Nature as curriculum: The Wellfleet Harbor Conference

Wellfleet Harbor

Wellfleet Harbor

The annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference was held at the Wellfleet Elementary School on November 4, 2017. See the schedule here.

This was a learning event throughout. Janet Reinhart started off with a reference to Wallace Nichols’s Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Before we could become complacent about that, we began to see the many threats to the water around us.

Elizabeth McDougall (R) and coworkers from the Cape Cod National Seashore

Elizabeth McDougall (R) and coworkers from the Cape Cod National Seashore on estuarine restoration (water quality)

Continuing what’s now a 15-year tradition, the conference showed the complex connections among trout, whales, menhaden, horseshoe crabs, shellfish, seals, terrapins, sunfish, eel grass, phragmites, bacteria, protozoa, other living things, the land, sea, and air. Most notably, it considered the impact of these diverse aspects of nature on people. In every presentation or poster, we saw the major ways in which human activity affects other aspects of nature.

Presentations at WES

Presentations at WES

The Harbor conference is at once depressing and inspiring. It’s depressing as it details the many ways in which humans damage the beautiful world we inhabit, through greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, increased storm activity, and sea level rise, pollution of many kinds, black mayonnaise, habitat destruction, and more. But it’s 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.

Americorps workers helping serve Mac's clam chowder

Americorps workers helping to prepare Mac’s clam chowder for the lunch

The conference is billed as an opportunity to hear about the latest research, a task it fulfills admirably. Beyond that, I see it as nature school, or nature as curriculum. Participants, including volunteers, fishermen, students, town officials, and staff of the Mass Audubon, the National Park Service, the Center for Coastal Studies, and other organizations, come to report on what they have learned.

The sessions are not simply reports. For example, Geoffrey Day and Michael Hopper spoke for the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition. They’re studying the history of anadromous trout in the area and whether traditional runs could be restored. The research is part ecological, looking at the hydrology of Fresh Brook and part historical, using archival data. The presenter, Day, asked for listeners to share any family accounts they might have–letters, maps, and so on– which might document the conditions for the trout population from a century or more ago.

Inquiry in and for nature

Inquiry in and for nature

Whether for brook trout, or many other examples, investigation thus becomes collaborative, a community activity. Moreover, in each case, participants ask “what can be done?” Sometimes the answer is to create, which may be an aesthetic response, political dialogue, collective action for the environment– solar energy, harbor dredging, dam removal, pollution monitoring, and always, more research. Participants continue then to discuss and to to reflect on what they experience, thus enacting an inquiry cycle of learning.

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

Poster on monitoring diamondback terrapins nesting on the Herring River

Poster on monitoring diamondback terrapins nesting on the Herring River

This learning was not in a school or a university; there were no grades or certificates of completion. There weren’t even “teachers” or “students” per se. However, by engaging with nature along with our fellow community members, we explored disciplines of history, politics, commerce, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and more. Nature itself became our curriculum guide.

Arab & Middle Eastern cinema festival

Taste of Cherry (1997) Trailer from Close-Up on Vimeo.

We’re enjoying another year of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema. This film festival was founded in 2012 by Rebecca M. Alvin, an independent filmmaker, professor of Film Studies at the New School, writer, and editor of Provincetown Magazine.

Alvin says that the festival addresses “a blind spot in the canon of film.” It includes works made by filmmakers of Arab and/or Middle Eastern descent living around the world. Most of these films are difficult for Americans to access. The films themselves go a long way on their own to foster cross-cultural understanding. Even so, the festival format enhances that by allowing interaction with the filmmakers and critics, and dialogue among the attendees.

Opening night in Chatham featured a Lebanese comedy (the first of the festival’s history), Assad Fouladkar’s Halal Love (and Sex). There was also a delicious spread of taboulli, satay, meatballs, ghorayeba, kunafeh, and more.

In Wellfleet, we saw Taste of Cherry by the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Jamsheed Akrami, professor of film studies at William Paterson University, led a discussion of Kiarostami’s work and this film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997.

