A Biodiversity Birthright

Last week’s Indiana Master Naturalist class has put me into a state a little bit like that dream … the one where you suddenly find a whole section of your house that you didn’t see before. “This was here all this time?”

Since the week-long intensive ended, I’ve been noticing things that previously weren’t on my radar. I’m hearing (sometimes identifying) distinct birdsongs that had largely been a sort of background chitter-chatter. Who knew there were indigo buntings around here? I had never heard of the Kentucky Coffee Tree, which I’ve seen on my walks (if my budding tree ID skills are on target).

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Sunfish. Photo by Sara Long.

On one particular day we saw fish in Lawrence Creek that were simply stunning, and a green frog to boot. Now I’m curious what wonders lie under the surface of the creek I cross every morning on my rambles.

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Green frog. Photo by Sara Long.

It’s common for Hoosiers to agree with people who denigrate our state. We seem to come at the bottom of every list measuring quality of life, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

But: It turns out that my state is actually pretty fascinating, geographically and ecologically–with incredible (often unsung) biodiversity.

That’s largely because of a thing called the “ecotone.” This is a place where two edges overlap, such as woodlands and wetlands. More species live in these spaces, naturalist Amanda Smith told us.

And Indiana, I learned, is lousy with edges. We have the Great Lakes edge in the north. Eastern Seaboard forests terminate in Indiana. Prairies had their eastern edge in Indiana. And the swamps of the south begin in Indiana.

Finally, we have glacial edges from retreating Ice Age glaciers. (I did learn this fact as a child as the reason for the way Indiana turns hilly south of here.)

I now have a long list of Places to Visit in my Own State. Part of being a naturalist is simply appreciating the natural world. Another part is sharing wonder, to get other people out and appreciating alongside us, so they can have their own epiphanies.

Another part is dirtying up the hands. A host of volunteers and organizations and nature preserves are working to conserve our ecological heritage—to support the coevolving native plants and bugs that form the foundation of life (not to mention beauty). So much habitat has been lost to development. The wilder corridors are so fragmented and invasive species so pervasive that many native species are imperiled.

The good news is that we can be part of habitat restoration in our own places. Our yards can become “our largest national park,” urban tree advocate Holly Jones told us, quoting native plant proponent Doug Tallamy.

Because, as Holly put it, “if you think your life is independent from the black-capped chickadee*, you are wrong.” (These perky little birds are on the decline in many areas.)

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Bumblebee on milkweed. Photo by Sara Long.

“Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.”

—Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home 

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Milkweed bug. Photo by Sara Long.

A long time ago, the elderly mother of a friend questioned me about my vegetable garden. “Do you have a lot of BUGS in your garden?” she said, and all but shuddered at the word BUGS. It was sort of comical, but sad too.

Now I want to plant a native garden that will unapologetically attract “bugs” to support the biodiversity that is Indiana’s birthright.

*A classmate just informed me that Black-capped Chickadees are in northern Indiana. South of Lafayette we have Carolina Chickadees.

All photos courtesy of my hugely talented classmate Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

Deep Learning Continues at Avon OLC

Guest blogger Jennifer Davies updates us on her work at Central Indiana’s Avon Outdoor Learning Center. We first posted about this phenomenal program last February, in Portal to the Wider World.

Guest post by Jennifer Davies

For those of you who have been following me and my stubborn refusal to walk away from my job teaching at and coordinating the Avon Outdoor Learning Center since our funding was cut in 2011, I have some good news! I first should point out that Carol Ford and I basically made up this position when I stumbled across the place, back when I moved to Indiana in 2006…and they let us, just to see what we had in mind.

We had just planted the garden (built with grants & volunteers), and hosted more than 7,000 students for the year, when a town referendum failed and the district had to shave $9 million from its budget. Since then I’ve relied on grants, fundraising and donations for my salary. Last year we served 9,100 children with programs designed to supplement classroom instruction with active, outdoor activities.

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Planting garden at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

We’ve had fantastic community support, with students literally giving me their piggy banks and tooth fairy money. A new Superintendent is behind us. We have a rock solid belief that this patch of earth shows how public education can inspire lifelong learning—and a deep connection to one’s community. (And by “community” I mean local and global, human and otherwise!)

With the current administration turning over every rock, squeezing every penny, and encouraging this community to urge changes in recent school funding legislation, positive change is afoot: The district will be able to hire 20+ teachers to ease classroom sizes, and they are going to fund two-thirds of my position. I’ll still need to raise the remaining one-third, again looking to this community for their help in doing so.

A career path I’d recommend? Probably not. Job satisfaction? HIGH. I had a kiddo tell me two days ago that he tried three new foods (radish, green onion and spearmint) during his visit and he liked them all. Can you test that? Nope. But I’d be willing to bet the experience will be with him for a lifetime and might even help shape the way he looks at the world around him and his place in it.

