Thursday, January 14, 2016

Galapagos: Garden or Wild Place?

"The wildlife is so tame," said several people on my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, and the point seems inarguable as a brown pelican landed next to me on the beach.  The exotic blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies were oblivious to our tour of their home. Snorkeling in the off-shore waters floated us next to playful sea lions and above peaceful sea turtles. We kept the two meter distance our national park guides requested, but amongst fish, birds, and iguanas unperturbed to our presence, I could not help but think of Eden.

Like the long-lost garden, the Galapagos existed in my mythical geography long before I located these volcanic islands on a map.  My early education in biology was wrapped up in thoughts of British explorers and National Geographic photographers, and learning about evolution put Charles Darwin and his expedition to the Galapagos in the forefront of my imagination.  Now, when the place was tangible, and so were the animals, my thoughts were not about history, but rather about the future of wildlife and the relationship humanity has to nature.

Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, primarily to study its geology and with hopes of witnessing an active volcano.  Instead, he was astonished by the wildlife and the notes from his five week tour are filled with descriptions of iguanas that swim into the sea, tortoises large enough to carry a person, and the twenty-six bird species new to him and found nowhere else in the world, including mockingbirds that vary from island to island.  This experience so influenced him that he spent the next next two decades puzzling through how different animals and plants come to be in specific places, a thought process that led to the publication of the "Origin of Species" and the theoretical framework of evolution.

For me, visiting the Galapagos was a pilgrimage. Walking the same lava shore that Darwin explored 180 years ago, reading his descriptions of marine iguanas that seem contemporary, and identifying several of the finches that bear his name, would have made my trip profound enough.  Even more, as a sometimes birder, I cannot recall ever adding 24 new species to my life list in one week.   And what birds: not only the famous boobies, but I also sighted the world's only nocturnal gull (the swallow-tailed), the flightless cormorant, several storm-petrels, and a Galapagos flycatcher that almost perched on my hat.  Finally, to swim in the water with a penguin zipping by was beyond heaven.

Animals and Humans have had a difficult relationship and coming up close to so many species has me thinking hard about our shared existence.  The animals in the Galapagos are "tame" in the sense that they are accustomed to human visitors.  However, their docile behavior is inbred, the result of
evolving for generations in an environment without predators.  Take the flightless cormorant, which like other cormorant species is a superb diver and swimmer.  However, the bird has no need to fly in escape from a predator and over generations it's wings have become appendages useless for flight.

"Ecological naivete" is the term David Quamen ("The Song of the Dodo") uses to describe animals that have evolved without a need for defensive behaviors.  Sanderlings, the small shore birds that move in coordinated groups on the beach in North Carolina, are solitary creatures in the Galapagos as they do not need one another for protection.  The fierce appearance of the iguanas is all about competition between males for breeding privileges, not to scare off non-existent predators.  The Nazca boobies don't really build nests, but just incubate their eggs on bare rock and soil.  The animals are truly defenseless.

To be in a place where animals are so approachable is both joyous and a bit unsettling. On the one hand, a romantic notion comes to me of humans and animals living harmoniously in nature.  But as ingrained as Genesis may be in my psyche, this does not seem quite right. I remind myself that these are wild, not domestic, creatures.  My son recalled the difficult lesson of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the movie "Grizzly Man" that recounts his false, and fatal, quest to bridge the gap we have with wild animals.

Tortoise Extinction is the dark spot on the history of humans in the Galapagos. Well before humans arrived, one of the most fascinating evolutionary tales is how reptiles became the dominant herbivore of these island ecosystems.  The giant tortoise can grow to be several hundred pounds and in a lifespan of more than 100 years these beasts travel about disrupting the landscape, moving plant
seeds through their slow digestive systems, and causing cacti and other plants to evolve in response.  Sadly, the tortoise also became a prime food objective of seamen, whalers, and other explorers; hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and several species on some islands became extinct.  It is perhaps not surprising that while tortoises cannot easily move away from humans, they hiss and threaten visitors who approach to closely.

Humanity is now redeeming itself with the giant tortoises, and the full scientific skill of researchers and the generosity of conservationists has enabled both the preservation of threatened tortoises, the restoration of their habitats through the removal of invasive goats, the repopulation of islands, and DNA-driven efforts to restore subspecies of tortoises once though extinct.  The Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island offers a fascinating insight into this caretaker effort.

Island Ecology becomes the primary subject of any natural investigation of the Galapagos. The clue that got Darwin thinking about evolution was the brag from the Islands' Governor that he could tell the island of origin of any tortoise merely by looking at the shape of its shell.  This led to the conclusion that each subspecies of tortoise evolved uniquely on each island.  Later work also identified the evolutionary differences in beaks of 14 species of Darwin Finches.  The lessons learned here continue to teach conservationists about the importance of biodiversity in habitats throughout the world.

