Thursday, October 8, 2009

Change is good

Once upon a time, this blog location was the collective effort of the Natural History Network, a loose coalition of scientists, educators, and writers in the U.S. who are trying to revitalize the practice of natural history. After a time, however, it was clear that the "collective effort" was not consistent enough to make this a resource of which the Network could be proud. The intention was good; we wanted to promote open conversation about "all things natural history," not just among official members (whatever that might mean) of the Network but among anyone in cyberspace who happened to come across a posting of interest to them.

And that intention remains noble. It's just that we could never really develop the collective momentum to make the blog resemble a true collective effort. Postings became less frequent, dust began to accumulate, the hinges got a little rusty ... You get the picture.

So we decided to terminate the blog.

But I just can't let it go. Seriously, I love this blog. I love the opportunity it provides to wax philosophical about birds, students, rivers, sunsets, seasons, history, conservation, and all the things I just don't yet understand. I just didn't love the idea of pretending it was an organizational effort if, in fact, it wasn't. So the blog "Natural History Network" is now no more. The Network still exists, and it is trying mightily to achieve its mission and grow beyond its original incarnation as a "loose coalition" into a cohesive voice with targeted initiatives and goals. But its blog is no more. What it has evolved into is my blog, "This View of Nature." Same purpose, same format, same everything, except that, for better or worse, the narrative here is only mine.

Rock on.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Carolina parakeet, RIP

On this day in 1918, the last Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinatti Zoo. Gone. Extinct. Not just extirpated, but obliterated. Once numerous throughout the eastern half of the U.S., they steadily declined throughout the 19th century due to overhunting and land clearing. Essentially, the narrative of the last days of the Carolina parakeet is the same as that for the more widely known passenger pigeon. And our collective shame at causing it should be just as great.

Image from Wikipedia

How many more species will go extinct, recorded or not, before we make a better peace with the rest of life on Earth?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Happy Birthday, Wallace Stegner

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner. Born in 1909, Stegner helped create a genre of literary fiction that, while not strictly grounded in natural history, placed its characters in real landscapes that became important parts of the story. From the West (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) to the East (Crossing to Safety), Stegner used landscapes from his own life's experience almost as additional characters in his stories. In a very real sense, he was a true practitioner of natural history through is detailed practice of observation.

Wallace Stegner passed away in 1993. His absence is still felt today.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Engaging fully with where you live

As usual, I am behind on my reading, so it was just this past week that I cracked open the Autumn (2008) issue of Living Bird, the truly excellent magazine produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Two articles leaped out at me from the issue, in part because they both relate to topics I care deeply about, and in part because I think they intersect with each other in a way that perhaps neither author fully appreciated.

First, in "Straight--No Chaser," Mel White brilliantly advanced the argument that if birders still feel that it is affordable to travel to distant locations simply in search of a rare sighting, then gasoline doesn't cost nearly enough. As he says in the tagline to the article's title, "It's time to reconsider traveling just to add a checkmark to a list."

"I remember one January when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher appeared in central Arkansas, attracting a mini-convention of birders the next morning (I was in attendance) hoping to see this stray from the tropics. Lots of $1.19 gasoline got burned that day, nearly everybody saw the bird--and it meant nothing, except that everyone's state and United States lists (and many world lists) advanced a notch. It wasn't a precursor to range expansion, it wasn't an endangered species, it wasn't part of a significant migration trend. It was just a mentally or physiologically defective individual that flew a long way in the wrong direction. When a severe cold front passed through a couple of days later, it no doubt met its Darwinian fate and became, as somebody said, 'possum food.'"

Amen to that. When the world is confronted with the kind of climate crisis we now face, and when the vast majority of the people in the world are confronting daily challenges in meeting their most basic needs, chasing birds simply for the purpose of expanding one's list at the expense of environmental protection is the height of self-centered arrogance.

I wrote about this briefly in a post last November, when I acknowledged that I no longer maintain lists for birds outside of my county. Think globally, but bird locally. It's the grown-up thing to do, people.

Of course, I leave myself open to the criticism that by even listing in my county I am pumping CO2 needlessly into the atmosphere, to which I can only say mea culpa. But nothing is simply "good" or "bad." I'm willing to compare my county-only carbon footprint to anyone else's state- or nation-wide footprint any day. A time may come when none of us will go anywhere for any reason unless it's under our own power, at which point I will change my goal to a list of birds seen anywhere I can ride my bike to. But we all have to start somewhere, or at least we all SHOULD start somewhere. Leaving behind the selfishness of natural history jet-setting for no good reason is a good place to start.