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

Harvest time at Avon Outdoor Learning Center

For those of you who have mixed your blood, sweat and tears with mine over the past few years—couldn’t have done any of it without you. For my family, for putting up with me and my loopy path—BIG Love. And for those cheering from a distance—Thanks! Can’t wait to see what next year brings!

If you need me, or have an idea for fundraising, I’ll be in the garden…

Note: To contribute volunteer time, fundraising ideas or donations to Avon OLC, email olc@avon-schools.org

Photos courtesy of Avon Outdoor Learning Center.

The Urban Forest

Holly Jones grew up considering trees as relatives. A Native American (“though I might not look like it!”) she sees the world populated with winged people, creeping people, branching people. “A lot of different people are considered sacred in my circle.”

As director of the Indiana Urban Forest Council, she brings that sense of interconnection to her advocacy.

Holly spoke to a group of treehuggers in my neighborhood this week at the Irvington Green Hour.

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council. Photo by Jeff Echols.

She asked us to consider the sounds we might take for granted, the chickadee’s call and other songs of the urban forest. “These sounds are a part of you whether you realize it or not,” she said. “And these sounds are quietly going away.”

With landscapes devoted to specimen plants that hail from a completely different part of the world, it’s no wonder that native species are struggling. Jones said a turnaround will require a different mentality than purchasing random flowering plants from the big box store. Choosing native plants is the only way to feed and shelter the insects and birds that evolved alongside them.

Basically, the foundation of life is in our hands, even we urbanites sitting here on our postage-stamp lots.

“If you want to see life happen, and magic happen, that takes time,” she said, telling the story of planting her first rain garden. As the plants matured, her sense of wonder expanded beyond expectation. “I had to go out and get new guide books! There were so many new species I’d never seen before.”

Holly told us that trees offer their biggest bloom when they’re dying. Some might point to the prolific blooms and deny that a tree’s under stress (from climate change, insect infestation, or pollution) but that’s not the case. “That tree’s giving it all she’s got. She’s saying, ‘It’s my last chance to get my seed out there.’”

In a state where 98 percent of our forests are gone, caring for the remaining trees is essential. Street trees give back 600 times what we invest, with the biggest return coming after the first 10 years.

Average lifespan of a street tree? Seven years.

There are ways to cost-calculate a tree’s service to humans. My streetside sycamore, according to the National Tree Benefit Calculator, will do all this in 2015:

  • intercept 2,015 gallons of stormwater runoff
  • raise the property value by $47
  • conserve 55 Kilowatt / hours of electricity for cooling
  • absorb pollutants through its leaves, while releasing oxygen
  • reduce atmospheric carbon by 299 pounds

According to the model, this adds up to $68 in annual benefits provided by my 11-inch diameter sycamore.

By Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Considering that the tree is 40-plus years old, according to this site, that’s a significant dollar amount over its lifespan.

This is all great information for people who need numbers to support a pro-tree position. And it’s not even counting some of the benefits Holly spoke of at the Green Hour. Higher percentage tree canopies correlate to greater health, better school grades, improved sense of community, and more.

To my mind, though, the unquantifiable might be the most powerful thing of all. Trees are wise, restful, gracious spirits. They root deep and stretch high, giving them access to information we humans are not privy to. This sycamore’s presence in my life is a gift.

And that’s just one tree among the urban forest that I love so much.

Want to take action? For locals, here are some ideas:

The Ground Rules

Meet “renegade researcher” Nance Klehm. She’s on a mission to transform our thinking about waste—and to transform our waste into healthy soil.

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Nance Klehm

I first met Nance at last October’s Radical Mycology Convergence, which she hosted on her rural land in Illinois. She divides her time between rural and urban—growing native trees, plants, and mushrooms on her land, and nurturing innovative community projects in Chicago.

As a fifth generation horticulturist, she has a passion for working in partnership with nature and enjoying the abundance that results. She has worked on graywater systems, humanure, and soil fertility for years, both in the U.S. and abroad. She was even invited to Haiti to assist with composting toilets after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

She works on composting policy at the state and local level, and teaches “Composting 401” to people who really want to get down and dirty.

“When people say, ‘what’s possible?’ I’ve done it,” she told me. “I have photographs and data and anecdotal experience from living in Chicago for 25 years.” She envisions a widespread scale-up of composting efforts that would shift how cities handle sanitation.

Nancy removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Nance removing husks from walnuts grown in her food forest.

Recently she was the featured guest on the Root Simple Podcast, talking about her work with community bioremediation in Chicago.

The project, called The Ground Rules, has multiple community-run soil centers working on bioremediation. Urban soils are often contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. Klehm and her volunteers are addressing this problem by diverting waste into compost.

By bicycle and truck, they pick up discards from restaurants and businesses: uneaten food, vegetable trimmings, and paper towels, for example. Nearby soil centers are where they convert this “slop” into a high-powered soil amendment.

