September 4, 2012

The Character of Scenery

At the beginning of May I was offered – and accepted – a 6-month volunteership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alpine, Arizona, working on the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Project. Mexican Gray Wolves are the most genetically distinct sub-species of North American wolf, and like the California Condor, they have been brought back from the brink of extinction through captive breeding, begun in the late seventies. In 1998, the first Mexican Wolves were re-released into the American southwest. Currently there are at least 60 wild wolves in eleven packs spread out across the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico. For more information about the project, go to My job is to gather on-the-ground information about the movement and doings of wolves in New Mexico, which is accomplished through radio telemetry of collared animals, the location of track and sign, and the use of game cameras. I am also involved in efforts to locate and trap uncollared wolves and this year’s pups. 

Wolf print
It is an amazing opportunity to learn the skills of large carnivore conservation and to explore a completely new landscape with new flora and fauna.
    As I have had more and more opportunities to do this throughout my life, and have been exposed to the thoughts of others on the same topic, a pattern to the process of forming a relationship with a place has emerged.

All is unknown, overwhelming, impressions are general, details float and disappear without a framework, aesthetic impressions fall into easy categories.

A  portion of a map at a kiosk along the Pacific Crest Trail.  

It begins with stepping wide-eyed from the plane or car or train to this new place for the first time. I remember stepping out of the tiny airport in Show Low, Arizona, and being struck foremost by the wonderful and completely unfamiliar smell, and then by the dry hot texture of the air on my skin.

Charles Darwin wrote:

“But there is a growing pleasure in comparing the character of the scenery in different countries, which to a certain degree is distinct from merely admiring its beauty.”                        

I had in my head many “images” of the Southwest which were just that – pictures, not memories. They had no dimension of sensation behind them. Images such as cactuses, cowboys, red-rock towers, coyotes howling with head thrown back. Each of us has a collection of these sort of clip-art ideas about any given place. It is not until we really visit, and for more than twenty minutes (which is, sadly, the average length of a stay at the Grand Canyon) that these begin to be replaced by actual smells, sensations, textures, and views. Our understanding of that place changes from a story written by someone else to a story written by us. And at the same time, there is pleasure to be found in actually seeing the real-life versions of our mental pictures: the prickly pears and cholla scattered across dry south-facing slopes, range riders who walk into the office with spurs jangling, the dust-colored coyotes flitting between ochre bluffs. 

A saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert. This large plant could be nearly 200 years old.
Time and effort is put into acquiring relevant knowledge: names, maps, places, dates, leaf shapes, bird calls, property lines.

The handful of preconceived notions I had about the southwest are, of course, vastly outnumbered by all the things, large and small, which are entirely new to me, and which, learned bit by bit, let me see the true character of the country. My daily morning walks along the dirt road where I came to know the traveling habits of the local raccoon. Finally identifying the mockingbird as the owner of those white-flashing wings. Noticing the raw and ragged ravines through which the stormwater scours, washing away the tawny soil. Marking the phenology of the wildflowers springing up, saturated with color, from the hillsides. All these are things which I saw in my first days, but which, like people as yet unknown to me, did not register upon my awareness. It is as Goethe said:

Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.  

I have watched with fascination this growing comprehension in myself as the weeks pass here. I begin to note the “new eyes” with which I see the landscape – eyes for differentiating tracks, ears which catch even the faintest blip from a distant radio collar, a nose for differentiating baits, a sense for calculating how a radio signal might bounce. 

Arizona Centaury, Centaurium calycosum

As I learn more about the history of grazing, fire, and erosion in this place, the names and habits of plants and animals, and the history of the people – Apache, Euroamerican, Mormon – my understanding of, and response to, a view or object which upon arrival would have elicited nothing more in me than perhaps the simple visual pleasure of a tangle of organic forms, now brings forth much more: interest, history, pleasure, and, sadly, often disgust. Well, perhaps that is too strong a word. But certainly a feeling that, somehow, things are not as they should be.

As the big picture begins to fall into place, all the instances of loss make themselves known – patterns of cultural subjugation, erosion, extinction, greed.

Morenci Mine, the largest copper-mining operation in North America. This photo shows about 1/5 of the operations. I passed it on a weekend trip to Tucson.

