick her up!” Rachel blurted out.

Oh boy.  Eliza had been homesick all week, moping and crying and being generally anti-social.  Being the only female counselor, I was “mom.”  Rachel ran ahead and I followed, trying to form a plan of action.  Where did she get a cell phone?  Eliza was curled up on the stairs, surrounded by the other girls.  I shooed the other girls away and sat down next to Eliza.  She was wearing blue jeans and a purple cardigan.  Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail.  Tears streamed down her face and her eyes were swollen and red.

“My mom wants to talk to you.  She said she’s going to bring me home,” Eliza said with a big smile.  That’s the first smile I’d seen from her all day.  My heart sank.  I didn’t want Eliza to miss our backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t want her to be miserable either.

I stepped outside to call her mother.  I barely said Hello? and the mother started crying.  My heart sank further.  Her daughter was 13 and had never been away from home.  I barely considered myself an adult and here was a grown mother reaching to me for comfort and advice.  She asked my advice.  I gave her the advice I was trained to give: “This is a rare opportunity for a young lady to gain independence.  If not today, then some day she will need to face her homesickness.”

After much deliberation and crying and comforting, Eliza’s mother came to a decision.  Without the courage to break her own daughter’s heart, she asked me to tell Eliza.  Eliza’s despair manifested itself physically in the van on the way home.  It is amazing how emotions can affect the stomach.  In the end, Eliza was too sick to participate and went home.

As an environmental educator, I encountered homesick children all the time.  The most common symptoms were: crying, isolation, loss of appetite, upset stomach, and lack of interest.  Many students ask to call home, but this usually exacerbates the problem.  Homesickness surfaces during “down time” when kids have time to think – especially on the first night.  Catch homesickness early because it is contagious!  Pull the homesick student aside and provide comfort, but mostly provide distraction.

Eliza was a special case.  Most students settle in by the second or third day.  Her story shows the complexity and seriousness of homesickness.  These are real emotions and real physical manifestations of those emotions.  Educators often experience homesick children, but what about their parents?  What struggles do they face by saying “No, you cannot come home?”  At what point should we let our children come home?

Interestingly, Eliza met up with our group at the end of the backpacking trip.  She was eager to hear our stories.  She repeatedly expressed her regret that she could not come.  Perhaps it is good that she felt this regret because next time it will motivate her to take the chance.

A recent cover of the novel

Book Review: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (no spoilers!)

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” ~John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (pg 33)

For me, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn has always been one of those books. I was first assigned to read it in 11th grade during my AP Environmental Science class and it was probably the only assigned reading I actually completed that year. And I have read it at least 15 or 20 times since then (I do crazy things like that, you should see my copies of Harry Potter;))

A recent cover of the novel
A recent cover of the novel

The thing that I love about Ishmael is how it confronts life’s big problems and mysteries. Through the lessons that the narrator receives, the reader begins to understand some of the damage that the human race is causing. This includes not just environmental damage, but to fellow humans as well. The impact of so-called “Mother Culture” on our collective psyche begins to be revealed, as well as the effect that culture has on our views of the world around us and people that we perceive to be different from us.

Due to, let’s say, the unique perspective that the teacher in Ishmael has on the human race, he is able to broach topics that might otherwise be considered too controversial or sensitive. Perhaps the best example of this is the way that the teacher relates the story of Cain and Abel, an incredibly well known allegory even outside of religious contexts, to the apparent superiority of “civilized” societies over “primitive” ones.

Ishmael also discusses the creation of our “modern civilized” culture and what it cost to achieve this level of industrialization and sophistication. The book discusses what had to be destroyed to make way for new ideas. How human thinking about the environment has changed over time, and how some humans began to see themselves as rulers of the world.

Of course, Ishmael is not without flaws, and not everyone is going to agree with everything presented in the novel. However, if I had to choose one book to be required reading for the general public to understand the current “environmental crisis,” I would choose this one. While it does not focus specifically on environmental issues, just getting people to think about their way of living forces them to think about their environmental impacts. It is written in easily understandable language, and is presented in a way that the overall message of the novel slowly develops and can be digested at the reader’s own pace.

I could continue on and on with this review, pulling out some of the multitude of quotes I love from it and describing why I think they are important and wonderful. I could find countless reviews singing praises about Ishmael and its amazingness, but I won’t. Because that is not the goal of this review, and actually, not the goal of Ishmael. The lessons that are taught throughout the novel involve a journey of self-discovery, and so I am going to leave it to you to make your own journeys and discoveries. For they will surely differ from mine, though I hope you find this novel as inspirational as I have over the years.

