Tag Archives: exploring

Find Your Place: Musings from the Bear Creek Greenway

Bear Creek Greenway in the fall

In the summer, insects drone loudly beneath a thick canopy of riparian vegetation and ripe blackberries, while white fluff falls like snow. The future of Black Cottonwood trees along Bear Creek is certain. My wheels whir a harmony with the insects and the breeze down by the water is refreshing, a meditation to combat the southern Oregon heat. In the fall, cottonwood leaves dance pirouettes in the air, yellow-brown hearts strewn about the trail. School has started now, and I begin riding to Medford each Wednesday for my graduate teaching classes. A weekly celebration of bikes and the seasons and learning. Winter is stark. The rains are cold, but the path is clear of ice near the water, and the Great Blue Heron nests are now visible high in the trees. Bare branches reach for the sky, as I-5 traffic barrels past. cottonwood- The School for Aromatic StudiesThe path smells musty, like decomposing leaves, and we hope that spring will come again soon. Like clockwork it comes, with its sweet smell of lilacs and warmer days. The mornings come sooner and the rains are less chilling. Cottonwood buds emerge by the thousands coating the path with little brown bullets, resinous and fragrant. The smell is overwhelmingly delightful, like warmed beeswax inside a busy hive.

Riding my bike has always been a way for me to connect to the world around me. Everything seems so alive from my saddle: smells, sights, sounds, the feel of the air…all of it is so close, so present, so tangible and alive. I have traveled to great lengths and accomplished much on the seat of a bike. I have climbed mountain passes, slogged through three inches of snow, ridden from city to ocean, found hidden paths inaccessible to cars, and regularly glide by “rush hour” traffic in Ashland.

This past year, I have had the joy of getting to know the Bear Creek Greenway, a 20-mile trail that connects Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, and Central Point with a single, concrete track. It meanders its way alongside Bear Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River that originates near Emigrant Lake. It is home to deer, salmon, and countless birds, including a notable Great Blue Heron rookery near Phoenix. During my rides along this path, I have written poems, had conversations with friends, watched the creek rise and fall with the seasons, and am always able to experience the world in the raw, even if I am riding through the pouring rain.Greenway

Riding a bike is just one way to feel connection with the natural world in our busy, technology-driven lives. As Karelia wrote in “The Water Ouzel,” a previous post, finding places to go back to again and again is essential for all humans, but most of all environmental educators. If we are to teach our students the importance of caring for and conserving beautiful places around them, we must practice what we preach.

NatureAwarenessI leave you with my favorite environmental education activity, “Secret Spots,” a classic EE activity written up by world-renowned environmental educator, Joseph Cornell. He encourages his audience of educators to feel connected to the places around them and pass this along to their students. Cornell’s bestselling book, Sharing Nature With Children, has now been updated 35 years later in an all-inclusive book called Sharing Nature: Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages. In this practice, the instructor allows his/her students to find their own “secret spot,” away from all other students. They return to this spot day after day, to write, draw, and observe how it changes. It is likely that we will never know every spot in our yard, our neighborhood, our town, or our favorite wilderness area, but it is important that we do form those connections as a modeling practice for our students, the future stewards of wild places. After all, as Jane Goodall reminds us, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.”





The Water Ouzel

Out of the corner of my eye I catch the flit of a dark, buzzing bird flying low over the water of Ashland Creek, just above Lithia Park. I’ve caught the melodic babbling brook song over the breeze (Click here for song and another). I pause, and search the riffles and tops of boulders for my favorite denizen of the sky and water, the Water Ouzel.

The Water Ouzel (ouzel) Cinclus mexicanus, or American Dipper (AMDI, dipper), as it is recognized by the American Ornithologist’s Union, is a small dark bird that lives a relatively secretive life in the Western United States’ clear, fast-flowing mountain waters. Being closely related to the wren family, the ouzel is most easily recognized by its slender insect-picking beak, upright-angled tail, and erratic flitting and foraging.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this small bird is its prowess in the air and water. Much like me on a tropical vacation, the ouzel spends much of its time with its head underwater, looking for its audubonAMDInext meal (though I’m only a silent observer). American Dippers feed on macroinvertebrates, the aquatic larvae of insects, like the stonefly, mayfly, and caddisfly. This unique ability is facilitated by the AMDI’s transparent nictitating membrane, a protective longitudinal moving extra eyelid; an insect eating wren-like beak; strong legs; long, grasping toe-nails; and short powerful wings. While snorkeling, the ouzel moves along on underwater stones and cobbles, searching for tasty morsels. When satisfied with its gleaning in an area, the ouzel flits upstream or downstream, landing on the occasional mid-stream boulder to sing and call. When just the right riffle has been found, the ouzel returns to its feast.

On the walks that I am lucky enough to spy my favorite bird, I know that I am blessed. Nature reveals its secrets to the patient, brave, and passionate. As I sit and watch what I have now come to call my Water Ouzel, the worries of the day, week, and month drift away. I watch this small being in wonder. Alone on the boulder in the big riffle, the little soul sings its heart out in trills, whistles, and buzzes, then flits to a small riffle and begins searching for a bite to eat. In its little niche, the dipper has found its place. Flying up and down this quieter reach, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Ashland, this dipper is wild and free.


