Archive for January, 2009

Americans Are Nurturing Mother Earth

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

     Giving service has become the ‘in’ thing to do.  And that is very good news. 

     As the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday has come to be viewed increasingly as a day to serve, or a day  ’on,’ rather than a day ‘off,’ people of all ages are volunteering for all sorts of projects that are helping others, improving their communities, and nurturing the planet.  And President Obama has helped fuel this trend through  his own example of volunteering at a homeless shelter on Martin Luther King’s Birthday and by encouraging Americans to get out there and help too.

     I am hopeful that this spirit of voluntary service will continue to grow in America, that we will all support the causes dearest to our hearts not just on the third Monday of January, but throughout the year. 

     As you can guess, the cause closest to my heart is the environment.  So I was heartened to read about a great number and variety of volunteer projects to help heal Mother Earth that took place on Dr. King’s birthday.  Here is a sampling:

  • In Oakland, California, an environmental group recruited students and teachers to plant native species in a tidal salt marsh.  The vegetation will provide food and shelter for  two endangered species–the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.
  • In Washington, D.C., volunteers from several organizations joined together to clean up a park and a creek.  This was the third annual King Day clean-up of this site.
  • In Exton, Pennsylvania, teachers at an elementary school ordered trees from the Arbor Day Foundation for their students to plant and care for.
  • In Philadelphia, people were trained in home weatherization techniques which will save fuel.  After their training, volunteers then weatherized nearby homes of seniors and disabled people.
  • In Columbia, Missouri, Lowe’s provided free compact fluorescent bulbs, which volunteers from several local environmental groups distributed to inner city residents.

     Go Americans!  Many wise people have said that real happiness comes from looking outside ourselves, to helping others and, I would add, to helping the earth that is home to all of us.–April Moore

Snow Birds

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

     This morning I decided to take a slow walk in the woods to see what I could see.  But I never made it past the downstairs deck.  For there, just a few yards below, was a show that absorbed and delighted me.

     Our hanging bird feeder was at the center of a lively scene.  In the surrounding trees and shrubs, and on the snow-covered ground, birds fluttered, glided, and hopped about.  

     Never alighting in one spot for more than a few seconds, the juncos, titmice, chickadees, and sparrows all seemed to be waiting for the right moment to make their next foray down to, over to, or up to the feeder. 

      I watched one junco cling for no more than a few seconds to a dry stalk protruding from the snow, and then dart up to the feeder, snatch a seed, and then flutter off to eat the tiny morsel deep in the safety of a skeletal shrub.

     Some birds, I noticed, made multiple stops between feeder landings,  spending just a few seconds at each perch. 

       Why so much activity?  In all the darting about, don’t these little creatures burn up all the calories they consume?  Or maybe the constant activity helps them to stay warm on a cold, winter day.

     Whatever the reason, all this avian activity gives me joy.  And it’s more than watching the birds that is so pleasurable;  their sounds account for a major portion of my enjoyment.  I am nourished by the soft, brushing noises of wings, as the birds flit hither and thither.  These low, busy sounds, punctuated now and then by chirps, evoke in me a quiet happiness. 

     Rarely were more than a couple of birds eating at the feeder at any given moment.  They didn’t seem too keen on sharing.  In fact, it was the smallest one, a pine warbler, I think, who appeared the most selfish.  When this little fellow had claimed a spot at the feeder, and a junco flew in for a bite, the pine warbler lunged at the newcomer.  The junco fluttered away, its stop at the feeder in vain.

     And while the feeder appeared to be the birds’ primary focus, there was plenty going on below as well.  Having heard that juncos prefer a meal on the ground to one at a feeder, I’d placed a metal plate of birdseed on the snowy ground.  The first junco I noticed visiting the plate did not actually eat from it.  I watched as the little bird hopped around the outside of the plate three times.  Occasionally, the bird stopped circling to jump up to the rim of the plate, only to jump immediately off again, without taking a bite.  

