LEED-ing in Marshall County (guest post)

Here’s a guest post by our Moontree Studios Programs Coordinator, Matthew Celmer. Matthew joined our community earlier this year and has brought tons of new energy. He’s committed to the Mission of the Poor Handmaids and he’s also relentlessly positive. We are very glad to have him on as a leader at The Center at Donaldson!

It’s funny how we can become used to things that are part of our daily lives.  Even remarkable things can begin to feel ordinary if we are around them enough.  In my short time here at MoonTree and The Center, I often catch myself slipping into a familiarity with my surroundings that can tend towards an under-appreciation.

In my role at MoonTree, I have the benefit of showing first-time visitors around.  This interaction is a frequent reminder of the wonder and awe I experienced the first time I came here.  Seeing our world through the eyes of people witnessing the amazing accomplishments of the Poor Handmaids community is crucial in contemplating the theme of the 150th anniversary; Blessed Past, Vibrant Present, Empowered Future.

In September, The Center at Donaldson participated in the inaugural year of the Northcentral Indiana Branch of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) by hosting a tour of MoonTree Studios and an eco-walk (led by the capable administrator of this blog).  With over 20 attendees from all over Michiana, and one all the way from Louisville, it was a successful event that brought new people together centered around the theme of sustainable building practices.

Sr. Mary Baird discusses insulation… and so much more!

For those of you who may be unaware, the USGBC developed and oversees the LEED program which is a green building rating system.  LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  Their mission is, “to promote sustainability-focused practices in the building industry.”  It is through following their New Construction v2.2 certification process that MoonTree Studios was honored with their Gold Certification.  The first, and still only, building complex in Marshall County to do so.  (There is a LEED Gold Certified home in Culver as well, but the certification is different.)

Matthew leads the LEED tour.

This was a big deal in 2010 and still is eight years later.  Those who attended the tour reminded me not only how lucky we are to have these buildings, but how much further we still have to go as a community and as a wider society.  The tour guests were a diverse group of individuals with a diverse range of experience and skills, all brought together by the common desire to build better things.  In order to understand how to accomplish this, one has to research past, present, and potential future building practices and methods.  What we have here at The Center is a wealth of information that can serve that very purpose.

It was nice to see MoonTree and The Center through their eyes and listen to their questions, especially the ones that made me realize how little I know about this place.  What of our own wonders do we under-appreciate or even outright ignore?  What questions should we be asking?  What lessons should we be learning from our own blessed past and vibrant present in order that we can ensure an empowered future?

Discussing the ins and outs of Moontree Lodge. Things we like, things we might reconsider.

Our future will be empowered only to the extent that we live vibrantly in the present, by opening our eyes to the gifts and wonders around us as if we are seeing them for the first time, and act in accordance with the blessings of our past, by not taking for granted what has been bestowed upon us.  Community is about shared responsibility.  We are all responsible for what we do now and how that will impact our collective future.

the late season flower rush

Fall is definitely here. Leaves are changing. Temperatures are dropping… though not by much yet it seems. But there’s a good chance of our first freezing temperatures Friday night.

For many creatures who make their living during the “growing season,” the rush is on. Time to fatten up, migrate, mate, and/or reproduce ASAP.

You can now see the last of the late-season flowers on the landscape. Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and Asters (Symphiotrichum spp.) are two abundant native taxa. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is our last woody species to bloom, usually in late fall but their subtle blossoms have been reported as late as Christmas time. Heck, my apple tree even flowered last week! I think it’s confused.

The blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia) is a beautiful and common late-season insect, feeding here on some Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) in my front lawn in late 2017. The mamas lay eggs on Japanese Beetles grubs, which their larva will consume.

I’ve been watching insects frenetically mob these decreasing-number of flowers and plants. Lots of bumblebees, blue-winged wasps (photo above, plus see this great link), and last night, a couple migratory Monarch butterflies (who flew away before I could get a photo).

But anyway, the flower that inspired this post was this beautiful red Dahlia:

Bumblebee nectaring on Dahlia flower, Oct 9, 2018.

Now, I am very passionate about my ecological beliefs, but I try not to be “fundamentalist” about it. I like to extol the many benefits of getting native plants on the landscape, plants which evolved complex relationships with the rest of the web of life, but non-native plants certainly provide a level of ecosystem services.

I like Dahlias for several reasons. They are beautiful, require little care, need no fertilizer, and don’t seem to spread or seed. They have long and late bloom periods, and I always find bumblebees on them. This perennial is not not cold-hardy in our area so I just grab the tubers before the hard frosts come and store easily in a bucket in the garage. Come spring, I just lazily plop them in spare spots around the yard and wait for them to pop up and surprise me! This is just a little extra work, but beats having them spread out of control where I don’t want them I suppose.

