Indiana Promise campus visit (kids and pollinators)

Last month we hosted some 1,500 kindergarten and 1st graders from across Marshall County for “Walk Into the Future,” a whirlwind tour of academic life at Ancilla College. In conjunction with The Center at Donaldson, it was organized by Marshall County Promise, encourages all students to prepare for their future by opening a 529 savings account and saving for their future education needs.

It’s these unique partnership opportunities that I think makes The Center at Donaldson a very unique place.

Each class made quick rounds at various stations. I had the “nature table.” Since I only had 5 minutes with each group, I tried to keep it simple. I put out my college insect collection and a colorful map of N. America’s native bees.

A representative fraction of N. America’s 4,000+ species of native bees.

I tried to make the connection between food and bees. Y’all like apples and blueberries and strawberries and almonds, right? Each one started as a flower. Only the flowers that got visited by bees made fruit. Take care of the bees!

Who’s ever eaten an apple?

There were already little kids who knew about pollen and nectar. We gave them each a paintbrush and had them visit a flower (audibly buzzing as they went) to pick up some pollen. Then they “flew” over to another bucket of flowers and pollinated another one. Now that flower could make a fruit, nut, or seed. We get to eat, and all the wild animals get to eat.

It’s not very often we get to speak into the lives of little kids. They grow up pretty fast. The broad outline of our conception of the world is shaped at a very young age, and it’s important to teach them that our fate is tied to these small, hard-working, underappreciated neighbors.

We read a lot about future calamities in some far off time. 2100 … by 2050, etc. Scientists are now telling us that the decisions we make today (in regards to the atmosphere, nutrient cycles, etc) will actually reverberate for centuries.

It’s important to remember that these “far off” dates are within the lifespan of little ones we have already named. By 2050 my daughter will be in the middle of her career. By the end of the century, Lord willing, she may still be in the land of the living and in need of clean water and healthy food.

As Wendell Berry wrote, “Invest in the millennium.”



a brief moment for beauty

Monday we were doing some chainsaw work around the edges of an oak woodland, getting fire lanes prepped for the prescribed burning season. Cutting fire lanes allows us to more quickly and safely cover more ground with the same amount of staff. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention…

Most of the flowers by now have turned to seeds. Pollinators are migrating, hibernating, or receiving their final meals before dying as adults. At this time, we usually turn to colorful leaves for the fall splendor beauty. But leaves don’t have all the color yet.

But in a wet patch in the woods we stumbled across several of these beauties:

Trying my best at a quick phrase to describe the scene in a few words, I came up with this:

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack uses color as a bully pulpit

Not my best work (or my best photo), but it’s the first thing that came to mind.

I at first thought that these were fruits of Arisaema triphyllum, (Jack-in-the-pulpit) though I had a suspicion that I was wrong.  When I returned the following day to collect seed I noticed that the shriveled vegetation was still attached. It was distinctive enough that I realized it was Jack’s cousin, the Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium).  I’ll take the seeds to a less biodiverse patch of wet woods to help spread the population.

Here’s what the leaves look like during the summer:

Unedited photo by Bob Gutowski ( CC BY 2.0

There’s a lot of tension, chaos, and pain in our world right now. It’s important to not forget why it’s all worth struggling for. There is beauty all around us, but we have to slow down and contemplate it, to relish in its own sheer lavish existence.

Make time today for a walk, for a sit, to pick up a seed or watch the birds. Your soul needs it.

Drive Electric Week (addendum)

A few weeks prior to Drive Electric week (see previous post), a few residents of the Maria Center (our independent senior living center) took a trip up to Mishawaka to visit Dave. I met Dave at an event last year. He built a “Passive House” from scratch and worked as his own general contractor. His goal is a fossil fuel-free life, and he has a room in his house specifically dedicated to teaching about sustainable living technologies. Now retired, he volunteers his time spreading this message.

A solar electric home. (The foundation isn’t crooked, it’s just my lack of photography skills).


The home is powered by 10KW of solar panels, which supplies fuel for his heating (geothermal + heat pumps), air conditioning, appliances, and vehicles. There is no natural gas hook up at all.

Our host models his induction stove, an efficient and all-electric way to cook with the speed and control of natural gas.


So – back to driving electric. In addition to the many features of the house (you’ll have to hear him for the full speech), his driving needs are electrified as well.

