adventures with volunteers

One important part of my job is education, internally and externally. Receiving volunteers is a great way to spread the message about the natural world.

I have to remind myself of the dual purpose of volunteer partnerships. I’m a pretty direct, task-oriented person. Working with many non-profits over the years, I’m often frustrated by the delayed events, extra administrative work, and “inefficient” outcomes of most volunteering partnerships. But because I don’t lean on volunteers for the bulk of my “doing” work, I instead try to view the partnerships as mostly educational. It is an invitation to wonder, a relationship with natural communities and organisms that usually go unnoticed. If we happen to some tasks accomplished, that’s a bonus!

We recently hosted a cadre of Boy Scout families to help with a tree planting project. Their presence lifted my spirits, and I hope they enjoyed the fresh air or learned something in return.

We don’t discriminate by age!

I also love partnering with Lindenwood Conference and Retreat Center, where groups integrate service-learning in their retreats. We had some very energetic young folks assisting with a roadside trash clean-up and a prairie restoration experiment.

All the warm fuzzies.

Having the privilege to be immersed in the field I am, I usually forget where most people are in regards to ecology. I was rambling on about prairie ecology and prescribed fire for several minutes. A young man nodded thoughtfully and replied, “Hmm. I didn’t even know there was more than one kind of grass!” Just think of all the amazing relationships and wonders he has yet to be awakened to.

While working outside, we came across a Midland Brown Snake (AKA De Kay’s Snake). It was the first time some of them had held a snake. We talked about why the snake was out and about (sunning itself) and what it’s relationships might be in the food web.

I’m a harmless little ecology lesson, wrapped up in a slick brown skin!

My knowledge of “herps” (amphibians and reptiles) is pretty limited, so I used that snake sighting to dive into a guide book later that day and learn a little bit more about the species as well.

In the end, we DID in fact get quite a lot accomplished, which was especially gratifying given how time-sensitive some of the work can be for plant establishment.

Working with volunteers is indeed work, but with a little forethought and persistence, the moments of surprise and connection are worth it.

“Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ go solar for Earth care and energy savings”

Well… there has been a lot of work behind this little headline, by lots of people. It’s finally time!

I’ll put up some more info later about the 2017 Indiana Net Metering Report that was published several weeks ago, but for now, here’s the press release.

Sr. Loretta, Sr. Mary, and myself in the Senate chambers in 2017, with hundreds of others lobbying for solar-friendly legislation.

For Immediate Release – April 27, 2018

DONALDSON, INThe Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ are proud to announce the first phase of a renewable energy effort, starting with two solar arrays at The Center at Donaldson.

“We Poor Handmaids seek to show by our choices the respect we have for all of God’s creation or, as Pope Francis says in Laudato Sí to protect our common home,’” said PHJC Provincial Sister Judith Diltz. “Our choice to invest in solar panels will help us be less dependent on fossil fuels for energy.”

The 280-panel, 83 kilowatt (KW) installation is the culmination of 20 months of research and energy-related efforts completed by a project team led by Adam Thada, Director of Ecological Relationships.

“I had the privilege of joining The Center at Donaldson in 2016 to continue the Poor Handmaid’s longtime efforts around sustainability and Creation care,” said Thada. “Energy usage is by far the largest impact of what we call our ‘ecological relationships.’”

The team first compiled data on electricity usage across campus. To gather ideas, they visited several solar and energy efficiency projects across the region.

The first step was an LED lighting retrofit at the Motherhouse, Ancilla College, Lindenwood Retreat and Conference Center, and Catherine Kasper Life Center. Thousands of old lights were recycled with help from the Marshall County Recycle Depot and replaced with high-efficiency LEDs. A NIPSCO efficiency program helped defray some of the costs.

“Energy efficiency is the first step. It is the best financially and from a resource use perspective. Then you can move on to renewables,” Thada noted. “The LEDs alone have dropped our electric demand by 500,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) each year. This is equivalent to taking more than 50 average homes off the grid, or enough to drive an electric car across the United States 640 times.”

The Center at Donaldson was aided by Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (, who specializes in working with non-profits to effectively own and operate renewable energy systems. AIRE assisted the project team in choosing the best installation site and vendor for the project.