More recent environmental challenges of the islands are a case study of the importance of sustainability in larger ecosystems and the planet as a whole.  In 2007, the World Heritage Center of the United Nations listed the Galapagos as a natural site in danger.  Work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has resulted in the removal of this listing, and the Galapagos have taken concrete steps to ensure an environmentally healthy future.  However, the issues of concern that remain foremost are issues that all us most wrestle with as well:
  1. Invasive species threaten biodiversity and the ecological integrity of the islands.  Now the Ecuadorian government works to keep out non-native plants and animals and conservation groups have restored ecosystems.  Maintaining environmental health requires constant vigilance and intervention.
  2. Population growth and the associated pressures for land, water, and energy use could undermine the healthy functioning of the ecosystem.  After a period of rapid immigration to the island, controls were put in place.  Like most of the world, accommodating more humans in any given place is a challenge yet to be fully solved.
  3. Sustainable economy that can provide support to residents without extracting too much from natural resources is a universal balancing act. In the Galapagos, the economy is built on tourism, so limits are sought on the number and location of visitors.  All tourists contribute $100 per visit to support the islands, but that fee needs to be increased and more of the funds directed to environmental protection, supporting alternative energy sources, preserving water, and undergirding the local community.
We watch closely how Ecuador, Galapagos residents, conservation groups, and tourists come to terms with building a sustainable community with the wildlife, natural wonders, finite resources, and island geography of the place.  Our interest is not only in the Galapagos as a unique and delicate resource, but also as a laboratory for the rest of us.  While we may not think so, we all too live on an island.

Garden or Wilderness? This question came to me as I toured the beautiful Jardin Botanico in Quito before our trip to the Galapagos.  It is typical for a botanical garden, with a carefully curated collection of plants representing the many different ecosystems in Ecuador.  The flowers were stunning, and I was particularly taken with the several hummingbird species that circulated among the blooms.  It is a protected garden, and not a wilderness.  However, if we think about nature as both tended and wild, would we be able to draw a bright line between what is a garden and what is not?  

The Galapagos look and feel wild, especially the 96 percent of the islands that are unoccupied by human settlement.  But as you learn more, you realize that the vegetation is being altered--for the good--by removing invasive goats and controlling certain plants.  In some places volcanic soil has been brought in to aid the egg-laying efforts of land iguanas.  And tortoises exist in some places only because of the significant intervention of humans to re-introduce the species.  One can rightly argue that these gardening activities only seek to offset the negative impacts of earlier human actions, but they are interventions nonetheless. 

Where then is the wilderness on the Galapagos?  Perhaps at sea, where hammerhead sharks sneak in from the deep, and orcas and dolphins swim free between the islands.  But as we know, the oceans are not free from a human imprint either: whole species have been decimated, plastic is omnipresent, and now the temperature and acidity of the oceans are rising as we burn fossil fuels.  If wilderness is an ecosystem untrammeled by humanity, then there is no true wilderness anymore.

There are, however, wild places and wild animals.  The Galapagos is both wild and a garden.  For me, encountering animals that are wildly tame, that is innately defenseless,  puts the challenge of our age literally before me.  We have the power to respect these creatures, and leave them untouched.  We also have the power to capture, control, or even destroy the animals we meet.  However, we also have the power to help, tend, and care for the nature before us.  In the Galapagos, and increasingly elsewhere, we are using our power to not only practice restraint, but also to be stewards of nature.  

Our tour was with Ecoventura, which works with a number of tour operators, and I would recommend it highly.

To learn more about the islands' environment, I would recommend "The Galapagos: A Natural History" by Henry Nichols.  Another book I read through the trip was David Quamen's "Song of the Dodo" which is quite relevant in thinking about the implications of island biogeography.

To help protect the Galapagos, you can donate through the Galapagos Conservancy which encompasses the Charles Darwin Foundation and works with a number of local, international, and governmental agencies.

If you have the opportunity to visit mainland Ecuador, I would recommend spending several hours in the Jardin Botanico de Quito

Thanks Anna, Abbie, and Gus for being part of the trip; photographs by Anna Owens

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mr. Cook Goes to Washington

I believe that natural places have the power to heal our dis-ease with life and to restore our perspective on what really matters.  Places are why I started this blog.  Recently I found myself in a strange, disorienting place: Washington DC.  And rather than walking a pine-needle path, I was wearing out my shoes on the hard floors of the Philip Hart Senate Office Building and other government buildings. Our Capitol no longer stands in much regard, as many of us are frustrated with the scandals, partisan bickering, and inaction that seems to define the American democracy in the early 21st century.  Is there a cure?  Perhaps place, and a common identification with nature, offers a beneficial treatment to our dysfunction.

My family's 1971 visit to Congressman Charles Chamberlain

This trip to Washington was not my first trip.  When I was a boy, my family took me on the obligatory tour and I still carry with me a youthful, and perhaps naive, view of the seat of our government. Call me romantic, but I am moved by the statues and memorial to our founding fathers, the grand buildings of white marble, and the flags of every state on frequent display.  Like being in nature, I feel ennobled amongst ceremonial architecture and am often awed by the history around me.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was the cause that took me back to the Capitol, and I was there on behalf of The Nature Conservancy to seek re-authorization of this legislation that has done so much to preserve and protect places across our country, all without costing taxpayers anything.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) recycles the proceeds of oil and gas leases on federal offshore lands to fund the purchase of land for public use.  Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently called it a "brilliant piece of legislation" for the work it has done saving natural places.  Sadly, the legal authority for this 50 year-old law recently lapsed, victim to dysfunction in Congress.