White's piece was followed by Jack Conner's In the Field column, called "The Accidental Phenologists," in which he counselled natural historians to pay attention to the actual timing of events, and hence seasons, where we live. We might come to notice that we don't experience the four traditional seasons but rather something more like two ... or twelve ... or fifty-two. For years now I have berated my students for not paying closer attention to the actual rhythms of the natural world, rhythms that change tempo and melody through the year and can only be discerned through careful, purposeful attention to what is real (a close approximation of how Tom Fleischner encourages us to view the practice of natural history).

Several years ago, I began experimenting with different ways of subdividing the year based on my field observations. To be honest, I've yet to come up with a single scheme that I think is clearly superior to all the others. Some of my schemes focus on what the birds are doing (e.g., The Week the Phoebe's start singing), some on the trees (e.g., Leaf Out), some on the weather (e.g., When the Ice Breaks), and some on ad hoc combinations of all three. But for me, finding the superior scheme has not been the point. My goal has been to focus on nature's patterns; paying attention to what is going on where I live ... even down to the most minute details that wouldn't merit notice in a field journal under most circumstances ... is its own reward.

And here's where the two articles intersect. Think globally, but bird (or whatever) locally. It is only by foregoing the chase for the rarities and oddities that you can truly get to know a place. Intimacy can only come from familiarity, which can only come from attention to detail and full engagement with where you live. If you can't even describe the TRUE nature of the seasons where you live, then it's time to scale back your territory and open your eyes.

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place

Fred Taylor and John Tallmadge have a new article in the Journal of Natural History Education on Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place. Using the field-based graduate seminar they teach as a case study, they explore the opportunities and rewards of teaching course to non-specialists that combines a literary and scientific perspective on what it means to understand and inhabit a place.

From their abstract ...

This paper describes the design and conduct of an interdisciplinary doctoral seminar on the spirit of place offered in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota to adult learners of the Union Institute Graduate School. Natural and human history were addressed through readings and class discussions combined with observations and excursions by canoe, simulating the experiences of early explorer-naturalists. Exercises in narrative and descriptive writing as well as reading the landscape and splitting the spruce roots used for bark canoe repair provided visceral appreciation of the unseen dimensions of the ecosystem and the literary achievements of the poets and writers discussed. This type of course can be easily tailored to fit different venues or clientele. Such approaches are timely as we intensify the search for a sustainable world.

Check it out.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

You are here

The Global Environmental Monitoring unit of the European Commission has hust published a nifty, if somewhat despressing, map of the travel time to major cities, which they use as a surrogate measure of "accessibility." Even without seeing the map you can probably guess what the U.S. looks like: mostly bright yellow, which symbolizes travel times of one hour or less.

While accessibility itself is not necessarily a problem, the ways in which we achieve accessibility in this current era are. Road networks, in particular, are a disaster for the natural world, causing problems for wild nature in ways ranging from chemical contamination, spread of exotic species, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and outright mortality from contruction and roadkill.

Hopefully, the future will bring modes of transportation that don't jeopardize the natural world or destroy the presence of wild nature. Hey, it's a new political era in the U.S.; I can dream, can't I?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Myth 4: My story is only worth telling if I describe everything I do in my entire class.

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Wrong. The more you try to describe with your story, the more complex it becomes and the harder it is for someone to learn from it. I realize that effective teachers usually plan classes as complete and distinct constructions, where exercises and field trips connect logically one to the other to support overarching themes and standards. Yet this does not mean that the component parts of the class are not useful or important on their own. Other teachers could easily incorporate a single new exercise into their own class construction to support their own educational goals.

I experience this regularly in my own school. I am blessed with colleagues who teach classes on other taxa and with other conceptual emphases than I do, yet who share my interest in natural history. We commonly talk with each other about what we do with the students in lecture, field, and lab, and more often than not, we each find aspects of what the others do that we want to incorporate into our own class. This does not change the taxa we focus on or the concepts we emphasize, but it provides for steady improvement in the quality and effectiveness of our instruction, whether it is something as simple as how to keep a field notebook or as complex as how to introduce students to a statistical technique for interpreting behavioral observations in the field.

