guest post by Nicole McGee

We’ve been blessed to have Nicole McGee serve as a summer intern at Moontree Studios. Ms. McGee is from Chicago, IL and has recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in Biology from Occidental College in Los Angeles, California (read more here). I invited her to write a guest post for Ecological Relationships.

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When one thinks of the color yellow, they usually think of happiness. I did not think much of the color, personally; as bright as it can be, it hardly caught my eye and I certainly never wore it. The summer I spent with Moontree (and the wonderful Adam Thada) has significantly changed that [editors note: I was inclined to fact check this assertion about Mr. Thada’s character, but I promised Ms. McGee a free, unedited writing space, so I will have to let it stand 😉 ]. This blog post is about some beautiful yellow perennials that meant so much more to me than I expected.

Tickseed (Coreopsis sp.)

When I first arrived at the lodge, I was stunned by how bright the coreopsis flowers were throughout the day. As I mentioned, no feelings were initially brought on by this realization, but I did begin to pay attention to them so much more. Soon, I felt a rush of joy when I would open my window and be greeted by the sea of beaming yellow flowers. Of course, I did some searching to learn about this beauty, which I will gladly share with you. This is only one color variant of over 100 species and hybrids of coreopsis native to American prairies. Although they require a lot of sun, they aren’t too picky about soil type and, thus, can tolerate our very sandy ground. Of course their vibrant color readily catches the attention of birds and bugs, drawing them to the feeders and rain gardens. For reasons unknown, my mood is ELEVATED at the sight of an insect, so I would often stop by to see what resided on any given flower. Not only that, but the color yellow has been shown to increase mental activity, energy levels, and heighten one’s awareness. Because of these reasons, I was very grateful to see so much of this mood boosting color first thing in the morning. Then, slowly, I noticed less and less tickseed outside my window. I figured their time had passed, and wondered what color I’d be greeted with next. I’m not familiar with the plants that grow here in Indiana, so it has been very insightful seeing a new species every day!

grey headed coneflower

To my surprise, more yellow flowers appeared in their place! Remember my lack of flower knowledge? Well, I thought the poor coreopsis were just slumped down and fading away; I had no idea this was a different flower altogether. Pictured above is the grey headed, or prairie, coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). I’ve now learned that the petals of this flower are “reflexed”, not dying. These flowers are also highly nutritious for bees and attract many insects, such as wasps, beetles, and caterpillars. This flower is a wonderful addition to the surrounding area, as they stand 2-5ft tall and are easily seen from a good distance away. Whenever I returned from my weekends at home, it felt as though they swayed in the wind, greeting me with a bright excitement.

One last perennial that often caught my eye was the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). I’ve seen many compounded leaves around here, most belonging to pea plants. This flower is also fairly resistant. I learned that this plant was sometimes used to help with fainting and nausea. It has certainly amazed me how many helpful plants and herbs are right at our fingertips; I look forward to getting more into gardening and using these benefits the Earth has readily provided. I’m a big cat person, so I have been slowly inching toward any strays I see here at the lodge. While looking at these compound leaves, I saw the kitten pounce up to play and was glad I snapped a photo. The yellow is not only present now in my initial memories of arriving here, but they remain in the background of each new moment, bright and wonderful as ever. I’ll always think of the time I spent here when I see the color yellow!

A feral kitten, playing near the partridge peas (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Northern Indiana sees a solar co-op once again this year

Similar to what we helped coordinate in 2019, northern Indiana is once again seeing a solar co-op being formed for homeowners who are interested in “going solar.”

To learn more, visit the co-op homepage here (and their Facebook page).

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) and Solarize IN, with assistance from The Center at Donaldson and other regional community partners, have launched the Northern Indiana Solar and EV co-op, an opportunity for homeowners and small businesses to learn more about solar and purchasing a solar system for their home or business at a competitive group price. The co-op is free to join, and there’s no obligation to purchase a system, and now is a great time to consider a solar system. Federal tax credits have been extended, but net metering (the system that provides a fair, even trade for electricity that the solar owner sends out into the electrical grid) is going away next year, so now is the best time to take advantage of these financial incentives.

Dan Robinson, the Northern Indiana Organizer for SUN, will be presenting a free Solar 101 session on the basics of solar energy and the co-op at the Culver-Union Township Public Library on July 27 at 6:00 PM. He’ll be joined by Marshall County residents who will share their own experience of having a solar array at their home. A Hoosier native and graduate of Purdue University, Dan will also be hosting a table for the co-op at the Marshall County Fair on July 21, 1:00-4:00 PM. You can learn more about the co-op and register for the Solar 101 session at solarunitedneighbors.org/northernIN.

news round-up: summer edition

Ok… I’ve accumulated enough links to post another news round-up.

