Climate Leadership Summit #4 at Goshen College

Liz Symon (Moontree Studios) and I took a trip over to Goshen College yesterday for the 4th annual Climate Leadership Summit, organized by Earth Charter Indiana. There are lots of workshops, summits, and conference, and only so many days in the year, so I try my best to make them worth my while. Having attended the last summit, I knew that CLS would be a can’t-miss event.

Liz has an extensive background in ecological & justice work in South Carolina, so I wanted to get her connected into the Hoosier scene. She was back with her tribe!

[this is where I’d normally put a photo of people milling together at coffee break, or even a photo of Liz & I… but I didn’t get anything like that! oh well…]

Our day started off by walking into the sanctuary of College Mennonite Church. Seating is in the round, and in the balcony was the college chamber choir, singing For the Beauty of the Earth, a rendition of Psalm 23 and other earthy melodies. It was very appropriate for the theme and the audience. I remember the first time I heard Mennonites sing, at a friend’s graduation at Goshen College. I grew up with the United Methodist hymnal, so I was pretty proud of my musical heritage. But the four-part harmony that is a part of their liturgical tradition is unmatched. I would post my scratchy iPhone recording I took, but it wouldn’t do it justice!

We heard from several speakers, from IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute, Purdue’s Climate Change Research Center, as well as some engineers, authors, and mayors of Indiana cities.

Dr. Jeffrey Dukes reviewing the latest climate science & its impact for Indiana.

Indiana University has developed some great tools for municipal leaders to use to make their communities more resilient. I was struck by the practicality and non-partisan approach of the summit, which is why I think so many leaders have found it useful.

We also heard from David Orr of Oberlin College, who founded The Oberlin Project. He zoomed out from the details of climate science & sustainability and gave a cautionary address about the decline of democracy in the U.S. and Europe, together with the increasing amount of wealth that is being redistributed to the top 1% and 0.1% of society. It was a moving call to action to re-engage with and defend our democratic heritage.

At lunch we heard from several children and high schoolers. Earth Charter Indiana has done some very ground-breaking with youth across the state. Youth-led initiatives have been responsible for the adoption of several municipal climate recovery resolutions. Read more here and here.

Afterward, we went on a tour of the Goshen College campus to see all the work they’ve done in decreasing energy usage and implementing renewables.

We started off in the parking lot, looking at electric vehicles. I brought our Nissan LEAF to put on display for comparison to the other models avaialable (see here for our chronicles with EVs; more to come shortly).

And not only cars. There are also more and more options available for electric lawn mowers, from residential push mowers to commercial riding mowers. The commercial market is moving increasingly towards electric options. There are a lot of concerns about hearing loss, air quality effects, and noise pollution associated with gasoline blowers, weed whackers, and mowers.

We then moved to the athletic facility. The best in sustainable design is simple. Sometimes it’s just a giant fan, running at low horsepower, mixing air.

This monster is made by – who else? – the Big Ass Fan Company (really).

We then saw the 2012-ish installation of a solar thermal hot water heater. The market is now moving more towards photovoltaic solar, even for hot water needs, but this was a really good design for it’s time. It was well engineered & well cared for, thus is still provides lots of hot water even during the winter.

And now I’ve got a notepad full of new people to connect to, book titles to look up, and projects to start. Par for the course for these summits and workshops. Time to get busy!

vegetation monitoring

Monitoring ecological restoration sites is what I used to do as a consultant. Despite the bugs, relentless sun, and travel, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Actually, sometimes I even enjoyed the bugs, sun, and travel! A double-edged sword to be sure. But I felt very fortunate to pay rent by looking at plants and thinking through ways to make restoration work better.

there are worse places to be, I suppose…

Some sort of monitoring is crucial to ensure that we are actually doing things right, or at least actively learning from mistakes (that’s another forthcoming post). Ecological systems are incredible complex. We can’t assume just because something is lush and green that it is “healthy” or is meeting the restoration goals we have. We have to get out in the field and understand what is going on before we can pass judgment. (Chris Helzer highlighted the importance of this in a recent post).

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) puts on a show, with Goldenrods (Solidago species) setting the background.

