Nature during Covid-19 times

[This post also appears on the Wellfleet Conservation Trust blog.]

In these locked-up times we miss large gatherings, concerts, dining out, and social visits. Many of us have lost jobs and contact with loved ones. It’s easy to assume that all our social interactions must be through Zoom, our meditations guided by YouTube, and our thinking trapped in endless narratives of the end-of-times.

However, the natural world remains to explore and enjoy. We can still watch the unceasing but ever-changing waves at the beach, walk through forests, listen to birds, check out the bees in the new bee house, and watch adorable rabbits eating our recently planted vegetables. With fewer cars and trucks travelling long distances the air is cleaner and living things are flourishing.

In his book, Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.” Rousseau’s walking was in the woods, not on a treadmill or in a shopping mall. His journeys remind us that our life cannot be separated from the natural world.

Walking in nature can be a social activity as well (six feet apart, of course). Informal connection can be deeper and more attuned to the needs we all feel in these times. We may still feel lost, but we have a chance to find both others and ourselves when we remember our role in nature.

The Trust asked supporters, trustees, and other lovers of nature what particular consolation from nature they are finding during these Covid times. You can see some of the responses in the June 2020 newsletter.

Education’s Ecosystems: Learning through Life

EE coverThis book offers a new perspective on learning that is integrated and connected to lived experience. It presents a model for salient characteristics of both biological and pedagogical ecosystems, involving diversity, interaction, emergence, construction, and interpretation.

Examples from around the world show how learning can be made more whole and relevant. The book should be valuable to educators, parents, policy makers, and anyone interested in democratic education.

Foreword by John Pecore, University of West Florida

Available from Rowman & Littlefield (as well as Amazon, etc.), April 1, 2020

ISBN-13: 978-1475851199

ISBN-10: 1475851197

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference, 2019

For the 17th year, Wellfleet hosted its State of the Harbor Conference. It was held at the Wellfleet Elementary School on a beautiful, sunny, fall day––Saturday, November 2, 2019.

Participants included ordinary citizens, fishermen, students from K-12 through graduate school, town officials, and staff of the Mass Audubon, the National Park Service, the Center for Coastal Studies, Wellfleet Conservation Trust, and other organizations. They came to report on what they are learning about the ecosystem of the harbor.

Audience at Wellfleet Elementary School

Audience at Wellfleet Elementary School

Abigail Franklin Archer, from Cape Cod Extension, was the Conference Moderator. The schedule was filled with interesting presentations and posters.

There was coffee, snacks, and ample time for informal discussions as well. Americorps workers focusing on the environment helped with the organization, logistics, and even serving Mac’s clam chowder for the lunch.

Q/A with Martha Craig and Kirk Bozma

Q/A with Martha Craig and Kirk Bozma on Herring River restoration

On Sunday, there was a follow-up field trip to look at Wellfleet Harbor’s history and its “black mayonnaise”.

Interactions Within Ecosystems

As was the case in previous years, this was a learning event throughout.

Continuing what’s now a 17-year tradition, the conference showed the complex connections between humans and other living things including phytoplankton, striped bass, menhaden, horseshoe crabs, oysters, quahogs, seals, terrapins, molas (sunfish), phragmites, bacteria, protozoa, resident and migrating birds, as well as the land, sea, and air.

Presenters discussed ideas that went beyond the everyday understanding of harbor ecosystems. These ideas included bioturbation––the disturbance of soil, especially on the sea floor by organisms such as crabs and other invertebrates. There was talk of organism lipid levels as a measure of their nutrient value for predators. One poster emphasized the rise in Mola mola population attributable to increased numbers of jellyfish.

John Brault with Krill Carson's poster on the Mola explosion

John Brault with Krill Carson’s poster on the Mola explosion

One presentation discussed a major meta-analysis of ocean phenology studies. This research looks at when significant events such as spawning, migration, or molting, occur in an organism’s life cycle. Those times are shifting as a result of global heating, changes in ocean currents and nutrient availability. In some cases there are critical mismatches between the cycle for a predator species and its prey, which has major consequences for both and for the larger ecosystem.  A population may increase earlier than in the past, but its food source doesn’t necessarily match up with that.