Iranian cinema is a thriving industry, making more than 100 films a year, Akrami points out. At the Oscars in February, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” won best foreign-language film. Yet the nation’s laws are stringent: Women are banned from singing and dancing in Iranian films. Any contact between men and women — hugging, even holding hands — is illegal.

It’s remarkable that some of these films were even made. For example, the government in Iran has imposed strict codes that force female characters to keep their hair covered even in the privacy of their homes, contrary to custom. There can be no touching of male and female characters, even if say, a mother and son playing the parts of a mother and son wanted to touch.

However, a focus on the censorship of the films would miss much larger themes. Along with interesting cultural differences, the festival shows the universality of the ways we relate to family, love, sex, work, death, war, and other life issues. They also dispel any simplistic notions that one might have about “the Arab” or “the Muslim.”

To take just one example, “Taste of Cherry includes major characters who are Afghan refugees from the war there, who claim to be unaffected by the Iran-Iraq war, an Azeri from a Turkish family who resides in Iran, and an Iranian Kurd. Moreover, while the characters are undoubtedly shaped by their backgrounds and experiences, these top-notch films show them as complex individuals, whom one can relate to beyond cultural differences.

The festival is a great addition to the cultural scene on Cape Cod. If more people could participate, it could go a long way towards improving understanding of the diverse world we live in.

Walking the Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, Daniel Dejean and I set out to walk the Cape Cod Rail Trail (CCRT), not just to walk on the trail, but to go the entire 22.3 miles.

I like to walk long distances at a brisk pace, but I was worried about going with an accomplished marathoner, one who would probably be bored with my pedestrian pace. But Daniel seemed quite happy to walk instead of run.

In the beginning we had the trail to ourselves. Perhaps others were deterred by the hour or the temperature just below freezing? In any case, it was heavenly. We enjoyed the exercise, the views, and the conversation. For equipment, we took along one not-smart phone and a fancy watch that didn’t work.

Taccuino Sanitatis

Taccuino Sanitatis

For six hours, we saw a side of Cape Cod that you miss completely if all you know is Route 6, the beaches, or the residential streets. Since the trail is elevated, it offers a better view than that afforded by many forest trails. We saw natural wetlands and cranberry bogs, salt marshes, meadows, forest, creeks, the bay, and the back sides of houses, churches, and businesses. There’s a winery that I didn’t know about.

We talked about what we each liked and didn’t like about life on Cape Cod, music, art, movies, growing up, religion, Borges, Deleuze, Piaget, and OULIPO. We also had good stretches of silence, just listening to the birds and the wind, or walking without listening at all. Amazingly, we avoided the political discussions that seem to dominate the ordinary day.

A long walk imbues your body with a rhythm that offers peace and balance. We joked about Daniel’s fancy electronic watch, which told us all kinds of things, but seemed incapable of  communicating the time of day. We saw it as very postmodern, or perhaps Buddhist, in its rejection of our chopped up daily lives.

Setting out

Setting out

Our overall pace was 3.6 mph. That’s faster than Google walks, but still fairly relaxed. Around 17 miles we each began to feel the stress on our bodies. Daniel revealed that he feels the stress at the same point when running a marathon. It’s interesting that it occurs at the same distance, but of course half the time when running.

As the sun rose, we began to see more people. There were people walking their four-legged masters, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, couples, groups, and solitary walkers. Each of them were experiencing a slice of Cape Cod that is hard to find in any other way.

I don’t know that any of them planned to walk the entire route as we did, but I’m sure they each felt some degree of balance as articulated by Taccuino Sanitatis. This is an 11C Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad which sets forth the essential elements for well-being, including balance of activity and rest, food, fresh air, and state of mind. Daniel pointed me to that.

