temporary crosswalk enhancement arrives in Plymouth

“Four score and seven years ago…” Ok, maybe it was just five years ago… when Purdue Extension brought together area leaders in Plymouth for an Active Living Workshop. During the workshop, we learned about many options to increase mobility, health, and safety via smart urban design. The bulk of the focus was on increasing walking and bicycling rates.

I also had the privilege of meeting the indefatigable Angela Rupchock-Schafer of the Marshall County Community Foundation (she now serves as Director of Community Impact and Communications)! Which is not the point of the story, but in the subsequent five years we’ve collaborated on many community initiatives. Angie knows seemingly everyone in town, so she graciously helped me get connected.

Since that workshop, I’ve served on the Plymouth Complete Streets Committee, which helped craft and adopt a Complete Streets ordinance which states, “All facilities owned by the City and in the public right-of-way shall be designed, constructed, maintained, and improved to allow all users of all ages and abilities to travel safely and independently… including pedestrians, bike riders, motorists, people with disabilities, emergency responders.”

Paralleling that work was the Trails and Transportation Committee for Marshall County Crossroads (aka Stellar Communities). We subsequently published a Trails Master Plan for the county.

No small feats! We have some great collaborative teams in the county. However… planning and publishing are relatively easy compared to actually building and changing the built environment.

So after many conversations and plans, our team launched a temporary crosswalk enhancement this month in a style called “Tactical Urbanism.” The idea is to install a temporary feature quickly and at low/no-cost, gain feedback from users, and use that data to install long-term investments. We can’t expect to get everything perfect the first time, so better to be able to tweak the design before pouring concrete.

Rather than repeat all the details of the project, I’ll link to the press release here.

We installed the crosswalk enhancement on Saturday morning and were happy to watch it being immediately used:

Instead of having to cross 36 ft of traffic, it is now just 24 ft wide (a reduction of 1/3).

Also by a child on a bicycle crossing by himself:

Looking north

I took some time to count traffic as well. By narrowing the road and placing a radar speed sign, only about 10% of eastbound traffic was traveling in excess of the posted 30 mph speed limit. Previously, 40 mph+ traffic was common. Near-fatal crashes with pedestrians are common here. At the beginning of the school year, a child was struck by a vehicle east of this intersection. Having traveled this path many times with children in tow, I can vouch that it is stressful and unsafe.

We were riding high on watching five years of work finally come to the smallest amount of fruition when we got the tragic news that a pedestrian was killed by a driver near the Plymouth hospital (on the opposite side of town). The crash occurred in the dark, at 6:30 AM, soon after the man was released from the hospital.

Something perverse in our brain might jump immediately to assigning fault or blame. Was the driver on her phone? Why was the man in the road? Etc.

But we are trying to shift the conversation back towards design. Looking at an aerial photo of the hospital, what options did the man have available to him? The hospital is surrounded by a state highway with no shoulder to speak of. State highways are designed to move maximum cars and maximum speed. It is just not possible to safely reach the hospital unless you have access to a car, creating a dangerous situation for both pedestrians and vehicle operators.

People understand this. In a recent survey conducted during the creating of the Trails Master Plan, Marshall County residents pointed out that fast vehicle speed, lack of sidewalks, and lack of safe routes keep them from cycling or walking more.

It’s important to remember that not everyone has the choice of picking their mode of mobility. Below is a picture I took while biking home the other day. People are walking on the road at dusk, returning from the grocery store. Of our four major grocery stores, only one is safely accessible via sidewalks. I could highlight several more of these features from my travels around town, but we need to wrap this blog up…

I met this gentleman at the farm market. His is visually impaired and so not able to obtain a driver’s license. Because of the built environment in most places in the United States, that can be a recipe for solution isolation. “This electric bike has been my savior,” he told me. The bike has special sensors that alert him to obstacles. In Plymouth, he can at least ride on the sidewalks and get around.

Lastly, Angie and I had the opportunity to come on the radio this week to discuss the project as well as equity issues around our transportation system more broadly. I was very pleased with the conversation and it renewed my hope that with some leadership and courage, there is enough common ground for us to build a safe and equitable transportation system for all users. Click here for a recording of the show, and you’ll have to skip ahead to the 33 minute, 55 second mark

May be an image of 2 people and indoor

Sustainable Solutions Conference and Expo in South Bend

I’m excited to be sharing on a panel at the Sustainable Solutions Conference and Expo Oct. 26 at the Century Center in South Bend.