I know that nature (and people) are ever-changing and do not adhere to some static “balanced” form. There is no cosmic rule-book which delineates the “proper” form of the southwest ecosystem. And yet I refuse to accept the idea that the transformation of a small river valley from a green, willow-shaded idyll to a denuded, massively-eroded wash should be viewed with indifference. My trailer, in the Alpine Ranger District Administrative Site of the Forest Service, clings to the foothills of a collection of prominences which rise quickly northward to the summit of Escudilla Mountain. It was here that the last grizzly in Arizona resided, before it was killed, leaving Escudilla, in Aldo Leopold’s words, “only a mountain now.” Leopold spent the early part of his career working for the Forest Service in the southwest, and it is what he saw there that began, gradually but inexorably, to shape his thoughts and beliefs away from the doctrines of the time and into his classic vision expressed in A Sand County Almanac. He wrote:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

This statement has often come to mind as I have pondered the struggles between conservationists and landowners in the southwest. To the eyes of a rancher, the sight of a field dotted with sagebrush, juniper, and cows, evinces satisfaction and prosperity. An ecologist might look at the same scene and see invasive species usurping native ones, transforming what was once a lush grama grass meadow maintained by fire to a weedy over-grazed wasteland. Both of these views may have some truth in them, for the cows feed both the rancher’s family and America’s insatiable lust for burgers, and the evidence is clear that the simultaneous dramatic increase in grazing pressure and the complete suppression of all fires following Euroamerican colonization are responsible for major changes in the flora, fauna, and even topography of the area. Similarly, the rancher views the wolf as an unwanted threat to cows, elk, and even human beings, whereas a supporter sees the return of a majestic creature to its natural home. 

One of a handful of similar anti-wolf signs throughout the recovery area.

Integration / Re-enchantment
As a deeper, more complex understanding of the place is gained, the functional relationships between the various parts and pieces begin to come clear. The dots, so to speak, get connected, and in doing so, a new awareness of the vitality, ingenuity, and beauty of the place begins to eclipse the dismay.

A butterfly attracted to the moisture in a coyote scat.

It may be true that an observant eye and a taste for understanding connections (which is, after all, the basis of an ecological education) may leave one saddened by human thoughtlessness, but I think Leopold would have been equally accurate had he written that one of its gifts is that one lives in a world of wonders. As my understanding of this place has deepened, I am more and more frequently brought to a standstill by something fascinating or beautiful or odd – a track in the dust, the sudden surge of wooly bear caterpillars, the sunset light on canyon strata.

Finally, and particularly if one is actively working for and with this place, a new sense of possibility is gained – the past, of course, cannot be changed, but the future is wide open, and one can envision it wholly and well.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
            ~ Rachel Carson

Twice now I have been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and see a wild Mexican Wolf going about its life – taking a cooling dip in a pond, trotting eastward through the pines. In these moments, I do not feel some vast surge of emotion or lofty thought, but something better: the feeling that nothing exists in the universe – no politics, no dilemmas, nothing – except the wolf,  which draws around itself a tiny vivid orbit of light on vegetation, moving air, and my gratefully astonished gaze.

As far as we know, this isn't a pack's territory...yet.

July 19, 2012

Pondering Nature Connection

Hmmmm... ?
Something has been on my mind for a while. Of all the experiences I've had in the wilderness--practicing awareness, survival skills, natural history, community building--what has had the most profound effect on helping me gain a deeper connection to the natural world around me, and how can I pass that on to people that have not had the fortune of being adopted into the growing wilderness community? Read my post on Curiosity for Curiosity's Sake to better understand why I think an awareness of our connection to the natural world is so important.

In my case I was at the right place at the right time, at about the age of 12. It was hard not to join this community when being pulled alongside so many inspiring role models. I am eternally grateful for everything they have done and continue to do for me. You know who you are.

But many people haven't had this opportunity. It isn't realistic for most people to shift their current lifestyle to one of routinely practicing survival skills (foraging, shelter building, water gathering, fire making, etc.), awareness skills (sitspot, animal tracking, natural history observation, journaling, etc.), and building extended family regenerative communities (long-term mentorships, community supported events, etc.) (although I think it is definitely the best way to go!).

Fire-making the old way 
So, what about this nature connection has had the most profound effect on me and how can I distill it to an exercise for someone not ready to shift their lifestyle?

After much thought I came to this conclusion: The reason that wilderness survival skills appeal to me as much as they do is that they provide a direct link between my sustenance and the raw materials of the Earth. Knowing how to keep a fire going through rain can keep me warm in certain situations where otherwise I might be cold or even freeze to death. Likewise, knowing how and what to forage would help feed me, giving me the energy I need to thrive. In both of these situations the connection between my survival and the Earth is direct.

To try describing that direct connection inevitably includes the feelings of gratitude, pride, and humility. Gratitude, because I am grateful for everyone and every thing that has helped me achieve what I did. I wouldn't have relearned those skills if it weren't for a select few that passed on the old knowledge unsuppressed by the context of our modern technological world. Furthermore, I am grateful for the host of natural occurrences that led to the presence of crayfish in the nearby river and the ground nuts growing on its bank. Pride, because I am proud of my ability to have relearned and successfully applied the necessary skills. And Humility because those experiences helped me realize the broader scheme of things. The green frog in the nearby pond and the white-tailed deer that passed near camp within the last few days are driven to stay alive for much the same reasons I am.

