In praise of dung beetles

dungbeetle.jpgYes, I’ve previously sung the praises of maggots. And lightning bugs. And I stand by that.

But there are legions of others of our humble brethren (is there a parallel politically correct, gender-neutral word? sistren? Never mind) out toiling in the world at the less savory but nevertheless critical professions that make the world turn (figuratively speaking) and make life better for you and me. By, for example, cleaning up you-know-what.

A brief piece in Newsweek, of all places, has recognized this neglected proletariat of our terrestrial ecosystems. And there are other, similar creatures that clean up lakes and oceans. And I quote:

“Of all creatures great and small, it is the charismatic megafauna—tigers and rhinos and gorillas and pandas and other soulful-eyed, warm and fuzzy animals—that personify endangered species. That’s both a shame and a dangerous bias. “Plants and invertebrates are the silent majority which feed the entire planet, stabilize the soil and make all life possible,” says Kiernan Suckling, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity. They pollinate crops and decompose carcasses, filter water and, lacking weapons like teeth and claws, brew up molecules to defend themselves that turn out to be remarkably potent medicines: the breast-cancer compound taxol comes from a yew tree, and a leukemia drug from the rosy periwinkle. Those are tricks that, Suckling dryly notes, “polar bears and blue whales haven’t mastered yet.””

carrion_beetles.jpgAnd here’s my favorite bit:

“If Earth’s species are a living library, then polar bears and other cuddly mammals are the best-selling beach reads. Everything else is the volumes of history and literature and other scholarship, written in the alphabet of DNA: 99 percent of all animals are invertebrates. To understand the history and the majesty of life requires reading, and thus preserving, those volumes.”

Well said. Hail the the other 95% of the animal kingdom.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Sustainability | 3 Comments

1000 points of light

lightning_bug.jpgMan, the day job has been killing me — no time to dally at the Natural Patriot or anywhere else for that matter (cue violin music). Well, OK, we did go to see the Orioles-Red Sox game in Baltimore on Saturday, including Manny Ramirez’ 500th home run – but that’s a story for another time and place . . .

No, what drew me here tonight is the need to celebrate one of those timeless rites of the season, one of the simple outdoor events that has marked the beginning of summer for generations of children and their parents: the first lightning bugs (as we always called them in my neck o’ the woods) of the year. We saw them tonight, blinking over the expanse of green lawn, as we crunched up the gravel dive in the last light after Conor’s baseball game.

At least I hope it’s a timeless rite of summer. There sure seem to be a fewer fireflies around nowadays than when I was a youngster. And definitely fewer kids loading them into jars.

Which got me to thinking about what if anything we can do to favor these endearing creatures and whether I might be able to make the homestead more hospitable to them. Here is what I found out after investing roughly 2.5 minutes of research into the subject:

catchingfireflies.jpgAccording to The Firefly Files by Marc Branham at Ohio State University, “Most firefly larvae are found in rotting wood or other forest litter or on the edges of streams and ponds at night . . . Firefly Larvae are predaceous and have been observed feeding mostly on earthworms, snails and slugs. Larvae can detect a snail or slug slime trail, and follow it to the prey. After locating their future meal, they inject an anesthetic type substance through hollow ducts in the firefly’s mandibles into their prey in order to immobilize and eventually digest it. Multiple larvae have also been observed attacking large prey items, such as large earthworms. Other observations suggest larvae sometimes scavenge dead snails, worms and similar organic matter.”

Predators? Who would’ve thunk it? And they seem such inocuous creatures. Dr. Branham again: “If you are interested in attracting them to your property:

1. Cut down or eliminate using chemicals on your lawn.

2. Reduce any “extra lighting” (photic noise) on your property, as this light interferes with the fireflies luminous signals (i.e., it is harder for fireflies of many species to locate mates in such areas). Also many firefly species are active only during a certain period of the evening. These insects determine when they will flash (i.e., the time of night) by the intensity of ambient light. This is why you don’t see many fireflies flashing on clear nights when the moon is full.

