Lessons From the Edge of the Earth

“What do you think? About a three?” Casandra, a young woman my age, asked. I rose from my seated position by the furnace, my seven layers of clothing making my movement a bit awkward. It was cold, very cold. As I crossed the aisle to where she was standing the tundra buggy shook again. I caught myself on the back of a seet.

A tundra buggy looks like a giant bus set on monster truck wheels. It’s built to weather the harsh elements of Churchill Manitoba’s high tundra. It’s built like a tank; hard, thick, impenetrable. But the creature rocking our buggy was evolved, without a furnace or strong metal or giant tires, to persist here. He was certainly no pushover either.

the Tundra Buggy
the Tundra Buggy

Casandra, intensely focused on the body fat index sheet, had barely moved. I made it to the window and peered down at a large male polar bear. Our tour group was breaking for a lunch of hot soup. The smell must have been irresistible. He stood now on his back legs, his nose reaching up ten feet above ground, seeking the source of the tempting scent. His forepaws braced against the cold metal of the tundra buggy.  His shoulders tensed. I braced.

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The buggy shook again, back and forth like ship on rough waters. He was testing us, trying to figure out if he had a chance. The buggy held steady. It was built to take on bears even bigger than this one. Our bear came to the same conclusion. He sat back on his haunches to consider his next move.

“Definitely a three,” I agreed.

I scribbled it down in our chart. The body fat index was meant to give us an indication of the condition of the Churchill polar bears. The chart ranged from 1 (incredibly skinny) to 5 (quite fat). Three was very good for this time of year. It was November, the end of months of fasting. Polar bears are lipivores, meaning that they eat fat. Their prey, mostly seals and small whales, lives out in the ocean, so they can only hunt when the water becomes covered in a thick ice sheet. When the ice melts they are trapped on land without food until the ice returns.

This is where people come in. We’ve all heard the news and the commercials and the general upset over the sad state of the polar bear. As the earth warms the ice melts sooner and takes longer to reform. The polar bears are stranded for longer and longer. The buggy drivers confirmed that the ice should have been back by now, and that they had seen fewer bears this year than last.

blog 2I reached over to the back seat and pulled out a strange contraption; a camera set in the center of two parallel black metal bars with a laser pointer on either side. Churchill is the front line. It’s here, in the southernmost reaches of their range, that scientists hope to study the first effects of climate change on polar bears.

You see, polar bears are actually rather hard to find and track. It takes a lot of money, a lot of effort, and a lot of nerve. That in mind, it’s not surprising that there’s not a lot of data out there. That’s where people come in yet again.

As our polar bear wandered a short distance away, I turned the lasers on.  Casandra took over, maneuvering our crude device to try and get both laser points on the bear. When she had succeeded, she took a picture. This was the most vital part of her data collection. It was her hope that this tool would allow us to figure out the size of a bear based on a photograph.

If she was successful, it would mean that polar bear researchers could employ an army of citizen scientists. People come from across the world to snap just a single photo of a polar bear. If those same people send researchers their photos, we get an incredible database of the population throughout the season.

So where does that get us? Can ordinary citizens save the polar bear? I don’t know. In the end, it’s the choice of ordinary citizens whether or not to use cloth bags, to recycle, to conserve light and electricity, to carpool or walk, or not to do any of those things. It’s choices like those that got us into this mess, and the world can’t change unless ordinary people change it. It’s a way of thinking that’s always been said, but has seldom been believed.

I know the news said a while back that we’ve done irreversible (at least on our time scale) damage to the glaciers. The Churchill population and the people who make their living off the polar bears may be operating on borrowed time. But the information that comes from citizen scientists can help us answer the question that’s on all of our minds. Will they make it? Could they survive the actions of another species carried out far away from their icy world?  What’s really going to happen to the polar bears?

Our large male had wandered off towards the willows, likely looking for a place to bed down for the evening. All that was left of him was a long line of tracks leading back towards the ocean. The water was finally starting to freeze over. This male, at least, would likely make it back home to the frozen waters far away from any solid ground. He would feast on seals and seek out females until the warming seasons forced him back here, where he would wait for the ice once more.

