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.

prescribed fire prep

Our current understanding of North American history is that fire played an enormous role in ecological communities across the continent, especially in the Great Plains and Midwest. There were wildfires started by lightning, yes, but much of it was anthropogenic. That is, it appears that the continents’ first people used fire on a regular basis for a myriad of reasons.

I already wrote a piece on prescribed fire for our quarterly journal, Word Gathering (p. 8 of Winter 2016), so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.

Suffice it to say that it took 6 years of higher education in the natural sciences and months of work in the field before this reality truly sunk in (I’m a slow learner): humans used prescribed fire as a pretty heavy-handed tool that not only allowed them to flourish but, for the most part, was a main driver in the the flourishing and biodiversity of the systems around them. It was not “living lightly on the land,” the mythic notion of Indians I absorbed from my public education. Instead of our current extractive economy that degrades ecosystems (the cause of an ongoing, massive extinction event), management by fire was largely synergistic and life-giving. From a biomass and biodiversity perspective, prairies, savannas, and open woodlands are probably the most productive ecosystems on the planet. They don’t last without fire. (We will have to eventually discuss grazing as well… save that for another day).

The photo below shows the pre-European-settlement fire return interval across the continental U.S.

We are looking to expand our use of prescribed fire. My goal is to slowly increase the acres burned each year, building up our equipment, staff and volunteers. Last fire season (a brief period of certain conditions in late fall and early spring) we burned on 3 days, covering 7 burn units and 20 acres.

As with most things, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of work because the window for safe and effective burning is relatively short. We have a lot of small patches with a lot of edges… edges where the fire needs to be stopped, or where we run into fencerows. Fire lanes must be established and then maintained in order to form a boundary to stop the fire, as well as allow safe and rapid passage of the fire crew.

My intern (Meredith) and I were out the other day working on fire lanes on a small, 2 acre oak woodland. Now, when most people hear “fire” and “forest” they picture large landscapes out west and a crown fire roaring through a canopy of pine trees. But in the Midwest, we’re talking about a ground fire that consumes only leaf litter (usually oak leaves). The only casualties are typically sapling shrubs and trees. This increases light availability on the ground, which increases the quantity of herbaceous plants.

This particular little woods is bordered by crop fields and a hay field, but also some fencing, which posed some logistical challenges when we burned it in March 2017.  We attached a metal saw blade on the end of a quality gas-powered “weed-eater,” which made quick work of small-diameter trees and shrubs.

Meredith followed after me and painted the stumps with concentrated herbicide. Keep it simple! The applicator is nothing but a sponge zip-tied to a broom handle. There is no overspray of chemical to other plants.  It gets absorbed into the woody plant and kills it. It’s quick, economical, and achieves our management goals.

We also took out several small shrubs and trees in the middle of the woods, which were growing quickly, as the property had not been burned in recent memory. We are managing for an open oak woodland. Without fire, grazing, or some other disturbance, the forest becomes thick and dark, with few plants growing at the ground level. Not necessarily “bad” or “good,” but it’s not our goal for this piece of land.

The goal is to invest now in the “heavy-lifting” of establishing fire lanes, removals of invasive species, etc so that these individual units can be maintained by a fire every couple years.

One last photo. A large, multi-stemmed bush honeysuckle or Autumn olive plant is not usually killed by prescribed fire; their leaves quickly decompose and don’t allow a fire to be carried. These have to be removed manually. But smaller sprouts do get “top-killed” by a fire and will re-sprout from the roots the following year.

A bush honeysuckle shrub that was top-killed with a prescribed fire and is re-sprouting.

The top-killing gives us some precious time. In one growing season, this plant won’t be able to sprawl and create copious amounts of bird-dispersed seeds, which would exacerbate the problem. In the meantime, fire is stimulating the soil seed bank and fire-tolerant plants are going to start competing with it. As long as fire is used continuously, I can address more urgent concerns (i.e. removal of the large, seed-bearing plants) and return later to spray or pull these weakened plants as resources allow.

Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough. Fall will be upon us before we know it, and I have more prep work to do!




Why is biodiversity so important? The case of the Tortrix, Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at the curious case of a webworm infestation of one unlucky American plum on our campus.

Here was the poor tree on May 26:

Certainly a blow to the tree. I had a couple people asked me what I planned to do, and I said, “Let’s wait and see.”

Here it was on July 12, less than 7 weeks later:

A few thin patches, but not too bad, considering that it was completely defoliated. Often the best prescription for ecological issues is patience.