Ag Technologies, Inc. of Rochester, IN will be installing the arrays this summer, using U.S.-made Solarworld panels. Their patented SolarCAM® system consists of ground-mounted, tiltable arrays that are adjusted four times per year to track the sun’s angle for maximum energy production.

The two arrays will help power MoonTree Studios art gallery and The Center at Donaldson’s wastewater treatment plant. The systems have no batteries for energy storage, but rely on “net metering.” Excess power produced during the day is sent back to the utility’s grid and credited to the customer, who draws power when the sun goes down.

“There is still a window of opportunity for homeowners, businesses, and local governments to sign up for solar net metering during the next couple years,” said Thada.

According to the 2017 Net Metering Report, more customer-owned renewable energy was added in 2017 than in all previous years combined. Indiana now has nearly 2,000 net metering customers.

“Stewardship is a choice,” said Thada. “We know scientifically that continuing use of fossil fuels will lead to more workers with black lung disease, children with asthma, and babies with low birth-weights, in addition to massive ecological disruption. Fortunately, alternatives are now available. Ultimately, we get to decide what our legacy will be.”

The project team will monitor the solar system’s performance and watch trends in the renewable energy industry to determine how a larger Phase 2 project could be implemented.

# # #



Earth Week addendum

Our communications team recorded the first three days of Earth Week. They are available on YouTube and I wanted to list them here:

Monday: “150 Years of Ecology” lecture by yours truly… a look back in time at the history of our land.

Tuesday: Sr. Mary and the Moontree troupe put on a great playlet on the first land surveyors.

Wednesday: Srs. Mary Jo and Linda display and discuss early 20th century household technologies.


Earth Week at The Center at Donaldson

We had a great Earth Week here at The Center at Donaldson. Because we have so many co-workers and residents here during the day, our audience for this series is usually internal and a little informal.

Our communications team did a great job posting photos and descriptions on the Facebook page during the week, so I’ll let them take it away from here:






Inaugural “Earth Hug Boogie” in the wraps

The first annual Earth Hug Boogie week is done. Coverage can be found in the 4/23/18 edition of the Pilot News (not available online).

The week culminated in a mini-festival this Sunday, with a plant vendor, composting demo, drum circle, crafts, a nature walk, and more.

As a relative newcomer to the area, these are the sorts of people and events that truly make a community feel like home. Here’s a big shout-out to the many people that pulled this thing off!

During our nature walk we identified about 10 flowers. The iNaturalist smartphone app identified them too, without fail. Heck, it even correctly ID’d this blurry photo as a Trombidium mite, which is a whopping 4 mm wide.

We decided to do our own Earth Week programming this week, because of the Earth Hug Boogie conflict and others. More on that later… if I survive the week at all! 🙂

the Earth Hug Boogie is underway…

Time really crept up on me and well… the Earth Hug Boogie is underway!

The Earth Hug Boogie is an inaugural, week-long earth-centered celebration in Plymouth. It’s the brainchild of George Schricker from Wild Rose Moon, who called together community members to coordinate a series of talks, dances, and jam sessions throughout the week… daytime and in the evening. It culminates this Sunday afternoon in a mini-festival at the River Park Square in downtown Plymouth.

I’ll be leading a nature walk along the Yellow River at 2:30 pm on Sunday (on behalf of Earthworks), but that’s only a small component of a whole lotta goings-on… offerings will also be coming from Heartland Artists Gallery, the Marshall County Historical Museum, the Plymouth library, Motion Dance Academy, Marshall County Soil and Water District, the Recycle Depot, and more.

The best way to hear about everything happening is to go over to the Earth Hug Boogie Facebook page ( AM1050 also covered the details of some of the events: 

fire season nearly over

Ok, a few more photos from the spring burn season. Click on the first photo to open up the gallery viewer, which will show the captions.

We are almost done, and have totaled 30 acres so far. Last year we managed 20 acres during the fall-spring dormant season.


Here’s an admittedly poor video from my smartphone, showing a burn in the wetland just SE of Moontree. If you look closely at the swaying cat-tail on the right, you’ll notice it’s smoking. Sure looks like a hot dog over a campfire!

The burn was patchy, burning here and not there as topography, vegetation, water levels, and wind all combined. That’s fine, as it allows for insects and animals to have spots of refuge, and creates microhabitat that are needed for biodiversity.