Fall is a desperate time for pollinators, so I really like the consistent and abundant blooms of the Dahlia. Bumblebees don’t seem to much mind which flower it is, as long as the nectar and pollen are available.

As one last aside, I had a student worker gather acorns recently, which we’ll sow on some degraded land. I came into the office this Monday to find these little grubs crawling all over my office. Apparently there was some insect that had laid eggs inside the acorns of this White Oak (Quercus alba).

Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice (Ps. 96:12)

public report on study of Lake Galbraith

Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ will receive the final results of a Lake Gilbert LARE Grant Study by Cardno, a natural resource and ecological consulting firm, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

The results of the Water Quality Management Study for Lake Gilbert, (aka Lake Galbraith), will be shared, along with ideas for the lake, at a meeting on October 16, 2018, at 7:00 p.m. EDT in MoonTree Gallery, 9638 N. Union Road, Plymouth, IN 46563.

This Water Quality Management Study enables the Poor Handmaids to immediately begin implementing more Best Management Practices and Wetland Functional Quality Improvement Plans for the watershed area surrounding Lake Galbraith, which is part of the Flat Lake Watershed.

The public is invited. Flat Lake stakeholders and landowners are encouraged to attend.

wildflower tour with Maria Center residents

So this is a little belated, but I thought I’d share some July photos from our “wildflower tour” with Maria Center residents.

Many of the folks now in retirement have had rural or agrarian childhoods, so it’s always a great time of mutual sharing of personal memories and observations about life outdoors.

Some of our residents are very active walkers and cyclists, but others hadn’t seen the full extent of our property and what we have growing.

We discussed the ecological (and aesthetic) importance of having flowering plants in patches across the landscape, with varying bloom times from early spring to late fall.

I remember that one resident remaking, “I had no idea… I just thought they were all ‘weeds’.” You could imagine the smile on my face!

(Click to the photos to enlargen)

BIG news for NW Indiana

I know I’m behind on blogging, but there was some big news that dropped yesterday:

NIPSCO Eyes Plan for Cleaner, Lower-Cost Energy Future

Northern Indiana Public Service Company LLC (NIPSCO), a subsidiary of NiSource Inc. (NYSE: NI), announced today as part of its future electric supply planning process, that analysis shows the most viable option for customers would include moving up the retirement of a majority of its remaining coal-fired generation in the next five years and all coal within the next 10 years. Likely replacement options point toward lower-cost renewable energy resources such as wind, solar and battery storage technology.

Here’s the full press release, and the presentation slides if you really want to geek out.

Sunrise over Moontree, Sep 14, 2018

It’s clear now that the trend is inevitable (it’s been already clear to energy analysts for some time). Very few technologies will be able to compete with free fuel. It’s now a matter of finding the right mixtures of various fuel types, integrating that with usage patterns across a grid, and deploying them. The politics and social dynamics are probably the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

We already know we will make the transition to renewable, low/no-carbon energy this century. So… why not do it quickly? The science is telling us that to avoid the worst of ecological degradation, we have to do it fast, much faster than the current pace.

This means rapid deployment of renewable energy and increased research and development.

It means the complete electrification of the transportation system. We know that electric vehicles produced today will continue to get cleaner for every year of their ~20 year lifespan. Further investment in any fossil fuel infrastructure runs the risk of becoming obsolete, as well as morally dubious.

If that sounds drastic, that’s only because of how slowly we’ve been adjusting our frames of mind to the challenges that scientists are continually revealing to us. In this light, rapid transformation is the most conservative, cautious action we can take; doing nothing becomes radically irresponsible.

As always, I return to the words of Pope Francis in Laudato si’ (2015), a beautiful synthesis of science and faith:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition. In recent decades, environmental issues have given rise to considerable public debate and have elicited a variety of committed and generous civic responses. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world. Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities. (par. 165)

The news isn’t always so cheery, but yesterday was a good day for our children’s world.

(Bonus: Also yesterday we saw this from our neighboring state: “AEP Ohio filed plans for the single largest clean energy development in Ohio history – at least 900 megawatts of new wind and solar generation, would more than double the amount of utility scale clean energy in the state.”)

first solar array tilting

Our solar arrays were installed this June by Ag Technologies of Rochester, IN. Their SolarCAM(R) system allows us to tilt the arrays four times per year to maximize solar production. As the sun appears lower on the horizon in the fall and winter, we tilt the arrays up (steeper) to be perpendicular with the rays.