What you can’t see in the above photo is the flowering dogwood tree in the back. On May 26, the plum was devastated, but this particular species of webworm wasn’t interested in the dogwood tree at all.

This highlights a very important theme in the plant/herbivore relationship. Plants want to grow and not be eaten. Herbivores want to eat plants. We have a recipe for an evolutionary arms race.

Plants wear thorns. Giraffes evolve long tongues. Other plants are tough and sandpapery. Cows evolves thick, tough tongues.

In addition to physical barriers, most every plant species has also evolved a chemical cocktail that herbivorous insects (or birds, mammals, etc) find unpalatable, indigestible, or outright poisonous. Here the herbivores are faced with a fork in the road: either eat just a little bit of every kind of plant, or specialize on just a few plants and evolve resistance to those particular chemical compounds. Renaissance man (insect) or highly specialized expert.

Since there are thousands of plants with different chemical signatures, it’s “easier” for any given insect species to pick one small group of plants and specialize, evolving defenses only for that chemical compound. It appears that the majority of insects have chosen to specialize rather than generalize. The monarch butterfly is perhaps the most famous of example, with it’s preference for milkweed. It can feed on several milkweed species in the Asclepias genus. It has evolved the ability to withstand the milkweeds’ sticky, toxic sap as it chews, as has the milkweed beetle, milkweed bug, and the milkweed tiger moth.

Sticky sap from Common Milkweed, repelling most (but not all) hungry critters. (


Back to our Tortrix moths (or webworm, or leafrollers). At the risk of demolishing my own argument, it appears that most moths in the subfamily Tortricidae are actually polyphagous (that is, they eat several different plants). But I was struck by the fact that only our single American plum, surrounded by several other plant species, was chosen for this moth buffet.


This has implications for our management of natural areas, and of more landscaped settings.

#1: The more biodiverse our flora (plants), the more biodiverse our fauna (animals). If each plant species can host several new insect species, the more players we have in the game. These of course form the base of the food chain. As populations ebb and flow, higher predators (like birds, mammals… and humans!) have options to fall back when circumstances inevitably change.

Following from #1…

#2: Biodiverse communities are resilient communities. The emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease, Hemlock woolly adelgid, Chestnut blight… each of these insects or pathogens were introduced to the U.S. and devastated populations of native trees that had not co-evolved defenses with the alien newcomers. Beautiful neighborhoods with row after row of only mature ash trees were reduced to tree-less lawns. Squirrels had nowhere to nest, shade was non-existent, baby birds have now leaf-eating caterpillars to eat. Having a large cast of players ensures that if one is down for the count (due to a disease outbreak, drought, etc), another species can fill in for it. Ripple effects of such a trophic cascade are minimized.

This is precisely what I was thinking when I first saw our campus. I saw lots of mature silver maples and only a few other species, and only a few young trees. We made the difficult decision to selectively remove some large silver maples that were posing a danger to people or property and replaced them dozens of new trees comprised of over 20 species. We should be better positioned for the next unforeseen outbreak.

Following from #2…

#3: Each species has a role, and we are ignorant not only of what those roles are, but even how many or which members are around. Most of the species have been evolving for thousands or millions of years to get where they are today. We are dabbling with mysteries that we are only vaguely aware of.

On our campus, we have plenty of migratory and resident birds that fill the air with song and flashy displays of aerial stunts. Undoubtedly, some of them rely on moth caterpillars, cocoons, or flying adults. To varying degrees, they depend on the life cycles of various insects.

Following from #3…

#4: The above principles suggest that we should default to the precautionary principle. That is, before we do anything, let’s do no harm.

I’ll stop the train of thought there, but that’s a part of the process of beginning to “think ecologically,” not just with the surficial concerns that are immediately obvious.


John Muir put it another way: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Solarize Indiana deadline quickly approaching

From WNDU:

The economics of installing a solar system in Indiana will change substantially at the end of this year.

Anyone looking to beat that deadline will have plenty of help from a new group of community volunteers called Solarize South Bend.

If you are a homeowner or business owner in St. Joseph, Elkhart, Kosciusko, or Marshall counties, you may be able to get in on this solar group-buy. In addition to a more affordable and easier purchase process, you can lock in 30 years of favorable utility connection terms (net metering)… but only if you make a commitment by Sep. 30.

See here for the complete details >>

We are looking into solar energy solutions for The Center At Donaldson as well. Nothing yet to report… but we’re on the way!