Moveable feasting

You can’t count on a 4 mph pace on the trails of Newfoundland, even if you can walk faster than that on flat ground. Even 3 mph or 2 mph is hard to manage. In fact, you stop thinking about the pace.

The problem is not the terrain per se. I’m convinced that it involves more walking uphill than down. There are also uneven rocks, loose gravel, bogs, overgrown vegetation, fallen trees and other obstacles. And the occasional bugs and thorns. But you can get used to all of that.

A much bigger problem is the amazing views, even on the most ordinary trails. I’ve learned not to be captive of the camera, but it’s hard not to stop to look at waves crashing against a sea dungeon, to study 560 million year old Ediacaran fossils at Port Union, or to be captivated by abnormally cute puffins on the island off of Elliston Point. Those sights and more are within a 45 min. drive from our house.

But there is a bigger problem still: The trails are edible. It’s hard to keep up the pace when lunch beckons at every turn.

On a short walk yesterday, we saw ripe bakeapples (cloudberries), low-bush blueberries, and raspberries. There were chuckly-pears or chuckle-berries (amelanchier) and dogberries on the small trees, ready to eat. Nearby were partridge berries and cranberries. We’ve also sampled strawberries, juniper berries, bearberries, bunchberries, and many I can’t identify.

These delicacies were right next to the trail, far more than enough for the sparse walkers. When I’d look off the trail, I sometimes saw masses of berries enough for pies and muffins and pancakes, for jams, for adding to cereal, and for munching to keep my energy up.

There are many other edible berries. In addition to the berries on ground cover-type plants, there are fruits, some called berries, on bushes and trees. There are also numerous edible plants and mushrooms.

Click on any image below to see larger, slideshow format.

Sharing science across generations

In my last post I talked about an intergenerational reading experience. The day after that occurred, I had an intergenerational science experience when I attended the 12th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference.

The Harbor conference is always interesting, moving smoothly between very local issues in Wellfleet Harbor to regional issues in Cape Cod and New England, and on to global issues, especially those related to human activity, such as global warming, sea level rise, pollution, and decreasing biodiversity.

The presentations and posters dealt with a wide variety of topics: river herring spawning migration, including transponder tracking, training robots to assess landscape change in the Herring River floodplain, shellfish for nitrogen mitigation, horseshoe crab conservation, modeling sea level rise and vegetation change, ocean sunfish strandings, eel monitoring, restoring the Mayo Creek salt marshes, diamondback terrapin nesting, among others.

Although the sessions were diverse, there was a common theme of restoration, going from “How can we assess the damage?” to “How bad will it get?” to “Is there anything that can be done?” It was depressing to see the many ways that we’ve destroyed a beautiful habitat, even one that is supposedly protected by the National Seashore. On the other hand the efforts at restoration are impressive and may at least provide information about what not to do in the future. There was discussion of plans to restore Herring River and Mayo Creek, salt marshes, and many individual species of sea life. If these restoration projects are to succeed they need to involve a large public of all ages, not just a few scientists.

The conference was a delight to attend, even more so since most of the topics related to areas easily accessible by walking or paddling from our home. For example, we’ve seen the amazing ocean sunfish stranded on Mayo Beach only ten walking minutes from home and friends have encountered live ones while kayaking just offshore.

Aside from presenting an opportunity to learn about many topics, the conference was another good example of an intergenerational experience. Presenters included college students and volunteers of all ages. The audience was diverse as well, with some who remember well times long before the National Seashore was created.

One of the presentations was by Nauset Regional High about their own research in collaboration with the Wellfleet and Truro fifth grades. It was the first time to have K-12 presenters at the conference. The students wanted to compare oyster growth and mortality in Herring River and Mayo Creek. An interesting question for their study is that the streams experience tidal variation and high salinity at their outlets, but vary to mostly fresh water higher up: Would oysters be able to survive and thrive away from the sea? Each group of students measured and marked a set of ten oysters. There were five bags for different locations on the Herring River and three for Mayo Creek. The young scientists left each bag with oysters for six weeks, then collected it and re-measured the oysters.

The students learned some of the challenges of field science. For example, one of the oyster bags was missing when they went back to collect it. Valerie Bell, the environmental science teacher at the high school, asked the audience almost as a joke, “if you come across a bag like this can you give us a call?” To my amazement, someone in the back called out that they had in fact found the bag. It must have broken from its mooring and floated with the tide to another location. It was a small thing, but a nice example of community science in action.

Tromboncini strombazzaree

The tromboncini have welcomed August with a fanfare. And now, they’re threatening to take over.

Invasion of the squash

Invasion of the squash

Thanks to starter plants from Daniel Dejean, we now have vines encroaching on our house.

Vines attacking house

Vines attacking house

But the fruits of the plant are delicious, tastier than zuchinni. They’re huge, enough to feed the army we’ll need to defend the house against the vines.

Squash love

Squash love

As Daniel says, and illustrates, it’s the “hit of the summer.”

Tromboncino and tomato

Tromboncino and tomato

The hit of the summer

The hit of the summer

Squash fashion, by Daniel Dejean

Squash fashion, by Daniel Dejean

Trombones become harps, by Daniel Dejean

Trombones become harps, by Daniel Dejean



Tromboncino forest

Tromboncino forest

Is resistance futile?

Is resistance futile?

Citizen Science in Wellfleet

Herring River estuary

Herring River estuary

The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.

Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen  understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference 

Wellfleet marina

Wellfleet marina, note osprey nest, upper left

The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.

Poster session

Poster session

You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.

There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.

Mayo Beach, with groin

Mayo Beach, with groin

These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.

Avoiding Either/Or Thinking 

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning  is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.

Interactive map

Interactive map


Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.

This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.


IFAW van

IFAW van

Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?

Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.

The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?

Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.

Adatepe Olive Oil Museum

Heading north from Izmir towards Çanakkale, we came to the Adatepe Olive Oil Museum, in Küçükkuyu. Again, we were the sole visitors at a very interesting site.

The museum is a restored soap factory designed to display artifacts related to olive culture. It’s the only one in Turkey devoted to the history of olive oil production. The museum extracts oil by traditional cold-press methods in its factory and stores the oil for families in the area.

We saw huge granite mills for grinding olives, various tools for pruning and olive picking, baskets for carrying olives, and earthenware jars for olive oil storage.

There are also amphoras from sunken ships of early Mediterranean trade (which never made it to the Bodrum symposium). There are displays of various tools for making olive oil soap, charts of the annual cycle of olive production, maps showing the spread of olives from Syria westward, and writings in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts.

Goodbye, maple

We had to take down a beautiful maple tree at the back of the house that was way too close to the foundation. Still, there are other maples nearby. And look at the dogwoods. Burning bush, pruned by the deer up to nose height. And leaves from yesterday’s storms. We still have plenty of trees. –Susan Bruce

Predictable teaching

flowersA colleague writes about a workshop she co-presented recently, in which participants generated their own questions and engaged in guided inquiry. The workshop went well and generated plenty of debate (one of its goals), but “some liked it more then others.” Knowing the presenters, I’m confident that the workshop was a big success, but there was clearly variation in how successful it was for different participants.

That kind of variation, or unpredictability, is what leads some teachers to prefer methods with clearly-defined objectives, carefully-orchestrated procedures, and techniques for keeping everyone “on task.” Methods like that, are seen as more predictable, hence easier to measure, repeat, and guarantee results.

But things are not always as they seem. When the emphasis is on the procedure, and not on the student’s own inquiry, one can ensure that the procedure is executed faithfully. The formal lecture is the epitome of that, with the timing and mode of delivery all specifiable in advance. But the student learning can actually be far less predicitable. When students are in a lecture hall, or even going through a highly-structured exercise, their minds can be far away. The predicitability for the teacher is matched by unpredictability for the learner.

On the other hand, when students are supported in their own inquiries, the teacher’s job can feel very unpredictable, and because of that scary, and even unprofessional. It can be unpredictable for the students as well, because true inquiry can lead into unknown territory. But what goes on in the interaction among students and teachers becomes more visible and manageable. Collaborative inquiry allows engagement with the student’s thought and action, while the so-called “structured lesson” may obscure what students really think and feel. When students’ work is highly constrained, we’re left with little insight into their learning; teaching becomes totally unpredictable.

Our quest for certainty in teaching thus leads us to adopt methods that actually increase the uncertainty. But there is no way to ensure predictable teaching and learning. As Amos Pettingill says in The White Flower Farm Garden Book (referring to a zone chart for planting):

As a guide for the experimentation we so freely encourage, the table opposite will be helpful. We must caution, however, that it is rife with half-truths–despite our best efforts at disclosure. We are dealing here with living things whose colors, habits, and general constitutions will vary with locale and with the skill of the individual gardener. This unpredictability, which strikes terror into the heart of the beginner, is in fact one of the glories of gardening. Things change, certainly from year to year and sometimes from morning to evening. There are mysteries, surprises, and always, lessons to be learned. After almost 40 years hard at it, we are only beginning.

Growing our food with sewage

One fifth of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas and for half of the urban fields the only source of water is untreated city sewage. Thus, according to a recent study from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), one tenth of the world’s food is now grown using raw sewage.

Sewage abroad

Raw sewage brings heavy metals, pathogenic bacteria, and worms. But the water is necessary for the plants, and the sewage contains nitrates and phosphates, which promote plant growth. In many areas the use of city sewage has become necessary to prevent starvation. This is just one reminder of the consequences of our unjust global economic system and of the interconnections among water supplies, waste treatment, agriculture, the environment, and economic development.