And as a treat, please enjoy this photo of the caterpillar of the Leafy Spurge Hawkmoth. I came across this in the Mackinaw State Forest in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Prayer for a Just War (Harpers Magazine) Finding meaning in the climate fight.

Indiana Awards Electric Utilities $5.5 Million To Build Electric Vehicle Charging Stations (Indiana Public Media) Indiana will award a group of eight electric utilities more than $5.5 million to set up charging stations for electric vehicles across the state. The money comes from the settlement with Volkswagen over its Clean Air Act violations. The Indiana Utility Group will build 61 DC fast charging stations — which can charge electric cars in as little as 20 minutes. There are about 40 high-powered public charging stations in the state — more than half of them are in Indianapolis.

I found this short Vlog Brothers video very helpful in thinking about individual vs. corporate action on climate change. The research they cite is listed in the description section of the video.

Rooftop solar and home batteries make a clean grid vastly more affordable (Volts) Distributed energy is not an alternative to big power plants, but a complement.

Where the buffalo roam: world’s longest wildlife bridge could cross the Mississippi (The Guardian) Between Iowa and Illinois, spanning the only stretch of the Mississippi River that flows from east to west, sits an exhausted 55-year-old concrete bridge. Each day 42,000 cars drive across the ageing structure, which is slated to be torn down and replaced. But when Chad Pregracke looks at the bridge, he has a different vision entirely – not an old overpass to be demolished, but a home for the buffalo to roam.

Pesticides Are Killing the World’s Soils (Scientific American) They cause significant harm to earthworms, beetles, ground-nesting bees and thousands of other vital subterranean species… For our analysis, conducted by researchers at the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and the University of Maryland, we looked at nearly 400 published studies that together conducted over 2,800 experiments on how pesticides affect soil organisms. Our review encompassed 275 unique species or types of soil organisms and 284 different pesticides or pesticide mixtures. In just over 70 percent of those experiments, pesticides were found to harm organisms that are critical to maintaining healthy soils—harms that currently are never considered in the EPA’s safety reviews.

Wyoming selected as site of new nuclear power plant (Casper Star Tribune) The project is a partnership with Bill Gates-founded company TerraPower, Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy. The plant will replace a current coal-fired plant in Wyoming’s Pacificorp system. The reactor will use small, modular reactors as opposed to the traditional larger ones. These smaller modular reactions can be used individually or combined to create a single large power plant.

Radioactivity May Fuel Life Deep Underground and Inside Other Worlds (Quanta Magazine) New work suggests that the radiolytic splitting of water supports giant subsurface ecosystems of life on Earth — and could do it elsewhere, too.

Southern Indiana power plant once named ‘nation’s dirtiest’ shuts down (Spectrum News) At Louisville’s Shawnee Park, the 129-year-old green space on the city’s western edge, two grayish smokestacks stretch high above the expansive green canopy. Down below, on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, sits Duke Energy’s Gallagher Station, a coal-fired power plant that has spewed emissions into a borderless sky for more than a half century. That ended on June 1, when Gallagher Station was officially retired.

Dangerous humid heat extremes occurring decades before expected (NOAA) The study, “The emergence of heat and humidity too severe for human tolerance,” published today in Science Advances shows for the first time that some locations have already reported combined heat and humidity extremes above humans’ survivability limit.

Coal-rich Indiana is going solar. It’s not easy (EE Wire) Solar projects totaling 22,000 megawatts of capacity —- 50% greater than the sum of Indiana’s coal fleet — are seeking to plug into the two wholesale power grids that cover parts of the state, PJM Interconnection and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. The boom is part of a broader trend playing out across the Midwest and the United States as solar costs continue to fall

Stop Worrying and Love the F-150 Lightning (The Atlantic) Here are seven ways that Ford’s first electric pickup truck signals that decarbonization has entered a new era.

‘You Can Feel the Tension’: A Windfall for Minority Farmers Divides Rural America. (New York Times)

Plug In or Gas Up? Why Driving on Electricity is Better than Gasoline (Union of Concerned Scientists) Electric vehicles have a high profile right now, with EVs featuring prominently in the Biden administration’s and Congress’s plans and also important new vehicle announcements from major automakers like Ford. But what are the climate benefits from switching from gasoline to electricity? While it’s obvious that a fully electric vehicle eliminates tailpipe emissions, people often wonder about the global warming emissions from generating the electricity to charge an EV. The latest data confirms that driving on electricity produces significantly fewer emissions than using gasoline.

Watchdog Finds Trump EPA Changed Scientific Analyses to Support Policy During Dicamba Approval Process (Indiana Env Reporter) EPA Inspector General found altered analyses, lack of scientific reviews and other discrepancies in 2018 approval process for dicamba products.