The truth is that you make more of a contribution, not less, if you focus your story on one simple thing: an exercise, an activity, a discussion, a technique, a field trip. Here the dictum “Minor est magis” (Less is more) is relevant: tell a detailed story about one thing. The fact that you have many such stories to tell simply means that you can write several different articles; it does not mean that you need to find a way to compress all your stories into one.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Myth 3: I should only write my story if I am sure that what I do is unique and significant

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Myth 3: I should only write my story if I am sure that what I do is unique and significant.

Wrong. I suspect this myth is ingrained in us from the body of publications that we are used to reading in the course of our research on new findings in education and natural history. Although we may accept that a core principle of the scientific method is that results must be repeatable – and hence saying something that has already been said is a key part of science – we typically do not see publication of such results. This has unfortunately led us to believe the same is true of for all publications, or even that it is desirable for all publications.

But this is not the case. For a renaissance in natural history to occur, we need to foster an explosion in the prevalence of natural history education in classrooms and community nature centers everywhere. Publications in this journal are not simply about novel ideas. They are about your practices: what did you try, what worked, what failed, what would you do differently? And there is value to reporting on activities that others have reported on … or even reporting on activities about which you have no idea whether or not they are novel. If someone reads about your practices and says, “Well, will you look at that. That’s the same exercise I heard about elsewhere,” then they are more likely to remember it and be empowered to try it. The truth is that your story is worth telling simply because it is your story, regardless of how unique it is.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Goals for the year

One of the things I've learned about myself over the long years is that I have to have goals. The vague notion, which I develop around this time every year, that I need to do "more" of something or get "better" at something never quite seems to transform into real action. To get from notion to reality I need to set real targets for myself.

I was finally able to articulate this after talking with my partner the other day during our numerous trips up a mountain in a ski lift. "We should ski more this winter," she says. "I agree," I reply. "Let's ski more."

Yeah, ok. Let's ski more, bird more, climb more mountains, finally learn those wetland trees, and look for beetles in some different places. (Not to mention lose a few pounds and knock some time off my 5K.)

But, as I said, I need goals if it's really going to happen. Maybe that's a manifestation of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. But whatever it is, I realize now that I need to set specific targets if I'm really going to take it seriously. So I spent the rest of yesterday thinking about my goals for the year.

See 160 species of birds in my county. Check.
Climb 10 summits in the Green Mountains that I haven't climbed before. Check.
Read 5 natural history accounts that I haven't read before. Check.

And finally, complete my book on ecoregional-scale conservation planning. Double check.

I'll let you know how it goes.

So ... what about you? Got goals?

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Quote of the day

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

Isaac Asimov

Well said, Isaac. This is equally true if you substitute the word "nature" for "society." Not all change is good, mind you, but our relationship with nature went seriously off the rails once humanity got it into its head that we could prevent change and enforce a kind of ecological stablity.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone. And in the coming year, just remember ... the possibilities are endless if we just keep our eyes open.

copyright 1995, Bill Watterson

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The web of life ... and of our meddling with it

Kirk Johnson has a story in Friday's New York Times that is about exotic trees, the Dust Bowl, willow flycatchers, radiation, economic stimuli, citizen-based ecosystem restoration, beetles, drought, and Superfund. Seriously.

Check it out.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anniversary today

On this day in 1831, a voyage began that would ultimately rock our understanding of how the natural world came to have the form that it has. Charles Darwin, born into a middle-upper class British family in 1809, developed an early love for the natural world but apparently little ambition for any of the traditional career paths open to a person of his social standing in the early 1800s. Following his graduation from Cambridge University in 1831, he accepted a position as ...

... naturalist and companion to the captain of the British ship HMS Beagle, whose mission was to chart the coast of South America. The voyage of the Beagle lasted five years, circumnavigated the globe, and provided young Darwin with the opportunity to explore the diversity of the natural world from a global perspective. While he was certainly not the first explorer to have done so, he was among the wave of 19th century explorers who were ultimately provide a framework for understanding the processes that are responsible for shaping the patterns we see in the natural world today.

Many years after Darwin's return from the voyage in 1836, he developed a logical argument for how lineages of organisms could change over time in response to differential selection -- with respect to both survival and reproductive success -- caused by the environment. Dubbed natural selection, Darwin eventually (in 1859) fully laid out his argument in the book On the Origin of Species, which drew heavily on the observations he made while traveling on the Beagle; and the world has never been the same since.

