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Posts Tagged ‘ecoliteracy’

“Shut the door!”

…my Dad shouted, when my brothers and I left it wide open in the chilly Boston winter,

“you trying to heat the whole world?”

Now many people say that’s exactly what we’ve done, heated up the planet through excessive use of fossil fuels. Looking back, Dad said lots of prophetic stuff like that. If we left the water continuously flowing when we washed dishes Dad would say “you waste water like that, someday it will be too expensive to drink.” Little did we imagine that one day people would pay more per ounce for bottled water than we pay for gas.

We realized that our Dad was different from other kids’ parents. We much preferred it that way. Dad was cool! He read us Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh Zen Bones at bedtime and Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan; he played the tenor banjo and sang sea shanties. And though we didn’t phrase it this way at the time, we knew intuitively and unequivocally that Dad was no “Muggle.”

Dad was into organic gardening and home brewing beer; he marched to a different drummer and taught us to do the same—which isn’t so easy to do when you’re 10 or 12 years old. I remember the lunches that we brought to school and how mortified we were by the thick, uneven brown slices of homemade bread we pulled out at lunch time when all the other kids had nice, white, perfectly uniform slices of Wonderbread.

My Dad’s ability to discern between the authentic and the artificial is uncanny and so is his ability to sum it all up in one pithy comment. Regarding the first Earth Day in 1970 he said,

“I hope they’re wearing bio-degradable protest buttons.”

By example my Dad ingrained in me a strong sense of responsibility for the world. Walking through the woods Dad would pick up any trash that we came across and when we said “Dad that’s not our trash” Dad would say “it’s our world.”

My Dad is a bit of a mad scientist (it’s traditional in my family to speak of “the madness” in boastful tones). When I was a kid, Dad would be down in the basement every evening, making things like a model 19th century circus or cutting gem stones. From my father’s passions I learned that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.

I also learned that when “the madness” strikes and there is something that you absolutely must create or do, you can begin it by going to the library. I went to the library with my father many times when I was young. While he looked for books about making marionettes, or colonial period clothing, or gemology, I was reading about Indians, and Druids, and plants.

Sometimes our passions settled on the same topic. One year Dad read Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. That summer we ate cattail pancakes and elderberry jam washed down with sumac lemonade. I was, excited by the idea of “living off the land.” Eventually, I spent a week on my brother Dave’s land in New Hampshire living only on what I could gather. I mostly survived on daylily tubers and ketchup.

When my Dad was about the age that I am now he lost his job as an electronics engineer. That was the beginning of a difficult period for Dad, looking for jobs and interviewing, but never again working in his chosen field. In retrospect, I’m sure he would say that was the beginning of some of the best parts of his life.

Dad went back to school to get a biology degree from Harvard (just for fun) and graduated when he was 64. At the age of 75, Dad still works at the Boston Museum of Science, a role that combines two life-long passions: science and teaching kids new things.

Dedicated to David A. Tolstrup – A cool guy.

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Squirrels are among the most common wildlife inhabitants in suburbitat, yet most of us actually know very little about them.

Colorado, my home state, is home to three kinds of tree squirrels. The rusty red, fox squirrel; the Abert’s squirrel which has a striking black or salt-and-pepper gray coat and magnificent ear-tufts; and the smaller but noisier pine squirrel, or chickaree.

Abert’s and fox squirrels are about the same size (up to 20 inches long and two pounds in weight), although Abert’s has longer fur, and therefore looks larger. The pine squirrel is much smaller—14 inches long and weighing only about nine ounces.

The Fox squirrel is most familiar in streamside and urban woodlands, especially on the eastern plains. Abert’s squirrel is resident of ponderosa pine forests, and the pine squirrel (or chickaree) occupies high timber.

All three tree squirrels build nests of leaves or needles, depending on habitat. Predators of the tree squirrels vary with habits and habitat. Fox squirrels spend some time on the ground and are killed by coyotes and foxes. Magpies, hawks and snakes eat nestlings. Martens are a major predator on pine squirrels. The forest-dwelling goshawk eats Abert’s squirrels.

Fox squirrels eat fruit, nuts and buds, and bury nuts for winter (and because they are forgetful, they plant a lot of trees!). Abert’s squirrel does not hoard food, but eats whatever part of its host tree, ponderosa pine, is available in season: cones and inner bark of twigs. Pine squirrels harvest and store vast quantities of cones (spruce, fir, Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine), often beneath a feeding area.

Tree squirrels have two litters of two to five young; one litter in spring, the other in early summer. Gestation is five weeks for chickarees, and up to seven weeks for their larger cousins.