Sewage at home

But the issues about sewage and agriculture are not confined to crowded cities in developing countries. In most of Europe and North America, about half of the sewage sludge is now spread on farmland, but after treatment that breaks down most of the complex organic molecules and kills most of the pathogens. A major contribution of US industry and the Environmental Protection Agency, has been to promote the term “biosolids,” for the treated stuff, which sounds much better than “sewage,” “sludge,” or “shit.” But despite the name change, we know little about the health and environmental effects of using it.

A report in 2002 from the National Academy of Sciences says that unsafe pathogens and chemicals remain in biosolids. No epidemiological studies have been done to show whether spreading them on land is safe for agriculture workers, nearby residents, or food consumers. In short, we don’t know whether we’re better off than the 10% getting the raw stuff.

Experimental sewage

Meanwhile, biosolid experiments are underway. Could sludge be a fix for hazardous lead paint by lowering the the rate at which lead enters the bloodstream and circulates to organs and tissues? A study asking that was conducted recently on a vacant lot in East St. Louis next to an elementary school. The 300 students were black and almost entirely from low-income families. It’s not clear how the residents could make informed decisions about participating in the study, given the NAS report that no studies have ever been done on its safety.

Where is the public?

Issues such as this never get mentioned in political campaigns, and rarely make the mainstream news. They’re unpleasant to think about, and solutions might require changes in lifestyle or large expense. Most of us are so confused that we can’t even frame the questions. Nevertheless, these issues deserve more attention as part of the world we’re making for ourselves and our children.

Writing in 1927, John Dewey (in The Public and Its Problems) noted that “The public is so confused and eclipsed that it cannot even use the organs through which it is supposed to mediate political action and polity.” In contrast to Walter Lippman, who argued for a knowledgeable elite to address complex problems, Dewey saw full participation in civic life as essential:

We have the physical tools of communication as never before. [But] the thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence are not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself, but seizing and holding its shadow rather than its substance. Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse.

I doubt that sewage will become the rallying call for the Great Community, but Dewey was annoyingly vague about what that call might be. What’s clear is that we need to find better ways to create the kind of democracy in which people really participate and which addresses the most basic problems we all face.

See also:

World’s farmers turn to raw sewage for irrigation – health (New Scientist)

Sludge tested as lead-poisoning fix (AP)

Sewage Sludge Standards Need New Scientific Basis (NAS)

The last flower in WALL-E

Our family had a rare trip to an in-theater movie on Sunday, as opposed to watching one of the many movies we see at home. It was a good choice for the theater, WALL-E, with its sweeping scenes of dance in outer space and the counterpoint of its portrayal of robots with minimalist, but very believable emotions.

It’s a delightful movie for children or adults, but the adults are more likely to squirm as they see characters depicted in lounge chairs with drink holders, more similar than they might like to see to the audience sitting in now extra-wide theater seats with holders for 44-ounce cups. The story shows how a culture of excess consumption, with little regard for the environment, community, or meaningful activity, ultimately destroys a livable earth and nearly, the people themselves.

The plot hinges on the robot Wall-E’s discovery of a living plant, either the last to survive massive environmental destruction, or perhaps, the first to signal a possible recovery of the planet. He and another robot, EVE, protect the plant until it re-energizes humankind to save the planet they nearly destroyed.

It reminded me of James Thurber’s The Last Flower, a graphic novel published in November 1939, two months after World War II began. I haven’t seen the parallel mentioned elsewhere, but it seemed surprisingly close to me. In Thurber’s story, we read:

One day a girl who had never seen a flower chanced to come upon the last one in the world…The only one who paid attention to her was a young man she found wandering about. Together the young man and the girl nurtured the flower and it began to live again.

In only 48 cartoon frames, Thurber talks about wars, which never end, and the causal factors of greed, intolerance, the inability to understand others, and a fetish of violence. He also describes human and environmental destruction in both words and pictures. There is a deep pessimism in the seeming inability of people to maintain a respect for life or to find common ground, but also optimism, in the refusal of the flower to disappear entirely.

WALL-E presents a happier, less complex position. Some of the causal factors are there, but WALL-E’s world seems to have eliminated wars and racism. And although humanity has come close to a final disaster, the plant that WALL-E and EVE nurture appears to redeem it once and for all.

Thurber’s plant, unlike WALL-E’s, has a flower, which holds the promise of reproduction, as do his (non-robot) people. It is essential that the plant have a flower, which is visited by a bee, because biological reproduction in all its messiness is integral to the rebirth of Thurber’s world. WALL-E offers a vision more akin to Coca-Cola commercials about holding hands around the world. I liked WALL-E, but seeing it gave me a new appreciation for what Thurber managed to do using much simpler technology, but a deep insight into people and life.