One of the essential questions of Ishmael. Found on flickriver.
One of the essential questions of Ishmael. Found on flickriver.


From Google Images

Clean your boots!

As I laced up my hiking boots to start my hike up Grizzly Peak, I thought about the hike I took last week in eastern Oregon.  I looked down at my hiking boots and I noticed how dirty they were from last week’s hike.  I thought to myself “I should have cleaned my boots prior to this hike.”

Although this is a fictional scenario, have you ever been in the situation where you take a hike in one area and then turn around the next day, week, or even month and go hiking in a different place?  If so, did you clean your hiking boots?  Hiking boots are a transporter of invasive species.  This is one thing that every outdoor enthusiast can do to help reduce the spread of invasive species.

Why is this so important?  Invasive species can have a huge impact on an environment’s stability and biodiversity, as well putting native species in danger of extinction.  Prevention of invasive species is much easier and less costly than trying to eradicate or control an invasive species once it has been introduced and is established.

I have read a few different ways to effectively clean your hiking boots between hikes.  Some of these techniques were complicated and dependent upon the target organism that may have been on the hiking boots.  One of the more simple ways of cleaning your hiking boots that I did come across was to first rinse boots free of soil and seeds.  Then spray boot and sole with a 10% bleach solution.

Please take responsibility of your hiking boots.  Taking the time to clean them will help to reduce the pathway for invasive species!

From Google Images
From Google Images
From Google Images

A Time for Wonder

From weknowmemes.com
From weknowmemes.com

But seriously. How awesome is that waterfall? I mean, maybe it’s no Niagara Falls, but think about it. Just look at it for a minute. Seriously, a full minute. Look at the waterfall too, and not the baby, although the baby is super adorable. Do any questions come to mind? Any images? Any childhood memories of playing in a stream? Maybe looking for crayfish under rocks? When’s the last time you felt that wonderful, exhilarating sensation that we call “childhood wonder”? It’s amazing how many things that we pass by every day that are truly wonderful. And, as imaginative or intelligent or inquisitive or “educated” as we think we are, sometimes it just takes a child’s point of view to see wonder in the world. Maybe we should stop focusing on what comes “out of the mouth of babes” and try to see the world through their eyes instead.

Unlike many of the others in the Environmental Education program here at SOU, I don’t have a very extensive knowledge of local ecology and natural history (although I will before the year is through). I moved from Maine to Oregon at the end of August and thought that my ecological knowledge would be at least semi-transferable to my new home. I was wrong. Oregon is a lot different, and I’m still working on getting to know the wonderful environment of which I am now a part. What I do have, however, is an almost-two-year old.

Unlike many parents, my fiance and I take our daughter everywhere, especially on hikes and other outdoor adventures, and she is the best teacher I’ve ever had. The things that she notices amaze me. I am tested every time she picks up a rock or a flower and holds it up to me quizzically, expecting some sort of answer. Luckily for me, a simple “rock” or “flower” will satisfy her, and she’s on to the next wonder. I, however, am left wondering about the geology of the area, or the taxonomy of the plant, and how all of these little “wonders” are related to one another. At times when I would step over something wonderful in my hurry to reach the top of the mountain, my daughter forces me to stop, to think, to question.

The point that I’m trying to get across is that, realistically, we don’t all have the time or energy to pull out a field guide to identify some bird, or to take an ecology class, or even to go for a hike in the “great outdoors.” Are these things necessary, however, to be a scientific American? I believe that being a scientist or an ecologist or a biologist is simply about one thing: wonder. On the walk from your car across the parking lot to your office building tomorrow morning, stop. Take a minute to take a deep breath, take a sip of coffee, and look around. I want you to wonder about something, to question something. What is that bird that you’re looking at? What is that tree? Why is it there? Maybe later, when you get home from work, you can Google the answer. Maybe you’ll even pick up a book or magazine about local plants and animals. Maybe you’ll never get to finding an answer at all, and while that isn’t ideal, I think the substance is in the question, the attitude.

Most importantly of all, the next time a kid asks you a question, whether it be your own child, a student, a friend’s kid, or a complete stranger, take the time to answer them. Don’t brush it off. Think about the question. We all get caught up in our daily lives, but insightful questions are always perfectly timed. The time to wonder is not tomorrow, but now. All of the best discoveries in Science started with a question, a curiosity, a wonder. You could stumble upon the next one without even trying. Mother Nature is all around us, begging for our attention, and the questions that we could ask of her are limitless.

From Google Images
From Google Images

Discovering natural wonders with the Siskiyou Environmental Education Center (SEEC)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 151 other followers