We actually like that the system is not automated. That would mean moving parts and motors, parts that will inevitably fail and need to be replaced. If you can put up a pop-up camper, you can tilt these arrays.

Interestingly enough, the tilting schedule is not evenly spaced across the year. We tilt on or around August 24 (37 degrees), October 7 (45 degrees), March 20 (back to 37 degrees), and April 18 (12 degrees). This is a function of the sun’s altitude on the horizon. All of these values can be calculated for any zip code, at any date in the future at this Navy website. Your tax dollars at work!

I’m blessed to have an ecological intern this fall from Ancilla College’s Earn to Learn Scholarship Program. I’m looking forward to working with Trace, providing him with a diverse set of experiences, and getting some extra jobs done that have been on my to-do list. We didn’t waste any time… after we met each other yesterday, we went right out to the fields to get tiltin’…

habitat update: fire effects, new bees, and an Unexpected Cycnia

Lots of odds and ends here… I apologize for the random nature of things, but I thought you’d enjoy hearing about this and that.

1) “Iron plant”

Sr. Mary and I were at the Moontree Lodge the other day and she pointed outside and said, “What’s that purple plant down there? I’ve never seen it there.” I took a look, it was Ironweed, (a Vernonia species, I forgot to check which one). “Did you plant that?” “Nope, it just showed up!”

Just before the tree line are several ironweed plants topped with deep purple flowers.

Ironweed is often found in pastures. We don’t hardly need to seed it, as it’s pretty common on the landscape and manages to show up often. However, this spot was just burned this spring. I have a hunch that the spring burn, which damaged the European cool-season grasses we are trying to eradicate, gave an edge to the ironweed and it took off.

The plants were a good six feet tall!

The more flowering species, the better. If we have dozens of species, there will always be something providing nectar and pollen throughout the long growing season. Sure enough, there were several Monarchs nectaring on the Ironweed. (It’s been a great year for Monarchs, if you hadn’t noticed).

Read more about this plant at this great ecology blog: A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

2) The (honey) bees are back

Speaking of all those flowers, we thought we could turn some of that nectar and pollen in honey. We found a new friend who needed a flower-rich space to put his bees for the season. In return, we get pollination of our flowers (which leads to seeds we can harvest in the fall). Honey bees aren’t native to this continent, but these “white man’s flies” have been naturalized her for several centuries.

I’ve been playing around with my smartphone’s slow-motion video feature. It’s actually just a video shot at 120 frames per second, then you can do some editing afterwards. Anyway, I’m not a great photographer, but I thought I’d throw up my first take:

3) Unexpected Cycnias

You learned about these somewhat rare moth caterpillars from Cassaundra Bash’s recent guest post. So did I… I had never heard of them!

Imagine my surprise then when I found some of these the very next week, munching away on some butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which is an orange-flowered native milkweed species. Since I’ve scanned hundreds of milkweed plants for Monarch and Tiger Moth caterpillars, it is probable that cycnias have passed before my eyes… but I had never truly seen them. This is a reoccurring part of ecological education. Once your eyes are opened to a particular plant, or your ears opened to specific birdsong, etc, you start finding it everywhere. Imagine what else we are missing right in front of us!

That was… well, Unexpected!

As I was researching some basic facts about these guys, I found a researcher’s 2015 blog post, where she was soliciting observations of the Unexpected Cycnia from across the continent. Of course, I e-mailed her and was now doubly pleased to contribute a very small piece to our body of knowledge about this incredible world.

4) More Butterflies

Ok, thanks for reading this far. As a special gift, check out this slow-motion sequence I observed in my backyard. After you click the link, pause the video. Hit the gear icon and change the settings so that you are watching in HD (720p), then click to open in full screen. The real big surprise comes in at about 23 seconds!

 

more to milkweeds than just monarchs! (guest post)

Please enjoy this guest post by the Ancilla College Director of Library Services, Cassaundra Bash. I was very pleased when I learned that Cass was an insect enthusiast, and I’ve learned a lot in conversations with her. She graciously offered to write up a post to share with you all.

Have you ever wandered past a big stand of milkweed, thinking how peaceful and quiet it is, with perhaps only a monarch butterfly or two flitting over it?  Ever thought that perhaps the only thing out there munching away like hermits are monarch caterpillars?  Monarchs are synonymous with milkweed in most people’s minds, but there is another common caterpillar that relies heavily on the plant.  They may not have the stateliness of a monarch, but the milkweed tiger moth, also known as the milkweed tussock moth, makes up for it with another trait we humans find endearing.

Fur.