I’ll be discussing our electric vehicle fleet and workplace charging arrangement, with all the fun details like installation, employee policies, and fleet usage dynamics.

(In case you missed it, Indiana University published a case study on our electric vehicle initiative earlier this year).

Register today to learn how to jump start your sustainable business practices. https://bit.ly/3p8QETP

attn: those with connections in Rockford, IL area

This is a re-post / link to a blog I follow. Several people in my field from the Chicago/Illinois-area have been raising the alarm about a high-quality prairie about to be destroyed in Rockford, IL. In this case it is an airport expansion by the local government, I believe to accommodate an increase in Amazon.com orders.

Stephen Packard writes:

So far as I can determine, no public agency in Illinois has ever destroyed an area of comparable importance to Bell Bowl Prairie since natural areas were defined and mapped by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in 1977.

Despite some claims, a Grade A prairie cannot be moved and stay a Grade A prairie – especially one growing from a unique gravel deposit and with the hydrology present here. 

This ecosystem has developed its richness and complexity over the last 18,000 years – since the retreat of the last glacier. If it can be saved and dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, it will be thriving 100 years from now, long after airports have been replaced by something better. One hundred years is just a blip in the history of this prairie

For full details, read Bell Bowl Prairie Update.

pollinator plantings update for Season of Creation

I recently did a talk for some of our internal programming related to the Season of Creation. “The Season of Creation is the annual Christian celebration of prayer and action for our common home. Together, the ecumenical family around the world unites to pray, protect, and advocate for God’s creation.”

Due to mobility issues, work schedules, and/or COVID precautions, not everyone was able to attend, so I recorded the 28-min Powerpoint (turns out that it’s not too hard to do!). It’s a 5 year retrospective on the process of establishing herbaceous pollinator patches, as well as broader considerations on our roles and responsibilities relative to ecological restoration and Creation care.

Another float on the Tippe

The other week I had the pleasure of collaborating with several other stewards, educators, and volunteers of the Arrow Head Country Resource Conservation & Development.

For over 25 years, Arrow Head Country has been getting public school high school kids out on the Tippecanoe River to learn about water quality, forestry, river flora and fauna, and more. I wrote about this in 2019 (and also when they gave us a grant for wildlife cameras), so I won’t go on, but this definitely gets high marks from me not only for quality but also for longevity. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” I’m simply impressed by the committee who keeps this vitally important service chugging along, year after year. It’s relevance has not diminished one iota. Unless people know and love something, they aren’t likely to care for it.

God bless the many maintainers in our society!

Photos credit of Shannon O’Farrell.

The coronavirus pandemic cancelled the float in 2020, but that didn’t stop the crew from filming a 5 minute piece that summarizes many of the topics paddlers typically learn.

plant sampling at a solar installation

I’ve been doing some plant sampling around our solar arrays recently (see here for older posts on pairing native, pollinator-friendly plants with solar energy installations). We are trying to figure out which plants will grow given the strange soil, light, and precipitation conditions that happen between and around the solar panels. For example, directly underneath the panel there will be very little direct sun or moisture. There aren’t many (any?) plants in our region that evolved for those precise conditions.

There are many ways to assess the vegetation, but I won’t get into them all here. The growing season is for grabbing data before the opportunity passes, and the full analysis often has to wait until the dormant season.

One of my pet peeves is ecological initiatives (or any social initiative, for that matter) that fail to collect data after implementation to see if the intervention worked. There are many reasons this happens, but… happen it does. So I’m trying not to let old projects fall off the radar (and certainly can’t claim to be perfect in this regard). If it actually matters whether our work gets done or not, let’s get smarter and do better and learn from each other!

Back to plants…

One way to get an idea of the abundance or distribution of a plant is running linear transects along which you place some sampling plots. Like this:

from Great Lakes Worm Watch. Apparently it works for worms as well as plants.

Do enough of them, and you can get a pretty good approximation of what is happening, and better so than just walking through quickly and “eyeballing it.” Yes, Black-eyed Susan is showing up at your site, but was it a single plant, or is it showing up in almost every square meter? Has the Ironweed expanded its territory relative to last year, or is it contracting? Are there flowers available to pollinators from the very beginning of the growing season to the very end, or just a big flush in the middle? Repeated transect sampling gives us answers to these questions.

I used this method to count blooming species along shaded, partially shaded, and sunny transects. This gives some fine-grained detail as to what is thriving, where.

In the following photo, I’m directly underneath the center of the panels, so the plants are significantly thinner than in the full sun, and bare ground is present. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, because most native bees species need bare ground for nests! Despite being relatively dry and very shaded, there are still some plants growing and even blooming.

I also try to establish a control group when possible. In this case, it’s the surrounding cattle pasture in which the arrays are located. Running a couple transects on adjacent ground gives me an idea of what floral resources are available absent this intervention.

In addition to the fine-grained detail, I also take a full account of any plant species that were present on the site, whatever their abundance. But… more on that another time.

However you slice it, paying attention is the first step. That calls to mind a Mary Oliver quote… “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Anyway… the real purpose of this post is to share videos and photos! We’ll start with this little surprise I found while cranking the solar panels up and down (we adjust the tilt 4 times per year to maximize energy production).

I can tell you that the treefrogs are VERY excited about pollinator-friendly solar. They are everywhere. And… of course that’s the whole idea of the food chain, of which we are a part.

I’ll finish with a gallery of photos. Enjoy!

news round up, late summer edition

Indiana gives utilities $5.5 million to build electric vehicle chargers across the state (Indy Star) The state of Indiana got a big chunk of change as part of the multi-billion-dollar settlement with Volkswagen that resulted from the company manufacturing and installing defective emissions-control devices in hundreds of thousands of diesel-powered vehicles. With some of that money, Indiana is awarding grants to build out a charging network for electric vehicles across the state. 

United States of Wildfire (NPR interactive article) There’s a forgotten history that should serve as a warning — wildfire isn’t unique to the West. Now the warming climate is increasing the risk of major wildfires across America. And more people are moving to fire-prone areas without realizing the danger.

Why The South Is Decades Ahead Of The West In Wildfire Prevention (NPR) Florida has done prescribed burns on more than 1.6 million acres so far this year. California has only burned around 35,000 acres

Yellow River Bank Improvements Schedule for Marshall County (Max 98.3) At its August 19 meeting, the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission selected The Stanger Group in Goshen to reconstruct nearly a half-mile of Yellow River banks in Marshall County.  The approximately $700,000 project, funded through a mix of state, regional, and county dollars, is expected to commence in early September and finish this November. 

The Problem with Honey Bees (Scientific American) They’re important for agriculture, but they’re not so good for the environmentTo many people, honey bees symbolize prosperity, sustainability and environmentalism. But as a honey bee researcher, I have to tell you that only the first item on that list is defensible

Seeking your climate refuge? Consider this (CNN) First, if you are considering uprooting your life because of climate change, let that sink in. Let that reality, a scenario that was likely inconceivable to you just a few years ago, radicalize you to the all-encompassing scope, scale and urgency of this existential, all-encompassing crisis..

America’s First Bee Conservation Dog Helps Researcher Sniff Out Bumblebee Nests In Colorado (People) The two-year-old German shorthaired pointer “is not afraid of a challenge,” according to his owner Jacqueline Staab

Western Wildfire Smoke Triggers Air Quality Action Day Across Indiana (WFYI) The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued a statewide Air Quality Action Day for Wednesday and Thursday. Smoke from wildfires in the western United States and southern Canada, along with local weather conditions, have created the potential for unhealthy levels of fine airborne particles in every region of the state

Birds could get their sense of direction from quantum physics (Science News for Students) European robins have a protein in their eye that is sensitive to magnetic fields

Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy? (Vox) The “degrowth” movement to fight the climate crisis offers a romantic, utopian vision. But it’s not a policy agenda.

The Fascinating and Complicated Sex Lives of White-throated Sparrows (Audubon) With their quadruple personalities, those little brown birds at your feeder are a lot more interesting than they might appear.

The new surgical tool inspired by a wasp (BBC, 1 min video) Scientists in the Netherlands have mimicked the way parasitoid wasps lay eggs to design a new tool for keyhole surgery

DNR: Black bear found dead alongside northern Indiana highway (WTHR) The bear’s carcass was found on SR 15 near the Indiana Toll Road in Bristol, Indiana Wednesday.