Correlating sightings of right whales with copepod density

Correlating sightings of right whales with copepod density

Most notably, the Conference considered the impact of these diverse aspects of nature on people and vice versa. In every presentation or poster, one could see major ways in which human activity affects other aspects of nature.

Civic Intelligence

The Harbor Conference is a good example of how to improve what Doug Schuler calls civic intelligence, becoming more aware of the resources in our community, learning of its problems, finding ways to work together, and developing civic responsibility.

In any locality, civic intelligence is inseparable from the nature all around. But in Wellfleet this connection is more evident than in most. Every issue––transportation, affordable housing, employment, health care, fishing and shellfishing, waste management, history, and more––affects and is affected by our capacity to live sustainably. The harbor and the surrounding ocean, rivers, and uplands are deeply embedded with that.

There is a depressing theme through much of the Conference. The studies reported in detail on the many ways that humans damage the beautiful world we inhabit, through greenhouse gas emissions causing global heating and higher acidity, increased storm activity, and sea level rise. There is pollution of many kinds, black mayonnaise, and habitat destruction.

Mark Faherty offered a promising note for the horseshoe crab population. But even it has a downside: As the whelk population falls there will be less call on horseshoe crabs as bait, so that may help their recovery.

Nevertheless, it is inspiring to see the dedication of people trying to preserve what we can, and to learn so much about the ecology of the unique region of Wellfleet Harbor.

Maps for Learning

A striking feature of every presentation and poster was the use of maps. These included maps showing tidal flows, migration patterns, seasonal variations, sediment accumulation, human-made structures, and much more.

Maps of process and monitoring

Maps of process and monitoring

If we extend the idea of maps to visual displays of information, then it evident that even more maps were used. These included flowcharts for processes such as the one for adaptive management shown above, organization charts, and timelines for events in temporal sequences.

1887 Map of Wellfleet

1887 Map of Wellfleet

The maps are not only for communication of results. They are also a useful tool for the research itself. The most useful applications involved overlays of maps or comparisons of maps from different situations or times.

As an example, the population of horseshoe crabs could be compared with the management practices in a given area. Is the harvest restricted to avoiding the days around the new and full moon? Can they be harvested for medical purposes? For bait? The impact of different regulatory practices across time and place could easily be seen in graphical displays.

The Conference as a Site for Learning

You would find similar activities at many conferences. But the Harbor Conference stands out in terms of the cross-professional dialogue, the collaborative spirit among presenters and audience, and the ways that knowledge creation is so integrated with daily experience and action in the world.

This learning is not in a school or a university; there are no grades or certificates of completion. There are no “teachers” or “students” per se. However, by engaging with nature along with our fellow community members, conference attendees explore disciplines of history, statistics, politics, commerce, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, and more.

Nature itself is the curriculum guide. It is also the ultimate examiner.

[Note: This text will be cross-posted on the Wellfleet Conservation Trust blog.]

Démocratie et éthique sociale

Jane Addams’s Democracy and Social Ethics is a fascinating book. Although it was written in 1902, it has a surprising relevance for today.

A major contribution to philosophy, the book develops a theory of social ethics, which extends classical theories oriented toward individual virtues and actions. For social policy it offers ways to think about issues such as racism, immigration, economic injustice, democracy, and social improvement. The abstract ideas are linked to Addams’s own concrete work with Hull-House in Chicago.

Unfortunately, her work is not nearly as well known within the US as it should be. Speakers of languages other than English rarely encounter her work.

Bernard Jung and Céline Jung have gone a long way to remedy that situation, with a translation of Democracy and Social Ethics into French. It has just been issued by Editions Raison et Passions (Dijon, France) as Démocratie et éthique sociale. Céline and I added an introduction discussing the relevance of the book to France and French readers today.