In Michigan, LWCF has provided the majority of funding for our two National Lakeshores, Sleeping Bear and Pictured Rocks, but the funds go well beyond national parks.  The $322 million in LWCF funds directed to the Great Lake State have gone to places as diverse as Huron National Forest, the Brighton State Recreation Area, Lake Lansing Park, River Raisin National Battlefield, and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

The bi-partisan, long-standing support for the LWCF may be because these funds go to develop trails, provide hunting and fishing opportunities, save historical sites, aid the timber industry, provide neighborhood recreation, and preserve some of our most beautiful and ecologically important natural areas.  These are distinct and valued natural places, and many people--of all backgrounds and all political parties--cherish these places.  

The Power of Place should not be underestimated, and I saw it on display in the troubled halls of Congress. Our Senator, Gary Peters, has a room dedicated to Isle Royale, Michigan's oldest National Park, and we conversed over maps and photos. Visitors to Congressman Dan Benishek's office are
greeted by posters of classic "big letter" postcards from the places in his northern Michigan District.  Congressman Dan Kildee spoke passionately about the City of Flint and the necessity of protecting the water upon which all depend.  Every office has some photo of a beautiful place in Michigan. And staffers from all 11 offices (four Democratic, and seven Republican) we visited recounted some affection for their hometown park, favorite hiking place, or family vacation home.  

The love for place transcends party, and it seemed to me that many of those who work in the Capitol were eager to talk about the out-of-doors rather than the election of the next Speaker of the House.  I know that there are significant policy questions about  the role of the federal government, the regulatory machinery operated by bureaucracies to protect our environment, and the cost of all of this, but I was pleasantly surprised to find so much support for protecting places using LWCF.  

Now we just need to help all our members of Congress escape the rules debates, the personality contests, the media moments, and the other boxes that have entrapped them.  Be sure to contact your legislator and ask them to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund (click here to have The Nature Conservancy easily guide you through this).  If we can get this legislation passed, perhaps our elected representatives can discover anew the affection for place on display in their offices.  Perhaps they will discover that conservation is not a partisan issue.  Perhaps they will discover the benefits of working together.  

Staff from The Nature Conservancy join me in meeting with my Congressman, John Moolenaar, who has signed a letter of support for passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund
Nature in our Nation's Capitol.  Washington is not such a bad place, despite what you read in the paper.  The people there love nature. And one morning some of use even discovered some nature close by.  Staff and trustees from The Nature Conservancy headed out early from out hotel near the National Mall with binoculars in hand, and as the sun rose we saw mockingbirds and blue-jays in the mature and towering trees around the Capitol, hundreds of chimney swifts agitating the sky overhead, in the reflecting pools there was a ruddy duck along with mallards and ring-billed gulls, and in the bushes outside the National Arboretum, we had a most uncommon sighting of a common yellow-throat.  In all, we identified 24 species of birds, proving that nature can thrive everywhere, even in Congress.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Three Things Anyone--including you--Can Do to Help the Environment

David Brower
Somedays I feel like the task is too great, the struggle too demanding. A report about new--or decades old--toxins in the air and water; the count of 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes; the latest disturbing data on a warming planet; or just one more patch of litter along my favorite river; all of it can get me down.  And when I look to our leaders for solutions, I see partisan squabbling, or a newspaper devoid of any story at all about the environment.  "And what can one person do anyway?" I ask myself.  Perhaps I'll just have a beer and turn on the hockey game. Then I thought some more, and my internal optimist reminded me of three things anyone--and everyone--can do.  None of them are difficult.  So, have hope and take action to:  1) Engage locally; 2) Join up (inter)nationally; and 3) Make contact.

1.  Engage Locally.  We all live in a place, and most of us have made some connection to nature there. Celebrate that place, and take steps to get out in it, and care for it. I came of age along the Shiawassee River, and I am fortunate to live again in its watershed.  It's not a trout stream, most of its landscape has been logged, farmed, or otherwise developed, and it's suffered some abuse and neglect.  Still, it harbors an amazing diversity of plant and animal life, it has a special beauty that changes with the seasons, the water is clear and clean most of the time, and it's the natural feature most accessible to where I live.

I feel an affinity for the natural place that defines my home, and I act on this natural connection by belonging to the Friends of the Shiawassee River.  It's like hundreds of other small, place-based conservation groups, and my membership and my volunteer efforts make a difference.  My guess is that giving a little bit of your treasure and time for a group active in your home place would be a big help too.

More than 100 volunteers come out for an annual river clean-up
Conservation change begins with environmental awareness, and this often proceeds from a connection to a specific piece of nature.  If we strengthen place-based organizations, they can help increase the number of earth-minded citizens.  Sometimes this is easier with iconic natural landmarks.  As we travel, we often search out the local non-profit that works to protect the resource, the region, or the park, we have come to appreciate.  Join; they always appreciate the support, and its nice to get a newsletter or email a few months later that reminds you of your outdoor adventure.

One tip: add a little bit extra to your donation to groups that have programming for children.  As numerous surveys and personal anecdotes reveal, many of the adults working now, as either professionals or volunteers, to save nature were engaged in the out-of-doors as youth.  For me it was Fernwood in southwest Michigan.  So, your contribution to a nature center, summer camp, or other education program might be an investment in a future conservation leader.