(Source – Colorado Division of Wildlife) http://wildlife.state.co.us/

When my second cousin, Max, was a child he lived in Bali and was the self-appointed guide of Western tourists visiting the monkey forest in Ubud. http://www.monkeyforestubud.com/ “The monkeys have kings,” Max told me. Each of the monkey kings are large, standing head and shoulders above other monkeys (as the now fully grown Max does among men). The forest is divided into distinct kingdoms, and sometimes the monkeys actually war over territory. “If you visit the Monkey forest,” Max told me, “and if the monkeys rush you for food, just give it to them, never hold the food up over your head unless you want a bunch of monkeys fighting over food on top of your head!”

At my house, entering our front garden is a bit like visiting the monkey forest.

I confess that we do not strickly adhere to the rule “never feed a wild animal” when it comes to squirrels. In fact, they are so tame that that my wife, Kathy, feeds them out of her hand, particularly one female (or several?) that she calls “Mama Squirrel.” Thus it is likely that our squirrels will size you up to see if you have food, or even rush you like monkeys when you enter our garden.

Unlike monkeys however, the squirrel’s world seems to be one with no political organization whatsoever. One of my favorite poets W.B.Yeats wrote about the anarchy of squirrels, as well as their seeming indifference to human delusions of supremacy, in his poem An Appointment. The poem was written at a time when the poet was discouraged about his own political career.

Being out of heart with government I took a broken root to fling where the proud, wayward squirrel went, taking delight that he could spring. And he, with that low whinnying sound that is like laughter, sprang again and so to the other tree at a bound…And threw him up to laugh on the bough; no government appointed him!

There is another political reference to squirrels in Hal Borland’s Sun Dial of the Seasons, which points to the (potential) universality of conservation ethics.

You can’t be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion, or challenge the ideology of a violet.

The fox squirrel in the West, as well as  the eastern grey squirrel seem to have adapted to—even thrived in—environments altered by human beings without being altered themselves.

The simple, basic nature of the squirrel (squirrel-anity?) seems virtually incorruptible and altogether cheerful.

Would that it were so for human beings as well!

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You can learn a lot about someone just by looking in their refrigerator. These days, the refrigerator at High Plains Environmental Center is crammed full of zip lock bags containing wildflower seeds in damp sand.

If you are seeding wildflowers outdoors it’s best to do it in November before the first snow, just as nature does. However, if you are growing them in trays indoors,  many types of seeds will need to have this cold period replicated in order to get them started.

From the bags in our refrigerator we are planning to grow 10,000 seedlings of native plants for restoration projects. Where some might just see bags of dirt with labels like “Verbena hastata”, “Asclepias incarnata” and “Helianthus nutallii”, my “plantish” friends and I get very excited looking through my refrigerator. We see the promise of purple, yellow and pinkish-orange flowers, soaring high above wetland meadows in summers yet to come.

At the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, MA, where I studied horticulture, I once saw a note pinned up on the wall that said “a seed is a baby plant, asleep in a box, with its lunch”. I don’t know who wrote this but it’s a good description of what a seed really is.  The “lunch” refers to the endosperm, stored starch that sustains the seed until its roots develop and can absorb nutrients. Some seeds can remain asleep in the box for years, even centuries, waiting for the right conditions to come along.

In the fall we go out and gather wildflower seeds. By gathering seeds locally we are preserving a distinct local genotype that has adapted to our specific conditions. The seeds gathered at another elevation, or in another state will not be quite the same. It’s a pleasant enough task to go seed gathering. Last fall on a golden afternoon of Indian summer, I was walking along scanning the ground for familiar friends, when a flock of sandhill cranes flew overhead, trumpeting their wild and ancient call tllrrr, tllrr, tllrr, a bit like running your finger down a comb, only much better.  

Identifying plants in their dried form requires an intimate familiarity with the plants and it helps to know the landscape well in order to know where to look for certain things.  Once you notice the pattern you can see a particular plant and know what else you can expect to find growing there. Cottonwood trees grow on creeks throughout the West; underneath them you’re likely to find chokecherries and golden currants grown from seeds dropped by birds that rested in the trees. Those who know the language of plant communities will unconsciously inventory the landscape as they drive down the highway.

One of my instructors at the Arboretum, Paul Martin Brown, taught a course called Flora of New England. I think he knew the name and address of every plant in the 6 state region. If you were talking about wild orchids, he would say “go to the Shaw’s parking lot in Nashua, New Hampshire and look north at the wetlands there, then come back and tell me what you saw.”

It is not necessary to know the name of every plant in order to enjoy them but I will offer a very brief taxonomy lesson here. Plants are categorized by the form of their flowers.  They are not categorized by the shapes of their leaves, the form of their growth, or where they grow.  Many plants within the same genus may look very different from each other. Plants, like other living things, are scientifically categorized by genus and species.  The genus, which is the first name refers to the larger group, like your family’s last name.  The second name is the species and often refers to some characteristic that distinguishes it from the others of its genus like “hirsutissima” meaning “hairy.” So, Clematis hirsutissima, is a hairy species of the genus, clematis.