Before the railroad came, Cape Cod was accessible only by boat or stagecoach. Passenger rail service from Boston to Provincetown started in 1873 and became a major factor in the Cape’s growth as a summer resort area. But when the car bridge over Cape Cod Canal opened in 1935, passenger rail service soon came to an end. The cars were a boon for tourists and tourist services, but they also began to destroy much of what makes the Cape so special. Residents and visitors who see the Cape mostly from their cars or selected recreational areas miss a lot.

The rail corridor was purchased by the Commonwealth in 1976. A portion of that was converted to a rail trail, which now runs from South Dennis to Wellfleet with side trails going off to Chatham and other areas. Daniel’s uncommunicative watch told us that the trail on the rail bed was a way to step back in time, to connect to some of that earlier Cape Cod life, and to experience a more balanced way of life.

Coast Sweep, Provincetown

Each Fall, nearly a million people join together for the International Coastal Cleanup. This is a worldwide, collective effort, which is simultaneously a depressing reminder of what we’re doing to our planet and an inspiration  suggesting that people can change. More than 18 million pounds of trash were collected by nearly 800,000 volunteers in 2015. This is about 0.1% of what’s added each year to the oceans.

In Massachusetts, the cleanup is called Coast Sweep.  Yesterday we joined a group from the Center for Coastal Studies. CCS does many things, but is most famous for having freed more than 200 large whales and other marine animals from life threatening entanglements with fishnets, lobster lines, and other human made dangers.

Long Point lighthouse, with Hindu boat in the background

Long Point lighthouse, with Hindu boat in the background

We were enticed in part by the ferry ride to Provincetown Long Point provided by Flyer’s and a lunch afterwards at Napi’s Restaurant. We had the gift of a beautiful morning, doing light work with interesting people amidst stunning scenery.

In our orientation, we learned what we should pick up and how to record it. A handy poster made by an Americorps worker helped with the relevant categories (including netting, lobster trap vents, rope over/less than a meter, shotgun shells, plastic fabric, tampon applicators, plastic bags, balloon ribbons, styrofoam, and mystery objects).

Each group had a recorder and one or more 19-gallon Ikea bags for the debris. Those bags are made of woven polypropylene, a plastic, but at least they’re reusable. In addition to items in the big categories, we found a toilet seat, copper plating, still-full mustard containers, fishing lures, and more.

For Long Point, these items mostly wash in with the tide, and concentrate in the wrack lines. Much of the plastic will wash back out to sea with the tides and be eaten by fish (and subsequently by people), turtles, marine mammals, and other creatures, unless we can remove it first.

October 9-16 will be Wellfleet Ocean Week, with events at the Library, at Oysterfest, and other venues. There will be a Coast Sweep on October 10 at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, coordinated by the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Ocean Week will introduce the founders of 5 Gyres,, who helped bring attention to the problem of microbeads. These are tiny beads of plastic that are put into toothpastes, facial scrubs, and other products at a rate of 8 billion per day. Last year, Congress passed and the President signed a bill to ban these pollutants. It’s a rare instance in recent years of positive new action by our government and one in which the US is a leader.

Coast Sweep doesn’t even pretend to dent the world’s plastic pollution, although it does help to make specific beaches on lakes, rivers, and oceans more pleasant. The hope is that it brings awareness of what we collectively are doing to our planet and perhaps lead to changes in our addiction to plastics.

More than book sales

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More Than Words staff (from the MTW website)

On Friday, staff from More Than Words (MTW) worked with members of the Friends of Wellfleet Library (FWL) to load donated books for sale in one of two Boston-area stores and online. The books filled a medium-sized truck and weighed 2.75 tons.

Loading books

That’s a lot of books! Even so, the MTW truck will need to return for more books in a couple of weeks. Once, they managed to carry twice as much, but that pushes the safety limits on a medium-sized truck.

Backing the MTW truck up to the shed

Backing the MTW truck up to the shed

On this day, a couple of MTW workers joined with Friends volunteers loading books by passing them in a chain from one hand to another.

I thought the names would be easy for me since I was positioned with two Stephen’s before me and one after, but I found that it caused confusion when I’d call out, “careful, Stephen, that box is breaking!”

