frog spotting on the eve of a Great Turning

(sorry, I’m dealing with a persistent issue where uploaded photos are rotated incorrectly, please bear with me and leave a comment below stating if you see them right side up, and what browser you are using)

On the first evening of spring, I welcomed back Dr. Michael Finkler, a biology professor at Indiana University. During our Bioblitz last summer, he led the herptile team, surveying for reptiles and amphibians.

nets at the ready

This night, we were on the hunt for Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus). Dr. Finkler had secured a permit from the DNR to harvest a limited number of frogs for research. He is trying to understand how these creatures can withstand the cycles of freezing and thawing that are pretty normal for March in Indiana.

there’s one!

I took him to one of our vernal pools, one of Indiana’s more unique and imperiled habitats. These shallow pools fill up with winter and spring precipitation, just long enough for salamanders and frogs to breed & lay eggs. The heat of summer dries them out, preventing fish populations from being established. Adult frogs and salamanders “head to the hills” and live their life overland, hibernate through the winter, and do it all over again.

got a couple, they are hard to spot!

Many a vernal pool, unfortunately, has been lost by negligence or apathy, to the relentless onslaught of development and agricultural drainage. Widespread herptile populations that existed for millennia with the continent’s first human inhabitants are now small, fragmented communities. Each thoughtless attempt at a new road, “fishing pond”, or drainage tile chips further away.

a successful haul

As much as I felt I got outdoors as a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I don’t feel like I had the truly wild upbringing that so many baby boomers report to me. Of countless hours wandering woods and marshes. As a mostly 9-5 ecologist (at work anyway), I miss 2/3rd of the action. There’s just so much to see!

And so I was truly thankful I made the effort to get out. MAN WERE THOSE THINGS LOUD! Dr. Finkler told me he measured their call in the lab once and it registered 105 decibels. It frequently left my ears ringing. The water was practically bubbling up with little beady eyes flitting around.

Here, he explains how to ID a Wood Frog:

Well, and we all know why frogs are calling, right? They were matching up as fast as possible, with that ever-present urge to leave one’s genetic heritage.

two Wood Frogs in “amplexus”; the females (below) are noticeably larger than the males

Sorry, no privacy in the wild. This is the first time I had ever observed any sort of herptile laying eggs.

Once a male has found his mate, there’s no giving up. He has special pads on his fingers to grab hold and not let go, if you look carefully below.

But Wood Frogs weren’t all! We saw three other species in the same vernal pool. (You can see descriptions and hear calls for all of Indiana’s frogs on the DNR website).

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer). Notice the X-mark on the back and the diminutive size of this adult.

Not nearly as abundant as the spring peepers in this pool, we managed to grab it’s cousin, a Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata). Note the stripes.

Last, but not least (and most visible in the summer) is the appropriately named Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens). Due to ongoing wetland restoration efforts and attention by conservationists, the Northern Leopard Frog was recently removed from Indiana’s list of Species of Special Concern.

Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)

After collecting the necessarily specimens, I thanked Dr. Finkler (during these times of pandemic, without a handshake!) and drove home with a glimmer of something like satisfaction.

The hope was ephemeral, just as the water. But it will rain again.

social distancing

“Social distancing” is a work of the Moontree Studios community, a place where people can awaken to their creative potential and sow the seeds for a more mindful, compassionate and sustainable Earth Community.

I wanted to respond to the exigency of the moment and get this out there. All jerky camera motions and lack of editing are my responsibility alone. I’m still on the learning curve with the drone.

Stay your distance
But keep your heart
Now is the time
To make new art!

the entire world is focused on one problem right now

Image may contain: people playing sports and text

COVID-19 (coronavirus) is proving to be the great equalizer. Regardless of income, religion, or nationality, the virus is replicating across the worldwide human population by the rules of biology. We are not above the rules, outside of the ecosystem. We are part and parcel of it all.