Discovering the Mystery of Where We Live

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

-Rachel Carson-

Rachel Carson in the field
Rachel Carson in the field

Rachel Carson (1907-1964), renowned biologist and writer, is most well-known for her career as an activist, taking a brave stance against pesticides with her publication of Silent Spring in 1962. She is a prime example of how science can be used to educate the public and effectively change attitudes about the environment. However, Carson was also a sensitive nature writer and mentor to her nephew Roger. Her book, The Sense of Wonder, chronicles their adventures in the varied terrain of the Maine wilderness, through intimate and sensory accounts of their findings. As environmental educators, it is important for us to follow Carson’s example, using our strong background in scientific principles to strengthen the messages of our lessons. However, she also shows us the other side of the coin: the importance of fostering a sense of wonder in children.

hiking in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument
hiking in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

The Masters of Environmental Education program at SOU does an excellent job at finding the balance between these practices. We integrate ourselves into deep scientific study of natural history, botany, ornithology, herpetology, etc., but we also recognize that it is our job to practice Carson’s advice: “rediscover with [children] the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” The educators of Cohort 8, in all of our diverse experiences and geographic homes, were already united around this common purpose before we arrived in Ashland this July. We all seek careers in which we can make a difference while spending most of our time outdoors. But why now? Why Environmental Education?

Some of us have worked in wildlife research in the past and are now looking for a more direct way to impact conservation. Some of us have worked in schools and are looking to diversify our skills teaching outdoors. Some of us seek more scientific knowledge. Some of us are fresh from undergraduate degrees, eager to continue learning. And some of us intend to work in nonprofits, seeking experiences in management. We arrive from homes all over the country: Upstate New York, rural Washington, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado, San Francisco, Hawaii, Maine, northern Michigan, Oregon, and fishing boats in Alaska. One of us even arrived in Ashland by foot via the infamous Pacific Crest Trail! We come together united by a common goal: how do we transmit information to people of varying contexts, attitudes, personal histories, agendas, ages, and skills? And how can this program prepare us to do this?

It all began by immersing ourselves in our new place. We spent a weekend together when we first arrived, camping, hiking, swimming, eating, camp fire-ing, and identifying new plants with our professors and Cohort 7, at the nearby Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. We then took a four-week place-based Environmental Issues class, in which we were introduced to six quintessential ecosystem types and their flora and fauna that we will encounter throughout our studies in this area. We practiced critter catching and collected data and dreamed about the environmental education programs we would soon begin designing. And we hiked to the tops of stunningly tall peaks where we could see the entirety of our new homes from a new vantage point.

Cascade Siskiyou National Monument: http://www.cascadesiskiyou.org/
from Friends of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument: http://www.cascadesiskiyou.org/

The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, practically in our backyard, is a place of unmatched diversity. It is a mystery of colliding mountains, where ecologically distinct regions coexist in the nexus of the Cascade, Siskiyou, and Klamath ranges. Pygmy Nuthatches and kangaroo rats, typically found east of the Cascades, share habitat with western species such as rough-skinned newts and Northern Spotted Owls. Bigleaf Maple and Eastern Juniper grow on the same bluff, as do Manzanita and White Fir. All of these species coexist at the CSNM, along with the highest butterfly diversity in North America.

Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus ledifolius

During this summer’s orientation weekend, we hiked to the top of Hobart Bluff, one of the tallest vantage points in the CSNM. Its high elevation reveals unique plants that exist in exposed, wind-swept areas. One such species is Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany, or Cercocarpus ledifolius, a hardy specimen with bending branches, uneven bark, and small, indistinct leaves. But its ability to take root in a harsh, rocky environment is its true wonder. How does it do it? The answer is in the seeds. Spiraling out from the base of each leaf cluster are countless numbers of corkscrew-like seeds, whose fine hairs allow them to leap into flight at a passing breeze. And if they are lucky, each will find a piece of damp Earth in which to uncurl, drilling themselves into the ground, rooting their way to nutrients and new life.

Cohort 8 at the top of Hobart Bluff
Cohort 8 at the top of Hobart Bluff

Like the CSNM, our cohort is one of great diversity: age, experiences, and career trajectories. But for eighteen short months, we come together to learn. We will dream up and facilitate a program of our own creation. We will learn how to work together in close quarters, practicing life-long skills of conflict resolution and program planning. For eighteen short months, we will ground ourselves in the Rogue Valley like the curl-leaf mountain mahogany, wind-dispersed from our home places, and rooting ourselves into this new place.

Stewart Janes (Environmental Education program director) reminds us continually, “In a year, you will be the experts.” And we will. We will study the land and its diversity, acknowledging the unnoticed and marveling at the big picture. We will look closely, taking it all in as we ask new questions. And we will discover the mysteries of where we live, reminding ourselves of the inevitable stories of some of our future students: What would I do if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

If You Want to Learn More:

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!