Is it possible that gratitude, pride, and humility outline the major aspects of our connection to the natural world? Maybe Gratitude provides a connection by acknowledging the ancestors, people, animals, plants, and other living and non-living things around us, without which we wouldn't be where we are. See this short video for a powerful take on gratitude. Perhaps Pride can acknowledge the connection to ourselves--without which who would we be? We humans are part of the natural world too, right? Finally, maybe Humility can connect us to the broader picture, helping us see the value in the natural world around us--one that we lived close to for the vast majority of our existence as humans.

The final question then is: Is there a way to gain these feelings of Gratitude, Pride, and Humility without full on nature immersion? Perhaps there is. After all, the computer I'm typing on is essentially made up of raw materials found on Earth, as well as my sketchbook, guitar, and bag of chips sitting on the   table--all things I am grateful for.

Hmmmm...  ?

One more thing: Is there a difference between feeling our connection to the natural world or just being aware of it?

July 4, 2012

New Links and Resources page

I just uploaded a new page containing interesting links and useful resources. ^ Will continue to add to these soon.
Happy Independence day!

June 30, 2012

Venomous Encounters

I was in the Carolinas most of the last two weeks, helping a fellow graduate student with his fieldwork. Our days consisted of sampling old field vegetation and collecting leaves to measure the functional traits of the most abundant plants. Among the excruciating population of mosquitos we hit the first day, we also encountered a couple of copperheads and a lovely black widow spider.

Graduate student Andrew Siefert at one of his plots.
Does this photo need a caption?
The copperhead snake in our campsite...
Note the red hourglass...
Black Widow with an egg sack in one of our field sites.

June 29, 2012

Field Notes for an Undergraduate of Ecology

I just finished reading Field Notes on Science and Nature edited by Michael R. Canfield. It is a wonderful compilation of articles written by various authors about field journaling. The field journal refers to the notebook used to record observations and research data. Traditionally, field journals were used by the great explores and naturalists of the world to record their findings and later make discoveries such as the theory of evolution by natural selection. More recently, ecology has begun to focus much more on the experimental approach, straying away from pure observation. The modern field journal has become the data sheet or Excel file. Reading this book was a great awakening to the need of returning to the dedicated use of a field journal.

But most of the book's authors were professionals--professors, researchers, consultants, etc. Although some of the authors used stories from their graduate school experiences, few if any mentioned journaling during their undergraduate tenure. I started thinking about this and realized: How can I benefit from the values of field journaling as a student in my life as an undergraduate? Now a graduate student, I can see the applicability of field journaling given the inherent nature of my thesis. But as an undergraduate, or even a high school student, how could have I benefited from journals? The following is a journal system that I suggest for the aspiring undergraduate ecologist. It consists of two formal journals and one "field" notebook.

The Notebook
  • Use a small "field" notebook for your rough class notes. Ideally something handy and durable that you can access easily. Liken this notebook to your short term memory. It only has to be neat enough to help you transcribe and expand on your entries in the following journals. It would probably be a good habit to do this transcribing at the end of each day. The exact contents of this notebook will be more evident as you continue reading below, but essentially anything is fair game in this notebook.

Course Journal (the What)
  • Use your Course Journal to transcribe your notes clearly, so that you can easily refer back to them, and in a way that makes rereading the material enjoyable. Use color, use mindmaps, use drawings, do whatever it takes. You can do external research for this section to fill in elements you didn't understand or missed in class. You can also use this journal to directly summarize your understanding of papers/articles you read for class assigments. This journal is both a way to reinforce what you've learned and a way to generate your own "textbook"--one written in your own words. This is a place where you can create your own field guides to help with your pursuit of natural history. While taking an ornithology class, for example, you might use field guides to generate a list of the common birds of your region.

Reflection Journal (the How and Why)
  • The Reflection Journal is where you keep track of your educational experience. What are you learning? What do you understand? What don't you understand or is giving you a hard time? What do you want to pursue next? Having kept a journal similar to this, I was pleasantly surprised to find how useful it was. It helped me come to terms with and understand what I actually want to pursue in the natural sciences, as well as the best learning avenues to take. This journal is a way to reflect on yourself, giving a space to reevaluate where you are going with your education. It is a useful place to track your progress as you learn a new subject--very encouraging when the subject seems really hard. You can also journal the connections between what you are learning and your actual natural history observations. There is nothing that helps me learn more than being able to connect what I am learning directly to what I see in the natural world. Doing this helps me remember (with great satisfaction) why I am doing ecology in the first place. Although as your knowledge of natural history grows you will likely delve into journals dedicated strictly to objective observations of natural history, this reflection journal will still be a great place to bring together your understanding of the literature and your observations.