(I haven’t forgotten about Part 2 of the flood story. Will get there eventually… spring is busy!)




one year with an electric vehicle

Not long after I began working with the Poor Handmaids, we had a Lindenwood guest request to charge up their electric vehicle (EV). Intrigued, we looked for ways to make that request a reality.

We quickly applied for and were awarded a grant by the Marshall County Community Foundation to install a charging station (more in a later post).

This of course provided just the excuse I needed to press my forbearing wife to get an electric car. “Honey, we really should lead by example!” 🙂

Well, that was a year ago already. I already touched on some EV basics, but I thought I’d recap my experience now that we’ve taken a whole trip around the sun with this car.

Selection process

When considering EVs, I always encourage people to first match the right vehicle to their needs. Otherwise, in a transportation culture that values convenience above all else, one will be set-up for unnecessary disappointment.

New EV models continue to improve in quality and price-point, but for our case they were still too expensive, so we looked in the used market. Even though the EV market is growing 20-40% per year, it’s still in the early adoption phase, so the used market was limited and required some extra due diligence.

We settled on a 2013 Ford C-Max Energi. The C-Max Energi is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), meaning it can switch between gas and electric on the fly. It has a small 7.6 kWh (killowatt hour) battery in the trunk, which can propel it about 20 miles on electric alone. After that is depleted, it has another 500 miles on gasoline.

It’s electric range is short, but normally it’s sufficient for my 17 mile round-trip commute. (That’s what I mean about matching the car to your needs). If I need to add stops on the way home, or drive out of state, I don’t need extra planning. The car just switches to gasoline.

From left: the blue Toyota Prius is the plain hybrid you already know, gasoline only. The Green Ford C-Max Energi is a PHEV, gas and electric. The White Nissan LEAF is the simplest, a BEV (battery electric vehicle) which is electric only.

Driving experience

Well, the good news is that EV driving has not been fundamentally different. Turn signals, windshield wipers, braking, staying alert and driving defensively… those are the same.

It’s much quieter. If the engine has to kick on, it now feels obnoxiously loud and rattling by comparison.

It’s nice that my garage doesn’t stink anymore. Departing from or returning to the garage can be done without the gas engine pumping carbon monoxide into the house. I also feel a little better that I can navigate around my small town without making the air quality worse for people trying to enjoy the outdoors.

The instant torque of the electric motor means I squeal my tires sometimes. I’ll have to watch the tires and make sure the tread isn’t being affected.

Charging has been pretty painless. I plug into a normal 110 volt outlet in my garage, which acts as my own slow-motion “gas station.” (Some basic precaution/due diligence is warranted in regards to the outlet quality, the load on the circuit, etc). It takes me 5 seconds to plug it in. When I wake up, my “gas station” has added driving range to my car. I drive it all week and the total range on my car (gas+electric) is the same as when I started. It was a weird feeling at first. I stopped at a gas station four times this first year.


I’ve been careful with the car and after one year of driving and, based on my testing, it doesn’t appear that the battery has degraded by any measurable amount (that’s another post).

“Sparky” seen here sipping some electrons in Valpo.


It’s a little counter-intuitive, but even with a small battery, a large portion of driving miles can be done on electric, because it depends on daily driving patterns.

Over the last year, I’ve put 6,388 miles on the car.

76% of these miles (4,881) were electric, mostly back and forth to work. My car reports that this consumed 1,268 kWh, or 3.8 miles/kWh. However, energy losses during charging are 28% between the outlet and the car, so it really required 1,761 kWh from the electric company. So for each kWh at the wall, I could drive about 2.8 miles.

24% of the miles (1,507) were gasoline. My car reports that this consumed 43.1 gallons, or 35 MPG. This is almost double the MPG of the vehicle we replaced.

But how do you compare apples and oranges? Well, 1 gallon of gas has as much energy as 33.4 kWh of electricity. It’s hard for us to visualize… we all know what a gallon feels like, but none of us have ever seen or held a kilowatt hour.

So, 1 gallon of gasoline will propel the car 35 miles, whereas the equivalent energy in kWh will move the same car 93 miles (2.8 x 33.4). This is the math demonstrating that electric motors are more efficient than gasoline engines at converting energy into mechanical power.