Many of us can barely remember what day of the week it is. Absent our rituals, it’s hard to recall that we are still in the time of Lent. “For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). COVID-19 is now this worldwide reminder of our universal earthiness. We are all in this together.

a new volunteer learns about the best practices for prescribed fire, used to maintain this patch of native grasses and wildflowers; March 2020

For a global people, how one nation faces the challenge now affects the next. And the next. Cuban doctors are flying to Italy to care for the sick. My friends in Bolivia have already altered their greetings, foregoing the customary cheek-kissing. Trade and travel have been upended. Research scientists are furiously coordinating efforts and publishing data as fast as possible. Automobile factories are switching their production lines to produce life-saving respirators and masks for healthcare workers.

A Hoosier lockdown

Yesterday, Governor Holcomb issued an official directive for Hoosiers to stay at home, effective tonight through April 6. Unless we are participating in “essential business and operations” or “essential activities,” we should stay at our residence and keep 6 ft away from others at all times. Any gathering of more than 10 people is prohibited. You can read the FAQs here.

The directive notes that elderly and sick persons – who are at higher risk from COVID-19 – are urged to stay home to the extent possible and only leave to seek necessarily medical care. Now, I know several people dear to me who are in their 60’s who wouldn’t think themselves “elderly,” (heck, a few in their 80’s too). But it bears repeating that the virus is no respecter of semantics, of country, religion, or bank account: now is the time to shelter up and let others keep things running.

It is widely understood that these types of measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and prevent our medical system from being overwhelmed.

Does this mean we can we stay connected to the natural world in this time of pandemic? Fortunately, the stay at home order provides a provision for outdoor activities.

It’s a good time to be extra cautious in your outdoor activities, for now is not a time to have a hospital trip. But solitary wildflower walks are definitely still in order. Spring is not taking the year off.

monitoring frog populations on the first day of spring, 2020; their chorus continues through the COVID

With the decrease in economic activity and vehicle traffic, it occurred to me that this spring, it may be that natural communities around us will see the lowest levels of pollution since before World War II. Light pollution, roadkill, noise pollution, particulates, toxic waste… the onslaught is having a modest reprieve. Grid operators in the Midwest have already noticed a reduction in electricity demand. UPDATE: U.S. traffic is down >30%, along with concomitant pollution.

A time for solidarity

Much is made of the inclination of some, in times of crisis, to loot, pillage, and fight ruthlessly for our own survival. Undeniably, that’s one aspect of human behavior. I’m told that guns and ammo are sold out right now. So be it, if that comforts someone to sit in a quiet home with their boxes of steel, watching Netflix.

But social observers have noted that a far more common impulse in times of crisis is solidarity. There are numerous examples. Rebecca Solnit has studied and written about the impromptu, spontaneous examples of compassion that emerged from Hurricane Katrina.

I’ve been calling my father more in recent weeks. He also has been calling on friends. One of his made a list of people and called each of them, catching up with those who had grown apart. Local grocery stores have created “senior shopping hours” at the beginning of the day, so that the most vulnerable of our community can remain distanced from those of us who may be carrying and spreading the disease unknowingly.

Imagine if care and concern for our neighbor were a regular feature of our everyday, non-COVID society.

“We the People” print by Shepard Fairy, 2017

But the fog has lifted, and it turns out we are all in the same boat, U.S.S. Earth.

Advocates and activists have been shouting for decades to remind us that all is not well, that we have ongoing crises of poverty and income inequality, a racial wealth gap that has never been reconciled, a crisis of loneliness and alienation, a crisis of dehumanizing institutions, twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

As a biological entity, the COVID-19 virus is the most pressing & visible manifestation of our ecological crisis. But it not the only one.

Those of us with enough resources, we could safely ignore those crises (for a time), relocate from a hurricane, hire a flotilla of lobbyists, socially distance ourselves in affluent ghettos, hire someone to separate our hands from the dirty work.

But COVID-19 dissolves these illusions and reminds us that we are the world’s most widespread and social species here on this spaceship Earth. Not just an aggregation of individuals, but a single body with many members (1 Cor. 12).

And so, here we are, together.