Blog 6The tundra buggy was quiet now. Everyone was reflecting on the creature they had just encountered. Each held a different impression, but it was easy to see in their faces that they had all been awed and inspired. It was the encounter of a lifetime.

People are powerful, whether we think so or not. As our world becomes more technological, and information becomes increasingly easy to access, the citizen scientist becomes ever more valuable, ever more influential, a true force of nature. We have our doubts and our fears, but through the power of knowledge and self education, we can overcome any obstacle.

The polar bear knows little doubt. He knows the ice will come. He knows this because it has always come. As I watched the setting sun turn the snowy tundra a soft pink and orange, I liked to think that he was right.

For more information on this project, visit Polar Bears International’s website.

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So you think you want to go to grad school…

Greetings to Cohort 8! 

We are so excited you have decided to pursue your Master’s degree in Environmental Education with us at Southern Oregon University. I remember about a year ago when I was in your shoes… Excitedly sharing the news with family and friends, beginning to make preparations for my move to Ashland, planning out the courses I wanted to take, contacting businesses in Ashland to see about internships, dreaming about all the possibilities…

It’s an exciting time!

In an attempt to help you think about your new life path, I’ve put together a “survival guide” of my own. (Your real Survival Guide, should be arriving in your inbox so​on.)  I hope you, my fellow cohort members, and anyone else who has ever pursued an advanced degree will get a kick out of this (or at least a groan.)

Okay, here we go:

You are about to be busier than you can imagine, so in an attempt to help you manage everything that needs to be done in life I have put together this survival guide. Hopefully you have been saving up plenty of money for your graduate education. Sure, you will need it to pay for classes, books, college fees and all those typical kinds of things, but here’s really what you will need your money for:

  • A maid, to do all your cleaning.
  • A cook, to do all your food shopping and preparation.
  • A personal assistant, to attend to whatever else you might need to have attended to.
  • If you like fresh food from the garden, hire a gardener.

That is… unless you enjoy those tasks, like I do, at which point I would say it is probably cheaper and easier to hire a Reader. Your reader will follow you around and read all your homework assignments to you. It’s better than books on tape, because you can easily ask them to read exactly what needs to be read!

Make sure you have purchased everything you will need for the next 18 months: clothes, toiletries, office supplies, a backup hard drive, etc. You will not have time to shop.

If you have a significant other, spend some good quality time with them before the program begins. Then give them a big hug and a passionate kiss and let them know that you are really looking forward to all the time you get to spend together over the next 18 months… while you slee​p!​

If you don’t have a significant other, be comfortable with being single. Sure, you might find time to squeeze in a date or two, but you certainly won’t have time to actually form a relationship. That is, unless it is with another graduate student or insanely busy person, who understands that school dominates your life.

If you have family that lives more than a few hours away, let them know you love them, and you look forward to seeing them… at your graduation.

When looking at your class schedule, you might be tempted to make weekend getaway plans with your sweetheart, or just to have a break… don’t be fooled. Those free spots in your schedule actually belong to the program. Meetings, class field trips, group projects, all have been know to materialize out of thin air occupying the space you thought you had free.

Learn how to run, bike, do yoga, swim… all with a book in your hand. Take multitasking to a whole new level!

But seriously… you will be busier in this program than you anticipate.

Here are some of my real recommendations:

  • Read “The Art of Getting Things Done” by David Allen.
  • Find a place to live as early as possible and get your study space set up exactly how you like it.
  • Explore Ashland: Learn places that you can retreat to for relaxation and refreshment. As well as learning where you can find the things you might need.
  • Spend time with your family and friends.
  • Attend to your health now. Make sure you feel strong and full of vitality before the program begins.
  • And perhaps most importantly: remember even in the midst of all the business of the program, take breaks and have fun with others. You will need it to maintain your sanity

​We look forward to meeting you!

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but we aren’t dogs!

I call shenanigans! At least when it comes to humans. My father, a man I’d definitely call old in years, just got a new smartphone. He sent me a grammatically correct text accompanied by a picture of the final snowbank remaining in the yard outside of my house in Massachusetts. Anyone who knows my father knows that he is about as savvy with new technology as he is happy about the fact that he hasn’t been able to mow his snow-covered lawn. However, he learned to poke a touchscreen just as quick as the snow melted, both being incredibly slow processes, but the important part is that he did it.