     Wondering if the plate’s metal felt strange or uncomfortable to the little bird’s feet, I took a handful of seed from the plate and spread it on the ground.  That did the trick.  Juncos ate the seed off the ground, leaving the plate to titmice who didn’t seem to mind it at all.  One after another stood in the middle of the plate, munching on the seed all around. 

     There was also another kind of ground action taking place. The snowy slope, which had recently received an icy coating, had become a hard crust.  I watched one bird after another fly to the ground, struggle to attain its balance, only to slide a little downhill.  One junco even tried to stop its descent with an outstretched wing.  Those who couldn’t soon right themselves simply did what birds do so well–lift their wings and relocate.–April Moore 

  

        

Fabulous Feathered Fliers

Monday, January 26th, 2009

     Bird migration is a complex and fascinating topic about which more and more is being discovered.  In the last few years, scientists have learned that one bird takes the gold for distance.

     The bar-tailed godwit, a shorebird slightly larger than a pigeon, flies every spring from its winter home on the New Zealand coast to its breeding ground in western and northern Alaska. 

     While many bird species fly great distances, the godwit, scientists have confirmed, makes each migration, a distance of more than 7,000 miles each way, without stopping!  That’s right.  No food, water, or rest for five to eight days, during which these sturdy birds fly, 24/7, mostly over open ocean, from New Zealand to Alaska in the spring, and back again in the fall.

     Scientists believe that the godwit flies farther without stopping than any other bird.

     Before the godwits leave New Zealand, beginning in early March, they prepare for their journey by eating and eating and eating.  Once they reach Alaska, they rest and mate.  Again they eat and eat to prepare for their flight back to New Zealand in the fall.  And a few days before they take off, the godwits even absorb part of their digestive system, which reduces their weight a little for the long flight.

     Not only do bar-tailed godwits have the stamina to make their long-distance flights without stopping, but they fly fast as well.  On their own steam, godwits can fly at about 45 mph.  But when they hitch onto the tails of typhoons, they can reach speeds of 100 mph!–April Moore

godwits in flight

THE SNOW MAN

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

     This poem by Wallace Stevens brings the winter scene inside.  Like all of his poems that I have read, this one rewards rereading.–April Moore

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun;  and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.–Wallace Stevens

Protect the Boreal Forest

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

     Much of the paper used for the 20 billion (that’s right–billion with a ‘b’) catalogues that retailers mail us every year comes from Canada’s boreal forest.  The largest wilderness on the continent, this forest stretches from Newfoundland all the way to the Yukon.  Named for Boreas, the Greek god of the North Wind), this vast forest accounts for a quarter of the world’s forest lands and contains most of the world’s unfrozen freshwater.  And more than 300 bird species breed in the boreal forest.  This land also sequesters more than a trillion metric tons of carbon, more than any terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. 

     Sadly, much of this magnificent forest is being logged for catalogues and other paper products.  With 1.9 million acres of trees being cut every year, Audubon reports, the forest is diminishing rapidly.

     But we can help to protect this forest, also known as “North America’s Amazon,” and unclog our mailboxes of unwanted catalogues at the same time. 

     You can join the growing call for a postal version of the Do Not Call registry, which has enabled many people to remove their names from telephone solicitation lists.  To date, more than 78,000 people have signed an electronic petition asking Congress to create a Do Not Mail registry that would make it relatively easy for people to remove their names from mailing lists for catalogs and other junk mail they would rather not receive.

     To add  your name to the petition, visit www.catalogcutdown.org and sign up.  This website, a project of Forestethics, is set up in a fun format that offers a lot of information about the impact of junk mail on the environment.

     Since Congress won’t likely create a Do Not Mail registry within the next month, you can take action yourself to remove your name from particular catalog mailing lists.  At www.catalogchoice.org  you can name catalogs you no longer wish to receive.  The organization will contact the merchant on your behalf and request that you be removed from the mailing list. 