“earthrise” 24 Dec 1968

Connecting with the Natural World in a Time of Pandemic

It’s now clear to (almost) everyone that we are living in one of those generation-defining times. From the small organization and government office, to the largest worldwide coordinating networks, now is the moment where leadership matters.

I read a Twitter thread by a virologist on the recent disease models. They noted, “This is the Apollo program of our times.” I thought that was very fitting. Only the stakes are higher, the timeline more compressed, the scope more global than ever.

So, I’m an ecologist. Not a healthcare worker, government official, or other key person in the time-sensitive COVID-19 response. While virology is a key component of ecological systems, I’m just another person that needs to work from home, tend to those within my case, and order take-out.

Though I haven’t been in my work office, I’ve continued with outdoor work, which is mostly solitary. As for exposure to disease by occupational risk, loggers (which I’ll use as a stand-in for ecologists) rank at about zero.

So, from the plywood-and-sawhorse desk that I hastily erected in my garage, my professional advice (to those that are able) is this: get outside.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) practicing “social distancing” west of the Ancilla College residence hallfs, 20 march 20

Most of us will not be suffering acutely from COVID-19 itself. But the economic and social disruptions are affecting us all. Many of us are anxious and worried, we’ve lost sense of time and the normal patterns that sustain our mental-emotional-spiritual health.

There are innumerable studies that link our health with our exposure to the natural world, from walks in the woods to simply having a tree outside your window. Volumes have been written about this (see especially Richard Louv).

UPDATE: Restoration ecologist Steve Glass reminds us that we are facing the triple threat of species extinction, climate change, and COVID-19 all at once. It is time to stay engaged, and to live up to the moment we are in.

The Audubon society notes that birding is the perfect activity for a time of social distancing. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a treasure-trove of resources, including their very helpful Merlin Bird ID app.

After all, you get COVID-19 from other humans. You can’t get COVID-19 from a tree, a stream, or a bluebird (or a Corvid, for that mater… undoubtedly blue jays and crows can outsmart viruses!).

You and I need exercise anyway. In addition to eating healthily and getting adequate rest, we stand a better chance to fend of attacks on our immune system (“Yes, You Can Take Your Kids For A Walk” NPR).

a Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), waiting patiently in a vernal pool, on the first day of spring, 19 march 20

iNaturalist has ways to explore nature while you are at home, by photographing and recording your observations and letting the global online community help you identify what you see. They have a smartphone app too, of course.

The Indiana DNR is keeping outdoor spaces open for people to use. Arnold Schwarzenegger is encouraging people to get out and bike. Just a reminder that we should be making sure our activities are as low-risk as possible during this time. It is definitely not the time to put any extra hospital visits on a healthcare system under stress, so be safe.

There’s been a passage floating around on social media the last few days. I don’t know the context in which it was written, or who the author even is. But I thought it a very helpful image for this time in which we are in solitude, together.

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
~Kitty O’Meara

Moontree Studios wetland reveals interplay of plants, animals, soil, and water, the day after a prescribed fire; 19 march 20

spring is here

There’s a lot going on right now (more on that soon).

But I didn’t want to let today pass unnoticed.

It’s the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. Every human on Earth is getting the same amount of daylight today, if not the same quantity of solar radiation (it’s gloomy and rainy in northern Indiana).

Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) press upward at the Thada Homestead, 15 March 2020

Our feeling of time has been off the last 7-10 days. Weeks and months of change compressed into a single day. Stock markets down, then up a bit, then down again. Schools closed, restaurants shuttered, new rhythms being established with uncertain time frames.

Anxiety has increased. The unknown, the probable, and almost certain. The anticipation. We are even now in the season of Lent, contemplating our own mortality and earth-ed-ness.

the belfry of the Ancilla Domini chapel, 18 March 2020

Today we would normally be assembling at Moontree Studios for an equinox reflection. Instead, we are dispersed and not physically gathered.