Part of the attraction for me of Darwin's life story has always been its example of the power of observation. At the risk of understating the hardships of the voyage itself, Darwin in fact did little more on the voyage than collect, observe, and take meticulous notes. That, coupled with his brilliant ability to patiently ask (and answer) how one could make the most sense of his field observations, was all it took to shake human understanding of the world to its core.

The seismic tremors that began with the voyage of the Beagle have still not ended, since an acceptance of evolution by means of natural selection remains one of the primary touchstones in the global religio-culture wars. But regardless of where one stands with respect to those wars, one has to acknowledge the significance of a small ship that sailed out of Plymouth harbor on December 27, 1831.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Species at risk from climate change

A recent article from the New Scientist reports on a new study released by the World Conservation Union on species susceptible to climate change impacts. The highlights are not pleasant.

Of 17,000 assessed species, over 7000 could become threatened with extinction because of climate change.

Ninety "life history traits" - essential elements of a species' behaviour or lifestyle - were identified that were likely to be affected by a change in a species' local climate. These included:

* Requirements for a specialised habitat: some amphibians depend on a stream or pond, so if that dries out there is no way they can survive;
* Specific environmental tolerances: many corals cannot survive if the water temperature or pH exceeds a certain threshold;
* Dependence on environmental cues: many species depend on changes in day length or rainfall to start breeding;
* Dependence on interactions with other species: without prey a specialised predator cannot survive; lichen depend on trees, and many plants on their pollinators;
* Ability to disperse: as their historical habitats become increasingly hostile, species will need to move to new territories but may not be able to do so if there is something - a body of water, perhaps - in their way.

Half of all amphibians, one-third of all birds and over two-thirds of assessed corals are susceptible to climate change.

Within each group, some species are more likely to suffer. Among the birds, all albatross and penguin species were deemed susceptible. Herons, egrets, ospreys, kites, hawks and eagles, on the other hand, are less so.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Myth 2: Big-picture philosophy is more important than practical advice

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Wrong. Big-picture philosophy is great, of course. It’s what provides a pedagogical grounding for what we do, and the field of education is rife with big-picture philosophies: people learn more by doing than by seeing; children benefit by spending time outdoors; collaborative learning is good; and so on. But picture yourself as a novice educator, armed with only these philosophies. What will they actually empower you to do with your students on Monday morning? How can you translate them into a lesson plan? A field-trip itinerary? A wish list for equipment and supplies to put together a new exercise or museum display? For philosophies to translate into anything useful, they have to be followed up with practical, detailed advice on what to do and how to do it. The truth is that the details of your experiences translating philosophical truisms into educational activities are a critical part of educational theory. Without practical advice, philosophies will never come to life and bear fruit, and your detailed stories are precisely the kind of practical advice that others need.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Five myths about writing about teaching natural history: Myth 1

Yes, the title of this post is a mouthful. Yet it makes an important point. A year and a half ago the Natural History Network launched the Journal of Natural History Education, and since that time, as editor, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with numerous people about developing articles for the journal. Some of them contacted me at the suggestion of an NHN board member or colleague; some simply came across the journal on the web and thought they had an idea for an article.

Without exception, all of them had interesting and important stories to tell about teaching natural history. But also without exception, my conversations with them, both initial discussions about how a story could be developed into a manuscript as well as follow-up conversations about how manuscripts could be improved, revealed that teachers are enormously intimidated by and uncertain about telling their stories.

Five key myths emerge repeatedly. I call them myths because they are fundamentally incorrect, but I could just as easily call them barriers because these myths stand in the way of telling our stories in ways that share knowledge and experience, as well as empower other teachers to participate in the natural history renaissance (Trombulak and Fleischner 2007). Over a series of posts, I'd like to describe each of these myths. First up, Myth 1 ...

Myth 1: Nobody really wants to know about what I do with my students.

Wrong. Imagine that you come across an article that talks about teaching natural history to the same kinds of students you teach and with the same kind of emphasis you make. What is your reaction to that article? Do you say, “No, I don’t want to read it because it is too relevant to my life as a teacher”? Of course not. As teachers, we are always looking for better ways to communicate, educate, and evaluate. We are well aware that there are a thousand different ways to construct an exercise or activity, most of which we know we would not develop on our own. So we are always talking to our colleagues about what they do and how well they think it works.