The Course and Reflection journals are similar to the two questions I describe in my article on the "Ultimate Human Ecology". The Course journal describes the What--what are you learning? The Relfection journal describes the How and Why--How are you learning, and why are you doing it? Coming to terms with the "why" has been one of the most important aspects of my undergraduate education. As soon as I knew the "why" I had something to shoot for and a solid foundation from which to push myself, helping me stay motivated when things weren't always so fun. The bottom line is that the this student journal system is designed with the intention to help you learn.

Of course, it would probably entail some extra work to sustain this journaling system, but perhaps it will pay off in the long term by helping you get more out of classes that interest you, and not having to study as much before exams. Perhaps a good compromise is to use this journal system on only the most applicable classes--the ones you are willing to put the extra effort in to get the most out of. And, of course the system is only a suggestion. I never in the past put this wholy into practice, but perhaps elements of it will inspire you. Take whatever you may from it, and remember to have fun.

So now, as a begining graduate student in plant ecology I hope to implement some of this journaling into my own daily routine. Getting into a routine is hard until you do it and then it's, well, just a routine. It also helps to have a friend you can commit with, supporting and encouraging each other to keep going. Good luck journaling!

Please feel free to comment on your experiences/ideas related to journaling as an undergraduate. I'd enjoy expanding this discussion with others.

June 12, 2012

We made it back!

...and bringing with us stories we will keep and share for a lifetime.

Apologies for not sending this update sooner. It has been a hectic week as we try to reincorporate ourselves into this country while still trying to hold the essence of what blessed us along our travels through Romania--and Ireland! A generous and loving friend has a cottage on a tidal island off the coast of Ireland and insisted that we make a stop there before returning to the States. Of course we could not refuse such an amazing opportunity.

Now for some logistical updates:
  • The goal of our trip was a success. With over 20 hours of audio interviews, almost 3,000 photos (B&W film and Digital), as well as several charcoal, pencil, and ink drawings. Not to mention our brains oozing with stories.
  • Postcards were sent from Romania.
  • Other rewards are being compiled. They will probably be in the mail in the next two weeks.
  • The only bad news is that one of the film cameras we used was somehow defective--overexposing and ruining the vast majority of the 110 photos taken with that camera. It was a really frustrating moment when I realized all those pictures were ruined, and many apologies to anyone anticipating high quality black and white photos. That said, on a good and more artistic note, the photos taken with our pin hole PinHolga camera came out really well (for a pinhole camera)! I was expecting the opposite, especially without a light meter and exposure time being quite arbitrary sometimes (from 1 second to 20 seconds). If you are utterly confused by what a pin hole PinHolga camera is (or regardless), you should watch the video below. It also includes a sneak peak of some of our photos.
  • One of our backers has generously volunteered their time to help with creating a website where we will be posting our findings, stories, photos, etc. as they get compiled. More news on this as it unfolds.Thank you all again so much. It was a life-changing experience for us, and we are so excited to share it with you.
Below is a peak at some of our drawings. Go to this link to see the PinHolga video:

May 8, 2012

Greetings from Romania

Just finished a fantastic breakfast of cheese, ham, carrots, and warm colostrum (click to find out more) ;)
I will post updates upon my return from Romania. Till then, all the best, and maybe you'll hear from Matt or Kavviaq.

April 14, 2012

Understanding Fibonacci in Nature

I have always wondered about the whole "Fibonacci spirals in nature" thing. Fibonacci numbers are the numbers generated when you add each previous two numbers to generate the next.

For example: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. (1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, 8+5=13, 8+13=21) 

But two things were always unclear to me:

1.  How are spirals in nature related to Fibonacci numbers? What is a Fibonacci spiral?

2.  Why do things tend to grow in these Fibonacci spirals? There must be a reason right?

Well, I came across an excellent Youtube series that explains this, and really well at that!

See below. It is a three part series and each video is only abou 6 minutes long. Definitely worth seeing. Quite amazing and ingenious. Thanks to ViHart.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

A fern fiddlehead showing the Fibonacci spiral

The leaf pattern of a Solidago spp. (Goldenrod) to optimize light capture.

You did it!

And with flying colors. (see to the right)

I don't have words. This is fantastic, and we are grateful beyond belief.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

There will be more updates soon. I will send out a survey for backers to fill out their addresses so that we know where to send postcards and rewards.

We fly out on the 20th.

All the best,

Luka and Phil

April 1, 2012

The glass is (almost!) half full

Many great thanks and much gratitude to everyone that has helped out so far.

I’m sure most of you thoroughly enjoy the comforts and aids that our technology brings us. I definitely do! It is fantastic to have the ability to connect with most people I know in just a matter of minutes; to have the largest library of knowledge humanity has ever known, and be able to carry it in my backpack! Not to mention traveling anywhere in the world within a day or two.

So don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against modern technology, I’ve just realized the importance of being aware of certain “side effects” this lifestyle can have on us. One side effect is that we are becoming dependent on these modern conveniences without retaining our traditional methods of sustenance.