3. Additionally, low overhanging trees, tall grass or similar vegetation will provide adult fireflies a place to rest during the day and remain cool.”

Sounds a lot like a recipe for kicking back and letting your yard go to seed, which I can assuredly get behind — saves fossil fuel too (might want to clear it with the neighbors though). And what could compare with sitting on the porch in the long, dwindling evening and watching the silent twinkling lights come up? Another indirect benefit, one hopes, of the lawn’s gradual return to a wilder state.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia | 9 Comments

The disappearing Chesapeake?

chesapeake_swamp.jpgThe National Wildlife Federation has just released an important new report “Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Habitats of the Chesapeake Bay“, which provides the most detailed and comprehensive view yet of the likely impacts of climate change on specific habitats within the Chesapeake Bay region. The full report , as well as a 12-page summary are available here.

Among the highlghts:

“Coastal habitats in the Chesapeake Bay region will be dramatically altered if sea levels rise globally about two feet by the end of the century, which is at the low end of what is predicted if global warming pollution remains unaddressed. Under this scenario, the region would lose:

  • More than 167,000 acres of undeveloped dry land
  • 58% of beaches along ocean coasts
  • 69% of estuarine beaches along the bay
  • 161,000 acres of brackish marsh
  • More than half of the region’s important tidal swamp

These important wetland habitats would be replaced in part by over 266,000 acres (415.6 square miles) of newly open water and 50,000 acres of saltmarsh.”

I participated in the press conference to summarize the likely effects on wildlife and ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay. The story was reported by the Baltimore Sun, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and the Daily Press, among others.

Here are the points I made:

There’s now strong international consensus among scientists that climate change is real, and already happening. But most previous research has focused on very broad continental scales. The new report by the NWF is important because it shows in unprecedented detail how climate change is affecting our local Chesapeake Bay region.

The bottom line is that this is not a future threat. Rising temperatures and sea levels are already changing distributions, life cycles, and interactions of key animals and plants in our area. And those changes are disrupting important ecosystem services that coastal communities depend on—fisheries, water quality, shoreline protection.

The life cycles of animals and plants are closely tied to temperature, which determines when they emerge from dormant stages, reproduce, start seasonal migrations, and so on. For example, recruitment of commercially important fish and shellfish is highly sensitive to variation in both temperature and rainfall patterns. Springtime in the Chesapeake is starting about three weeks earlier now than it did in 1960. And the summers are getting hotter. In the Chesapeake, we may be in danger of losing more northerly species such as winter flounder and softshell clams.

blue_crab.JPGOne serious concern involves how changing climate affects “foundation species”, that is, key species that support entire ecosystems. One of these is eelgrass, an underwater plant that forms dense meadows throughout Chesapeake Bay and is a critical nursery habitat for young fish and shellfish, including blue crabs, rockfish, and speckled trout, among others.

Eelgrass is highly vulnerable to climate change, first because it’s near the southern end of its distribution in the Bay and thus already near the highest temperatures it can tolerate, and second because it’s already stressed from poor water quality. We got a preview of this in summer 2005 when we had record high water temperatures throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Eelgrass was wiped out in a matter of weeks from large areas of the Bay, and still hasn’t returned to some.

A few more hot summers like 2005 could give eelgrass the one-two punch that knocks it out for good. That would be bad for the animals it supports and for the coastal communities that depend on them.

Another set of threatened foundation species are the plants that support wetlands such as brackish marshes. These are important in literally holding the land together by trapping sediments to make soil. Roughly two thirds of the Chesapeake region’s commercial fishes depend on coastal marshes for nursery and spawning grounds, and these are highly sensitive to both habitat quality and climate.

blackwater_heron.jpgChesapeake wetlands have been declining fast in recent decades. The classic example is the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, which has been called the “Everglades of the North” because of its great abundance and diversity of wildlife, including the largest population of bald eagles north of Florida.