2. Join an (inter)national organization.  Local groups help connect people to nature, but it's the "big green" environmental groups that currently are leading the conservation charge.  I was starting my teens when the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act were adopted, so I grew up expecting the federal government to be the leader in protecting the environment.  That is no longer the case, as big government has succumbed to over-reach and a loss of support.  Perhaps just as well, as the solution to many of our environmental challenges cannot be solved by regulations.  Rather, they require innovative solutions that bring together many stakeholders.

Non-governmental organizations (NGO) are much more nimble, purposeful, and creative than federal or even state entities in tackling complex issues like preserving privately-owned open space, reducing water pollution that comes from farms and cities, engaging indigenous populations that live near endangered species, mobilizing citizen scientists to identify pollution sources, or working with large corporations to promote sustainability programs.  They also often provide the policy ideas and political leadership to reform or support the governmental programs that are still necessary to make significant and lasting change.

As independent as they are, the work of any nonprofit is extended by the number of members and the amount of supporters who sign-on to their efforts. I choose to support The Nature Conservancy because they are driven by science, are pragmatic, and work both in my landscape as well as around the globe.  But the wonderful thing about green NGOs is that they come from many diverse perspectives and take a variety of approaches to solving environmental challenges.  Some work quietly to protect hunting and fishing habitat; others are confrontational and bring our attention to new or severe problems; some care about beautiful animals in exotic locations; or they work hard to protect the health of disenfranchised people at home or abroad.  Put your name behind the one that appeals to your values, your politics, or your model of change.

One tip:  Join more than one organization. In the early 1980s, I had the chance to hear David Brower speak.  He had been the controversial head of the Sierra Club in the 1960s and then had gone on to start the Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters.  A questioner tried to entice him to name the "best" environmental group by asking him which group to join.  I still remember his answer.  "Join as many as you can" he said, noting that the more supporters each group had, the more powerful they would be as an advocacy group.  I took his advice, and last year when receiving the Oak Leaf Award from The Nature Conservancy, they noted that my involvement had begun in 1983 with a $10 membership.

3.  Make Contact with your legislator, at any level. David Brower was the personification of the environmental activist, and led several efforts to pass environmental protection efforts.  But his work was bi-partisan, and he did not act alone.  Earth Day, first held in 1971, was evidence of the wide-spread, grass-roots conservation efforts of the day.  Yes, there were "radicals" involved, but there were also bird-watchers, scientists, anglers, campers, gardeners, and representatives of all political points of view.  Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Water Act, and numerous Republican legislators and Governors, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, have been advocates for land preservation and other environmental advances.

President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park
Sadly, green issues have become too partisan in recent years, both because of politically-correct Democrats and anti-science Republicans.  This is not good for either party, and certainly not good for the cause of conservation.  We need to re-build an advocacy for the environment that is not captive to campaign spending, political commentators, or party organizing.  Perhaps the best way we--as individuals--can do this is to take a non-partisan stand on environmental issue we care about.

Again, it does not matter what moves you:  loss of the rainforest in Indonesia, protection of the Great Lakes from asian carp, additions to a national park, mercury in our air or water, or any number of other issues.  If you join an environmental group, they will likely alert you to important governmental issues, or you can research a topic on the internet.  But send an email, or write, or say something in person.  Too many of our legislators both at the state and federal level don't think voters care about environmental issues; communication from their constituents will convince them otherwise.

One tip:  make your message to an elected representative both personal and relevant to the geography you share.  Hitting "send" on a pre-packaged email can be helpful, but not as powerful as a message that contains your specific experience.  Tell your representative about your kayak trip or fishing success as you ask them to protect clean water.  Recount your meaningful family camping trip as you advocate for more funding for parks.  Nature is central to our lives, and we need our advocacy to come from that deep part of ourselves that connects to place.

Beer and Hockey.  The three steps outlined above are not difficult.  We live in places, our online era makes it easy to find conservation groups, and our legislators really do want to hear from real constituents.  If more of us took these three actions, we could re-awaken an era of environmental activism  that would genuinely reflect where we live, what we do, and what we know.  It really doesn't take much time or effort.  And we don't have to give up beer and hockey.  It turns out the Natural Resources Defense Council (another effective NGO) has partnered with about 50 breweries in a "Clean Water, Great Beer" campaign, and the National Hockey League has launched NHL Green to fight climate change.  Both of these are part of growing corporate sustainability efforts and are symbols of how business is now also among the vanguard of environmental protections efforts.  If we all do our part . . . .

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Biking Through Nature, Past and Present: The Natchez Trace

Like plants and animals which adapt to their environment over time, how we travel has also evolved in response to changing circumstances.   I recently learned this first-hand on a spring bike trip in Mississippi.

The Natchez Trace is an ancient route that angles northeast from the lower Mississippi River to the rich farmlands of central Tennessee.  Historically, native Americans followed the paths, or traces, created by bison who wandered from the plains to salt licks in the Appalachians.  With European exploration and settlement, these footpaths consolidated into an important transportation route.  In the early 19th century, before the development of steamboats, Kentuckians and others would float farm goods down the Ohio and Mississippi River for sale, along with the wood used to make their flatboats.  They would return home, with their proceeds, on foot along the Natchez Trace.

The use of the Trace diversified with the War of 1812, as some of Andrew Jackson's troops travelled overland on foot to face the British in New Orleans.  Through its early history the trail served traders and innkeepers, preachers and proselytizers, and highwaymen and criminals.  By the end of the 19th century, the trail fell into disuse as first steamboats and then railroads became the preferred transportation system of the region.