     But when I visited www.catalogchoice.org and named a catalog I currently get but would rather not, I was told that the merchant who sends out the catalog I named was not a participant in the program.  So it seems that for certain catalogs, the only way to remove your name, at least at this point, is to contact the retailer directly.–April Moore 

Icebergs–Teeming with Life

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Sure, icebergs are beautiful. (See the photos I posted last summer, http://www.theearthconnection.org/blog/?p=83 ). And, as it turns out, icebergs are not just massive, barren formations; they actually support a great deal of life.

Indeed, observers have long noticed that icebergs–massive ice chunks that have broken off from glaciers– attract seals, penguins, and seabirds, according to Jeff Rubin, writing in Audubon (January-February 2009). Rubin, who has written about Antarctic icebergs for more than 20 years, also notes that fish are more numerous around icebergs than in the surrounding seas.

Scientists have learned in the last few years that icebergs also sustain a wide variety of tiny and–to us–strange little animals, including many that are translucent. (I wonder what life-serving advantage accounts for so many of these creatures’ translucence.)

Life in and around icebergs ranges from photosynthetic microalgae to six-foot tall sea sponges, according to David N. Thomas, author of Frozen Oceans: The Floating World of Pack Ice. Recent research has even revealed red algae growing on rocks embedded in the underwater portion of icebergs.

Iceberg fauna is not even limited to icy surfaces and surrounding waters. Researchers recently found a hidden garden of invertebrates living on the seafloor near an iceberg. Starfish, sponges, feather-duster worms, sea cucumbers, and other filter-feeding organsms take advantage of the iceberg’s tunnels and caverns, which channel currents of seawater full of plankton (food) to these waiting animals, reports Rubin.

Researchers have also seen juvenile fish living in finger-sized holes in icebergs. It is unclear whether these fish simply found and occupied the holes or whether they dug them out to escape from predators.

So what is it about icebergs that makes them such magnets for life, despite the bitterly cold environment? To find the answer, scientists looked far back in time. Back when today’s icebergs were part of even huger glaciers, these glaciers scraped across the land, accumulating ground rock and debris as they went. When calving (the process by which an iceberg breaks off from a glacier), the gradually melting iceberg slowly releases the debris, pulverized rock, and thousands of years’ worth of dust. This mixture acts as an oceanic fertilizer, adding to the ocean a variety of nutrients phytoplankton need to thrive. And phytoplankton are food for many, many of the animals living around icebergs.

In addition to supporting phytoplankton populations, icebergs, when grounded, provide shelter for bottom-dwelling creatures, which could otherwise be crushed by other free-floating icebergs.

Because phytoplankton growth removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, icebergs may play an important role in regulating climate change. Scientists are researching how much carbon makes its way into deep water.

Below are photos of animals who live in and around Antarctic icebergs. The first is a hydromedusa. The second is krill.–April Moore

hydromedusa
Translucent krill

The Snow on Trees

Friday, January 16th, 2009

At last! Snow! I was delighted to awaken yesterday morning to an inch of white covering everything in sight and more snow falling from a grey sky.

I bundled up and got outside as fast as I could. As I walked up our steep driveway to the dirt road running along the ridge, I noticed that most of the trees were wearing a thin line of snow, from the bottom of their trunks to the top.

I wondered why these ‘racing stripes’ weren’t wider. Why hadn’t the snow that blew toward the trees from the west stuck to their entire sides? Then I remembered my husband Andy reporting that the wind had blown so mightily during the night that the house shook around us.

“That’s it,” I thought. In pushing snow against the trees, the wind had been strong enough that only the snow hitting the middle of the trunks had been stopped. But snow scouring the trunks on either side of the snowy stripe had been forced around the trees, on again, more deeply into the forest.