Blackwater illustrates well how climate change interacts with other stresses. Over the last seventy years, it’s lost a third of its marsh area to sea level rise, sinking of the land, and overgrazing by nutria, an alien rodent. The nutria is currently kept from spreading north largely by its intolerance of cold winters, and there’s real concern that it could spread as winters warm.

Finally, an important impact of climate change is that it alters interactions between species that respond differently to changes, with important implications for food chains and ecosystems. One important case involves the oyster disease Dermo, which proliferates in warmer waters. Starting in the mid-1980s, Dermo spread rapidly up the East Coast from Chesapeake Bay during a series of unusually mild winters and is now found up through Maine, with major consequences for the oyster industry.

These changes have fundamental consequences for coastal ecosystems, economies, and ways of life.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Oceans, Science, Sustainability | Tagged | 1 Comment

Herbert S. Zim: Natural Patriot


Over the last few weeks, while piddling around the project site (i.e., yard), pulling weeds, attempting to ferret out the invaders from the natives, puzzling over bugs, and pondering where I might site a small pond (and how to sell the idea to my spouse), I’ve had occasion to dust off my venerable Golden Nature Guides, beloved little books of childhood.

For me, there are few physical objects that can conjure the idyllic, big wide world of childhood gone by than these wonderful little gems of natural history. They were frequent companions for me as a youngster and I still take them out with a certain reverence to look through the pages, one for each species, each a marvel of textual and pictorial concision, with a short description of the creature’s habits and natural history, a map of its distribution, and a simple but beautiful painting of it in its characteristic habitat. These books somehow hit on the perfect formula for conveying the beauty and fascination of living things to kids.

And we owe it all to a guy named Herbert S. Zim.

Not exactly a household name. But if you still have a dog-eared copy of one of the dozens of Golden Nature Guides that were eventually published over the decades starting in 1949, you will notice that virtually all of them were written, co-written, or edited by Herbert S. Zim. His curriculum vitae, in brief, from Wikipedia:

“Zim was born 1909 in New York City, but spent his childhood years in southern California. At the age of fourteen he returned to the east, and took his degrees (B.S., M.S., Ph. D.) at Columbia University. Zim wrote or edited more than one hundred scientific books, and in a thirty-year career teaching in the public schools, introduced laboratory instruction into elementary school science. He is best known as the founder, in 1945 (and for twenty-five years, editor in chief) of the Golden Guides, pocket-size introductions for children to such subjects as fossils, zoology, microscopy, rocks and minerals, codes and secret writings, trees, wildflowers, dinosaurs, navigation and more. He was the sole or co-author for many of the books, which were valued for their clarity, accuracy and attractive presentation—helped by the illustrations of his friend, Raymond Perlman.”

insects.jpgConsider the impact that this single unsung man (so unsung, in fact, that the pixelated snapshot above is the only one I could find of him online!) has had on the environmental awareness of an entire generation — perhaps even two or three generations — of American citizens. Who can say how many kids in the 50s and 60s and 70s decided, while browsing through one of these little books, to spend the afternoon outside hunting for caterpillars instead of yielding to the seductive stupor of the cathode ray tube? Who can say how many of today’s alternative energy entrepeneurs and scientists and educators and conservationists caught fire as a result of a spark generated by one of these books? I can’t, but I know one: me.

By way of illustration, three personal anecdotes:

rocks_and_minerals.jpgWhen I was a kid, my family drove cross-country (in a van without air-conditioning that was prone to overheating in the desert and climbed the Rockies at about 18 mph, etc.), from Arlington, Virginia to LA, every three years, where we spent the bulk of three weeks visiting my aunt and her family. When I tell people this they think my parents were crazy. But it was a the adventure of a lifetime and an incomparable learning experience for kids. We saw a lot of the country, did a lot of camping, and my parents occasionally allowed us to visit the cheesy fake Indian trinket shops that were common along the dustier stretches of Route 66 in the olden days. One day when I was probably about seven (this would have been the late 1960s), we were visiting Walnut Canyon, which is somewhere in the southwest, and I convinced my parents to buy me the Golden Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals. I felt so grown up to have a real book instead of a kid’s book. It was an early watershed moment in my life as a bookworm and naturalist.