The National Park Service helped revive the Natchez Trace as a Parkway in the 1930s, after a long campaign by history advocates, road boosters, and local congressmen.  The road was a Civilian Conservation Corps project to help move the South out of the depression, but World War II, limits on federal appropriations, and the rise of the interstate highway system delayed its completion, with the final segments not built until 2005

Today, the Natchez Trace Parkway runs for 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside Nashville, Tennessee. The National Park Service maintains a number of historic sites, campgrounds, and visitor centers along its route.  Designed for leisurely driving, the speed limit is set at 50 miles per hour, access points are limited, and commercial truck traffic is prohibited.  It makes for one of the nicest bicycle trips I have ever taken on a road designed for automobile transportation.  And on the one occasion of an equipment failure beyond our abilities to repair, a Park Service ranger soon arrived to lend assistance.

Bicycling in Nature is a special way to experience the out-of-doors.  One travels faster than by walking, but still the environment is fully present in sight, sound, and smell (read more here about my thoughts on the environmental joys and spiritual benefits of biking).  The Natchez Trace in April was warm, the trees were leafing out, and the dogwood were in bloom.  Reptiles came out of hibernation, and snakes and turtles were on the move; we helped some, but sadly not all, cross the pavement.

Because of its development as a Parkway, the amount of structures on the route is quite limited and we enjoyed peaceful pedals through mature hardwood forests, took in park-like open spaces, and enjoyed a short walk through a flooded cypress and tupelo forest.  The regulated traffic and considerate drivers made it a pleasant trip, except for the morning we rode in a heavy rain.  There are quiet pull-offs with historical and natural interpretative signs, but being initially designed for motor traffic, the length between water and bathroom facilities is a bit longer than ideal for this two-wheeled traveller.

The Towns and History of Mississippi are linked by the Trace, and we enjoyed staying in bed & breakfast facilities in Natchez (where we started), Port Gibson, Kosciusko, and Houston (just south of Tupelo).  These evening stops gave us a first hand look at the beautiful mansions of the past, as well as the economic struggles of the present, neither of which are visible on the Parkway.  In suburban Jackson, we stayed the night in new town Ridgeland, where recently developed bike trails made negotiating modern traffic a bit easier (except for a scary traffic circle where the designated bike lane disappeared).  A shuttle service facilitated the trip, and we only had to carry a few clothes, some snacks for lunch, and water.  All in all, the trip was just the right combination of natural attractions and human comforts.

Parkways are a short branch on the evolutionary tree of transportation.  The first parkway, a term which now applies to any landscaped thoroughfare, predates automobiles.  Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, developed a parkway in the late 19th century in Brooklyn to segregate pedestrians, bicyclists, and horse carriages from one another as well as create a tree-lined linkage between public parks.  In 1908, William K. Vanderbilt, an early automobile enthusiast, constructed a limited access parkway with overpasses on Long Island that was conducive both to pleasure trips and auto races (until they were banned following several fatal accidents).  Portions of both of these early parkways still exist, and have in places now been converted to bicycle trails.

Parkways enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as an urban planning tool and as a forced marriage between cars and parks.  However, after World War II, the increased speed and popularity of automobiles, the rise in commercial traffic, and the development of the freeway ended the segregation of cars and trucks.  Pedestrians and bicycle were either banished or forgotten as a transportation mode for several decades.

Fortunately, bicycling has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years as Americans become more conscious of their own health and the health of the environment.  The use of bikes for both recreation and utilitarian transportation has been aided by the repaving of old railroad right-of-ways and by the creation of bike lanes on urban streets.  We were pleased to discover a rails-to-trails conversion on our trip:  The 44-mile Tanglefoot Trail with a terminus in Houston, Mississsippi.  These segregated bikeways are now the safest and most enjoyable ways to experience nature on a bicycle, but the Natchez Parkway offers a wonderful trip through history and a wonderful experience in the evolution of transportation.

If you go:  
Start your planning with the help of the National Park Service and the Natchez Trace Compact

We are able to book bed & breakfast lodging, and get helpful tips from

The entertaining and helpful Karla Brown provided our shuttle service

Great bike repair is available in Ridgeland, Mississippi at The Bike Crossing (thank you!)

If you are looking for good Rails-to-Trails for biking throughout the US, go to TrailLink

A word on safety: the traffic was light and drivers considerate on our trip, but there is always the danger of drivers who are inattentive due to sleepiness, substance abuse, or in-car distractions.  We wore highly visible colors, had reflective equipment and outfitted our bikes with bright flashing lights in front and back.

Thank you to the kind people of Mississippi for their hospitality, the staff of the National Park Service for their help, and Anna for the photos

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska

Some places have a signature animal species that defines a particular natural environment.  For me, they include the alligators of the Okefenokee, the wolves of Isle Royale, and the Kirtland's Warbler of the Au Sable Plains.  Ever since youthful trips across the Great Plains in the spring, I have also associated the Sandhill Cranes with the Platte River of Nebraska.  Recently, I had the chance to learn more about this remarkable bird and its relationship to this open sky place.