This is where Philip and I come in. We hope to add a bridge between the traditional knowledge of homesteading and our modern world. Our project is the first step. The next step (and what I see as my own direction in life), is to help people understand why this old wisdom is so important in our lives. I truly believe we would live much healthier (mental and physical) lives if we each provided even a bit of our own sustenance. Help us get through this first step.

If 200 people each pledge only 12 dollars, we would reach our goal! That may sound like a lot of people, but if only 25 of you take a few minutes to send a personal email to only 10 friends, that's 250 new potential backers. And some might even pledge more than $12!

Below are some images from a photo essay I did a few years ago, titled: “Processing a Pig”

March 29, 2012

Just added this new widget -->

Help support Philip Walter and I to document the disappearing knowledge of traditional homesteading from people that still rely on it, before the laws, policies, and modern technologies overrun this old wisdom.

Your donations will help with travel and living expenses while we travel rural Romania for six weeks to document this old knowledge.

We are currently 43% of the way there and have 16 days to go. Please help us make this trip a reality so we can share this information with you when we return! Even if you can only afford a dollar, it will make a difference.

Also, among other things, we will print you traditional black and white photographs and drawings from our travels in exchange for your support.

Click the widget to the right for more information (to watch our video) and to make a pledge.

See below for some more photos of my past travels to Romania.

Preparing the scythe

Speaking with a shepherd

A common scene in town...

March 16, 2012

Recalling a winter trip…

With a fresh cover of clean snow, Jordan Chalfant, Matt Dickinson, and I set out on February 13th, 2012 to try to find tracks of the elusive bog lemmings of Mount Desert Island, Maine. We went to Sunken Heath bog as our first destination. Little did we know that this trip would take us through a medley of other animal and botanical signs. 

To reach Sunken Heath we had to first go through a red spruce and balsam fir forest. Inexplicably drawn by our curiosity to follow any animal tracks we found, we were forced into a slow, but deliberate walk. Most of the tracks in the forest were the bounds of mice and red squirrels--common in these coniferous habitats. Matt suddenly stopped, staring at some squirrel tracks as if there was something different to them. Indeed! These tracks were not the bound pattern of a red squirrel, but mostly a hop pattern common to flying squirrels! Out first special find of the day.

Flying squirrel
Further along we came to some eastern coyote tracks that altogether deviated us from the path towards the bog. This coyote then led to the intricate tunnels left by a species of shrew in search of insects. The track patterns of the shrew were actually visible within the tunnel! Finally, after another coyote and some mice, we made it to Sunken Heath bog. The botanical world opened its doors.

Shrew tunnel
Eastern coyote
I had been to bogs in other seasons and greatly appreciated their botanical diversity. But I never thought I'd find it out here in the winter. I realized that a common feature of bog plants is woodiness with evergreen leathery leaves (an adaptation to help them deal with the extreme growing conditions of bog habitats). This allowed me to identify most of the species I encountered--a botanist's greatest revival in the brown winter months! 
Picea mariana (Black spruce)
Sarracenia purpurea (Pitcher plant)
Oclemena nemoralis (Bog aster)

Alas, although we came across some other wonderful tracks, we found no bog lemming signs in Sunken Heath bog. Out next stop was to be Wonderland Bog in Acadia National Park. 

But.... we were halted once again. This time by a weasel! Of course, that wasn't enough. Following another coyote, we reached a set of impeccable bobcat tracks! The bobcat had crossed the coyote trail, stepping carefully right over the prints the coyote had left. We followed a bit, only to realize we were following the coyote. The bobcat had elusively left the trail! Being a bit hurried for time, we moved on towards our final bog destination.

Bobcat track
Finally at Wonderland Bog, we found what may have been some burrows in the snow left by bog lemmings. Unfortunately, their lack of clarity prevented any conclusive certainty about their presence. The bog lemmings continued as an elusive—yet useful—mystery for exploring the plants and animals of Mount Desert Island, Maine.

Possible bog lemming burrow...

March 2, 2012


Yesterday morning I found myself making a decision that I really had not been expecting. Which, I pondered, would be a more effective defensive weapon if a moose charged me – a large orange plastic shovel or a smaller metal sidewalk scraper? Needless to say, this was not quite how I had envisioned my morning of housesitting and jury duty going. When I let the dog out moments before, he disappeared into the darkness barking hysterically. I peered after him to discover that he and the neighbor’s dog (a fractious animal over which I can exert no control) were dancing just out of reach of a young moose that was standing in the driveway. Standing, incidentally, between me and the barn, where I needed to go to feed the horses, who were tense and wheezing with fright. The moose was agitated, turning to face the dogs, hair raised on its back, pacing the churned up snow near the barn door.  I managed to recall my dog and get him safely in the house. The neighbor’s dog continued to caper gleefully, ignoring my shouting completely, until the moose charged her, which sent her dashing towards the protection of the house, where I was able to grab her and shove her inside. The moose put on the brakes, slip-sliding on the icy driveway, before it lost its footing entirely and fell heavily on its hindquarters. It stood and looked at me for a long moment, then turned and began walking slowly back towards the barn. The barn to which I needed to go.