Humans have developed technology that allows us to have an abundance of free time rather than spend most of our time worrying about basic survival like the rest of the animal kingdom. This free-time has in turn allowed us to study the world and learn more about it, creating a positive feedback loop between knowledge and available free-time. Imagine having to travel to the nearest water source to fill up a bucket, haul it back to your house, then make a fire to boil the water, then cut up the veggies that you spent the whole day harvesting, just to make some soup. Now, you can just fill a pot up in the sink, turn the knob for the stovetop 90 degrees to ignite the burner, open a bag of pre-cut veggies and soup it up. The time it takes to complete tasks, compared to a few hundred years ago, is significantly less, which allows us to accomplish many other things in a day. Many poorer countries do not have this luxury. However, the majority of people living in the US are fortunate to have access to clean running water and other amenities that make life easier. We have the privilege of having extra time in our daily schedule explore, discover, and learn new tricks.

One thing I like to do in my free time is read books and one of my favorite quotes is from the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. He says “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running”. To me, the term old is an excuse to be lazy and I have even found myself using it a few times, which is just plain ridiculousness. Okay, I will admit that someone pushing 100 years can justifiably use the excuse of being too old to avoid entering an MMA cage match. However, outside of strenuous physical activity, I think saying “I’m too old” is a cop out, especially when it comes to learning. Anyone at any age can learn about anything they want to, if they have the resources. To not seize an opportunity to learn more about the world and everything in it (and everything outside it) is like throwing away a box of my housemate and fellow Cohort 7 member Brooke Mueller’s homemade cupcakes. They are both a wasted magical treat that many others would feel blessed to have.

My point is that learning is a privilege that all who have free-time have time for. Who knows, maybe we could learn how to make clean water readily available to everyone in the world. Maybe we could learn to make homemade cupcakes like Brooke…well probably not, but we sure would have a fun time trying! Think about everything that anyone has ever done, or never done, and go learn how to do it!

For a fantastic artist’s rendition of an interview with Isaac Asimov about this subject, click here.

Child of many

I want every person to love our children.

Not just our kids or neighbors, but the child that comes from each of us.

The youth of our community.

The individuals that are going to carry our country and fix all of the problems that we created.

Because we probably aren’t going to solve most of them.

I speak of the children who understand the 21st century.

I love them more and more every time I see them.

I love them when they talk to me in the supermarket, and when I get to come to their class for the day.

I love them when they tell me what they care about and why they do what they do.

I love them when I see them help one another.

Because shouldn’t we all be helping one another?

A New Nesting Season Dawns

Believe it or not, spring is upon us. The signs are all around us if you care to look. Trees are budding, flowers are blooming, tiny love-struck mammals are replicating at a break neck pace, and, most wonderful to me, birds are building nests.

I was lucky enough to find one of these nests this past Monday. An adult Western Scrub-Jay flew into a bush not 10 feet in front of me. A few moments later I heard a “snap” come from the bush. I peered in to see the Scrub-Jay maneuvering a freshly plucked twig in its beak. The jay then flew out of the bush 50 feet to the parking lot across the street, and deposited the twig on a branch of one of the magnolia trees. I walked over to the tree and noted the distinctive messy pile of unorganized twigs that can loosely be called a nest made by jays.

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A Scrub-Jay nest from summer 2014 just up my street

I couldn’t help but feel a jolt of excitement when I found the nest. It means that there’s a whole new round of babies to watch! You see, every year I take part in a citizen science program called Project NestWatch. It’s a project where anyone can go out, find a nest, and monitor it for a season by reporting certain dates and numbers to the site. You get to watch the adult build the nest, lay eggs, see nestlings hatch out, and cry a single manly tear as your baby birds take flight.

The great news about this project is that some birds are very obvious nesters. Out west where I am, Scrub-Jay nests are very easy to find, and across America the American Robin can be found nesting anywhere it can find a spot. I’ve watched Scrub-Jays, Robins, and Western Kingbirds fledge from nests that I found myself. I can’t tell you how special that feeling is. It’s even better if the birds fledge from a nest box that you built yourself. I’ve watched Eastern Bluebirds, Chickadees, and Tree Swallows fledge from nest boxes that I’ve built.