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

Searching for Stormi

Call me weird (you wouldn’t be the first), but I absolutely love salamanders. These slippery amphibians come in astoundingly pretty patterns, have a perpetual smile on their face, and, most of all, are so much fun to search for. Many salamander species are restricted to specific habitat types in very out-of-the-way places that the average person just does not see. Recently, when my natural restlessness came to a head, I decided that I needed an excuse to visit just such a place. My destination would be the Siskiyou Mountains in the Applegate Valley, about an hour and a half west of Ashland. This remote region is the home of a special salamander found nowhere else on Earth. This is Plethodon stormi, otherwise known as the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander.

The Siskiyou Mountains Salamander Peter and Jason found.
The Siskiyou Mountains Salamander Peter and Jason found.

Before we get to the meat of this post, I should probably tell you a little bit about this creature. Since this salamander belongs to the genus Plethodon, we know that it does something very unusual: it breathes through its skin. This trait requires salamanders in this group to stay constantly moist. For the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander, moisture is found in deep, wet crevices between large groups of rocks that have collected on hillsides, otherwise known as talus slopes. It is on these talus slopes that the first specimens of this species were collected in 1965 and it is on these slopes where I hoped to come across this mysterious salamander forty-nine years later.

Typically, I like to be on my own for salamander trips. This day was different. There was something in the air, besides the warm mist, that was telling me it would be a trip to remember. I texted Jason Wilson, a fellow student in the program, and he was down to go. A couple hours later, we were in the Applegate. We rounded the first bend along the lake that the valley stems from and were struck by the eyes that met us. Perched in a dead tree not twenty feet in front of the car was a full-grown Bald Eagle, looking down at us as if to say, “Keep driving..nothing to see here.” The day was going to be a good one.

The realm of the Siskiyou Mountain Salamander is difficult to determine. I knew that talus slopes were their preferred habitat, but Jason and I quickly realized that not all talus was the same. Some slopes were exposed and dry. Others were literally dripping with water. We flipped rocks in every type of talus slope we could find, hoping for a Goldilocks moment. As I looked back on Jason stumbling and cursing under his breath during the descent of a particularly perilous slope, I realized that the next talus slope better be just right.

I don’t remember what made us decide this but, a few minutes of driving after the sketchy descent, we agreed that the slope coming up on our right was perfect. The habitat looked right but, honestly, we were just itching to get out of the car. To our south was a valley of endless forest, with mountain peaks reaching up into the omnipresent high fog. The air smelled so fresh, and the wind seemed to blow the scents from the deepest reaches of the forest right into our noses. The setting was ideal and I wandered over to the best looking rocks and began to turn them over carefully. Nothing…nothing…nothing…nothing. Four rocks into the best-looking habitat, and still no salamanders.

The habitat that was "just right."
The habitat that was “just right.”

I bent down to an especially small, insignificant looking rock. Expecting nothing, I turned it over faster than I had for the last few rocks. And, like a flash of unexpected lightning, there it was: a Siskiyou Mountain Salamander. I hooted and hollered like a madman! This was my most thrilling salamander find in months! I picked up the salamander carefully, being sure to immediately pour water on my hand so that the salamander would not get dry. I put its rock home back exactly as I found it, and set the smiling creature down on top of the rock.

By this point, Jason had walked over with a grin on his face. Here was one of the most endangered and beautiful amphibians in Oregon, and he knew we were fortunate to have seen one. I picked up the salamander and put it in Jason’s hand, in the hopes that he would feel the same sense of magnetism I felt towards salamanders, if even for a few seconds. I think he did.

EE grad student Jason Wilson holding the salamander
EE grad student Jason Wilson holding the salamander

The salamander was over the attention by this point, so I gently placed it back under its rock. As it wriggled away, my smile could not have been larger. The day had been a success and all the poring over scientific journals, topographic maps, and physical effort had paid off. I started up the car, turned to Jason, and stated matter-of-factly, “Well, that was amazing. Now for the next species.”

This is the abridged version of an article that Peter wrote for Insight to Ashland. To see the full version of this story, not to mention some of Peter’s other writings and more about the Ashland area, check out : http://www.insighttoashland.com/blog/

I’m gonna do some science, only got a handlens in my pocket…

The musical science tradition continues at DCC

Imagine the campfire crackling to the beat, phenomenal dance moves by students and instructors alike, and some DCC bling made up of handlenses and woodcookies-welcome to Cohort 5’s latest musical addition to Fall in the Field.

Last year, Cohort 4 created the first ever Deer Creek song, the ridiculously catchy “Hey, This is Deer Creek” set to “Call Me Maybe.” Here in Cohort 5, we also prefer our music, like our programming, to be place-based. So following in these musical footsteps, we created not only a Southern Oregon rendition of the campfire classic “Country Roads,” but a slightly off beat, geeked out, Deer Creek version of “Thrift Shop.” Here for you now is the second live campfire performance of some Deer Creek musical magic… Dance on!