The Maria Center residents had fun learned about his Tesla Model S. The batteries which fuel the car are hidden across the entire bottom of the vehicle body. The electric motor (not an engine) is, I believe, somewhere below the rear seats. That leaves a gap in the front of the driver where we are used to putting gasoline engines. Now you can put luggage there.

The Tesla “Frunk” (front trunk) gets a thumbs up!

The concept of re-fueling is simple: you just constantly top off the vehicle at home. The Tesla Model S has a large battery, thus eliminating any daily need to visit any local fueling station, of any sort, ever. Long regional or cross-country trips are handled by Tesla’s nationwide network of supercharging stations located strategically on the freeways.

It’s a bit counterintuitive to how we usually expect to refuel with gas, which we can’t refuel at home. But what it ultimately means is we’re always “topping off” our car each day. We won’t have to replicate the current gasoline fueling infrastructure in its entirety, since the majority of us have fueling infrastructure in our home (electricity).

Upgrades will be needed, however. We’re keeping an eye on VW’s $2 billion infusion into America’s charging infrastructure, called “Electrify America.” It’s the cost the courts forced them to pay for lying to the public about how much their diesel cars were polluting. The emissions cheating scheme is thought to be responsible for some 5,000 premature deaths in Europe.

Our host explains car charging. He almost never needs to charge in public. No more gas station visits.

Drive Electric Week

I recently attended a National Drive Electric Week event in South Bend, organized by South Shore Clean Cities. It’s a public and informal way for the public to learn more about EVs (electric vehicles).


The “falcon wing” doors of the Tesla Model X stole the show.


The event was a hybrid (sorry, couldn’t resist) of enthusiasts from the public with car dealers and the Clean Cities. I brought my own Ford C-max Energi to show, and was joined by other makes and models, including the Mitsubishi i-Miev, Nissan LEAF, 2 BMWs, and Tesla Models S and X.

Members from our Provincial leadership as well as our transportation department came along too, on the look-out for something that could fit our mobility needs. Unfortunately, the dealer turn out wasn’t as strong as hoped, so we didn’t get to test drive anything.

Right now, EVs are typically split into two categories: PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles) and BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles). (The Dept. of Energy has a nice publication here. I’ll try to summarize below).

PHEVs can run on gas or electricity, which eliminates “range anxiety”. When the battery is depleted in a PHEV, it switches seamlessly over to a traditional gasoline hybrid (like a Prius). Electric as fuel is cheaper (like paying ~$1.00/gallon gas) and doesn’t fluctuate like gasoline. The drawback of a PHEV is that EV mileage is still somewhat limited you have to replicate the cost of both powertrains in a single vehicle.

A PHEV (Ford CMax Energi) sipping fuel at the Niles, MI public library


BEVs run solely on electricity. Thousands of parts from the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) are eliminated and replaced with a simple electric motor (it goes from ~2,000 moving parts to ~20). Just think: no more messing with oil, oil filters, coolant, transmission fluid, spark plugs, alternators, radiators, etc. Ironically, I’m at a Toyota dealer right now waiting on them to change the coolant and transmission oil in my Prius! The largest constraint for a BEV at the moment is price, range, and model availability. Each of these are improving annually. Electric vehicles are expected to reach “price parity” with conventional ICE vehicles within just 8 years. In some fleet situations, they already have a similar TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) because of their reduced maintenance and fuel costs. The market is still small but growing around 40% per year.

Tesla Model S, a BEV. The 6th and 7th seats are rear-facing and are definitely for kids only.

I’ll post a few links below for further reading. Several nations now have announced deadlines to eliminate sales of ICE vehicles in favor of EVs. Major corporations and electric utilities are pushing the market forward, and manufacturers are announcing plans to electrify much or all of their lineup. A LOT has changed even just in the last year. Now, I have to get back to getting our EV charging stations purchased (I’ll save that for another post).

China wants all electric cars, will it work? Reasons and reactions

10 Big-Name Corporations Launch 100% Electric Vehicle Campaign At Climate Week NYC

Morgan Stanley Says EVs Will Reach Price Parity With ICE By 2025

Tread in the Shed, Sept. 23

If hurricane Harvey didn’t make it clear enough, watersheds are incredibly important. We need to know about them, and to recognize their realities when building our lives.

It just so happens that folks in the Marshall County area can learn about their own local watershed at this great event, hosted by the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District.  Don’t forget to RSVP!


Monarchs are migrating

One of the better PR/education stories of North American conservation has been the Monarch butterfly.