With some patient searching, I was fortunate to find our 4-year-old C-Max Energi (“Sparky”) at 70% off the original sale price and the battery with another 4 years of warranty left. It was a fleet car with 82,000 miles that, strangely, was apparently almost never plugged in. I knew from research that battery degradation is a concern with this particular model (although not others). Through some testing, I found that it had almost no degradation, as the battery was almost never used. A missed opportunity for them, but I had essentially a brand new battery.

For each kWh, I could drive 2.8 miles. A kWh from NIPSCO runs about $0.15 at home. That works out to 5.4 cents/mile. In my case, it was $18/month for the commute. (At The Center at Donaldson, we get bulk electric rates, which means we could drive our per mile cost to 1.9 cents per mile).

For each gallon of gas, I could drive 35 miles. Gas runs about $2.50/gallon, so that’s 7.1 cents/mile. My previous gasoline vehicle was running about 12.5 cents/mile.

All told, I’m expecting this experiment to neither cost me or save me much at all. Because electric rates don’t fluctuate like gasoline, it makes budgeting more predictable.

In sum: fully electric vehicles (BEV) are more expensive to purchase (at least for the next 7 years), but are cheaper to operate and maintain. This is why we are seeing a lot of early adoption by fleet operators, who are more focused on total cost of ownership than the average buyer.

We’re at that stage in childhood where we anthropomorphize basically everything!

Ecological benefit

Electric cars are fueled by rainbows and unicorns, right? Not exactly. It’s important to hold our do-gooder activity up to the light of scientific analysis and see what is actually there, not what we wish.

EVs have no tailpipe… that means zero local emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulates. This is a big win for local air quality. We underestimate air pollution’s impacts because we’ve simply accepted it as a cost of doing business. But in reality it means about 200,000 early funerals each year in America.

However, these pollutants (along with carbon dioxide) are also associated with electrical energy production. In fact, the Midwest has one of the dirtier electric grids in the country. Here’s a phenomenal visualization of electricity fuel source by U.S. state.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data on how driving electric affects the production of most of these pollutants. But a lot of attention has been paid to carbon dioxide because of the fact of climate change.

The Union of Concerned Scientists did the heavy lifting here. They report:

The climate change emissions created by driving on electricity depend on where you live, but on average, an EV driving on electricity in the U.S. today is equivalent to a conventional gasoline car that gets 80 MPG, up from 73 MPG in our 2017 update. Based on data on power plant emissions released in February 2018, driving on electricity is cleaner than gasoline for most drivers in the US.

Data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (pub. 2018)

For our region (RFCW), the global warming pollution of the average EV is 50 MPG, which is about 50% less than average new car sold today, where fuel economy has been stubbornly stuck at 25 mpg for the last four years.

The UCS also made a personalized tool based on your zip code and car model. My results are less impressive than national averages… I’m at 35 MPG on gasoline, while the pollution-equivalent in electric mode is a 41 MPG car. This is mitigated by the solar power array on my home (yes, that’s yet another post), but that’s beyond my mathematical powers for today.

The good news is that the car will actually get cleaner each year alongside the grid, as NIPSCO and other utilities continue to close coal-fired power plants and build out solar and wind.

The sobering news is that the electrification of transportation – as daunting as it feels – is only one of several massive transitions humans will need to undergo if we are to drive climate change pollution to near-zero in my lifetime.

I went to Aldi soon after I signed the paperwork on “Sparky” and parked next to a horse and buggy. The Amish, of course, rely mostly on grass-powered transportation (horses). They have also been early adopters of solar power (as well as being solar entrepreneurs). Some of that excess “energy” was deposited in the parking space next to mine. It reminded me that technology and ecology is more than just numbers… it’s also about psychology, sociology, and culture.

What does the future hold? We’ll see.

Spot the three fuel sources in this parking lot.



a few prescribed fire photos

I’ll be back with more content eventually, but we’ve been busy burning. There are only so many days in the spring where the wind, humidity, fuel conditions, and personnel all align just right, so we are out there when we can. So far, we are on pace to achieve our goal of increasing our number of acres burned every year.

One point that I often forget to mention about woodland burns: we are burning the leaf litter, not the trees! With a national media, most folks only hear about fire in the context of out-of-control Western wildfires ripping through the canopies of pine forests. But in the lower Midwest, we are dealing mostly with deciduous forests filled with species that drop their leaves annually. The fire’s fuel is on the ground, not up in the air. Fire-adapted trees, especially oak species, have thick layers of bark that prevent them from catching fire, in addition to being full of moisture. (Last year I wrote a little about why we burn).

