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.

Wildlife in Wellfleet

White fox, Truro, by Desmond  Tetrault

White fox, Truro, by Desmond Tetrault

We’re fortunate in Wellfleet to have frequent interactions with wildlife.

We’ve always had many birds around the house, but are now likely to have more since we just set up a bird feeder. Even though it’s late in the season, some chickadees and American goldfinches have been happy to discover that. The goldfinches seem like a different species from the bright yellow ones we saw in the spring mating season.

Birds that live near the water here, such as loons, mergansers, gulls, and gannets have also been feasting. Last week the water temperature dropped suddenly, resulting in the stunning of many small fish. The birds were happy to scoop up the unexpected bounty, so they’re very visible near shallow waters.

Blurry fox, Wellfleet marina

Blurry fox, Wellfleet marina

A more unusual visitor is the white fox. We know of two now, one residing in Wellfleet and one in Provincetown. We saw the Wellfleetian at the pier last night. It was as interested in us as we were in it. The quick smartphone photo doesn’t show much, but at least you can see that the eyes are not red as they would be for an albino fox. This condition is called leucistic. See also A fox of a different color in Provincetown – Gate House.

Turtle rescue at Mass Audubon

Turtle rescue at Mass Audubon

The same cold snap that stunned the fish and pleased the birds was a disaster for the sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles in Cape Cod Bay have been washed ashore. Most are endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles or leatherback turtles, and one is the largest loggerhead turtle ever to come ashore in Massachusetts (300 pounds, 3 feet long). About a thousand have been rescued and taken to the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and later to the Animal Care Center in Quincy.

Almost counting herring

Black Pond, Wellfleet

Black Pond, Wellfleet

Because of the warm winter on Cape Cod this winter, the alewives are returning early to the local rivers. Alewives are a type of herring. They’re anadromous, meaning that they live in the ocean, but swim up freshwater streams to spawn.

Their population is declining in New England, so the River Herring Network organizes herring wardens and volunteers (called “monitors”) to assess their numbers during the spring run. The counts go on for two months, with volunteers assigned specific times each week to count.

field test kit

field test kit

Locally, the count is connected with efforts by the Friends of Herring River to restore that river to something akin to its condition before the Chequessett Neck Road Dike was installed and the surrounding wetlands were developed.

Susan got the official training for the count, so she’s the real Monitor, but I went along as a volunteer for the volunteer. I guess you could say that I was an Unofficial Herring River Estuary Alewife Monitor Assistant (UHREAMA).

water temperature

water temperature

We decided to cycle to the site for our first scheduled count. It’s only a half hour away, but has some good hills and soft sand paths to make the cycling interesting. We passed Black Pond and a friend’s house on the way. You can these and other photos at photos from the count.

The official count site is at a beautiful bend in the tiny Herring River, with a fallen willow marking the spot and serving as a convenient shelf for the field test kit. Byu the way, there are many Herring Rivers. This is the one in Wellfleet.

Here’s the data for our first foray:

  • Time: 9:07- 9:17 am
  • Air temperature 12 ºC
  • Water temperature: 13 ºC

Unfortunately, the number that matters most is this one:

  • Number of herring: 0

Somewhere else, this bridge over the Herring River would be seen as in need of a little repair, but here, it’s just a reminder of the alliance between culture and nature in the National Seashore area. That alliance isn’t without its problems, as we can see in the decline of the Herring River and its herring, but at least there’s an effort to try to make it work.