A world in a grain of sand

My evening flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was canceled, so I had to take one five hours earlier. Although I wasn’t happy about the resulting extra layover time, flying earlier in the day meant that I had a glorious panorama of the Himalayas most of the way. Since Delhi is directly west of Kathmandu the 500-mile flight path was as if made to order for the view.

The Himalayas are a feature of our world that call for silent awe, and need no supporting adjectives, such as “stunning” or “snow-covered.” They’re the antithesis of another, also beautiful, feature of our world, Cape Cod. Its glacial drift formations are a gentle lullaby to the Himalayan symphony.

However, as we flew along the southern edge of the grand plateau, I took my eyes, or ears, away from that symphony from time to time because I couldn’t put down the book I was reading. In The Path: A One-Mile Walk through the Universe. In the book, Chet Raymo describes the path he took for 37 years from his house in North Easton, Massachusetts to the Stonehill College campus where he taught physics and astronomy.

Just as we were passing from Nepal into India, I read this:

Millions of years ago India, drifting northward on the mobile surface of the earth, nudged into Asia and began pushing upward a double-thickness slab of the Earth’s crust known as the Tibetan plateau, the front range of which are the towering Himalayas.

Raymo goes on to explain how sunlight beating down on the plateau produces warm air. As it rises, moist air from the Indian Ocean takes its place. This creates the Indian monsoon cycle. Heavy rainwater combines chemically with the Himalayan rock. The weathering takes carbon dioxide out of the air.

As the mountains rose and eroded, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere decreased and Earth began to cool. On Northern continents ice sheets formed and moved across the land, grinding, abrading.

Thus, mountains in Asia caused glaciers in New England and those in turn built the Cape Cod beaches where we swim every summer. The symphony is magnificent, but it needs the lullaby to follow.

India continues its journey northward; the Himalayas continue to rise; the sun still beats down; the monsoons cycle onward, and the rains take carbon dioxide out of the air.

But don’t look for the glaciers to return anytime soon to build up more places to plant your beach umbrella. Our technologies are now overwhelming these natural processes. Combustion of fossil fuels is adding far more greenhouse gases to the air, warming the world and covering up those glacial sands with rising sea water.

Raithaane

I’ve just eaten for the second time at Raithaane in Saugal, Patan, and hope to do so again before long.

Raithaane, near Patan Durbar Square, note the low overhead

The restaurant is a little hard to find at first. It’s about 300 meters east of Patan Durbar Square. The best route there is a walk through small alleyways.

Raithaane menu

Raithaane serves tasty, inexpensive, local food from many regions of Nepal. It’s all fresh and organic. As our waiter explained they use tomatoes only where it’s appropriate to the particular dish, not tomato sauce on everything.

Chamre & Yangben-Faksa (pork and lichen curry over rice)
With Sujan, a friend we happened to see on the way back
Friendly, informative service
No wasted space

Tea for two?

A friend here in Nepal asked whether I had eaten. When I said “no,” she replied that there were still people in the café up on the 6th floor.

I realized that I had been wondering whether there was still food. A person in Nepal might wonder that as well, but would think first about whether their friends would be there.

Without friends it’s not lunch, even if there is food.

What kind am I?

Shortly after I arrived in Kathmandu, I developed a standard walk to work. It was relatively safe from traffic, utilizing UN Park and side streets. Making it more interesting were were two bridges, one over the Bagmati River and one over Dhoki Khola, a tributary.

Along the way there were shops, hiti with stone water spouts, Buddhist stupas and prayer flags, Hindu mandirs with temple bells, free range cows, goats, and poultry, wild dogs, schools, parks, snooker halls, motorbike repair shops, restaurants, tailor shops, soldiers, joggers, yoga and meditation practitioners, vegetable stands, young cricket players, roasted peanuts, and people of all ages, occupations, dress, and personalities.