reptiles.jpgNevertheless, I was not destined to be a geologist. For one thing, rocks are dead. Or so they seemed to me. I found animals much more interesting. Second anecdote: Around the same time, in second grade, I became obsessed with turtles. I take this herpetophilia to be a common, though poorly understood, genetic trait located somewhere on the Y chromosome, since it is so commonly expressed among young boys. This is despite the fact that my white-bread suburban neighborhood turned out, to my dismay, to be nearly devoid of reptiles. I saw maybe two or three box turtles, and no snakes at all, in the wild while I was growing up despite frequent expeditions mounted for that purpose to the local park where I spent much of my youth. But I can remember sitting rapt with the pocket-sized Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, studying the pictures, memorizing what they ate, looking at the ingenious maps that showed purple where the summer (pink) and winter (blue) ranges overlapped. This genetic propensity has in fact been transferred to my son, who latched on to my antique Reptile guide in an uncannily similar way and spent a lot of time with it (it is now bound with duct tape).

Anecdote three: One of the standard operating procedures of the cross-country trips was that, periodically, we would take a rest stop and every kid (of which there were ultimately six, though we never made the trip as a complete group) got to choose a magazine or coloring book or something to keep them quiet for 6 or 8 minutes after we hit the road again. On this trip, I think I was about ten and, instead of getting the standard Mad magazine or puzzles or comic book, I chose the Golden Nature Guide to Birds. Paging though that book as we droned along the highway, through southern Canada if I remember correctly, was the first time I actually noticed that birds (and other animals) had distinguishing marks that could be used to identify them. Perhaps the first tentative roots of my later interest in taxonomy.

pond_life.jpgIt appears that I’m not the only one with such fond memories. Evidently the original versions of the Guides have recently become “collectible“. Many have since been reprinted, albeit without the engaging covers of old, and are available from St. Martin’s Press.

Now then: I was appalled to read, as I was surfing the web in search of intel on Dr. Zim, that the famous PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame had disparaged the gentleman’s name — simply because as a lad PZ lost a library copy of Zim’s Golden Guide to Mammals and got into deep doo-doo with the librarian. Even today, these decades later, the Golden Guides have traumatic associations for him.

Note to PZ: Dude, Herb didn’t lose your book — you did! Suck it up.

So I am here to clear the man’s name. Let us lift a glass to the late great Herbert S. Zim, pioneer of biophilia and Natural Patriot: we salute you.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Books and media, Education, Natural Patriots, Science | Tagged , | 18 Comments

Escape from the evil empire

imapc_imamac.jpgWho says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

After years — decades even — of resentful servitude to the Bill Gates colossus, after years of barely suppressed ridicule from my spouse who has been a Mac user from the beginning, I have at long last achieved escape velocity. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a historic moment:

I am posting this from my brand spanking new, cool-as-all-get-out MacBook Air! Yes, the one that you can fit into an interoffice envelope. The one that stopped Charlie Rose (or somebody) dead in his tracks at airport security because the thing is so cool, the TSA guys didn’t believe it was a real computer (they eventually let him through, you’ll be relieved to know). I have become . . . the guy on the right. Or at least, I no longer have to worry, in my darker moments, that I have become the guy on the left.

I don’t mean to rub it in about the Air. I’m just excited to be starting a new life on the sunny side of the street.

The transition has, however, made me realize that the format of the website here is showing some signs of age, now that I can see the light in the new, wider format. The Natural Patriot’s crack engineering department will be on that soon, certainly within the next decade . . .

Posted in Blogospheria | 8 Comments

May Day

maypole.gifI refer not to a panicked entreaty from a ship at sea, nor to the planned March in MacArthur Park, LA, regarding immigrants’ rights.