Book donations to the Library

These books and others were donated by people who care about the Wellfleet Library. Occasionally a book may fit Library collection needs, but generally the idea is  that they will be sold during the two summer book sales or from a sale rack in the Library. Some of the children’s books are given to new parents or to families involved in a summer reading program.

Filling gaylords with books, 500 pounds each

Filling gaylords with books, 500 pounds each

The sales have been extremely successful, raising thousands of dollars for Library needs. Receipts from the sales supplement the Library budget, making possible museum passes, children’s programs, online tools such as Freegal and Zinnio, special equipment purchase, computer user support, special books and periodicals, and audio visual materials for documenting the life and times of the community.

But there are always some books that don’t sell. In the past, many of these met their end in the recycle bin. But for the last three years, MTW and FWL have partnered to give the books an extended life, one that amplifies the reach and benefits of the Library.

More Than Words

The partnership helps More Than Words (MTW), a significant, nonprofit social enterprise in the Boston area. MTW “empowers youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, homeless, or out of school to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business.” Youth in the program have managed an online bookselling operation since 2004. They are challenged with authentic and increasing responsibilities in a business setting, along with high expectations and a culture of support.

MTW opened a lively bookstore on Moody St in Waltham in 2005 and added a coffee bar in 2008. The model was replicated in the South End of Boston in 2011, doubling the impact of the program. Even so, the Wellfleet donation is about all that MTW can handle from Cape Cod.

Serving multiple needs

Helpers of all ages

Helpers of all ages

I’ve always felt that the summer books sales serve multiple worthy goals: raising money for Library collections and programs, making low-cost books available to those who need them, bringing community together through a shared project, informing people about the Library, and preserving a literate tradition. Even a book that doesn’t sell helps with some of those purposes. But I was sad to think that even one book might end up as recycled paper.

Through More Than Words, many books continue their good work. They become available to a larger audience, both in the metropolis of Boston and through the worldwide online market. More importantly, the book sales offer young people an opportunity to learn business skills, to further their education, and to develop as individuals. Now, although I still hope that FWL racks up good numbers in the summer sales, I’m glad to see that many of the books continue to serve additional purposes.

The Children’s Room

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

Cape Cod Modern, by Peter McMahon & Christine Cipriani

Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. –Frederick Jackson Turner, “The significance of history”, 1893

Tiny Wellfleet has been a significant home for histories of all stripes. These include psychohistory (Robert Jay Lifton, Erik Erikson, etc.), history employed to support social justice and civil rights (Howard Zinn, William McFeely, etc.), histories of colonial settlements, pirates, and whaling, and accounts of the daily lives of artists, shellfishers, and innumerable interesting characters. Wellfleet historical writing has for a long time been a vital participant in the story of Wellfleet, not simply a spectator.

A recent example is the winner of the 2015 Historic New England Book Prize, co-authored by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani: Cape Cod Modern: Mid-century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape.The book uses architectural and personal photos, and interviews with designers, their families, and their clients to document the experimental homes designed by a cosmopolitan group of designers who settled in Wellfleet and Truro in the mid-20th century. The book has stimulated renewed interest in Bauhaus, in the so-called modernist houses, and in the community around them.

Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes

Preparatory drawing for playroom mural in Kepes House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Julia Kepes

A complementary project can now be seen with the summer opening of the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum today. The Children’s Room, Art and Design of Wellfleet’s Mid-century Children’s Books is a collaboration of WHSM with the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and the Wellfleet Public Library. Here’s a description from the WHSM site:

During the 1930s Wellfleet’s population was just barely 800 people, and yet over 1,000 books have been published by, or about, the town’s mid-century denizens, around 200 being inventive books for children. Many of these books were designed and illustrated by some of the most acclaimed graphic artists of the era. This exhibit includes a selection of books, artifacts and original artwork.

Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness

Dwellers of the Tundra, by Aylette Jenness & Jonathan Jenness

Many of the artists and authors of the children’s books were connected with Bauhaus, and its emphasis on learning, science, experimentalism, and progressive politics. That can be seen in the wide variety of nature topics and in sympathetic depictions of diverse cultures.

As with Bauhaus, the exhibit invites participation. Visitors can observe blown-up versions of artwork from the children’s books, and peruse the books themselves. There are specially designed benches on which to sit or to spread out the objects. There are also crayons and paper to create your own artworks.

I like the fact that the museum is opening just after the summer solstice (a special one at that, coinciding with a strawberry moon). Bauhaus was very aware of new technologies, materials, and scientific discoveries. A love of nature and its meanings for humans was evident throughout its history. Wellfleetian Ati Gropius, who was the daughter of founder Walter, would gather people in late June and ask “What does the summer solstice mean to you?” Several of the Bauhaus-connected houses took advantage of solar or lunar movements in their design. So, it’s appropriate that this wonderful new exhibit welcome the summer season.

Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)

Fidelia, by Ruth Adams & Ati Forberg (Gropius)

The new Children’s Room is filled with wonderful individual items. There are Caldecott award winners and artworks that are surprisingly fresh and striking a half century or more after they were created. But the exhibit as a whole brings the items together in a provocative way, adding new meaning to the specific items and to our understanding of that mid-century era.

As I think about how our history-making enriches life in Wellfleet, I’m reminded of William James’s comment about teaching:

You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures. –William James, “The social value of the college-bred,” 1907

 

Evaluating the trails

Evaluating the trails

Phoebe, Sam, Nia

Phoebe, Sam, Nia

We had a wonderful group of visitors from the Dorchester area over Memorial Day weekend: Priscilla (6), Nia (8), Phoebe (10), Sam (12), and Jane (73).

I knew that we were in for some special experiences when Phoebe ran in asking “Can we go to the Library?” That had been the highlight of a previous trip. Then Sam added, “Can we go to the beach, too?” The latter seemed like a reasonable request to add for a sunny holiday weekend.

At the Library

At the Library

We managed to visit bay, ocean, and pond beaches. And the Library, of course. But we also set out to evaluate some local trails. You can see the evaluation sheet below. I fear that some of the drawings don’t reproduce well. But we got some good feedback on trails.

Priscilla, discussing books with Anna

Priscilla, discussing books with Anna

On the Wellfleet Conservation Trust’s new Drummer Cove trail, Sam identified the #1 hit, fiddler crabs, especially one in particular, who is named Bob. He also called for more trail markers, which was understandable, as the trail was just cleared last week and hasn’t been marked yet.

Phoebe’s favorite thing “was the breeze and the shells on the way.”  Her refrain throughout was for more shells. She and the others identified oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, slipper shells, winkles and more. For improvement, she recommended less pollen, which seemed to color everything yellow and cause some sneezing.

Sharing books and a swing

Sharing books and a swing

We also walked across Uncle Tim’s Bridge, through Hamblen Park, down to the “yes” benches. Priscilla, who perhaps wishes she were older, claimed her age as 6000, but I think it’s closer to 6. Her favorite thing was “fiddler crabsssssssssss” (there were many). For what to improve, she said “??????nuthing?”

Nia’s favorite was the baby diamond-back terrapin, which the group wanted to keep, but we let go on his/her way. For improvement, she wanted “to write more in Steve [Durkee]’s notebooks by the ‘yes’ benches.”

We also saw an osprey at the pier, and somehow managed to locate ice cream.

Diamond back terrapin

Diamond back terrapin

Along Duck Creek

Along Duck Creek

Hamblen Park

Hamblen Park

Fiddler Bob

Fiddler Bob

Ant eating inchworm

Ant eating inchworm

With just a little help

With just a little help

Braving the surf

Braving the surf

Surfers at Newcomb's

Surfers at Newcomb’s

Mac's at the pier

Mac’s at the pier

Percy

Percy

Trail evaluation

Trail evaluation