There are other ways to know plants and many people who know plants intimately do not know the Latin names. Native people of the region know that chewing the seeds of the prairie coneflower, Echinacea anugustifolia, will make your mouth numb, so it makes a good toothache medicine.  Sweet flag, Acorus calamus, is good medicine for colds and stomach flu, if you can stomach the bitter taste that is.

When looking for a particular plant, traditionally native people will sit down and make an offering to the first one they find.  When you do this you slowly tune into the landscape and then you begin to see more and more.  I like to touch the plants and smell their leaves.  I find that the physical memory of them remains with me the longest but don’t do this with poison ivy, although if you do I’m certain you won’t forget it.

In the midst of a culture that marks changes of the year by the decorations and candy that appear in stores, these sleeping seeds help me remember where we really are. Over the course of my life I have repeatedly had a disturbing dream in which it is summer and I haven’t planted anything. I don’t think there’s anything psychological about it. The dream underscores for me the importance of connecting oneself to the rhythm of the seasons. I like knowing when the moon is full or new, when things will bloom or go to seed and my heart literally leaps when I hear the first peeping frogs emerge from the cold Spring mud.

You can learn a tremendous amount from a seed. Every seed contains within itself an ancestral memory of seasons past which it has never known.  It knows how to grow, how to bloom and exactly when to do so. 

 In the dark depths of winter the tiny seeds remain steadfast and resolute. They seem to know that sunlight, soil and water are the things that truly matter and that the glory of summer will inevitably return. In challenging times such as these we would do well to take a lesson from the seeds, to return to what truly sustains us and reflect on where we are in the cycle of seasons.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org

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I work at the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado but I live in neighboring Fort Collins, by banks of the Cache la Poudre River. In both of these two places I manage (thankfully) to spend a lot of time walking outdoors. Near my home beavers took up residence this winter in a pond that was previously a gravel mine. At first I saw only the gnawed trees, evidence of the beavers presence but lately the beavers themselves have been quite visible.   

The Lewis and Clark expedition did not go through Colorado but it did cross a similar, short grass prairie landscape to the north. They believed this area to be entirely uninhabitable. On May 27, 1805 a letter from the expedition described the region as follows “these mountains appear to be a desert part of the country…barron broken rich soil but too much of a desert to be inhabited, or cultivated….We have now got into a country which presents little to our view, but scenes of barrenness and desolation; and see no encouraging prospects that it will terminate.” This area is also the “Sterile desert” we lately entered”.

The first White Men to remain in the West for any length of time were traders and fur trappers in search of beaver pelts. In the growing cities of the East, as well as Europe a gentleman wasn’t properly dressed unless he wore a top hat made of shaved beaver fur. Since the 15th century vast sums of money were accumulated all on the pelts of this semi-aquatic mammal.  Many of these early trapper were of French origin and seemed to be less interesting in “winning the West than we were in winning the heart s of the Indian maidens that they met here. In fact, many of these men became part of the tribes, interpreters for those who came later. They left their names, Baptise, Janis on modern day Indian reservations.,

Exploring my local beaver habitat I found more damaged trees in amongst a clump of red-twid dogwood (cornus stolenifera).

Red Osier Dogwood, or Red Willow as it is often called, is considered sacred to many Indian tribes as referenced in the Longfellow poem The Song of Hiawatha…

 

 

 

Filled the pipe with bark of willow,
With the bark of the red willow;
Breathed upon the neighboring forest,
Made its great boughs chafe together,
Till in flame they burst and kindled;
And erect upon the mountains,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
Smoked the calumet, the Peace-Pipe,
As a signal to the nations.

The Lakota people historically inhabited the region from the Colorado Rockies, east to the Missouri river and north into Canada. Since times too ancient to remember the Lakota watched the sky in early spring as the constellation Aries moved closer and closer to the sun until it could no longer be seen. To the Lakota Aries and Triangulum represented Cansasa (chan-sha-sha) red willow, the bark of which is used in a ceremonial smoking mixture. When the sun lit the red willow it represented a pipe ceremony in the heavens.

The beaver is a “keystone” species, a species that plays a critical role in shaping the environment on which many other species depend and over hunting them radically changed Western eco-systems. Beavers are capable of taking down large trees which they use to build their dams and lodges.

By damming rivers and streams the beaver creates its own environment, ponds that allow the beaver to escape from predators, as well as providing habitat opportunities for numerous other species.

However, the destruction of trees has also made the beaver very unpopular with land owner and managers and has often become a reason for destroying or relocating the beavers.

The Indians participated in trapping and trading of beaver pelts but also appreciated the beaver’s inherent value. Native people refer to the “medicine” of each animal, unique attributes, verging on the supernatural, that can be obtained and emulated by human beings.