Your colleagues are no different than you. Just as you want to learn from them, so too do they want to learn from you. Maybe they will listen to your story and adopt your approach in their own class, and maybe they will decide that they prefer what they are currently doing. But that’s not the point. What matters is that you are giving them the opportunity to consider alternatives and improvements. The truth is that they want to know what you are doing with your students because it gives them the opportunity to improve as educators, whether or not they agree with you.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The mind of mice

Natural History magazine reports on a recent study published by Karen Mabry and Judy Stamps in the journal American Naturalist about how juvenile brush mice (Peromyscus boylii) select new nest sites. This species is native and broadly distributed throughout western North America. Rather than simply selecting the first acceptible nest site they encounter, they spend a week or more searching for and revisiting sites until eventually settling down.

What I find interesting about the report is that it further exemplifies the cognitive complexity of non-human animals. Sure, they are just mice, but they are actually comparison "shopping," a cognitive skill that involves the ability to compare items encountered at different times and different locations as well as the willingness to forego an acceptible resource in current possession (the potential nest site the mouse is presently at) for a better resource that was encountered in the past.

When I was a graduate student, Don Griffin had just published the first edition of his book Animal Thinking. I remember it being highly controversial because it argued (quite persuasively, in my opinion) that animals were conscious creatures. Prior to the 1980s, most behaviorists seemed comfortable thinking of animals as if they were non-conscious automatons. Griffin argued otherwise, and the avalanche of studies that have been done otherwise seems to support his position.

Comparison shopping for homes by mice seems to me to fit quite nicely into this view. The natural world is not only alive, but much of it is conscious and aware!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's that time of year

No, not the holidays. Final exams and papers. I'm up to my eyeballs with papers about exotic species, ecological reserves, and conservation initiatives. While most are generally well written (I am blessed with being able to teach a fairly high caliber of student), some make mistakes that are downright embarrassing.

"The range of the American chestnut once stretched from Main to Georgia."

"Zebra muscles were introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1980s."

and my personal favorite so far ...

"The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park led to a reduction in the size of the elf population."

What these (and many other examples) all have in common is, I think, an over-reliance on spell-checkers and a lack of careful proofreading. No great sin, I suppose. But when I see these kinds of mistakes I am always reminded of Taylor Mali's poem, "The The Impotence of Proofreading."

And the memory of it always makes me smile.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Quote of the day

How Strange that Nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), in Letter to Mrs. J.S. Cooper

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Birthday celebration

Today is the birthday of C. Hart Merriam, one of the natural history pioneers in North America in the 1800s. Born on this day in 1855, probably Merriam's most lasting contribution to the field of natural history was his introduction of what we call today "Merriam's life zones," an early attempt to describe regions based on their plant and animal communities. When I was a kid, Merriam's system of life zones (e.g., Sonoran, Hudsonian) was the primary method my little brain used to organize a vast amount of natural history information, making it possible for me to make sense of what I was seeing around me as I began to travel more widely, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although we now have far more sophisticated ways of subdividing the landscape, Merriam set the stage for subsequent generations of natural historians and geographers.

From Wikipedia ...

Clinton Hart Merriam (December 5, 1855-March 19, 1942) was an American zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist and ethnographer.

He was born in New York City in 1855. His father, Clinton Levi Merriam, was a U.S. congressman. He studied biology and anatomy at Yale University and went on to obtain an M.D. from the School of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1879.

In 1886, he became the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, predecessor to the National Wildlife Research Center and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888. He developed the "life zones" concept to classify biomes found in North America. In mammalogy, he is known as an excessive splitter, proposing, for example, tens of different species of North American brown bears in several genera.

In 1899, he helped railroad magnate E. H. Harriman to organize an exploratory voyage along the Alaska coastline.

Some species of animals that bear his name are Merriam's Wild Turkey Meliagris gallopavo meriami, the now extinct Merriam's Elk Cervus elaphus merriami, and Merriam's Chipmunk Tamias merriami. Much of his detail-oriented taxonomy continues to be influential within mammalogical and ornithological circles.

Later in life, funded by the Harriman family, Merriam's focus shifted to studying and assisting the Native American tribes in the western United States. His contributions on the myths of central California and on ethnogeography were particularly noteworthy.

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