The Migration of Sandhill Cranes is one of the great animal spectaculars of North America, rivaling the annual movement of caribou.  While some sandhill cranes winter in Florida and Cuba, most spend the winter in Texas and Mexico and travel north to the Canadian taiga, the arctic tundra, and even across the Bering Strait into Siberia. But as the sandhill cranes fly northward, they funnel through an 80 mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska where they rest and refuel in the cornfields and early spring wetlands along this iconic stream.

"A mile wide and an inch deep" is the classic description of the Platte River, which carries sediment from the eastern slope of the Rockies, drops it in a braided stream on the plains, and then slowly flows into the Missouri River.  It was a source of sustenance for the Souix and the pathway west for the pioneers.  It now supports a vigorous, irrigated agricultural landscape.  The sandhill cranes have been there all along.

The productive soil of the prairie has provided food, and the river has provided protection.  During the day, the cranes glean corn from last year's fields, and add protein from insects, reptiles, and even small mammals in the wetlands and preserved grasslands.  Each night, the cranes return to the Platte to rest on sandbars or stand in the shallow waters, relatively safe from predators. The mass movement of thousands of birds at dusk, and again at dawn, is an awe-producing sight for which I--and many other birders--are willing to huddle in cold blinds to witness.

An Ancient Bird is the sandhill crane.  Fossil records show that the direct ancestor of this tall creature was present in Nebraska nine million years ago, back when the continent rested much closer to the equator.  Over time, as the continent moved and climates and habitats changed, the sandhill crane adapted and evolved.  We tend to think of a large, flocking species as the embodiment of a particular ecosystem, and of course it is, but the fact that the sandhill crane has persisted through millions of years powerfully reminds me of the resilience of nature.

Today, the sandhill crane has adapted to the presence of humans and industrialized agriculture.  The presence of cornfields along the Platte River has provided an important food source for the migrating cranes, probably supplanting tubers and other plants that used to be found in the now-diminished wetlands along the Platte.  The Sioux hunted sandhill cranes, as do Texans today, and the bird must now contend with the noise of the omni-present trucks of I-80,  power lines, and other human interferences.  Even though we snuck into blinds, and kept our distance as we stopped along country roads, the cranes have also adapted to the thousands of bird-watchers who travel to Nebraska each spring.

This is not to say that humans can be oblivious to their impact on wildlife.  Just witness the near demise of whooping cranes, the similar, bigger, all-white representative of North American cranes.  The loss of their winter coastal wetlands and vigorous hunting almost led to their extinction.  There are only a few hundred of these magnificent birds now living in the wild.  Only through the intervention of governmental entities like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and groups like the International Crane Foundation, have the whooping cranes survived.

A Middle Ground needs to be found between ignorance, or antipathy, to nature and the segregation of humanity and the wild.  Standing among the tall cottonwoods on the banks of the Platte, it easy to imagine a pre-civilization wilderness riparian forest.  However, our imagination would be wrong, as the trees have only grown up after the suppression of fires and the regulation of the floods of the river.  Of course it is technically feasible to restore the Platte River ecosystem by returning more water flow to the stream, pushing agriculture out of the valley, and reinvigorating the prairie and marshes.  Practically, this is not likely, given the political demands on water in the west, the economic prowess of American farming, and the two centuries of modern civilization in Nebraska.

So to preserve the habitat of migrating cranes and the other species that depend on the Platte, we have applied human ingenuity and societal resources.  The Nature Conservancy has used its traditional land protection skills to strategically acquire farms and restore prairies adjacent to the River, the Audobon Society has protected important migratory sites, and state and federal governmental agencies adopt and enforce wildlife regulations.  These actions have helped the whooping cranes survive, and the sandhill cranes to thrive.

Whole System Conservation is the term now applied to much of the work of The Nature Conservancy, and its goal is to understand and then manage the large scale functioning of the environment.  It is underway in the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and throughout the globe. This work requires not only land preservation, but also important attention to the policies that govern human economy and society.  We are not separate from nature, and we must be stewards of our natural systems so that they benefit both the natural inhabitants as well the human ones.  We all depend on nature.

In the Platte River ecosystem, not only do sandhill cranes and other species depend on a healthy environment, but so too does agriculture.  A first step is to acquire easements on agriculture land that compensate farmers for leaving some of their land out of production some of the time.  Thus, more habitat can be protected.  But the key issue in the West (and perhaps everywhere) is water.  Three states and many agencies and organizations have come together to manage water flows and use in the Platte River system.  The goals are many, the compromises not always easy, and the potential for success great.  Science provides new solutions, and The Nature Conservancy has teamed up agribusiness to use technology to allow for pinpoint irrigation management; this helps save energy costs for farmers and water for the environment.

Too often we choose to ignore nature, filled with hubris in thinking that we can pursue our own needs without regard to the places which we inhabit.  Or we are unwise in the exercise of our abilities and we use our knowledge without a value system that includes nature.  But the Platte River and sandhill cranes are showing us that putting nature foremost is not only possible, but beneficial to both animals and humans.  Not only have we achieved a balance between humans and the environment, but sandhill cranes benefit from agriculture, depending on leftover corn to fuel their migration.  And the local economy benefits from the $10 million impact from the many humans who come to Nebraska to view the cranes.

Throughout the world there are 15 species of cranes, and most are held in special esteem by the various cultures which have evolved along with these most special creatures.  Sandhill cranes have long been celebrated by Native American residents of the Great Plains, and now we are building a tourism, economic, and environmental culture that values both the cranes and the Platte River ecosystem upon which they depend.