Cleveland Wants ‘Climate Justice.’ Can The Biden Administration Help? (NPR) The fight against climate change may be taking a striking new turn under the Biden administration. The White House is calling climate action a form of environmental justice, part of a campaign to address economic and racial inequity. It’s bringing new attention and, potentially, a flood of cash to low-tech approaches to climate action that directly benefit low-income neighborhoods. They include aid for home renovations and upgrades to city transportation infrastructure, including buses.

local environmental education

Part of my charge as Director of Ecological Relationships is to collaborate with civic groups in our region, by means of combined programming, tasks forces, committees, and generally connecting people and resources to advance ecological and environmental health. I’ve been fortunate to keep chugging along at this for 5 years now, long enough to see the normal employee turnover at partner organizations, so I will admit it feels good to get those occasional cold calls from community partners looking to collaborate, like I’m part of building a stable network of relationships and a growing body of work as the community continues to change.

Resources and institutions are important, of course, but it really is the network of relationships that is the basis of a healthy and resilient community. These are the catalysts for activating change and maintaining responsiveness to the needs of the time.

I thought it was time to catch y’all up with some of this work that’s been happening.

On June 12th, the Plymouth Parks Department hosted a “Walk and Learn” Nature Series on the Greenway trail that runs along the Yellow River. Presenters were located at intervals, covering the topics of native plants and animals, watersheds , foraging, recycling, and prescribed fire (myself).

Not many folks in our region are familiar with prescribed fire (yet!), so in these situations I usually just introduce the concept and show that with the right equipment and training, prescribed fire is a viable tool for natural resources stewardship. For those who stick around, I brought some examples and data from our prescribed fire program, to dive deeper into the subject.

Next was some programming with the Plymouth Public Library, who hosted an “Animal Adventure“. I don’t know if most folks consider insects as “animals”… but I got approved to present on pollinators (specifically, bumblebees)!

I did a rapid introduction to the bumblebee life cycle. And since there was only 12-15 minutes per group, that’s all I could cover. I picked kids to play the role of the queen bee, worker bees, drones, etc. The rest of the children held up sticky notes to serve as the “pollen” that the bees would emerge to gather for the hive. (What is the bumblebee life cycle? Read here from U. of Wisconsin-Madison). I passed each kid of a packet of wildflower seeds collected from Moontree Studios as a parting gift.

not the best photo, but there were about 120 kids!
my wife (2nd from left) and children were unwittingly conscripted into assisting with the booth

Lastly, I got a call a few weeks ago from an adjunct professor at Ivy Tech, who actually was involved with our Phase 2 (2019) solar energy installation. We found time this week for a tour of our systems with his Advanced Solar summer class. Usually when I give solar tours, I try to simplify the technical aspects of solar energy installation so that it’s accessible to folks who are just learning about it. This was the opposite! Knowing that I didn’t have much of anything to teach this crowd from a technical standpoint, I tried to paint a picture of other aspects of solar energy from the customer’s perspective: the trials and tribulations of institutions who want to go solar, the RFP process, maintenance, and pollinator-friendly design. We did a walk through of the installation and discussed all these aspects of solar energy. What a great crew! Can’t wait to see these folks join the industry and make an impact.

The prof wrote afterwards, “I think they really enjoyed it and found it inspiring, I did. I was telling [someone] on the way home, that when you have a hard time getting the students to leave the field trip, it is a good one… their eyes [were opened] to what renewable energy combined with proper eco landscaping can accomplish. I hope this is the first of many tours for Ivy Tech renewable energy students.”

Needless to say, I’m very proud that these panels aren’t fenced off in a distant field, out of site and out of mind, but are generating enthusiasm and knowledge as well as electrical energy.

Brood X

Well, this post has been saved in my drafts folder for weeks. I was excited to report on a plague of (harmless) cicadas coating the trees, filling the air, and making conversation impossible. I even had this article ready to share about the 17-year cicadas who appeared in 2017, 4 years before they were supposed to.

I thought all of Indiana would be blanketed with bugs. Turns out it was a big bust in our area.

here’s a picture of me with one of the Brood X cicadas

Plenty of periodical cicadas from Brood X were to be found in Bloomington and Indianapolis, so I was told. Shame on me, I guess, for not taking the two hour drive to get the full experience. Northwest Indiana was only sporadic. I heard one or more cicadas calling in Potato Creek State Park in mid June. My daughter was the first to point out a cicada calling from our front porch just a week ago. But … that’s about it.

So… until 2038, I guess I’ll just have to settle for our annual cicadas, which should be appearing soon. A fun fact that I learned this year: “The life cycle of a so-called annual cicada typically spans 2 to 5 years; they are “annual” only in the sense that members of the species reappear annually”

And with that, I leave you with an interspecies jam session: