Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pelicans vs Skimmers: How do You Encourage Biophilia?



Moderated by Jim Siegel, FWS - NCTC

In his essay, “The Extinction of Experience,” Robert Michael Pyle uses metaphor to describe two very different approaches to engaging nature: the Brown pelican dives into the ocean with its whole body when seeking a fish, but the Black skimmer gracefully flies along the surface of the sea, fishing with only its bottom beak in the water.  Pyle says human engagement of nature often reflects the style of one bird or the other:

“In my view, most people who consider themselves nature lovers behave more like skimmers than pelicans.  They buy the right outfits at L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, carry field guides, and take walks on nature trails, reading all the interpretive signs.  They watch the nature programs on television, shop at the Nature Company, and pay their dues to the National Wildlife Federation or the National Audubon Society.  These activities are admirable, but they do not ensure truly intimate contact with nature.  Many such "naturalists" merely skim, reaping a shallow reward....How can we engage our biophilia?”

In the conservation field, we work with people on a daily basis.  We may interact in different capacities – some of us in large office complexes, some of us in the field or on a refuge.  How do you leverage these interactions to cultivate your own inner pelican? In what ways are you helping others shift beyond “skimming” nature so they can more deeply connect with what’s wild? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Introducing Robert Michael Pyle

Our next essay, titled "The Extinction of Experience," was written by a well-known nature writer as part of his book The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland. Robert Michael Pyle was born in Denver in 1946 and now lives in Grays River, Washington. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Washington, and his M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale. He is a respected lepidopterist who wrote The Audubon Society Guide to the Butterflies of North America along with a number of books about nature.

To learn more about Robert Michael Pyle, watch this 15 minute video interview by the North Cascades Institute.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Disturbing the Universe" by Author Betsy Hilbert


Commentary by Debbie Beer

To act or not to act, that is the question.  Even in a situation that might seem hopeless – saving threatened sea turtles on the beaches of bustling Miami – author BetsyHilbert overcomes thoughts about the futility of her work, and decides that taking action to help protect the species is worth it.

It’s easy to get mired in hopelessness, believing there is nothing that can be done to help a natural world being steadily destroyed by “progress.”  I’m not disputing that it isn’t.  But I believe that nature is powerfully resilient, and our actions can and do make a difference, a significant difference.  Did I learn in high school science classes that every action has an equal re-action?

As humans, with relatively short lives on this earth, we’ll never really know the impact of our actions – good or bad – except in the very short-term.  We won’t know if the process of moving turtle eggs doesn’t damage them more than leaving them alone to bear the brunt of public beach activities.  And we won’t know if it’s a good idea to save this specific population of turtle eggs, either.  They are pre-programmed to return to their birthplace to reproduce.  If they survive to make that endeavor, they may return only to find the entire beachfront inhospitable, paved with condos, littered with trash that will entangle and kill them.

As our knowledge increases, we are increasingly aware of the tremendous and devastating impacts we have on nature’s complex ecosystems.  We are challenged with deciding how to proceed in any given set of circumstances.  It’s a matter of prioritizing values, even if they all seem to be important.

It’s a complex game, as the science, parameters and perceptions are ever-changing.  How many turtles is a sufficient number to consider the species no longer endangered?  How much habitat is enough to set aside for them?  How much resources should be spent on turtles?  On other species?

Why save species in the wild at all?  After all, humans can nearly manufacture and farm just about everything we need to survive.  What purpose do wild sea turtles serve?  Some believe that wild animals are intrinsically beneficial to human existence… that we will need them for future medical or scientific miracles.  I don’t think of it that way myself.  I only know that I identify keenly with the plight of another creature’s struggle to survive, and feel a marvelous sense of joy to see them reproduce the next generation.  I feel deeply satisfied to experience nature at its wildest.  Concrete environments provide little inspiration.

There are no absolute answers, only personal and collective priorities.  As a society, we can choose to act in a way that conserves our natural resources, and even try to restore some of them (Restore to what level?).  We can and do also act in a way that destroys our natural resources. 

We know only that action is perpetual; people will continue to save turtles, develop condos, and picnic on the beach.  You have an individual choice to do nothing, or to act as you see fit.  What would you do?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Introducing Author Betsy Hilbert and Moderator Debbie Beer

Endangered loggerhead sea turtle hatches on the 
beach at Back Bay NWR, VA.
Betsy Hilbert was born in Brooklyn in 1941, but has lived in Miami since the age of five.  She has her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Miami and her Ph.D. from the Union Graduate School.  Hilbert has taught in the Independent Studies Department at Miami-Dade Community College since the mid-sixties, and she is known for her scholarly work on women's nature writing as well as her literary essays about the natural world.  In the following essay about her efforts on behalf of endangered loggerhead turtles, she conducts a careful examination of the complexities inherent in human efforts to restore the natural world.  She concludes that, even a universe that is "already disturbed" and in a region where the future is already written in concrete, her best choice is to work on behalf of the turtles.