Bull moose in Chugach State Park, AK. photo credit wikimedia commons
Moose (Alces alces) are big. Very big. There’s just no denying that. The Alaskan sub-species, Alces alces gigas, with which I am most familiar, is the largest. They easily stand six feet tall at the shoulder, weigh well over a thousand pounds, and a large male’s rack can stretch six feet across. Their legs are long and powerful, their necks massive. The moose before me that morning was small, perhaps only five-and-half-feet at the shoulder, no more than a year old, and skinny. Nevertheless, it was easily many times my weight and strength. People usually use words like “majestic” to describe the moose, rather than “elegant” or “beautiful.” They are the largest and least lissome of the deer family. To me, however they are neither beautiful nor ugly but apposite. They fit in to their environment, both literally and figuratively, in way that just makes sense. Despite their large size, they are surprisingly good at blending in. Many a time I can remember peering into the woods off the back deck, trying to see what the dogs were seeing. Then – there! for an instant as it took a step – the large dark form of a moose would become clear. As soon as it stopped, however, you had to know just where to look to see the white legs, the hump of the shoulder, the swiveling ears. Their size and shape allows them to browse high up on trees, reach down to pond bottoms for aquatic plants, and fend off wolf attacks. And too they hold a proud place among the arrary of northern megafauna – grizzly, dall sheep, caribou, musk ox, king salmon –  big animals for big country.

While the moose in the driveway was inconvenient, it was not really all that surprising. South-central Alaska has had a year of deep snows –Anchorage has gotten around nine feet – and the four feet or so that has been consistently on the ground since December is enough to pose a serious challenge to the local moose. In an attempt to find shallower snow and better forage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley moose population has moved en masse down to lower elevations and thus into closer proximity with people. A degree of this seasonal movement is typical, but this year the trend is extreme. They have become a more-than-common sight next to roads, in yards, and on the river flats. One made it three stories up an Anchorage hospital’s parking garage and nearly wandered into the foyer before being stopped by a security guard:  

photo credit Leslie Bagley, ADN
By halfway through the winter, the number of moose killed by trains and cars surpassed last year’s levels – 270 in an average year, with at least 400 already lost this year -- and many more are destined to starve unseen. The Alaska Moose Federation has secured approval and funding to attempt to lure moose away from roadways with feeding stations, as well as dart and relocate animals away from roads and traintracks out to more remote areas. This has come under criticism from some residents and biologists, who see this as a waste of money, a mixed message to the public about feeding wildlife, and potentially even harmful for the animals, as feeding moose is not as simple as it might seem.

While their summer diet consists of a wide variety of plant life, as befits an animal of their bulk, they survive the winter eating, essentially, wood (they primarily browse the buds and twigs of willow, birch, cottonwood, aspen, and other trees and shrubs). The microbiology of their rumens shifts seasonally in response to their diet, so by midwinter, the wood-digesting gut-fauna dominates alsmost exclusively. So even if they found more calorically-rich food, they would be unable to digest it – one reason why it is against Alaska state law to feed a moose. Moose have starved to death with innards stuffed full of hay, and I was worried that hay was what had attracted this moose to the barn area.

Moose-browsed shrubs and saplings showing evidence of repeated heavy browsing. photos by author

Combine all this – deep snow, high browsing pressure, and the energy needed to maintain a large warm body available only from frozen twigs, and you have moose that are on the edge, calorically and behaviorally. As the risk run by expending energy grows – one strenuous escape from a predator could spell death – “fight” starts to look a lot better than “flight.” Energy-stressed moose are more belligerent and aggressive, refusing to yield cleared or packed ground for deeper powder, and are more likely to charge nearby dogs, cars, and people. It was with this in mind that I surveyed the shovel and the sidewalk scraper. While the shovel might be more visually intimidating, its flimsy construction unnerved me – I decided that, if worse came to worse, a whack to the face from the sidwalk scraper might make the moose think twice – although last month one tiny 85 year old woman used a grain shovel to sucessfully beat off an enraged moose that was stomping her husband. Taking her courage as an example, I walked slowly towards the barn, hugging the snow berm for protection, talking calmly to the moose and holding the sidewalk scraper horizontally to look bigger. The moose continued to mosey (they seem to have two gears: incredibly fast, and mosey) on down past the barn and disappeared into the stunted brush behind it. Suddenly I could breathe again; grateful that this encounter had gone smoothly for moose and human alike. 


Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Moose Species Profile.