Well… now that I say that, there are a couple pines in this photo. We decided to save these individuals because it wasn’t too much work and we like having some around. We just wet the trunks down and passed the fire slowly underneath them. Pines can be susceptible to catching fire as the live leaves (needles) are flammable; they also lack the thick protective bark of the oaks. What you don’t see in this photo is that these white pines are isolated and wouldn’t have threatened any other trees or structures even if they did catch.

Anyway, no large trees were harmed in the making of this photo! We didn’t just run up to the woods and light a match either… this photo was actually after a good 45 minutes of careful work. At this point, we knew with a good amount of certainty exactly what the fire was going to do as we laid it down.

So let’s go back to the beginning…

The following two photos are from a tiny burn unit (0.7 acres) that we affectionately call the “Brother Bob Savanna” (some readers can guess where it might be). The overstory (tallest trees) are mature black and white oaks and hickories. The understory has a large amount of rasperries and small diameter oaks and sassafras. The ground floor is a thick layer of oak leaf litter. Our management goal is not a dark, closed forest, but a more open oak woodland/savanna with both an oak overstory and plenty of herbaceous (non-woody) grasses, sedges, and wildflowers on the ground. We expect that these communities, especially on our soils, will be the best adapted to carry biodiversity through the hot and dry climate we are expecting to prevail.

Ok, let’s not get into theory, I said photos!

The photo below shows a “backburn” or “backfire.” It is the safest and most common way to initiate a prescribed fire.

I started the fire at the red star, by the large oak tree. This is at the most downwind portion of the unit. I then moved towards the yellow star, parallel to the wind. The flames lean downwind, over the firebreak (mowed grass). They move “backward” into the wind, creeping along at a slow rate. In a few minutes, this created an expanding “blackline” of burned fuel, increasing our margin of safety on that end of the unit. Once a fire burns across the oak leaves, the fuel is spent.

By the green star is one of our staff. He has the somewhat unfortunate task of staying downwind in the smoke and watching outside the unit for any escaping fire. Given the wide expanse of mowed lawn are this unit and the calm nature of the backburn, that was almost impossible, but I like to have eyes everywhere there is active flames.

The backfire may be creeping along at just a few feet per minute. Well… we don’t have all day and night. So we move next to a “strip-head fire” or “strip fire.” This is “a series of lines of fire [that] are set progressively upwind of a firebreak in such a manner that no individual line of fire can develop to a high energy level before it reaches either a firebreak or another line of fire” (source). Basically, it helps us move through the unit faster without compromising safety.

Now, you’ll have to flip around the photo perspective, the next photo was shot from the opposite direction, but its the same fire just 5-10 minutes later..

I initiated the strip burn at the red star, and moved in a line to the yellow star. I walked far enough in front of the first backburn to make it worth my while, but not so much that it would gather too much speed burning downwind. The wind was fairly strong. As you can tell in the photo, the flames on the strip burn are already larger than either backburn, just seconds after I laid down fire.


There is plenty of work associated with prescribed fire that’s not terribly exciting. Below is a photo from an adjacent woods that just wasn’t burning as hot and complete as we’d expected. The backburn I had initially set didn’t make a nice wide and solid black line, it was a little sporadic. With unburned fuel near the burn break (which separates the burn unit from the exterior) there was a small chance of a wind shift or other event reigniting that fuel. Additionally, the burn break we created here was not very wide as we wanted to minimize disturbance.

Here, Cheri had the not-so-glamorous (but important) job of slowly patrolling this end of the fire while the rest of us were continuing through the unit while we were sending smoke her direction. Thanks Cheri!

Even with a meticulously-written burn plan, the burn boss ultimately has to constantly assess the weather, fuel, fire behavior, wind, and the status of his/her equipment and staff. I always try to start each burn reminding the team of our ranked priorities:

1) Everyone gets home safe

2) Protect buildings and property

3) Achieve the burn’s objectives

4) Have fun!

Well, so much for “just a few photos.” Behind every photo is a lot of prep work, a choreography of dedicated staff, and several ecology lessons!