According to author, Jamie Sam’s in The Sacred Path Cards:

“Beaver is the doer in the animal kingdom. Beaver medicine is akin to water and earth energy and incorporates a strong sense of family and home. If you were to look at the dams that block woodland streams, you would find several entrances and exits. In building its home, Beaver always leaves itself many alternative escape routes. This practice is a lesson to all of us not to paint ourselves into corners. If we eliminate our alternatives, we dam the flow of experience in our lives.”

 National Geographic offers the following information about beavers…

Beavers are famously busy, and they turn their talents to re-engineering the landscape as few other animals can. When sites are available, beavers burrow in the banks of rivers and lakes. But they also transform less suitable habitats by building dams. Felling and gnawing trees with their strong teeth and powerful jaws, they create massive log, branch, and mud structures to block streams and turn fields and forests into the large ponds that beavers love.

Dome-like beaver homes, called lodges, are also constructed of branches and mud. They are often strategically located in the middle of ponds and can only be reached by underwater entrances. These dwellings are home to extended families of monogamous parents, young kits, and the yearlings born the previous spring.

Beavers are among the largest of rodents. They are herbivores and prefer to eat leaves, bark, twigs, roots, and aquatic plants.

These large rodents move with an ungainly waddle on land but are graceful in the water, where they use their large, webbed rear feet like swimming fins, and their paddle-shaped tails like rudders. These attributes allow beavers to swim at speeds of up to five miles (eight kilometers) an hour. They can remain underwater for 15 minutes without surfacing, and have a set of transparent eyelids that function much like goggles. Their fur is naturally oily and waterproof.

 http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/beaver/

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 In honor of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the High Plains Environmental Center (of which I am director) I am launching this blog. The entries that will follow in this Suburbitat series will be a Suburban Naturalist’s Journal, exploring ways of attuning our senses to the natural world, rediscovering our relationship with plants and animals that share suburbitat, developing environmental ethics and re-visioning our culture, all from the point of view of the suburban householder.

The High Plains Environmental Center, was founded by a developer, Tom Hoyt of McStain Neighborhoods. The center is comprised of 100 acres of open space, surrounding two lakes. The center also leases the surface rights of the lakes, 175 acres of open water, which is reserved for migratory waterfowl. We also manage another 135 acres of open space belonging to other landowners in Centerra, a 3500 acre mixed use development in Loveland, CO.

The project from its conception was intended to be a symbiotic relationship between a developer, an environmental center and a vital business and residential community. The first executive director of HPEC, Ripley Heinz, coined the term “Suburbitat” by combining the words suburban and habitat. The term refers to the relationship between the built and the natural in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. The concept of suburbitat also points to the possibilities for planning and building environments that restore and conserve our native biodiversity.

HPEC is funded by a percentage of permit fees collected by the city of Loveland for building within Centerra. HPEC in turn maintains trails and open spaces that are a source of pride for the community, as well as a tangible example of the commitment to environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility on the part of McWhinney, the developer. Most importantly, this concept breaks the traditional stalemate between developers and environmentalists and facilites a constructive dialog about land use between various stakeholders.

Like many conservation areas, HPEC is constantly trying to strike a balance between recreation, conservation and education. We don’t want to put a chain link fence around the lakes with a sign that says “This is Nature – Keep Out!” People need to spend time in nature in order to be healthy and whole. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has immediate, measurable impact on our physical and emotional health. 

It is also essential to allow children to have access to nature. Since Richard Louve’s, Last Child in the Woods, which links what the author calls nature deficit disorder with ADD/ADHD, parents and educators have focused on the necessity of allowing children unstructured time in nature, as well as the need to promote eco-literacy.     

As one who is eager to pass my own life-long love of nature on to younger people, this is all extremely good news. If children don’t know that nature is out there they are not going to miss it when it disappears. After all, you don’t become an advocate for something that you never knew existed. We must begin training the land stewards of the next generation now. 

On the other hand jogging, boating, pets off leash and other impacts from human activities put a lot of pressure on wildlife and many wildlife populations are already near the breaking point. Bird populations in Colorado, similar to those in other states across the country, have crashed in the last forty years, many bird species declining by sixty percent or more.

Obviously we need to do all we can for birds and other wildlife populations if they are to survive the next forty years. We need to create a culture where conserving nature is a deeply held value and maintaining wildlife is considered an important goal. We need to learn about the wildlife species around us in order to understand what they need to thrive. Then we need to actively design a world that has benefit for wildlife built into it and like so many other things we need to do it right away.

Fortunately this project is going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to make us healthier, livelier and more aware human beings. Sustainability is about much more than the things that we build, what we drive or what we eat, it is a transformational journey that we  are making toward personal and planetary wholeness. Exploring the world around us and attuning ourselves to the rhythms of nature is part of that process.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, CO.  HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. http://www.suburbitat.org 

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