Boots, Michelle. “State OKs group's plan to drug, relocate roadside moose.” Anchorage Daily News, February 29th, 2012

Demer, Lisa. “85-year-old woman wields shovel to stop moose stomping.” Anchorage Daily News, January 23rd, 2012

Joling, Dan. “Alaska approves moose relocation away from roads.” Anchorage Daily News, February 28th, 2012

Klouda, Naomi. “No muffins – or hay – for moose.” Homer Tribune, February 3rd, 2010.

Sinnott, Rick. “Feeding hungry moose is a fundraising bonanza.” Alaska Dispatch, February 29th 2012.

February 13, 2012

New Natural Mystery Page

Check out the new Natural Mystery Page!

We will post a question(s) with photos, videos, and/or descriptions that you can use to help unravel the answer. These mysteries may encompass all things related to natural history, whether they are mammal tracks, plants, or anything else... A week later we will reveal the answer to the mystery.

The first mystery has just been posted...

February 8, 2012

A Discussion of This Degree

All I want is to be a little part
of the things that I love.
All I want is to make a little start
at the things that I love.
Seems there’s lots of things that I could love.
– Old Man Luedecke

I was standing in my kitchen early in winter term of my junior year, trying to decide if I should take Organic Chemistry 2 – the logical, culturally approved choice for a “science person” – or if instead I should create an independent study in Nature Writing to explore this genre which had long inspired me. I had struggled in Organic Chemistry 1 to retain interest or motivation, and the thought of another term of it made my spirit droop, while the prospect of delving into my favorite authors and writing about the world without taking data felt like freedom. The chemistry, I thought to myself, would look better on my transcript, better to grad schools, more in line with my…uh…major? Wait a minute! I was getting a degree in Human Ecology, darn it, and I wanted it that way! Nature writing was just as much a part of that as Organic Chemistry! At that moment something in me shifted, and I understood and embraced human ecology in a way that I hadn’t before. I believed in it fully, instead of tolerating it as a weird appellation on a good education. I felt slightly foolish, like a church-going atheist whose soul has just been saved. Hallelujah!
As I wandered the woods and fields of Mount Desert Island, Maine, scribbling in my notebook, and through the pages of the books of nature writers, I did in fact find myself thinking about chemistry – in the context of evolution, of intelligence, of color. I also thought about art, about history, about human cultures, about biology and architecture and Australia and joy and the local water treatment plant. When one begins to explore the world, through any door,  the territory is unending.
Fast forward two years from my moment of epiphany in the kitchen. My diploma, declaring my BA in human ecology, sits safely in its leather sheath on my desk. I am preparing to apply for jobs. There are lots of things I think I might like to do, but my primary dreams for the next twelve months include wilderness horse pack trips, field science, and writing. I sat down and made an equine résumé – my years of owning and training a horse, bolstered by my outdoor and leadership experiences at College of the Atlantic. It looked solid and I was proud of it. Then I made a science résumé. As I was forced to make some cuts from the “Relevant Courses” list so that it would not bump the line about receiving the Goldwater Scholarship down onto the next page, I was startled – and proud – to see that this too was a respectable document which portrayed a significant truth about me and my abilities. I paused. How many résumés had this degree given me? I reviewed my transcript again, this time pulling out literature and humanities courses. The spread, while not as comprehensive as my science courses, was nothing to sneeze at.            
I then began to wonder: which was more valuable? The number of different résumés that my degree had given me, or the fact that I saw the ways in which the elements of each “different” résumé were interchangeable? After all, wouldn’t my physiology class support my ability to take care of a horse, understanding more about its body systems? And the tutorial in French would come in handy if I ever led a wilderness trip with international clientele. In Principles of Comedic Improvisation, with is mantra of “Yes! And –,” I developed confidence in front of an audience and an ability to work with others that will serve me well as part of a research team. Art classes improved my writing. History classes left me with a better understanding of policy. Ecology taught me philosophy. I can divide my education into different themes, and they stand firm, but really each course and experience was just as much a supporting element of my degree as every other.
However, that doesn’t always translate well to the world of disciplines and majors. Human ecologists face the perennial problem of trying to explain that a lack of clear-cut disciplines on our transcript does not imply that we ourselves lack discipline, or that the A in our BA means that we live in fear of statistics. At the top of each of my résumés it says “College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME, 2011: BA in Human Ecology*,” and below, “*Please see Cover Letter for a discussion of this degree.” One cannot be a passive human ecologist. The world won’t let you. In fact, it is the reverse – to bear the title is to commit to a lifetime (at least until you get another, more normal, degree) of  explanation and interpretation. Many human ecologists, I think, grow resentful at the perceived constant need to “measure up” to other standards – we fear that our degree doesn’t “look good” to outside eyes, and we rush to smooth things over by explaining that “yes it’s a weird degree, but look I’m really just a     _____-ist;” all the while growing embittered about “the system” and our relationship to it. While I can relate to that quite well, it occurs to me that to fall into such a trap is hardly different than fretting about my pant size or the car I drive. Personally I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worried that my human ecology degree makes me look fat. So instead I say, yes I’m really just a human ecologist. Yes, I can do math. Yes, my degree is unusual; I’m very proud of it.

