Learning Ahead: Spring Birds

Sense of Place: A Birds Eye View

Springtime is filled with sightings of all kinds of exciting natural wonders. The season’s outdoor appeal makes it a perfect time of year not only for enjoying our natural surroundings, but for learning about conservation and species preservation, too!

In particular, springtime is the season for bird sightings as Western Massachusetts becomes filled with a variety of migrating bird species in the early spring months. Species to look for in the spring include Baltimore Orioles, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Whip-Poor-Wills, American Kestrels, Indigo Buntings, Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Carolina Wrens, American Goldfinches, Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds, and many others! Knowing the names of the birds we share our home with and being able to identify them by their songs and behavior helps us connect to the seasons and strengthens our sense of place.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The Importance of Ice

The Ripple: Take Me To the River

Older and Stronger than Mountains and Sky: The Long Body

Let me take you to the river. I want to show you something miraculous—something that lives there that has been alive longer than the sky or the mountains. The reason I want to show you this is to make you feel good. Knowing that the life we live right now is connected to all the lives around us should make you feel good, I think. (We are not alone!) Knowing that the life we live right now is older than the sky and the mountains, well, I think that might make you feel even better. (What power we carry with us that we barely even recognize because, like the breath we just breathed, we take it for granted!) Let’s go, get out of here and down to the river!

William Cullen Bryant, the great North American nature poet, wrote:

The nature within us is constantly dependent on the nature which is without us, and needs every moment to be cherished, solicited, assisted, and impelled by it.”

He was sensitive to what the Iroquois called the “long body“:

“The sensory and muscular systems are properties of the familiar or “small” body. A person also has “long body” that can perceive and affect conatively significant objects that are out of reach of the small body. The long body is an Iroquois term that refers to the tribal body, and embraces living members of the tribe, as well as ancestors, tribal lands and objects. Families, tribes, corporations, churches and other groups, are long bodies that are composed of the long bodies of their members.”

What a different view of ourselves this is! We are not just individually-packaged, brandable, marketable, identity-products! We are part of the long body—our faces handed down from ancestors farther back than genealogies fathom, our features shared by our kin, our bodies filled with water that fell from the sky and drained through the soils. Our selves are less the unique existential objects we are conditioned to perceive them to be, than they are the matrix of myriad biophysical entities and forces. Without place, there’s no face. What Bryant was sensitive to, and understood, is: everything outside of us is us.

I realize that this fact (that we have a long body) seems ridiculous—but let me suggest the ridiculousness is proof of its miraculousness. We are much more than we have ever been taught.

It was Bryant’s sensitivity to his environment that informed him of his long body, not scientific research. What so wonderful is that we are able to be as sensitive he was to what is actually happening around and to us, what is actually giving us life and making us who we are. Life is the miracle making everything happen, whether it is our own, our children’s, even the neighbor’s dog that barks all the time. Keeping that sensitivity sensitive, and moving it to the forefront of consciousness and into the daily humdrumeries, takes practice; it needs to be encouraged and shared; and it needs to be employed to inform our actions, personal, social, political and economic.

So that is why we are now at the river! Time to sense the life larger than ours, and cultivate sensitivity to it.

Let us first look at the massive river-sculptured stones at the Chesterfield Gorge, Shelburne Falls or Rock Dam. These beautiful places might seem like they have been like this since the beginning of time, but they haven’t been. You are far older than they are! Wherever we live in the valley or the hills, everything we see around us that is not made by humans—mountains, rivers, valleys—are the result of the actions of the Laurentian Ice Sheet that melted only 12,000 years ago. Our ancestors migrated from northeastern Africa 50-60,000 years ago—and they are not dead; we are them; they are us. By virtue of our long body, we are more than 4 times older than these places! And we can eat ice cream!

The sculptured ledges and boulders were whittled by the rushing torrents spewed by melting glaciers, and there were people here then; hunting the same caribou that followed the melting ice and now live in the shrinking Arctic Circle. Think of them when you see Sugarloaf Mountain in South Deerfield, because it was one of their favorite places—like it is ours, today!

iron_bacteria_burnThe sculptured stones of our rivers are ancient, anywhere from 400 to 200 million years old—but they are younger than what I have brought down by the riverside to to see: Gallionella ferruginea, the bacteria that makes rust colored plumes near riverbanks by metabolizing iron dissolved in the water. As it metabolizes the iron it affixes oxygen molecules, which oxidizes the iron and turns it orange.

Gallionella is an aerobic (“air-breathing”) bacteria works with an anaerobic (“non-air-breathing”) relative that metabolizes dead leaves inside the riverbank, and “poops” out soluble iron. The iron is carried by flowing subterranean water into the river, where Gallionella metabolizes it, producing rust colored plumes. The anaerobic bacteria’s action of “biological iron apportionment has been described as one of the most ancient forms of microbial metabolism on Earth, and as a conceivable extraterrestrial metabolism on other iron-mineral-rich planets such as Mars.”