 To visit:  Sandhill cranes migrate through the Platte River Valley between late February and early April, thought the time of peak migration can vary by many days.  The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, and others run tours.
Kearney, Nebraska offers an annual festival and support for viewing the cranes.

To learn more about the work of The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska and elsewhere visit

The best book I have ever read about cranes is Peter Matthiessen's Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes which documents his worldwide journey to learn more about the importance of these very special animals.

Thank you to Anna Owens for the photographs, and the company.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice and the Anthropocene

Life moves in cycles, and on December 21 we mark the turning of a very big cycle, the Winter Solstice.  Light, which has been lessening, will now begin gathering and the mechanism that powers life will bring us, eventually, back to a spring of new growth. As I try and reason through the profound phenomenon of the Winter Solstice, I join the ancient stargazers, the modern scientists, and all those who seek to understand what our place in nature is, or should be.

The Winter Solstice marks the annual rotation of our planet around the sun, the star that supplies the energy of life.  Within that cycle is another cycle.  The daily rotation of the earth exposes the planet to a disproportionate delivery of solar energy, and the dissipation of that energy, along with the fast spinning of the globe, moves the atmosphere which supports our life.  The movement of air delivers life-giving water, which also moves in a solar-powered cycle.  We live from, and have our being in,  these cycles.

On the Winter Solstice, I am as far away from the source of life as I will be all year.  Where I am, about halfway between the equator and the north pole, the tilt of the planet moves us away, slightly, from the sun for half the year.  The daily spinning of the globe on its angle leaves those of us in the northern hemisphere in the dark more than in the light for two seasons.  Then, as the planet circles around the sun, our half of the globe will be tilted more toward the light, and we will enjoy a surfeit of sunshine.  The workings of nature often astound me, starting with this most fundamental construction that defines my place in the cosmos

Our place on the planet can be defined astronomically, and this is perhaps a starting point for understanding our role here.  We exist first as passengers, as beneficiaries of the energy systems, water cycles, and rhythms of nature that support our existence.  We apply our reason to understand how the machinery works, a task that has taken millennia and which continues as we gain more knowledge.  This gives us more comfort, but as our knowledge expands, so too does our prowess. And while our ever-growing abilities have allowed us to benefit more from nature, we now realize that our actions have begun to have a major impact on the planet upon which we depend.

We have now entered the epoch of the anthropocene, a definition of geological time that marks the influence of humans on the physical operation of the planet.  The ancient solar energy embodied in coal and oil and gas have been removed from the earth itself and re-converted to heat.  The result of course, has been to put this carbon back into the atmosphere and the ocean, which has then changed the chemical composition of the air and water.  The sun remains basically the same, and more of its energy is now absorbed in the atmosphere.  The planet is warming, and the weather systems have thus changed as well.

We are no longer passive residents of earth, one of several lifeforms that has evolved in this narrow band of air, balance of temperature, and cycles of water that exist on our planet.  Perhaps we never were just passengers; perhaps our place here has meant something more from the beginning; perhaps not.  Perhaps we are too full of hubris, or not full enough of appreciation of our situation in nature.  Perhaps we have come to our knowledge too late.

But, three days before Christmas, I am reminded that humanity has had a deep awareness of the connections between light, life, and our place in nature long before we fully understood how this planet rotates on angle around a star.  My religion, like other faiths, celebrates new life at this time of year when we move from a season of darkness to a season of light.  We have long sought to understand these mysteries and our connection to them.

Our intelligence, our science, has helped locate us in space, and our science has explained how we come to live on this planet. Now we need to use our knowledge, new and old, to preserve our existence.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Five Truths Found in Nature

On September 11 this year, I got up early, walked to the beach and watched a great black-backed gull in the surf. After breakfast, I got on a bicycle and rode off into a fog so wet that I needed raingear. Later, the sun prevailed and I spent a glorious day immersed in nature, fully aware of wind, and smell, and ever-changing visions of a living landscape.

I was on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, on a five-day bike trip around the Cabot Trail, but establishing a connection with nature can occur in lots of places. The Shiawassee River that runs through my home-town provides my most accessible environmental source, but the opportunities are many, if we choose to make them. Why do we go to nature?  For me, I reaffirm five fundamental values when I spend time outside: Life, Beauty, Transcendence, Relationship, and Inspiration.

1. Nature is life.  Being in nature connects me to the elemental: water flowing, air felt, plants growing, animals observed, and the music of bird sounds. When I encounter nature, even in a streetside planter, I am aware of life, both in its tenacity, as a flower takes root in a cement crack, and in its fragility, as an insect dies with the swat of a hand. 

I like to walk in nature, because it allows me to stop, and stoop, and examine life in its most minute and delicate.  But on a bicycle I can take in more of the diversity of life in less time.  On a day’s ride through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a long climb took me from the seacoast with whales offshore, along a stream through a stand of Canada’s trademark maple trees, up through a spruce forest, and finally to the stunted growth of a taiga and a near-tundra environment atop a windswept plateau 550 meters above sea level.

When out in nature on a bike, wind and temperature changes are keenly experienced. Weather is not an abstract symbol on my smartphone. I am immersed in the environment, and sights and smells constantly change. The use of my legs, the testing of my physical self, reminds me that I too am a creature defined by my biology.  I am a part of nature.