Top US scientist on melting glaciers: ‘I’ve gone from being an ecologist to a coroner’ (The Guardian) Diana Six, an entomologist studying beetles near Glacier national park in Montana, says the crisis has fundamentally changed her profession

Biden to aim for 50% by 2030 with industry support (Reuters) U.S. President Joe Biden will sign an executive order on Thursday aimed at making half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles and will propose new vehicle-emission rules to cut pollution through 2026, the White House said. Biden’s goal, which is not legally binding, won the support of major U.S. and foreign automakers that warned it would require billions of dollars in government funding.

Solida-GO!

It’s HOT! It’s summer! Well… getting to be late summer. Which also means that it’s Goldenrod time!

Grey / Old-field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)

First, let’s dispel the stereotypes. Goldenrods aren’t the source of your allergic suffering. Their big, sticky pollen is ferried about by insects, not wind. You can thank the light, wind-borne pollen of Ragweed species (Artemesia spp.) for that.

Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), IllinoisWildflowers.info

Well… and before you try to rid the planet of ragweed, two cautions: as an annual, it thrives on disturbance, so the more humans flail about, tilling, spraying, digging, etc… the more we probably encourage their growth. Oops. Secondly, Common Ragweed is a pretty important part of the native ecosystem:

Many kinds of insects feed destructively on Common Ragweed. This includes the larvae of long-horned beetles, larvae of weevils, larvae and adults of leaf beetles, larvae of tumbling flower beetles, larvae of leaf-miner flies, plant bugs, Uroleucon ambrosiae (Brown Ambrosia Aphid) and other aphids, Stictocephala bisonia (Buffalo Treehopper) and other treehoppers, mealybugs, larvae of Adaina ambrosiae (Ragweed Plume Moth) and many other moths, and grasshoppers (see Insects Table). Many upland gamebirds and granivorous songbirds are attracted to the oil-rich seeds (see Bird Table). Because the spikes of seeds often remain above snow cover, they are especially valuable to some of these birds during winter

https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/plants/cm_ragweed.htm

Wait, this post was supposed to be about Goldenrods!

Grey / Old-field Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)

Ahhhh, that’s better. Pictured here is Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) growing on the sand hill that is Moontree Studios. The “goldenrods” are plant species that belong to the Genus Solidago. We have several kinds in Indiana. Lots, actually. Here’s a list for our state:

FLORISTIC QUALITY ASSESSMENT IN INDIANA:
THE CONCEPT, USE, AND DEVELOPMENT OF
COEFFICIENTS OF CONSERVATISM (Rothrock, 2004)

Not all Goldenrods can grow on top of a sand hill. Some only grow in swamps and saturated soils, like this Swamp Goldenrod I stumbled on near Flat Lake in 2018 (not the best photos, sorry):

Swamp Goldenrod (Solidago patula)

But by far the most common Goldenrod seen by most folks (esp. in roadsides and old fields) is Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). It is native to N. America, but it’s very aggressive and can completely dominant old fields for years, perhaps decades. Some managers even decide to control the species with mechanical or chemical methods, to promote diversity. It’s a nuanced conversation. Despite this, the beautiful yellow late-season blooms are a boon for pollinators (and their predators) if they happen to match up with its timing.

Praying Mantis on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), waiting patiently.

Canada Goldenrod gets pretty tall and wild. But there are some underappreciated species that I think many would find beautiful in more landscaped settings. Here is Elm-leaved Goldenrod, which is found in native oak forests and tolerates plenty of shade. My kids and I call it “Fireworks Goldenrod” for reasons that are obvious when you see the blooms.

Elm-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago ulmnifolia), 2017.

Any time there is a well-known plant, there are often lesser known cousins with different bloom times, leaf or flower arrangements, shade and soil requirements, etc. In order to preserve as much biodiversity as possible, it’s good to acquaint ourselves with the whole family.

So… Solida-GO outside and enjoy the show that Goldenrods are putting on right now.

prairie plants take root at Moontree Studios

Apologies for not posting for some time now. Summer is busy!