When I reached the top of the ridge, I almost laughed. What a contrast between the trees on the east side of the road and those on the west side. All the trees on the east side sported a white vertical stripe, while the trees on the other side were just a bare, wintry grey. But the trees west of the road only appeared to lack a snowy stripe. I was seeing their east-facing sides, after all; it was on their reverse sides that their stripes of snow were hidden.

Walking along the road, I noticed how different types of trees wore the snow differently. The spruces, their branches encircled by hard, tightly-packed, stiff needles, were coated with long white fingers of snow.

But the white pines were a different story. Unlike the stolid spruces, these slight, supple pines offer little solid surface for snow to rest. Instead, the snow had found points here and there, where twig met needles, and clung there in tiny snowballs. Needles poked out from some of these little snow clumps, reminding me of the hairy moles on a witch’s chin.

A ways on, I noticed balls of white up in one of the bare oaks. There rested the crown of a Virginia pine, its small round cones capped in snow. The wind had torn the pine’s head from its body and flung it against the chestnut oak. And there it lay, askew but still aloft, supported in the oak tree’s strong limbs.

Wind and snow had labored together during the night. –April Moore

 

Inspired by Albert Schweitzer

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

     “Not until we extend the circle of compassion to include all living things shall we ourselves know peace.”–Albert Schweitzer

     The great humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer was born on this date, January 14, 134 years ago.  It feels like a good time to honor this Nobel Peace Prize winner, who contributed so much as a physician, and especially as one who reveres all life.  

     I remember hearing, as a child, that Albert Schweitzer had such a great respect for life that he always tried to walk on the sidewalk, rather than on the grass, so as to avoid killing insects or other tiny creatures.  I was impressed that he so greatly valued the life of even the tiniest ant!  

     As a young man living in Alsace (on the Germany-France border, part of Germany during Schweitzer’s youth, now part of France), Schweitzer had a great love of music, and he was very talented.  He decided to spend his youth pursuing music and his other interests.  But when he reached 30, his responsibility as a Christian, he felt, would require him to devote himself to humanitarian service. 

     Turning 30 in 1905, Schweitzer embarked on a grueling, seven-year medical training.  In 1912, with his medical degree in hand, he proposed to go, at his own expense, to what is now Gabon, in west Africa, to serve as a doctor there with the Paris Missionary Society.  But because he was a Lutheran, not a Catholic, his offer was rejected.  He finally managed to persuade the Society’s board to accept his proposal.

     For many years, Schweitzer worked tirelessly in Gabon, treating ill people and developing the mission hospital.  He spent periods of time in Europe, recovering from his own illnesses, writing, and raising funds for his work in Africa.

     Schweitzer is perhaps best remembered for his philosophy of “reverence for life.”  He believed deeply that all life has a strong will to live, that the will to live should be respected, whether it’s another human being or even a blade of grass. 

     In explaining his philosophy, Schweitzer wrote, “If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself.” 

     What promotes or nourishes life, Schweitzer regarded as good.  Likewise, what hinders or annihilates life is evil. The ethical man, according to Schweitzer, is one who assists life to fluorish wherever possible and who shrinks from injuring anything that lives. 

     Schweitzer admitted that his philosophy poses ethical dilemmas.  It is not always easy to decide how far to go in avoiding injury to and destruction of life.   But each person, in each situation, he said, must be guided by the highest sense of responsibility toward other life.   And the more deeply we experience conflict when an action we wish to take will harm a life, said Schweitzer, the more we are living in truth. 

     I find Schweitzer’s following words deeply inspiring:  

     “Whenever I injure life of any sort, I must be quite clear whether it is necessary. Beyond the unavoidable, I must never go, not even with what seems insignificant. The farmer, who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside, for he thereby commits a wrong against life without being under the pressure of necessity. ” –April Moore


Greening the Inauguration

Monday, January 12th, 2009

     There is good news and bad news.  First the bad.  With millions of excited Americans heading to Washington next week to celebrate the Inauguration of President Obama, the impact on the planet of this historic event will not be trivial. 