Debbie Beer
Communications Chairperson, Friends of Heinz Refuge, Philadelphia

I’ve loved being outdoors for as long as I can remember.  My parents raised my family in bustling suburbia, in Ocean County New Jersey, along the Jersey shore.  I didn’t realize until I was a teenager, how unusual it was for kids to spend all day, every day (school aside) playing in the woods, coming home dirty, exhausted and exhilerated!  That’s what my sister and I did, cultivating a deep affection for nature and critters of all shapes and sizes.  We looked for Box Turtles in our backyard fields, flipped logs in search of salamanders, examined tree leaves and bark.
Today I live just outside of Philadelphia, on a standard-size quarter-acre suburban lot.  I’ve transformed the backyard into wildlife-friendly habitat, with native shrubs and multiple bird feeders, providing much enjoyment from the back porch.  But I don’t get to spend much time on the back porch – I’m too busy volunteering at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, guiding bird walks, developing environmental education programs, creating marketing-outreach materials, fundraising and serving on the Friends of Heinz Refuge board of directors. 

I discovered Heinz Refuge about 10 years ago, when I lived in center city Philadelphia and became a birder.  The Refuge was the most convenient place to spend a few hours birding.  I’ve since travelled to many birding hotspots around the U.S., and outside the country, but Heinz Refuge remains my favorite place.  I am endlessly inspired by the Refuge’s year-round diversity of species, supported by myriad habitats.  I’ve met many wonderful people there, who appreciate the beauty, peace and inspiration of the Refuge as much as I do.  I’m an avid reader and writer, and being involved in Friends of Heinz Refuge provides ample opportunity for experiencing the natural world through words.  I look forward to exchanging ideas about this “Wild Read” selection.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Paradise of Frogs

by John Hanson Mitchell
Moderator: Jim Siegel, FWS - NCTC

In his essay, A Paradise of Frogs, John Hanson Mitchell found that in civilizing his Massachusetts yard he had lost his beloved frogs.   When he realizes his mistake, he attempts to re-wild his property by putting in small ponds and letting the grass and weeds go.  After reading the short excerpt, have you ever tried to re-wild a place? Is this even possible given the American ideal is mowing, trimming and landscaping for a well manicured lawn?  Mitchell’s observations can serve as a critique of our national obsession with the mowed lawn. 

 




 
We can think that a neat yard is simply the natural order of things in a modern society.  Yet, the lawn aesthetic is hardly some pan-human value.  It’s existence in 21st century America is part of our English endowment from the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, only becoming common place in our country as mowing machines replaced scythes and grazing by sheep in the 19th century, with the aesthetic exploding in the 1950s as suburbs spread into rural country-sides.   Today the lawn is an important aspect of the interaction between the natural environment and the constructed urban and suburban space in the entire U.S., no matter the natural community or climate.

 
In a thought experiment that could have come right out of Jared Diamond’s Germs, Guns and Steel, what would be our national yard aesthetic  if
our country had been initially founded by another culture, say people native to Peru or New Guinea.  All I know is that we could have certainly saved ourselves a lot of time, effort and treasure, and protected millions of acres of wild nature, to boot.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Introducing John Hanson Mitchell

A Paradise of Frogs: 

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John Hanson Mitchell was born in 1940 in Gaylewood, New Jersey, and he has his B.A. in comparative literature from Colombia University.  He lives outside Boston, where he serves as the editor of Sanctuary, the magazine of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and writes about urban and suburban nature.  He is the author of a number of innovative and imaginative books about urban nature that seek out and depict the wildness surviving amidst our proliferating suburbs.  

This brief essay on frogs, which originally appeared as an editor's column in Sanctuary, has the whimsical imagination, the concern for wildlife habitat and the history that we humans write upon the land, and the dedication to the richness of nearby nature that characterize his work. We will begin discussing A Paradise of Frogs on Monday,September 2nd.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trash or Treasure? Seeing Beyond the Rubble of a Blue Jay’s Nest

Hiestand highlights how the common Blue Jay is not the sort of bird that inspires us.  It’s nest is rather humble, lacking organization and without any of the intricacies that we see in other nest builders. In fact, Hiestand describes the Blue Jay’s nest as a “motley jumble.”  This is a bird that is not selective about what material it chooses for nest building, but will use just about anything on hand.  Yet, this trait of adaptability – the fact that the jay CAN use discarded candy wrappers and plastic forks to build its nest (and doesn’t need a specific type of grass, for example) gives it an advantage.  Like other generalist species, jays are very adept at adjusting to urban environments and human disturbance.

As conservation scientists, we often focus our efforts on specialists – those species that are most vulnerable, relying upon a given set of environmental conditions for survival.  While a specialist has evolved to thrive in its niche, the moment that niche disappears, so goes the specialist – like the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the generalist:  these species are the most resilient, and often the least likely to receive our attention. However, Hiestand speaks to the beauty of the generalist:  these are species that are the most visible to the majority of Americans, precisely because of their ability to coexist with humans.  And, these are the species that urbanites are most likely to relate to:  “Above all, this is the bird that comes to our window. It comes like the puppy that toddles across the room from the cardboard birthing box, puts its head in your lap, and chooses you.” 

As we seek to connect city dwellers to nature (and in fact, many of us are city dwellers), how do you think we should balance our approach of helping others appreciate generalists and specialists alike?  From an ecological perspective, do you find it challenging to be enthusiastic about generalists like the blue jay?  What are some strategies you've used to leverage a familiar generalist as a teaching tool and a springboard into a broader conversation about conserving wildlife?

You do NOT have to be a "member" of anything to join this discussion. Start by posting a comment below! Centered around urban nature, the focus of these essays differ from more traditional wilderness experiences. Urban conservation is increasingly becoming a part of the vocabulary for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This series of essays is a part of the build-up for a training for staff, Friends, and Partners regarding the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative.  We invite not only those who will be attending to participate, but also members of the public who are interested in the intersects between urban and nature.