Monarchs overwintering in Mexico (unedited photo by Piedra Herrada,

Most people now know about this charismatic, migratory lepidopteron (i.e. moths and butterflies). covers any question you might possibly have, and the Wikipedia page is pretty good too.

But in short: The caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants (several species can be found). The adults can drink nectar from many types of flowers. In the fall, they migrate from across eastern North America down to a single mountainous hillside in Mexico. The full annual migratory cycle occurs across several generations of butterflies. It’s pretty amazing.

Despite the PR, the trends are still worrisome. The migratory population has dropped 80%+ or more. Ask anyone over 50 who grew up in a rural places. Unfortunately, this is part of a broader decline of butterfly species as a taxon.

I was pleased to find out via Ancilla College’s Facebook page that our librarian is an insect enthusiast and rears Monarchs each year. Bringing Monarch eggs or larvae (caterpillars) indoors to be raised is not a problem, if done with a little attention (see for pointers).

Despite their own chemical defenses, many predators have found ways of doing Monarchs off. A few years ago I was watching one fat caterpillar grow on my own milkweed only to come out later and find him pierced by the proboscis of a shield bug and sucked dry, his skin hanging like a deflated balloon. While not a prescription for population recovery, rearing Monarchs gives a few individuals a boost and reconnects us with the natural world.

To that end, I brought a caterpillar to our main reception area and entrusted it to the care of our valiant front desk co-workers, who supply it with fresh milkweed (we always let a few grow in the landscaping).

“Herbie” has now went to the pupa (chrysalis) stage. It will hopefully emerge in about 2 weeks.

They quickly took to the little guy, named him Herbie, then found two more and brought them in. “TCAD” and “Litl bit” are growing.

Of course, we have a few of these at home so my girls can have “pets” to associate with. My wife noticed that one fat caterpillar was pretty loud. I stuck my iPhone down into the Ball jar and to my pleasure the recording came out alright. Turn your speakers and click play below:

a total eclipse on spaceship Earth

I was fortunate to enjoy some time with my family last week. We headed south with my extended family to view the total solar eclipse. If you’ve been living under a (dark) rock, here’s a journalist’s description of what just happened across our country last week.

Yes, we were that nerdy family that made special shirts just for the eclipse! Here’s my daughter taking a peek before the full total eclipse:

We had 6 kids to keep occupied for hours in a hot, crowded field (another joy that comes with parenthood!). So with the help of some binoculars, we took turns drawing outlines of the eclipse as the moon “gobbled” more and more of the sun.

Gobble, gobble, gobble.

The moment of the full solar eclipse was only 2.5 minutes. I really struggle to put words to that time. In my book it was comparable to other “peak” or singular moments of life… a marriage ceremony, a rare spiritual experience of transcendence, even those moments of crisis or loss where the full weight of the human experience is made plain. In other words, it was beyond words. Nor do I have a photo.

Even still, my sad attempt at fitting this experience “in six words,” as we are wont to these days, is thus:

sweeping singularity

spaceship Earth

I cried

Since we had made such a long trip, we also took time to explore the Smoky Mountains. As these things go, once the kids are fed, dressed, and shuffled around in the cars, even these beautiful moments felt way too brief.

Back at The Center at Donaldson, folks were able to view moments of the eclipse  through special glasses (though the sun was never completely blocked out this far north).

I came home and looked at data from my new rooftop solar power array (that’s another post). Enough solar radiation was blocked, even in northern Indiana, to show up in the data:

The red “pizza slice” of decreased solar power.



If you are a little bummed by missing out on being in the center of the path of totality, don’t worry, there’s one coming through central Indiana in April of 2024 (here’s the map). Me? I’m hoping to get to Texas. I just can’t risk a typically cloudy Midwestern spring day. It’d be too heartbreaking!

Upon returning home, I found the nation quickly gripped by the massive flooding occurring in Houston, due to the function of 50″ of rain from hurricane Harvey and the land-use decisions made in a quickly sprawling metropolis. At some level, it reminded me of the eclipse experience, and I wrote this:

The indescribable beauty of watching the moon and sun dance, 2 minutes of visual symphony, nighttime at midday. Fields of thousands of strangers screaming and howling like wolves.

The fragility of human infrastructure in the face of the unrelenting forces of nature. Motorboats filled with searching eyes, plying the churning waters to rescue complete strangers.

Both events brought people together and reminded us that there is one single spaceship Earth.