     The good news is that Obama’s Inaugural team and other Inaugural event organizers are working to minimize the environmental impact.   Says Linda Douglass, spokesperson for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, ”We are committed to making the Inauguration as environmentally friendly and as sustainable as possible.” 

     And while there is a list of steps being taken to green the Inauguration, I must admit I was disappointed that the list is not longer.  Still, to make a public effort to green an event that the whole world will be watching is a positive step, and perhaps a consciousness-raising one as well for us Americans and for people around the globe.

     Below are some of the things the Obama team and others are doing to make the January 20 events  eco-friendly.  If I have missed any, I invite THE EARTH CONNECTION readers to fill in the blanks.

  • The Presidential Inaugural Committee is working with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency liaison who is offering guidance to the Committee on green practices.
  • To minimize congestion on city streets and to encourage local residents to reach Inaugural events in a non-polluting way, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (of which I once served as Acting Director) will offer valet bicycle parking.  Riders may park their bikes at one of two sites relatively near the events.  Bikes will be watched;  riders need not bring locks for them.  Riders will be given a commemorative ticket to reclaim their bikes.
  • Offical Inauguration invitations were printed on recycled paper.
  • Some of the floats in the parade will be recycled from previous Inaugural parades, including a 60-foot long, 24-foot tall American flag float built for Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural parade.
  • Those attending any Inaugural event are encouraged to take public transportation or carpool, even if they are wearing evening gowns or tuxedos.  People who must travel by car are encouraged to drive hybrid vehicles or to purchase carbon offsets.
  • There will be at least two Green Inaugural Balls, one featuring Nobel Prize winner Al Gore.
  • The bathrooms at the inaugural balls will have air dryers installed, and no paper towels.  (In my mind, the jury is still out when it comes to the impact of electric dryers versus paper towels). 
  • Organizers of some of the balls are planning to use energy-efficient lighting.–April Moore

    

Another Icy Morning

Friday, January 9th, 2009

     When I awoke the other morning, I realized that perhaps for the third time in a couple of weeks, a layer of ice covered everything in sight.  So outside I went. 

     As usual, I was drawn first to the upper deck’s railing to see how the next ridge and the long, green valley in between would look this morning.  Striations of misty clouds stretched along the valley,  obscuring all but thin, green lines of the distant ridge.  Soft, greenish mounds peeked over the top cloud layer.  Soon the striations thinned, and more mountain green emerged.

     The moment I stepped into the driveway, a sudden, sharp whir in the leaves caught my attention.  I turned quickly to see a grouse dart from the ground up into the trees.  Darn!  Will I ever spot a grouse before it spots me?  I long to see a grouse when it’s nestled on the ground somewhere.  But I have never seen one except when it was ‘running away.’  Although a large bird, the grouse is well-camouflaged with its mottled brown feathers.      

     I walked a little farther up the driveway, then stood and looked.  The holly tree’s leaves were longer than usual.  Accentuating the tip each green leaf was a hanging, frozen drop, shining and clear. 

     A few steps on I saw, as I’d expected, that the tall bamboo stalks lining that section of the driveway were bent way over under their weight of ice.  I almost laughed as I noticed a little icicle on one stalk that didn’t seem to respect the law of gravity.  This icicle came straight out from the bowed bamboo, parallel with the ground for about a half-inch, then veered down, a glassy little elbow.  Hmmm.  This icicle must have begun to form when the bamboo stalk stood upright.  But as the bamboo bent, the icicle bent too, as it continued toward the ground.   

     Having surveyed the scene near the house, I decided to walk a little.  The brown oak leaves that had been blown into piles along the little dirt road above the house crunched beneath my feet.  But how different these January leaves felt than they had in October.  This crunching came from the breaking and splintering of an icy veneer coating the leaves.  Stiff with cold and wet, the leaves bent and cracked under my feet, making a satisfying wintry sound.–April Moore

    

    

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