From now on, when you see the rust colored plumes in streams and rivers, pause and cultivate sensitivity—you’re in the presence of creatures whose family is older than any place on earth you’ve been, any mountain you’ve ever walked on or even seen pictures of. And then consider that you have as many bacteria on and in you than you have of your own cells! And that our immune systems are significantly constituted by symbiotic bacteria like Lactoacidophilus; which proves we share our long body with them. And photosynthesis—the metabolism of solar radiation by chlorophyll—was first accomplished by bacteria 2.3 billion years ago; and these bacteria created our atmosphere.

The blue sky is a child of the most ancient and primitive lifeforms on earth that generously exhaled it, giving us a place where we can have a face. And that is why I brought you here to the river. I wanted you to meet iron bacteria and cultivate a sensitivity for the life of the long body, older and stronger than the rocks and the sky—and as immediate as we are.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family. Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

Science of Autumn Leaves

Science of Autumn Leaves

Crisp fall days are a great time for outdoor hands-on science! Using fall-harvested crops and the natural phenomena of autumn as inspiration, families can explore everything from weather prediction to animal tracks. These engaging outdoor science projects can be enjoyed by scientists of all ages, and require few materials – the learning inspired by each project will come naturally thanks to participants’ curiosity and ability to observe! Learn what color leaves different trees produce in the autumn and learn to read your landscape.

As foliage begins to shed its summer green, explorations of leaves and trees become especially engaging. Using leaves found on trees right in a backyard, families can practice leaf and tree identification. Read the rest of this entry »

Western MA Spring Food Festivals Strengthen Ties to Local Culture

Spring Food Festivals Strengthen Ties to Local Culture

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One of the biggest factors tying food to culture is habitat. The ecological factors which determine which edible plants thrive in an area partially determines the meals which become a culinary mainstay within that culture. Post globalization, it is possible to find food from all over the world in the United States. Shopping at farm stands and farmers’ markets, and attending local food festivals can reconnect citizens with their local food culture. The community-driven, outdoor nature of these events (particularly in warm months) also drives placemaking.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Synchronization of the Watershed Flora & Fauna

A River Is Always In Synch

Like tiny submariners bursting up and out of the bottom of the brook, breaking into wings and soaring for a short time above the world they once knew, the stoneflies are here, molting from crab-shells they lived in. On the back of my neck, computer keyboard, every boulder around me: they multiply, skitter all directions, avoiding the rushing water they recently called home. The frenzy begins.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Life in the Riparian Zone

The Life Riparian

“Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” – Aldo Leopold

Riparian is a strange sounding word that denotes “river bank”: the meeting point of river and land. We enter the “riparian zone” when we get close to a river. It is a place we want to be, because it brims with exuberant sounds and smells, and because it often harbors wild plant populations that flower and fruit, attracting pollinators and all sorts of other hungry creatures. In fact, when I think “riparian” I think of food. The riparian zone is where the food is, and where the food is, life is. It is possible to trace this living landform from where it almost touches the sky all the way down to the sea.

A few weeks ago, two miles high in the Chilean Andes with my friends at Superfun, I became dangerously dehydrated. Careful to avoid water that might have bad bacteria in it, I found what I thought was a perfect source. Beneath a melting ice field I filled my canteen and drank until I gasped in pain. So cold, the water sang in my skull; so pure it tasted like breath. For half an hour I sat on a rock, loving the fact that this straight-from-the-glacier water was as perfect as water can be. The purest of the pure, cleanest of the clean, the supreme goal of bottled water drinkers achieved. Woo!

Read the rest of this entry »

Autumn Supports Science-Based Learning in Local Landscape

Fall Phenology Inspires Science-Based Learning in Local Landscape

Phenology – the study of seasonal change in plants and animals – helps to illuminate the slow and subtle daily changes undergone in the living things around us. By combining leaf peeping with an awareness of phenology, families can learn about the science behind the colorful fall landscape.

Along with the colorful transitions that the fall landscape undergoes come opportunities to explore a wide variety of scientific topics. Viewing a fall landscape can serve as a catalyst for studies of botany, dendrology, ecology, and natural history, and can help children to deepen their sense of place and their understanding of themselves as existing within – rather than beside – the local landscape.

Studies of the autumn landscape fall into the broad scientific category of phenology, which is the study of the cyclic nature of growth and change in plants and animals – as is generally attributed to the changing in seasons. The phenology of a New England fall involves observations of patterns of death and preparation for hibernation, as annual plants approach the end of their single-season lives and perennials prepare for a season of frozen sleep.  Read the rest of this entry »

Become A Citizen Scientist Through Project BudBurst

Mapping Nature Observation Connects the Seasons of a Plant’s Lifecycle

Nothing captures the passing of time quite like the impact of the seasons on plant-life. A great opportunity for Citizen Scientists to claim some seasonally-based nature education opportunities.