And we’re all on it.

Chickens, Eggs, Make a “Movable Feast”

This guest blog is by our Greenhouse Specialist, Sam Tepes. He’s a creative thinker and diligent and efficient worker,  just the type of person you want running a greenhouse! This piece first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Ripples, our internal newsletter.

I have over forty chickens in my movable chicken coop, which I constructed out of recycled materials. I bought nothing to make the coop brand new; I found everything on the campus previously used. The nest boxes came from Earthworks chicken coop, the panels came from the goat farm, I had old chicken mesh and wire that I also re-used to make the movable coop.

I move it about once or twice a week. The chickens lay a lot of eggs. I give the Motherhouse kitchen about 17 ½ dozen eggs a week. In exchange, they give me their leftovers, and their kitchen prep scraps, which the chickens love.

When I move the coop, the chickens get fresh to eat grass, in addition to the grains I feed them. I also feed them oyster shells which provides calcium to their diet to strengthen their eggs’ shells. In addition to egg production and the salad greens, I also have peppers and tomatoes growing the greenhouse now, so refreshing salads will be served here all summer long.

Sam, keeping the chickens in line!


LED lighting retrofit underway

“When I got off the elevator, I thought I was on the wrong floor!” Words from my officemate on the fifth floor.

We are in the middle of a campus-wide lighting retrofit project, switching over incandescent and fluorescent lights to LEDs, or Light Emitting Diodes. Not only are we seeing better (literally), we’ll be seeing some big savings.

If I had to match this photo with a Bible verse, it’d be Isaiah 9:2… “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”


LEDs have dropped dramatically in cost over the last few years. (You can get the full scoop on LEDs at with an incentive program from NIPSCO, suddenly many projects like these have become economical. Four-foot tubes that once drew 32-40W (watts) of power now will sip 15W, saving over 50%. 60W screw in bulbs are replaced with 9W, an 85% savings. We won’t truly know how much we’ll save until after the project is completed, but we conservatively estimate that it will be equivalent to removing 50 residential homes from the grid.

We are expecting longer bulb life from LEDs. Additionally, we get to remove ballasts and direct-wire the lamps right to the power supply. This eliminates another point of failure, which saves precious time for our hard-working maintenance staff. These ballasts also produced waste heat. In the summer months, you waste energy once on the ballast as heat, then you waste it twice using air conditioning to remove that heat from the building!

Removing ballasts for LED conversion.


Let’s tally up the financial and environmental benefits: a single 40W bulb running 24/7 (some we have to leave on for safety) will consume 350 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, costing $35 and emitting about 640 pounds of CO2 in Indiana. Replacing just that single lamp with a 15W bulb will save $22 in energy (plus maintenance) and 400 lbs of CO2. If a light is on 8 hrs a day, you can take those numbers above and divide by three.

Each of these projects in our many homes, businesses, schools, churches, and other buildings adds up. In addition to saving money that can be used for ministry purposes, we’ll be able to breathe a little better as emissions are reduced from the coal and natural gas plants that provide the bulk of our power. (Click here to see the real-time fuel mix of the Midwestern electric grid).

Energy stewardship is not just about earth care, but about social justice more broadly. These polluting plants are disproportionally located in minority neighborhoods (yes, in Indiana too). As we like to point out so often, the human and ecological communities suffer or flourish in tandem.

If you have a church, school, or business affiliation, act fast! The utility incentives are temporary and won’t last forever.

Plymouth Kiwanis

Despite being less than 8 miles west of Plymouth, I have met people who were born and raised in Plymouth who have never set foot on The Center at Donaldson campus! It’s just the way some of our social circles play out. But we are constantly trying to get the word out that we have everything from higher education to art experiences to conferences and concerts. There really is something for everyone at every stage of their life.

Despite lots of technological innovation in communication, word of mouth is still powerful. We still show up to “press palms” and “pound the pavement,” as they say. We’ll have a team on a hay wagon at the Blueberry Festival, for example.

Given that the position of Ecological Relationships is still new (<2 years), we want to get the word out about our work.

In June I had the opportunity to share with the Plymouth Kiwanis some of what we do (here’s their Facebook page). As you probably know, Kiwanis is a service organization that is all about local action to make communities better. I was struck by how positive and encouraging the atmosphere was.

We are always keeping alert for partnership opportunities, which always start with a conversation and a relationship.

If you would like us to come share about the work we are doing and ways we might be able to work together, let me know.