2. Beauty expresses the universal.  Emerson, in his essay “Nature” wrote that “the world exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” Beauty is an elusive, perhaps discredited, philosophical term, but I know my life is enriched when I encounter a perfect dahlia bloom in the Halifax Public Garden, or take in the grand view of the Cape Breton coast after a long bike climb. Nature delights us with its creativity in its expressions of beauty.

But beauty is more than the perfect combination of design, and color, and light. There is some inherent quality in certain natural objects or experiences that exceeds identification or classification.  We stood on the top of a cliff just north of Ingonish and watched a bald eagle, perfect in his white and black coloration, glide up to eye level and look at us sideways from 20 feet away. There was much more in this moment than an ornithological achievement. “Every natural action is graceful,” wrote Emerson. “Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe.”

3. Transcendence through nature.  Being in nature reminds us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves in current time.  Looking across the expanse of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, clouds and sun and distant rain make apparent the cycle of water upon which we depend.  The exposed geology of the shifting earth and the discontinuity of multi-colored rocks reveal that much has happened to create the cape upon which we were now standing.  Life is fully present in the form of a black bear feeding upon blueberries, but the reminders of death—rotting fish on the shore, the barren trees of a burnt-over hillside—are also constant.  Our time here will be short, but nature will persist.

4. We exist in relationship.  We are in relationship with nature, and with one another.  A trip into the out-of-doors not only affirms our dependence upon nature, it also highlights the importance of our relationships with one another. While I have had many a quiet moment alone in nature birdwatching or reflecting, my most significant encounters with nature have been with a group of people. Heading off to a wild place often requires some journey of time, distance, and effort, and it is both easier and more satisfying to make that trip with others. This bike trip was similar, with both a support team to help me through the tough moments and fellow pedalers to share with me the discoveries.

Both our human relationships and our interactions with the natural world are two-way. We depend on one another, and our actions have an impact, either positive or negative.  On the toughest day of our trip, we were thankful for the bright sun and the cool breeze off the ocean. Our guide recounted days lost on other trips to violent Nor’easters that brought waves up over the road in places.

We were very aware of the more profound ways in which nature has sustained, and challenged, the residents of Cape Breton. The ocean provides an active fishery in several small towns we rode through. While lobsters abound, over-fishing and environmental changes have greatly diminished several fish populations. This was perhaps most evident in the Salmon Museum along the Margaree River, which contains haunting photographs and fascinating gear—legal and illegal---from the bountiful history of the Atlantic Salmon fishery. Fortunately, the majestic fish has survived, and with help is now recovering.

5. Nature is a source of inspiration.  Spending long days on a bike, often in single file, gives one time to think.  I considered both the grand scenery flashing by, but also about the piece of technology that carried me along.  The bicycle may be one of the most simple, yet profound, human inventions. It translates the power of our legs, which by animal standards are slow, into a relatively speedy and efficient means of transportation. And it provides mechanical locomotion without the use of fossil fuels or noxious emissions.  For me, I appreciate the connection it provides with the immediate environment, whether pleasant or not.

The relationship between humanity, technology, and nature has been complex, and not one that has always benefitted humanity or nature.  Often, without thought, we have employed a technology that has offered to save us time or increase wealth, but we have not fully considered the costs.  Still, the best of our technology has extended human capacity and done so in ways that impose small costs or even provided a benefit.  The bicycle has proven to be one such technology, and it's basic form has been with us now for close to two centuries.  After a week on a bike, I came away more enamored with this technology as a symbol of how we can use our intellect to take advantage of what nature has to offer, but without doing major damage to the resource we seek to enjoy.

The Peace of Wild Things.  Nature offers us so much, both in terms of sustenance and the opportunity for spiritual growth.  But death is part of nature as well, and one day we took a break from biking to hike out lonely White Point, where violent water batters exposed rock.  There you will find a simple memorial to the those who have died in an unfortunate encounter with the powerful ocean.  The people of Cape Breton have a close relationship with the sea, and while it supports life, sometimes it claims a life as well.

The line between what is good and lovely and what is evil and dark is thin. Biking provides this reminder as well.  The exhilaration of the downhill run is tempered by the thought of loose gravel on a sharp switchback. And while the drivers of Nova Scotia were as considerate as any I have shared a road with, we were still sometimes shaken by a truck cutting too close as they passed us by on the narrow shoulder of the road.  Life is good, but we cannot measure its length.

This year, I spent September 11 biking from fog to sunshine, along a beautiful edge of nature.  I was invigorated.  On the dark days after September 11, 2001, life was not so joyous.  As I struggled to make sense of that human tragedy, I turned to one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

How to get there:
Cape Breton is rich in both culture and nature, and the Cabot Trail provides a biking route around some of its most scenic areas. Here is a link to the Cabot Trail with maps and information.  Find more about visiting the area at

As always, thanks Anna
Several options are available for biking on your own or with a guided tour.  We travelled with Pedal & Sea Adventures, and had a fantastic trip.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a natural area of special significance and worth visiting on a camping trip; hiking opportunities abound.

If you go, be sure to spend some time inland as well, along the Margaree River, and learn more about the recovery efforts associated with the Atlantic Salmon.  Be sure to visit the Salmon Museum.