A couple years ago, my family visited Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. It is a prairie/savanna habitat restoration project on the scale of thousands of acres. It’s visitors center is top notch and a must-see for anyone traveling on Interstate 80. At the center is a very striking display of the massive root system of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) one of the most dominant native grasses of the tallgrass prairie region.

How was such a display created?

It was a method pioneered by the team at the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Click the link to read more.

After years of waiting and planning, we recently embarked on an attempt to replicate this process at Moontree Studios. This involved many conversations with the generous & talented staff at UNI, for which I’m extremely grateful! I tried to adjust & refine processes that they pioneered over the last 10 years. Other adjustments were forced on us, as the ripples of the COVID pandemic led to issues with materials availability and price. But… we persevered!

I’ll omit the technical details of the project & let the photos do most of the story-telling this time. [There appears to be no rhyme or reason why some photos are uploading right-side-up, sideways, or upside-down. I don’t really know what to do about it. Sorry, if that’s the case for you!]

The aim of the project is to produce visually engaging root specimens for local organizations & agencies to help tell the story of the prairie ecosystem, a community where much of the activity is out of sight, below the soil surface.

The process of growing the specimens is much more involved than one might think. You can’t just take an excavator in the prairie and dig them up.

First… we need a narrow,10 foot deep hole in the ground.

Next: drop in some tubes 10 foot long and 12 inches in diameter. These are the sleeves, and they’ll stay permanently in the ground.

thanks Matthew!

Push the dirt back in…

thanks Kurt!

All set!

Next: we need smaller, 10-inch diameter PVC tubs that will fit inside these sleeves. This is where the plants will grow. In order for us to easily extract them (in a year or two) and liberate the roots, we need to first cut them in half lengthwise, then piece them back together. Got it? I’ve found that I’ve had a hard time conveying this to people using just words.

Next, clamp the pieces back together, using various clips, clamps, and duct tape:

Almost ready!

After the roots are grown and we are trying to pull these up out of the ground, we need something in the bottom to prevent everything from falling out the bottom. A well-braced flower pot will suffice:

Drainage provided by Sr Mary Baird:

Ok, drop them in!



Since there is no recipe book, it was surprising how much work it was to just see… tubes in the ground. But, we aren’t done!

The growing medium is next. Soil won’t do, as it binds to tightly with the fine woven root hairs. It’d be impossible to pull away without damaging the specimen. Contrary to most gardening advice, we wanted something that retained almost no moisture. The roots should grow between the medium, not into it. We used Turface, the material used on ball diamonds.

All hands on deck!

Putting in plants was by far the easiest part of the project! For most of them, we paired the fibrous-rooted Big Bluestem with a tap-rooted wildflower, such as Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthenaceum) or Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens).

Two peas in a pod. Well, technically, only the Lead Plant is in the pea family, Fabaceae.

Since the material doesn’t retain water, we have no choice but to irrigate (and fertilize). Lead Hydrology Engineer Matthew Celmer (who moonlights as Director of Moontree Studios) designed this system.

Note the metal spike that runs through the tube. That’s what we’ll use to pull it up when the plants are grown (with machinery, of course).

A simple digital timer automates the irrigation. It has some newfangled bluetooth controls you can mess with on your phone. But the dial works just fine and we don’t need to constantly adjust it. All we need to do is periodically check in.

You have never seen joy until you’ve seen Matthew get acquainted with the motherlode of clay that we unearthed from the bottom of the trench.

And… that’s it!

We missed the 1st half of the 2021 growing season, so it’s not yet certain when we’ll be able to unearth these plants. It really depends on how robust their growth is. A couple might grow fast enough to pull up at the end of 2022. Others might take until 2023. We’ll then use chemicals to treat and preserve the roots, order the plexiglass display case, develop an educational brochure, and start delivery of roots to our partner agencies (as well as a display at Moontree, of course).

Once again, I’m greatly indebted to UNI for sharing the learnings from their pioneering work.

Even before the roots are finished, they are doing the work. We’ve had several groups of children stop by Moontree this summer for educational sessions, and the prairie roots project comprises another stop on the tour.

I would normally end by saying that I can’t wait to pull these tubes up, but… I definitely CAN wait! Time for the air, water, and plants to work their magic while we rest for a spell, or at least move on to other work.

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.

… … …

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)