This is just a small fraction of what I see, hear, taste, feel, and smell every day. There is a lot packed into one and a half miles. It’s impossible to summarize it all in a single blog post, much less with a label, such as “capital city,” “Himalayan country,” or “developing nation.”

During my walks, I came to know one family fairly well. We speak as I pass by in the morning and evening, but also when I go out for tea or a neighborhood walk.

A ten year-old girl in the family asked me when we first met:

What kind are you?

Her English was limited (although far ahead of my Nepali). Maybe she meant “what is your name?” or “where are you from?” She might have been thinking “how tall are you?’ or “how old are you?” which are questions I frequently hear in schools.

But her question as posed stuck with me. If I don’t self-identify with a proper noun, and I can’t answer with a number, what would I say?

It’s remarkably easy to apply a label to another person–an “entertainer,” a “jerk,” a “scholar,” a “homemaker,” a “fun-lover,” “a ten year-old girl,” and so on. But doing the same to ourselves, leads to a protest.

Yes, I am an “American.” Perhaps, that’s the type of answer my young friend expected. I have US citizenship and live permanently in the US. But that label alone is very incomplete.

At the moment, I’m American, but working and residing in Nepal, a country for which I feel a great affection and even identification. I’ve also lived in other countries and have a generally internationalist perspective. Even with respect to the US, “American” captures only one aspect of who I am. I don’t want to be reduced to a single word. Why would I do that to another?

So, I might grant myself the freedom to answer her question with several words. I recall giving her a facile answer at the time, a guess at what she must have meant. But if I really listen to what she said, and I have to answer in terms of what kind of person I am, or want to be, what would I say?

What kind am I?

February rain

Dhoki Khola in flood

Dhoki Khola in flood

A torrential rainstorm with angry winds woke us this morning. It appeared to be a day to hide under the covers.

But the rain soon stopped and revealed a Kathmandu that is not always seen. Both the Bagmati River and the smaller Dhoki Khola were full and rushing. I longed for a boat to launch into the waves.

Chandragiri Hills

Chandragiri Hills

Arriving at King’s College, I joined others up to the roof to look at the surrounding snow-capped hills. A friend, Arjun, said that he had never in his life seen it so clear.

Of course, the phone camera fails to show what it really looked like, but with a little imagination you can see the Chandragiri Hills to the southwest and the snow on top.

Nagi Gomba

After a visit to the Jana Uddhar Secondary School, Susan and I decided to walk to nearby Nagi Gomba, a Buddhist monastery for nuns, with a residential primary school. It’s located within Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park.

Gaining access to the walking trail was more of an adventure than the walk itself. The road was rough, with occasional holes leading to underground piping. These were large enough to swallow any walker, a motorbike, or most of a taxi.

In the center of the first photo you may be able to see an Indian Crow. We decided to walk up the last mile or so, since that was faster than using a vehicle.

The road leads through the area north of Budhanilkantha, which is rapidly urbanizing. Farmers sell their land to developers who are building hotels, guest houses, and large private residences.

Before the walk itself, we stopped at the Budhanilkantha Trout Restaurant. They served absolutely fresh trout, netted as we watched from their tank. It was served either fried with very light batter, or cut up in “gravy,” a spicy, red sauce.

The path to the monastery was easy, but on much rougher ground than the photo suggests. However, the main challenge for those of us who live on flat land at sea level is that we started at 5000 feet and needed to walk up to over 7000 feet. That’s higher, by way of comparison, than any mountain in the Eastern US. The vertical climb for our day was well over 200 flights of stairs.

I must admit, however, that Nagi Gomba is considered just a start point for the climb to Shivapuri peak, and that peak is not even listed among real treks in Nepal.

Along the way, we saw an asami monkey, a pheasant, and as you can barely make out in the photo, scratch marks from a spotted leopard, establishing his new territory.

The first sign of the monastery, is a distressing one, the effect of the 2015 earthquake. So much was destroyed.

But much has also been rebuilt. Nagi Gomba is now home to 150 nuns, including many girls in the primary school.