Instead, I return to the original usage of the term, and offer warm wishes for the festival marking the beginning of the fertile season of the year.  May Day is approximately equivalent to the festival of Beltane in the old Gaelic tongue (which indeed is the word for the month of May in that language), one of the eight festivals marking the turning of the wheel of the year in the ancient earth-centered traditions, and revived today among Neo-Pagans, who generally celebrate it on April 30th.  Specifically, Beltane is one of the cross-quarter holidays, midway in the solar cycle between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

wheelofyear.jpgFor the ancient Celts, who were primarily herders, Beltane marked the beginning of the warm months of the year, when the cattle were brought out to their summer pastures, and crops began to grow.  It was celebrated with bonfires and (evidently rather bawdy) dancing around the Maypole, the significance of which in a fertility celebration is not difficult to guess.  At least these are some of the traditions that have survived into recent centuries and even to the present day in various countries of the Celtic fringe of Europe.

So: This is an opportunity to step back from our electronically saturated indoor lives, open our eyes and other senses to the world waking up around us, smell the fresh earth, and remember where it all comes from.

Good wishes to all for a fertile season and a happy harvest to come.

Posted in Biophilia | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project, Phase I

timberneck_native_plot.jpgI’m excited to announce the inauguration of the Timberneck Creek Biodiversity and Habitat Restoration Project, Phase I. Although it has also been called, more prosaically, “cleaning up my yard”, I prefer to think about it in a larger context as one small step in the goal of world domination of suburban backyards in the service of facilitating native wildlife (of all sizes), battling the spread of invasive species, and promoting truth, justice and the American way generally.

So far, the project has one unpaid employee (me), though I have received additional in-kind matching support from Liz, who has agreed to free a portion of my time that would otherwise be devoted to folding laundry so that I can hack weeds and grub around in the dirt instead.


A bit of background may be in order here.  In 1995 we bought this house, a modest Virginia farmhouse built in 1920, on 1.6 acres of land along Timberneck Creek, a tidal creek bordered by salt marsh cordgrass and marsh elder bushes.  It is by general agreement a beautiful spot, which explains why we bought the place despite the absence of a driveway, a stove, or central heat and air conditioning, a palpable breeze around the edges of the closed windows in winter, and an appalling abundance of shed snake skins in the attic.

But I digress. The place had been bush-hogged shortly before we saw it, doubtless to show off the panoramic view of the adjacent creek to best effect, but over the ensuing years, the exuberant vegetation of the area had sprouted up again with remarkable vigor.  A few years ago the scales fell from my eyes and I realized that we could not even see the water any more — in its place, our panorama had become deepest darkest jungle.  This was partly due to strong recruitment of sassafras trees, which can easily grow 2-3 feet in a year in this neck o’ the woods, but was primarily the fault of the diabolical duo of privet, an infernal invasive alien shrub, and greenbrier.  Greenbrier is a native vine that resembles barbed wire except that it’s alive. It seems to prefer the company of privet, and grows with it in impenetrable thickets.

This would not do.

The first campaign

old_maple_man.jpgI have always aimed to maximize native diversity on the property.  Over the years I had planted various trees and shrubs, and ripped out bits of greenbrier and privet here and there, mostly haphazardly.  Sought out, for example, the only sweetgum on the property and cleared the vines and surrounding saplings to give it a little breathing room.

But a couple years ago I decided to get serious.  I declared war on the jungle and went at it with hedge clippers and a bowsaw, which required no fossil fuel, exposed me to fresh air (as well as thorns and the occasional attack by angry yellowjackets trampled underfoot), and most importantly, allowed me to be selective, axing the bad guys and nurturing the good, such as little volunteer dogwoods.  I have now almost eliminated privet from most of the property and cleared out a substantial part of the greenbrier.  We can now see the sunshine glinting off the little waves on the creek, and the leaves of trees (as opposed to solid jungle) fluttering in the breeze.  The azaleas are beautiful in spring.  The dogwoods and redbuds have reached the age where they are beginning to produce big masses of flowers.  Ma and Pa can sit on the porch and survey our domain with a lemonade.  Or, more often, a martini.

Back to the future

The next phase began after I chanced on a piece about Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home in the NY Times (see my previous post).  I bought the book and read it.  I cannot say enough about this book — it fundamentally changed the way I think about my yard specifically, and American suburbia generally.  Here at last is something of substance — something practical — that we as individuals can do to stem the receding tide of biodiversity where we live.  And by becoming intimate with the plants and creatures and ecosystems to which we are connected, we gain a lot more besides.  I enthusiastically recommend the book to any homeowner, gardener, educator, or for that matter anyone simply interested in the natural history of their surroundings (albeit the details are focused on the mid-Atlantic region of the USA).

The basic premise of the book is that we should actively promote vegetation native to our particular areas because it supports native (beneficial) insects, which in turn support a variety of native wildilfe.  In contrast, the introduced plants that have escaped and gone feral all over the place are mostly (with exceptions, of course) less hospitable to native wildlife because they lack a shared evolutionary history.

sensitive_fern.jpgShortly after I began reading the book, I took my weathered old green clothbound copy of A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America and went out into the yard.  I have always been perversely proud of the fact that there are no more than perhaps a dozen shoots of grass in my yard.  The rest is a motley meadow of various wildflowers (the polite term for weeds).  But I was disturbed to find, as I looked up one plant after another, that virtually every plant in my lawn was an alien.  The problem, according to Tallamy, is that many such weeds do not support insect herbivores, and thus their production is not transferred up the food chain to bluebirds and warblers and frogs and box turtles and what not.  And that’s the lawn.  Then there is the ground cover under those trees where I had pulled out all the privet and greenbrier.  It’s mostly covered now by a tangle of alien honeysuckle.

I resolved then and there to transform our property into a model of structurally complex, diverse native vegetation explicitly designed to support native wildlife.

So: first, the jungly understory.  The challenge here is what to use for a native groundcover.  Two falls ago, I planted a bunch of azaleas on the site of the former privet thicket by the driveway (turning up two burrowing worm snakes in the process, much to 9-year-old Conor’s delight).  The interstices have since filled in with honeysuckle and various fast-growing (alien) annuals.  This is the spot shown in the photo at top right.  I started ripping this stuff out, which was relatively easy.  By a happy coincidence, just as I was cogitating on all this, I heard that the local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society was having a sale nearby. So I bought a bunch of stuff.  For ground cover in this shady spot, I planted several “sensitive ferns” (Onoclea sensibilis, above left), which are supposed to spread and form colonies.

mayapples.jpgIn another part of this shady area I planted several mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum, at right in pots), which are also supposed to form colonies, and of which I have very fond evocative memories from high school days backpacking in the Appalachians, where one periodically sees big swaths of them among the trees.

Interspersed among the azaleas in here I planted fern-leaf bleeding hearts (which flowered a few days later!) and various other species. You get the picture.

Bring in the bugs

By this time I was on a roll.  The following weekend (last), on my way back from EarthFest, I returned to the VNPS sale and bought another bunch of native plants.  These are, primarily, for a butterfly garden, which is something I have always wanted to have. I came home and dug out a square yard or so of turfy “grass” (and alien weeds) at the corner of our frontwalk and planted ’em all. Last summer we bought a butterfly bush which indeed attracted a lot of butterflies, then senesced, after which we left it to fend for itself through the winter in a pot on the patio.  It’s still hanging in there, so I planted that in the middle of the butterfly patch.  Ditto for some little sprouts of black-eyed Susan in another feral pot.

greenman.jpgIt rained long and generously after both planting episodes, which I take to be a favorable omen.  Everyone appears to be thriving. Last night, as we came home in the dark after Conor’s baseball game, there was another favorable omen: I heard the call of the great horned owl that I had not heard around here for perhaps a year.

Stay tuned for Phase II.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Sustainability, Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project | 8 Comments

Live from EarthFest 2008

earthfest.jpgOK, not exactly live — It’s a day after the fact.  But who would have paid attention if this read: Yesterday from EarthFest!

Yesterday I participated in EarthFest 2008, sponsored jointly by NASA Langley and Christopher Newport University here in Tidewater, Virginia.  I was part of the “Ask a scientist” panel, answering questions from the brave-hearted studio audience of about 20 people who had forsaken the fabulous spring weather to sit in a darkened lecture hall and ask questions such as these of scientists.

And a shout-out to the VIMS Green Team and the Williamsburg Climate Action Network, among the many other organizations represented there.  I’m told that parts of our panel discussion will evntually be posted in YouTube – stay tuned.

Following is the text of the two-minute presentation with which I began my part:



“What makes Earth different than any other body in the known universe is the presence of life. From space, life appears only as an impossibly thin green film on the rocky surface of the planet.  Yet life has changed everything about this planet profoundly—creating the oxygenated atmosphere that allows us to live here, regulating its temperature within narrow bounds that make it comfortable for us, and so on.     

Locally, for you or I standing here on the ground, life is not a thin green film. It’s a fantastic variety of plants and animals and microbes that have become linked in complex networks of interactions that we call an ecosystem.   

We usually take the ecosystems around us for granted because we are so much a part of them that we don’t even think about it.  But we need to

Ecosystems are like nature’s factories. Living organisms provide the natural infrastructure that creates natural products and services essential to our comfort and even our survival—food, clean water and air, favorable habitat in which we can live, and of course the stable climate that we hear so much about these days.

We’re now at a critical turning point in earth’s history.  For the first time in the 3.8 billion years of life’s tenure on this planet, a single species literally controls the fate of all the others, and of the biosphere itself.  That species is of course us.  It’s a mind-boggling responsibility. 



And — sad to say — we’re dropping the ball. When we dump our wastes into the air and water, when we destroy natural habitat, and harvest animals faster than they can reproduce, we are throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of Nature’s factory and its parts get broken.When that happens the machine stops working, and the products and services disappear. 

But that doesn’t have to happen.  Humans are incredibly ingenious.  We’ve sent people to the moon.  We’ve invented the internet, and cars that run on french fry oil.  We need to harness that ingenuity to make the world safe again for our fellow creatures.  Because, in the end, we literally cannot live without them.”

Posted in Biodiversity, Education, Science, Sustainability | Comments Off on Live from EarthFest 2008

Get ’em outside

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!


ncli.jpgSee also here to get involved. The US House of Representatives’ Education and Labor Committee is currently considering the No Child Left Behind Act (summary of the Act here, complete text here), which would promote environmental literacy and education integrated into an environmental context (as shown in the video).  Write your Congressperson and help raise the next generation of Natural Patriots!

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Education, Science, Sustainability | 3 Comments

Got dirt?

playing_in_the_dirt.jpg[Editor’s note: This just in — and in time for Earth Day (barely). I reprint below an extract from the new, second edition of Richard Louv’s classic and inspirational book, Last Child in the Woods.  The new edition is expanded and contains more practical suggestions (here are a few more), as described below. I intend to use them since this week is my son’s “TV turn-off week” (this also includes computers) suggested by his school. I sure had a lot of fun with dirt when I was a young’un.]

It’s Time to Turn Consciousness into Action

By Richard Louv
Author of Last Child in The Woods

Got dirt? “In South Carolina, a truckload of dirt is the same price as a video game!” reports Norman McGee, a father in that state who bought a small pickup-load of dirt for his daughter and friends.

McGee is turning consciousness into action. So is Liz Baird, who keeps a “wonder bowl” available for her children.

When Baird was a little girl she would fill her pockets with natural wonders — acorns, rocks, mushrooms. “My Mom got tired of washing clothes and finding these treasures in the bottom of the washer or disintegrated through the dryer,” Liz recalls. “So she came up with “Liz’s Wonder Bowl”, and the idea was that I could empty my pockets into the bowl. I could still enjoy my treasures, and try to find out what things were, and not cause trouble with the laundry.”

McGee and Baird are among the thousands of parents who have joined — and are leading — an international children and nature movement. Sometimes known as Leave No Child Inside, the effort is bringing together people from all walks of life, who are creating grassroots regional campaigns, state and national legislation, and changes in their own families to help children become happier, healthier and smarter.

An emerging body of scientific knowledge links nature time to longer attention spans, better cognitive functioning, reduction of stress, and strengthened family bonds. What better way to enhance parent-child attachment than to walk in the woods together, disengaging from distracting electronics, advertising, and peer pressure?

Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at Centers for Disease Control, recently describes the clear benefits of nature experiences to healthy child development, and to adult well-being.

“In the same way that protecting water and protecting air are strategies for promoting public health, protecting natural landscapes can be seen as a powerful form of preventive medicine,” he says. He believes that future research about the positive health effects of nature should be conducted in collaboration with architects, urban planners, park designers, and landscape architects. “Of course, there is still much we need to learn, such as what kinds of nature contact are most beneficial to health, how much contact is needed and how to measure that, and what groups of people benefit most. But we know enough to act.”

If you’re a parent who missed out on nature as a child, now’s your chance. Indeed, all the gifts of nature that come to children also come to the good adult who introduces a child to nature.

Young people are acting, too, by becoming natural leaders in the movement. For example, a seven-year-old girl in Virginia rounded up her friends and enrolled them in her own Girls Gone Wild in Nature Club. Together they organize backyard campouts and bug hunts.

In Mississippi, teenager Josh Morrison founded Geeks in the Woods for his friends and fellow geeks everywhere. He defines “geek” as a “gaming environmentally educated kid,” and says he and his friends are “tired of being labeled” tech addicts ” can have their PlayStations and their outdoor time too: “We could be the generation that makes a U-turn back to . . . a balance between virtual reality and what sustains all life . . . nature.”


full_moon.jpg1. Go for a family walk when the moon is full. There’s a whole new set of animals, sights and sounds out there. Listen to animals calling. Owls and bats are looking for prey. Watch for things glowing, like worms and fungus on trees. And look up at the stars.

2. Help your child discover a hidden universe. Find a scrap board and place it on bare dirt. Come back in a day or two, lift the board, and see how many species have found shelter there. Identify them with the help of a field guide. Return to this universe once a month, lift the board and discover who’s new.

catching_lightning_bugs.jpg3. Tell your children stories about your special childhood places in nature. Then help them find their own: leaves beneath a backyard willow, the bend of a creek, the meadow in the woods. Let it become their intimate connection with the natural world.

4. Revive old traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, release them at dawn. Make a leaf collection. Keep a terrarium or aquarium. Go crawdadding — tie a piece of liver or bacon to a string, drop it into a creek or pond, wait until a crawdad tugs.

beartracks.jpg5. Invent your own nature game. One mother’s suggestion: “We help our kids pay attention during longer hikes by playing “find ten critters” — mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, snails, and other creatures. Finding a critter can also mean discovering footprints, mole holes, and other signs that an animal has passed by or lives there.”

Adapted from LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS by Richard Louv, copyright 2008. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

In our families and our communities, it’s time to take action. That’s why the new, expanded 2008 edition of “Last Child in the Woods” contains a “Field Guide” with 100 Actions that families and communities can take, along with discussion questions, a report on the movement, and other resources for parents, educators, conservationists, business people and community leaders.

For more information, see the Second Edition of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder“. To help build the movement, please join the Children & Nature Network.

Richard Louv, recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal (and an honorary Natural Patriot!), is the author of seven books. The chairman of the Children & Nature Network, he is also honorary co-chair of the National Forum on Children and Nature.

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