It is not an escape from the pain, certainly, but to me there is a comfort in the consistent rhythms of all things wild. No, not that they are not changing, and sometimes irreversibly so, but there are laws that govern and patterns that re-emerge again and again. Not unlike music… always using the same notes and scales, but with infinite possibilities of composition.

alert, in a pasture; 17 March 2020

Before rushing to comprehend – and quicker still to judge – we need to first be fully present.

Take a deep breath, and consider the peace of wild things (and listen to Wendell Berry read his poem by that name).

We will get through this, together.

the remnants of a spring burn at Moontree Studios, 18 March 2020

news round up (1st day of spring edition)

NYC pays big bounties for reporting idling engines; D.C. makes it easy with 311 app (Electrek)

Watch the mechanical rhythms of a recycling plant morph into a surreal singalong (Aeon) This was so beautiful!

Indiana Bill Seeks to Reduce Firefighters’, Hoosiers’ Exposure to PFAS Contamination (Indiana Environmental Reporter) House Bill 1189, which awaits final approval by the governor’s office, would limit the use of potentially toxic firefighting foam in training

Vanishing Natural Areas (Dr. Steve Glass blog) If it seems to you that there are fewer forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural places than there were a few years ago, you would be right. And if you think there is a lot more areas in need of restoration, then you would also be right—and distressingly so... A report issued last year describes the situation: “The United States is quietly losing its remaining forests, grasslands, deserts, and natural places at a blistering pace. Every 30 seconds, a football field worth of America’s natural areas disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development”, according to a report issued in August 2019 by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Indiana’s Hoosier Energy to retire its 1,070 MW coal plant by 2023 (Utility Dive)

In a major shift, the MISO territory has 57 GW worth of big solar projects in its interconnection queue (PV Magazine)

Report: Snowfall rates decreased significantly in fall, spring over last 50 years (Indiana Environmental Reporter)

Social tipping points are the only hope for the climate (Vox) A new paper explores how to trigger them.

Pesticide Police, Overwhelmed By Dicamba Complaints, Ask EPA For Help (NPR) Every summer for the past three years, the phones have been ringing like crazy in the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. Farmers and homeowners were calling, complaining that their soybean fields or tomato plants looked sick, with curled-up leaves. They suspected pesticides from nearby farms — a kind of chemical hit-and-run.

The toxic legacy of old oil wells: California’s multibillion-dollar problem (LA Times)

Western Monarch Butterfly Population Still at Critical Level (Xerces) Population has not rebounded from all-time low. We must take action now to save the western monarch migration.

Indiana’s state insect — the firefly — is facing extinction (IndyStar) Scientists say loss of natural habitat, pesticides and artificial lighting are all playing a roll in the insect’s fate.

Last-Ditch Effort: America has a fertilizer problem. This ditch in Indiana could provide a solution. (Grist) Featuring a project from Kosciusko County.

Achieving Peak Pasture (Breakthrough Institute) In the last 20 years, something truly remarkable has occurred, something that few predicted: the amount of land devoted to grazing animals to produce meat and milk has begun to shrink across the world.

Ecology in a Time of Coronavirus

Our brains don’t do well with understanding exponential growth. This is why the Coronavirus pandemic is so concerning. It’s invisible, it’s nowhere, and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere.

We are among the planet’s most social beings. We are not just an aggregation of individuals, we are a human community. And so it feels awkward to keep escalating our anti-social response to this invisible threat that has not affected anyone within our social sphere (yet).

But I encourage you to read about reports from Italy. Not to panic, but to consider the gravity of the situation and how we might respond in order to protect the most vulnerable among us. The situation continues to evolve, as Governor Holcomb just ordered all Indiana dining establishments to cease dine-in food service, and Indiana just registered its first death.

I’d like to point you to a brief reflection on exponential growth by our co-conspirator Steve Owen of the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE). (As you may remember, AIRE was instrumental in helping us execute Phase 2 of our solar energy initiative at The Center at Donaldson).

Steve created this graph of what happens when you accumulate pennies and double it every day for a month.