January 24, 2012

Winter expedition to Great Duck Island, Maine

I recently returned from a winter expedition on January 22nd, crossing the south sea of Mount Desert Island to reach the under-explored winter lands of Great Duck Island. If I understood correctly, there have been very few trips exploring the winter world of the island in the last 40 years—and a lot has changed since then.
Great Duck Island

Great Duck Island (GDI) is an island about 90 hectares in size (~220 acres), about 9 km south of Mount Desert Island. It is just south of Little Duck Island (See the tab above for more info about LDI). The island is mostly owned by the Nature Conservancy. College of the Atlantic owns 12 acres, including the south tip of the island, where a lighthouse stands. In 1986 the lighthouse became automated, so there was no longer a need for permanent residents on the island. Now, most visits are made to the island in the summer season, often to study the nesting seabirds of the island.

Besides the reduced human presence on the island in the last 25 or so years, Bald eagles have been on the rise. There is anecdotal evidence that the increasing number of eagles—some of which may be nesting on GDI—is negatively affecting the nesting seabird populations of regional islands.

We departed Northeast Harbor, Mount Desert Island at 9:45AM. The air was cool, hovering between 5 and 10 Fahrenheit, but the sun was strong and the wind was calm. The team consisted of several students, and professors Matt Drennan, Scott Swann, John Anderson, and Toby Stephenson—captain of our faithful boat Indigo.

Leaving Mount Desert Island in the background...

On the 40 minute trip it took us to get near GDI, we already began to see some of the wonders of winter birds. Great Cormorants are few and far between in the summer months, but this winter trip made them seem quite common. Several other northern species exhibit the same pattern as their winter range extends southward. But we also saw many Common loons and Long-tailed ducks.

Great cormorants on Little Duck Island (Photo: Lindsey Nielsen)
Long-tailed ducks (Photo: Lindsey Nielsen)
Finally we found a quiet spot where Matt Drennan drove a small inflatable to a cobbley beach otherwise known as Blondie Bay on the west side of GDI. He made a few trips until everyone except Captain Toby was ashore. It was actually one of the calmest landings I’ve ever experienced on GDI, especially interesting given that winter tends to be the rougher season. 

We began our hike to the south end of the island by first stumbling across a set of mammal tracks in the thin snow. Epiphany followed question as we realized that the tracks were of course just one of the many European varying hares found on GDI—likely introduced in the early 20th century. As we entered the forest we were greeted by the thin squeaks of Golden-crowned kinglets from the canopy and the trilling chimes of White-winged crossbills.

Along the way we also came across a fascinating trail of lopes and slides of none other than a River otter. Its trail took us to a relatively recent kill site where the otter and some scavenging crows had eaten some type of seabird.

River otter tracks and slide, next to hare tracks on the left
Otter track
Raven track?
European varying hare trail
Lighthouse and old generator shed at the south end of the island
Exploring with binocular eyes...
Finally, we got to the south end of the island where we explored the ocean with our binocular eyes in search for the wonderful winter seabirds. 

The following is a list of the birds we encountered on GDI, from land as well as from the boat circling around the island:

Black scoter (Wikipedia)
- Black scoter

- Common raven

- Surf scoters

- Red-breasted mergansers

- Harlequin Ducks
Common raven
(Photo: Matt Dickinson)

- Black-legged kittiwakes

- Purple sandpipers

- Common eider ducks

- Black guillemots

- Golden Crowned Kinglets

- Common murre
Purple sandpipers (Photo: Lindsey Nielsen)

- Herring Gulls

- American crows

- Great cormorant

- White-winged crossbills

- Black ducks

- male and female Marsh hawks
Black-legged kitiwake (Wikipedia)

- Northern gannet

- European starling

Northern gannet (Wikipedia)

Harlequin duck (Wikipedia)
When we were about to start hiking back to our beached inflatable, one of the students, Lucy, had gone missing. We found her soon afterwards, only to hear her recount the adventure of following a strange set of tracks right to a gray seal and her two, several-week-old pups. The mother seal immediately gave a defensive snarl, sending Lucy running right back to us. This was perhaps the first observation of gray seals breeding on Great Duck Island in a really long time.

Gray seals (Photo: Lindsey Nielsen)
Once back on the Indigo, around 1:30PM, we circled around the west and north sides of Little Duck Island to continue scanning for birds. In addition to many of the birds we saw on GDI, we also saw some Red-necked grebes and two Bald Eagles.
Scanning the west side of Little Duck Island
Finally, as we neared Mount Desert Island on our return, we spotted three Razorbills floating along in the water.

Overall, it was a most wonderful trip.