Generally when we study trees and their leafing habits, it takes place during the springtime when buds are just beginning to bust out into leaves. At that time of year, trees’ leaves are still intact and are easy to observe. However, fall is also a great time to participate in leaf-based citizen science, and Project BudBurst offers families the opportunity to participate in a large-scale phenology-based science project.

A project sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Project BudBurst’s fall opportunities for citizen science involve making observations of not only deciduous trees and their leaves, but conifers, evergreens, wildflowers, herbs, and grasses, too! Families’ role in Project BudBurst is to help scientists understand the seasonal changes that take place in plants by making observations about their fall state. Information reported by families is used to help scientists understand not only the way that plants look during the fall, but the full cycle of growth and change that they undergo throughout the year. And in supporting scientists in their quest to learn about plants’ changes, families will learn about them too! Read the rest of this entry »

Autumn Leaf Collecting Supports Art & Science

The Art & Science of Autumn Leaves

Leaf collecting can alert children to the presence of many types of trees in their neighborhood, and provides them with some beautiful and all-natural materials with which to craft and create nature art!

With the end of summer comes back-to-school season, a time when notebooks, crayons, and homework planners can take over the place that flowers, tall grass, and vegetable gardens hold in our daily routines during the summer. As lush green plants change hues, it can be easy to let the change of seasons happen without engaging with the new exterior design that Mother Nature provides. The change of colors and landscape is, though, the perfect reason not to let early fall pass by unnoticed…

Read the rest of this entry »

Wild & Scenic Saturdays Offer Experiential Learning Along the Westfield River

Wild and Scenic Saturdays on the Westfield River
April through October, 2014

Click to view larger image.

Wild and Scenic Saturdays cover a wide range of topics and include activities that cater to families with children of all ages. Additionally, the learning embedded in each and every one of the events will help children not only to better understand the river ecosystem, but will allow them to connect the things that they experience in the watershed to concepts that they’ve learned and home and school.

For over twenty years, the Westfield River has been distinguished as a National Wild and Scenic River. The river and its watershed provide critical habitat for a great many plant and animal species (rare ones included!), serve as a source of clean drinking water for humans, and offer us a place to commune with nature and enjoy activities like kayaking, fishing, and hiking.  Treat yourself each month to Kurt’s column, The Ripple: Stories About Western MA Rivers. This month he features the Westfield River in his post, “The Cure for All Things Pavement.”

During the coming months, the Westfield River Committee is offering a series of Saturday workshops, work days, guided explorations, and other events in order to engage the community in a process of learning about and how to care for the river and its watershed. The Wild and Scenic Saturdays offer a mix of educational activities, opportunities to engage in community service, and adventures into the watershed’s fascinating wilderness. Read the rest of this entry »

Phenology: Connecting with Nature Science & Local Culture

Phenology: Citizen Scientist & Local Culture

Independent, citizen science like Nature’s Notebook is a great way to connect with nature, learn about phenology, practice gathering data, and learn the basics of experimental design while contributing to a scientific study. Another way…participate in the many phenology-based community celebrations that happen throughout the year, both locally and all across the nation!

Phenology is the study of cyclic and/or seasonal phenomena in plants and animals, especially in relation to weather and climate.  It is important in terms of processes like bird migration or flowering, and for synchronicity between species.  Relationships and interactions in nature depend greatly on timing, and this timing can be studied in order to better understand climate change.  Recording phenological events gives us an idea of how climate has changed over time – keeping track of flowering times allows us to see how they change each year, or decade, or century!

The famous writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who is known for his nature journals, recorded the flowering times of many different plant species.  Thoreau’s observations have since been used in studies on the impact of climate change on plants in New England.

Families can help with studies of phenology in a similar way to Thoreau! The National Phenology Network has developed Nature’s Notebook, a citizen science program that aims to get people outdoors and observing nature. Nature’s Notebook has an app and a website where citizen scientists can record observations to help scientists better understand the ways in which climate change is affecting plants in New England.  The National Phenology Network needs volunteers to take part in many of the Nature’s Notebook projects, of which there are several throughout the country. Read the rest of this entry »

Change of Seasons Bring Nature, Art & STEM Discoveries

Creativity & Learning with Autumn Leaves!

Leaf collecting can alert children to the presence of many types of trees in their neighborhood, and provides them with some beautiful and all-natural materials with which to craft and create nature art!

With the end of summer comes back-to-school season, a time when notebooks, crayons, and homework planners can take over the place that flowers, tall grass, and vegetable gardens hold in our daily routines during the summer. As lush green plants change hues, it can be easy to let the change of seasons happen without engaging with the new exterior design that Mother Nature provides. The change of colors and landscape is, though, the perfect reason not to let early fall pass by unnoticed…

Read the rest of this entry »

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