Likewise, consider a bacteria that doubles daily as it fills a petri dish over the course of 30 days (the graph looks the same as Steve’s, just sub bacterial cells for pennies and make the end point 100%). On day 25, the bacteria is still barely visible, filling only 3% of the surface area of the dish. It is only by the end of the 29th day that 50% of the dish is covered.

Again, our brains are used to thinking like this, but it is nonetheless a fundamental truth of our universe (math, physics, biology, etc).

Another colleague just posted a reflection on the coronavirus and ecological systems. He’s a top-notch ecologist & botanist, go read it. In it he links to this AMAZING outbreak simulation from the New York Times. Seriously, science-communication can be very tough and this is some of the best of the best.

So: all indications are that we need maintain a minimum 6 ft buffer around us as a form of “social distancing“. In the last 24 hrs, I have still had people extending hands to shake, grabbing me by the shoulders, etc… out of an abundance of caution, we have to stop this, immediately. I have been using the “namaste” and folding my hands together in greeting: “The God in me greats the God in you.” This is a traditionally Hindu greeting, but of course makes sense for Christians as well (Col. 1:27, Romans 8:9-10, 2 Cor. 13:5, etc). People around the world are coming up with very creative alternatives.

So… how is this all affecting our ecological relationships?

The social distancing & shutdowns that are necessary to slow this pandemic are also causing economic turmoil. This is perhaps an unavoidable result, given how intertwined our lives are, but this adds additional stress to those individuals and businesses who are already on the edge financially.

This decrease in industrial activity and travel has led to measurable declines in pollution over China, and now Italy. Air pollution kills 7 million people each year, accounting for 8% of all deaths worldwide (this is a combination of ambient air pollution found in cities, as well as indoor exposure from dirty cook stoves). I have to think that this global pandemic will also cause a dip in net CO2 emissions for 2020. This pullback, in combination with an oil-price war between Saudi Arabia Russia, may incidentally spell the end of U.S. shale oil and hasten the energy transition (Gasoline in Plymouth is at $1.64/gallon, and world markets now under $30/barrel).

These are only a couple of the ramifications. I am reminded that everything is connected. Moreso, everything is connection.

the waning gibbous moon, framed by snow-capped seed heads of Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), 14 march 2020

I have been pondering the disruption that human societies are facing while watching Sandhill Cranes descending, spring wildflowers already bursting, Eastern Bluebirds searching. All continuing their relentless forward march, around and around their own circle of being. Migration, mating, reproduction, photosynthesis, metabolism, signaling, vocalizing, senescing, dying. Seemingly oblivious to our Great Turning, as we so often are of their own pandemics and crises.

Spring will arrive Thursday, regardless. Equi-nox, the great equal-izer. Every latitude, every crooked, every wetland, every hidden hillside, every remote island, every skyscraper, every family taking an idle walk, every king and pauper… all will receive +/- the same length of sunshine and nighttime.

a fire-scorched sandy hillside reveals a mammal’s burrow, 13 march 2020

In my next post, I will share about how we can continue to engage with nature around us during this time of human isolation. Fortunately, there are many opportunities.

crane camo (video)

I read some years ago that Sandhill Crane feathers are gray, and they only acquire their rusty brown color from rubbing mud on their feathers.

I’m glad that someone long ago (before Western scientists “discovered it”) observed this story and shared it. Despite traveling many times to see the cranes migrate by the tens of thousands, I just have never seen the behavior myself.

Until recently!

On Feb. 19th I was down at the wetland behind Moontree and saw some Sandhill Cranes silently descending, their legs dangling. I froze and waited for them to drop into the grass. I took the long way around to the other side of the hill so I would not disturb them.

When I peaked up my head, there they were. You’ll have to forgive me for not having better video equipment, but I took two videos. Look in the lower right quadrant of each. Then watch again and see how many Sandhills you can spot.

late winter, in photos

Ok, no time for commentary. Here are some photos of my goings-on in recent weeks. I’ll let your mind fill in the gaps. Some of these moments brought me giddy laughter, others a brief moment of quiet satisfaction and calm.

A single picture can be filled with a lifetime of stories.