Alright, it’s technically hair, and some people can be allergic to the hairs.  (I myself seem to be sensitive to it, but only after they shed it to make their cocoons, meaning that handling the crawling caterpillar is safe for me, but I wear gloves handling the cocoons or risk itchy, irritated fingers and palms.)  And like any insect that partakes of a milkweed meal, these caterpillars, like monarch caterpillars, have learned to incorporate the milkweed’s poisons into their own defenses.  Like monarchs, any animal that eats a bitter-tasting milkweed tussock moth is likely to feel ill afterwards—and they learn to leave these caterpillars alone.  And if taste isn’t enough of a deterrent, these caterpillars bear some of the typical insect “danger” colors: black, orange, red, and yellow are all colors that insects use to warn other animals that they are dangerous in one way or another.  The black and orange of a monarch adult is so successful that the monarch mimic, the adult viceroy, “borrows” the color scheme and general pattern to fool birds into thinking it’s a monarch.  (Viceroy caterpillars mimic bird droppings, as some other caterpillar species do—but that’s a topic for another post.)  The black and orange mixed in with the white, so similar to cat lovers that I’ve heard some people call these caterpillars “calico”, is just a continuation of the warning coloration.

Ironically, the moth isn’t all that colorful and, aside from an orange body, the wings are pretty much a soft grey or brown (depending on who you ask and perhaps on color variations in the population—mine tend towards the grey), but then that makes sense—they’re nocturnal, and their main predators are bats, which aren’t known for being sight hunters.  But these moths have, as adults, one trick that they’ve developed that works as well for the adults against bats as the coloration warning works against birds when they’re caterpillars.  The moths have the ability to create a clicking pattern that the bats can hear and, after eating a distasteful tussock moth adult, will learn as a future warning against eating more of this species.

 

While monarchs lay their eggs singly, preferring to spread out their offspring across an entire field of milkweed, the milkweed tussock moth lays her eggs in clusters on a few plants.  This means that an entire milkweed plant may have dozens of tiny furry caterpillars, all eating and growing together.  This may provide some protection from predators and parasitic species that might want to pick out an individual among the crowd; it’s a lot harder to do that when the caterpillars are bunched together, even before they get their warning colors (very young ones are cream-colored, as seen below).  Eventually, as they get closer to the time to make their cocoons, they will start to separate and spread out, but by then, they’ll have gotten their distinctive warning colors.

 

You may be worried about competition between monarchs and milkweed tussock moths, but fear not—neither one is aggressive towards the other and I’ve raised both monarchs and milkweed tussock moths in the same tank.  While competition over a single plant means that the small herd of tussock moths will crowd out an individual monarch, both species, as caterpillars, can and will move to a fresh plant if necessary.  As long as there is enough food, the caterpillars will feed around each other, and in fact some scientists have pointed out that it seems as if the tussock moth prefers the older, tougher leaves on the bottom while the monarch prefers the tenderer leaves on top.  But that’s another reason why it’s so important to have large stands of milkweed; both species are native and deserve the opportunity to flourish and thrive, and without milkweed, it won’t happen for either.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there is a third, less common (at least here in Indiana) moth caterpillar that relies on milkweed: the unexpected cycnia.  I kid you not; its name really is unexpected cycnia.  Most years, I never see them, but every so often, in late summer or early fall, I’ll find their caterpillars, usually on a special species of milkweed that monarchs and tussock moths use as a last resort because all the other milkweed species have turned yellow and dropped their leaves.  This milkweed species is called the whorled milkweed, and it looks like a small, spindly pine tree that saps like a milkweed if damaged.  Unlike other milkweed, this species sends out tough, shallow roots like strawberry runners, popping up a stem every so often.  And since it grows tall and narrow, I let mine come up anywhere it likes in my pollinator garden, because it doesn’t compete much with any of the other plants for sun or water, and it’s extremely drought-tolerant, which is why monarchs and tussock moths fall back on it in times of need.  Like the tussock moth family, the cycnias also have fur, but not so much that it completely covers the orange warning color of their bodies.

 

In addition to these three species, I’ve also found giant leopard moths and banded woolly bears feeding on milkweed—though not exclusively or even commonly, as they tend to be general feeders of various other native plants including plantain, violets, honeysuckle, dandelions, stinging nettle, and many others.  In addition to caterpillars, at least two types of beetles also eat milkweed exclusively, and milkweed is a favorite of the appropriately-named milkweed aphid, which in turn draws ants that “milk” the aphids for the sweet honeydew they produce, ladybugs that eat aphids, spiders, pollinating bees, and parasitic wasps and flies that look for hosts for their young.  While a stand of milkweed may look like a calm and lonely spot, it’s really quite the bustling metropolis of the insect world.