Field visits, whether intense and formal, or quick and casual, are also important moments for serendipity. Sometimes, we just happen to catch something new or interesting, which expands our knowledge as naturalists or inserts new factors into our stewardship calculations. These, of course, are usually observations that individuals in pre-industrial societies knew from an early age, but even full-time ecologists have to constantly struggle to put the pieces together.

For example, by wandering around my yard in the evening, I found groups of bees and wasps congregating on branches pretty motionless. I didn’t know why. A little Googling let me to the answer: turns out that male bees and wasps typically don’t return to the nest after they hatch, and they have to roost overnight like birds. This can be inside a flower, or together on a branch. Who knew? Not me, until I starting seeing it in the evenings.

Being humans with only so many hours in the day, and days in the year, we are also limited to how much data we can collect. Believe me, I’m the kind of strange person that wants to collect it all, and populates Excel sheets on the weekends with some of my free time. (No, I haven’t found a cure for this malady yet… other than interspersing it with idle time in the backyard with my kids).

A simple water-proof monitoring notebook. Each species has a 6 letter acronym. “RUDHIR 50” stands for Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), which covered approximately 50% of the plot.

For obsessives like me, we often have to take a step back and weigh the cost of gathering more data, for it will come at the expense of other work. I was in the field recently and decided after 7 of 84 vegetation plots to stop sampling. As I thought through the objectives of the rather long-term project, and the time it would take to do a quality job on another 77 plots, I realized that having this year’s data would not really reveal much of interest for the primary research question, so I stopped. Perhaps a more meticulously planned experiment would have realized this before the experiment began, but better late than never. (There are almost always some course-corrections in the flow of a project).

a post marking a transect in one of my prairie research areas

One project that required less formal monitoring was the pollinator plantings we made to buffer the waterway from the farm activities. These were planted in spring of 2017 and we receive annual rent payments on these buffers from the NRCS. This was the 3rd year of growth, so we should be able to really start seeing a transition from annual species to the perennial plants we hope will cover the buffer.

the work of Sr. Mary

Collecting detailed vegetation data would be overkill for this project. We don’t have a research project attached to it, and the NRCS requires only some basic and periodic maintenance of the site. But I like to walk the buffers several times throughout the year to see how the site is progressing, and to catch any problematic weeds early. I take some photos, make some notes in a field journal, and type them in to the project folder when I get back to the office. It’s a helpful way to see how my thinking about a site changes over time.

excerpts from my field notes

The first two years of establishment for herbaceous perennial species is always nerve-wracking. It looks like a failure. But plants are putting their energy into root development and waiting to burst up. Towards the end of the 3rd growing season, you start to see “results”.

In the photo below (8/9/19), Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) are providing nectar and pollen to the passing Swallowtail butterfly. Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus) is a grass that establishes quickly and forms the bulk of the vegetation here. The seeds of these plants will provide winter food for wildlife, as well as cover. Their roots hold the soil at the edge of a slope. All of them suppress annual weeds that can become problematic in the adjacent field, which is used for annual row crops.

I was very happy to stumble upon these vigorous plants. This was the same spots were I saw Sandhill Cranes foraging the year before.

I was also pleased to see evidence that the plants were being munched on, with some caterpillars frass (poop) collecting in the depression by the stem. Native plants feed the native food chain, all the way up to us.

The Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) was in bloom, providing nectar for a Monarch Butterfly.

Now that everyone can carry around a supercomputer with a nice camera lens in their pocket, getting in the field is just a good opportunity for photos.

a swallowtail nectaring on Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)

a bee fly nectaring on Ironweed (Vernonia species)

I was most thrilled to find this Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda puntata) on Sept. 5th. In this very sandy field, it was only the 2nd growing season after seeding. I haven’t found M. puntata naturally occuring on our site, but it is native to the region and is at home in sand. The pink you see are bracts (leaves just below the flower). The flower is yellow and spotted, right next to the stem.

I also took some notes on a small field that we received a grant to plant to forest. We planted 1 year old bare root stems from the Indiana DNR nursery in spring of 2018. So we are now toward the end of the 2nd growing season in the ground. The sycamores did particularly well, and this one was 8 feet tall already!

Field monitoring is always full of surprises. Keep a sharp eye!