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.]

A Morning Walk Through Time

The old railbed, 100 miles from Boston

At the start on Lecount Hollow Rd.

Peter Brannen’s Rambling Through Time is one of those attempts to make the universe comprehensible, which is fun to try but ultimately fails for me. It’s just too big for my brain.

Brannen uses geologist Robert Hazen’s model for a walk, in which each step represents a century back in time. Starting on NY’s Upper West Side, he can’t even get out of the building (the Hayden Planetarium) before he’s passed all of human history. So much for those who think 10,000 BC to the present is a long time! The walk continues at this pace to the Pacific Ocean, but still doesn’t reach the early Cambrian period, when multicellular life as we know it began. And doing that would still represent only 10% of the earth’s history.

At the start on Lecount Hollow Rd.

The old railbed, 100 miles from Boston

For our annual Imbolc walk (a few days late, on Feb 6), Daniel and I decided to pick up the pace. At Hazen’s speed we’d reach the appearance of grass by the end of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, but would not see the first large mammals, much less the dinosaurs, or anything else of interest. To get reptiles, fish, insects, trilobites, and so on, we need to go much faster. See [trail map].

The extended trail runs 25.7 miles, so we used that distance as the benchmark. We increased the pace by 100 times. That means that each step is a century of centuries (10,000 years) and each mile is 21 million years.

Frozen ephemeral pool

Frozen ephemeral pool

We’d need 50,000 steps to reach the early Cambrian. Maybe 60,000, or more if our stride flags near the end. But at this pace it would take just one step to cover all of human history (the wheel, agriculture, writing, pyramids, Buddhism, geology, the Beatles, etc.). The first humans show up at 1/4 mile, about 4 minutes into our 7 hour walk.

A view along the trail

A view along the trail

Starting the walk at LeCount Hollow Rd, 3 miles gets us to the Eastham border, which matches the KT extinction that wiped out most of the dinosaurs who didn’t have feathers or know how to fly. Somewhere in Orleans, Pangaea split up. It had formed 7 miles earlier in Harwich, before the great Permian extinction. Seymour Pond in Brewster/Harwich takes us to the first large reptiles and sharks. The South Dennis trailhead on Rt 134 gets us to the first vertebrates. At the new start of the trail in Yarmouth we see the first multicellular life of the types we know today. (There are earlier multicellular skeletons in our closet.)

Beautiful lichen

Beautiful lichen

If we had the time, Stamford, CT would take us back to the beginning of the earth. I suppose that we could adjust the pace so that the endpoint would be the Hayden Planetarium, but the arithmetic for that hurts my head.

  1. We started the walk this year a little after 7 on the morning of Tuesday, February 6 and finished 6.5 hours later. Our pace was around 3.5 mph. This was to the South Dennis trailhead at the start of the Silurian period

    Now we need to think about attempting the extended trail next year!

      1. 21 mya: Quartenary (1.6 mya), humans [Seashore HQ, Marconi area]
      2. 42 mya: Grande Coupure, Mongolian Remodeling [Fresh Brook]
      3. 63 mya: Tertiary (65 mya), large mammals, angiosperms, grass [Eastham border]
      4. 84 mya: late dinosaurs [Brackett Rd]
      5. 105 mya: similar to today, except with dinosaurs instead of people [Minister Pond, before Rt 6 crossing]
      6. 126 mya: [Samoset Rd, near Salt Pond]
      7. 147 mya: Cretaceous (144 mya), flowering plants [Gov. Prence Rd]
      8. 168 mya: [Orleans Rotary]
      9. 189 mya: Pangaea splits up [Orleans Center]
      10. 210 mya: Jurassic (208 mya), birds, dinosaurs are dominant, conifers [Namskaket Creek]
      11. 231 mya: [before Nickerson State Park, ℗]
      12. 252 mya: Triassic (245 mya), reptiles dominant, mammals, cycads [Linnell Rd]
      13. 273 mya:
      14. 294 mya: Permian (286 mya) [Long Pond Rd, Rt 137, ℗]
      15. 315 mya: [Sheep Pond]
      16. 336 mya: Pangaea forms [Seymour Pond, Black’s Pond]
      17. 357 mya: Carboniferous (360 mya), tree ferns, gymnosperms, large cartilaginous fish, reptiles [Hinckley’s Pond, ℗]
      18. 378 mya: [Katie’s Pond, after Rt 6]
      19. 399 mya: [Great Western Rd, after Bike Rotary]
      20. 420 mya: Devonian (408 mya), amphibians, land animals [Sand Pond, West Reservoir][/caption]
      21. 441 mya: insects, jawed fish, land plants
      22. 462 mya: Silurian (438 mya), terrestrial plants [South Dennis Trailhead, ℗]
      23. 483 mya:
      24. 504 mya:
      25. 525 mya: Ordovician (505 mya), vertebrates, algae flourish, bivalves
      26. 536 mya: Cambrian explosion (541 mya); first multicellular modern phyla, trilobites, fungi [Yarmouth trailhead, ℗]
      27. In the times of the old ones: Ediacaran life forms, green algae, cyanobacteria, bacteria, eukaryotes (2-3 bya), amino acids


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


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.