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Adult Scrub-Jay in front of nest protecting it from a predator (me)

It’s an absolutely wonderful experience. Every spring I get to help raise new baby birds, and it’s super easy. All it takes is a pair of eyes and some patience. Not only do you get the satisfaction of watching the birds grow, but at the same time you are contributing data to researchers across America about when birds breed, how many young they produce, what predators they face, and much more. If you want to know what it’s like to have some baby birds of your own, then go to Project Nestwatch to start learning how you can share in this experience. And as always, if you are going to participate please follow the ethical guidelines that are outlined on the site.

As for me, well, I have some nests to check up on. Good luck in your nest searches and happy birding!

Reason to Celebrate

This is a celebratory week for people like me (and probably you, too). Today is Earth Day, yesterday would have been John Muir’s 177th birthday, and this whole week is National Park Week. That combination is more than enough to get my heart fluttering with thoughts of nature, but in case you need a little more convincing I’ll see if I can pull you outside with me. Here in Ashland, we are extremely well-positioned in terms of access to National Parks. I’ll spare you a lengthy ode to the Parks for now and instead remind you of five nearby that are always worth a visit, no matter how many times you may have been before. Four make for nice full day trips. One is better experienced with a bit of camping.

DSC_8302Oregon Caves National Monument

High above the valley of the Illinois River, the granite of the Siskiyous has given way to water and acid over the centuries. The result is a spectacular labyrinth of underground passages adorned with stalagmites and stalactites, cave popcorn, soda straws, and more. Feeling a little claustrophobic? No worries. Hike to sweeping views of the Siskiyous, a truly massive Douglas Fir, or high glacial lakes.

DSC_6322Lava Beds National Monument

Lead your own cave tour through the lava tubes that once fed Medicine Lake Volcano. The caves are easily accessible, and the landscape above is just as grand. Junipers dot the rocky plains and hillsides, and a hike to the top of Schonchin Butte will afford you views of Mt. McLoughlin and Mt. Shasta.

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Redwood National & State Parks

It’s more than just big trees (though, those are pretty great). Maybe you’ve walked through Stout Grove more times than you think is enough, but what about the costal areas of these parks? What about Elk Prairie? Or, if you want to give the trees another chance, how much time have you spent looking down in the redwoods instead of up? Turn over some logs. You’re bound to find a salamander in the ever-moist understory.

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Crater Lake National Park

It’s Southern Oregon’s iconic landmark, and for good reason. Normal years would have much of the Rim still snowed in and accessible only by snowshoe or ski at this point. The bad news/good news here is that this is a year threatening to end with record lows in snowfall totals. Bad news if this trend continues, but there is a silver lining. The good news is that parts of the Rim Drive are already being plowed, so access is easier by the un-snowshoed foot to more places earlier than normal. Perhaps you’ve made the drive around the West Rim more times than you can remember. But have you walked it, taking the time to sit and drink in the view of the bluest water on a sunny day? Crater Lake is just a checkmark on a list for a lot of people. Turn it into more than that with a longer and more deliberate visit.

lassen day

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Not as quick a trip, but still easily reached! Just like Crater Lake, most years would see this park snowed in for a while longer, but roads may be fully opened by the end of the month this year. If you haven’t been to Lassen, now’s the time! It’s one of the least visited parks in the lower 48 (less than half a million visitors in 2014), which makes it even more appealing with crowds much smaller than its nearby Californian neighbors. All four types of volcano (did you know there were four?) are represented here, along with geothermal areas akin to those of Yellowstone and alpine lakes reminiscent of the Wallowas. Lassen Peak marks the southern end of the Cascade Range and is well worth an overnight trip.

Of course, there are many more National Parks within a decent drive of Ashland. These are just highlights, vignettes intended to inspire. Our National Parks are national treasures, attracting millions of visitors from all over the country and all over the world. They’re scenic, inspirational, and a living example of conservation on a broad scale. Increasingly, though, the time the average park-goer actually spends in the park on a visit is dwindling to a span of only a few hours. While I agree that any time in a National Park is better than no time, my challenge to you, dear citizen, this National Park Week is to truly visit one of these wonderful locations so close by. Give a day to the National Parks. They’ll give you so much more in return, and together we can properly celebrate this week.

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

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