"It's crazy fun to work with food slop," says Nancy.

“It’s crazy fun to work with food slop,” Nance says.

The waste is kept local, put to work in service of the longterm goal of remediating the soil. Bacteria in the compost help to break down inorganic chemicals. The teams also use plants and fungi to help with this goal. So, four biological kingdoms—animal, bacterial, fungal, and plant—partner in this vision.

Here’s a great video about the project:

The Ground Rules from nance klehm on Vimeo.

Nance has a book due out this fall, based on her conversations with others invested in the life of the soil. (Note: It isn’t only farmers who care about the ground under our feet!)

Currently she’s writing a manual for others interested in community bioremediation. She blends practical, technical information with anecdotes from the soil centers, because they are all different. Each site has its own issues and challenges. Nance says the social component of this work is the trickiest part, so it’s important to address that along with the how-to aspect.

She’s running a crowdfunding campaign to support this important work. Any small amount helps.

And of course, if you’re in Chicago, consider volunteering. If you want to hang with fun and funky folks while learning a whole bucketload about advanced composting, she would welcome you, I’m sure!

Update: For more on The Ground Rules project, check out my Acres USA profile of Nance Klehm.

Fungi Offer a Model and a Hope

Last weekend’s Radical Mycology Convergence was an eye-opener to the mystery and power of the fungus kingdom.

signDid you know that fungi called endophytes live within plants, lending structure and resilience to the plant? “If we took away the fungal cells, we would see these scrawny, floppy little trees,” said Maia, one of the organizers.

Or that mycorrhizal fungi help plant roots take in nutrients in exchange for sugars? Trees in a forest benefit from this “silent stewardship role,” said Peter, an organizer and earlier contributor to this blog. He explained that the mycelium channels sugars to baby trees deep under the forest canopy to ensure their survival. Perhaps thinking of the “next seven spore generations.”

Or that only 10 percent of our cells is actually human—the rest bacterial and fungal? “We need to stop thinking of ourselves as singular organisms,” said Willoughby, another organizer. “We are walking ecosystems. We need to appreciate and nurture all these cells within us.”

From microscopic fungi, whose ecological role is often overlooked, to the 2500-acre honey mushroom in Oregon (largest living organism in the world), the message is clear: Fungi offer the human race a model and a hope.

Mycelium colonizing a log that's been inoculated with shiitake mushroom spore.

Mycelium colonizing a log that’s been inoculated with shiitake mushroom spore.

What struck me about the Radical Mycology Convergence was the deep respect for nature in general and fungi in particular. Here is a movement that is not about exploitive, extractive approaches to a “natural resource,” but rather: working with fungi as allies for the betterment of all life. That includes cultivating mushrooms for food sovereignty, medicine, and remediation.

The promise of mycoremediation is great, and Radical Mycology is all about spreading the tools for home cultivation. But as Peter emphasized, we need to be humble in our explorations. We don’t want to just burst onto a contaminated scene and “throw oyster mushrooms at it” without first observing the healing already taking place, organically, through the wisdom of the fungi naturally present.

“Who are we to say we know more than nature does?” he said. The time for presumptive action is over. We must first watch, learn, observe.

I learned so much more, but here’s one last thing: When a mushroom gets ready to reproduce, it sends out spores. A spore germinates into a hypha, a filament. It’s one strand of what eventually, with luck, becomes a mycelial network.

But that hypha is only one cell thick, and needs a partner, a genetic match. It works invisibly, underground. You can’t see it. If it comes together with another hypha, that’s when mycelium begins to branch in all directions through its environment. And finally, when conditions are right, it makes a beautiful fruiting body, a mushroom.

Cultivation workshop at the Radical Mycology Convergence (an event that one organizer likened to "the fruiting body of a mycelial network.")

Cultivation workshop at the Radical Mycology Convergence (an event that one organizer likened to “the fruiting body of a mycelial network.”)

A fitting metaphor for social change work, which is not always visible to the mainstream.

We may feel like we’re laboring in the dark, but when we connect with others—even starting with just one!—the network that results can produce something nourishing and healthy, a powerful gift that seems to show up “overnight.”

A Remedy for Nature Deficit Disorder

Guest blogger Dawn Slack wrote the following piece about Letha’s Fund, a terrific program of Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS). The fund facilitates schoolchildren’s nature-based excursions and youth-led projects. I am always happy to hear the latest on Letha’s Fund, because my Dad, Donovan Miller, was instrumental in setting it up. Check it out, and lend your support in his name if you feel so led.

Guest Post by Dawn Slack, Youth Outreach Chair for Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS)

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Kids initiated a garlic mustard pull with the help of Letha’s Fund

Knowledge Is Power

An essential INPAWS role is teaching our youth the value of our natural world, and connecting them to nature. Our members understand how nourishing it is to watch the sun rise and set, to set your hand in a riffle and watch water course downstream, to witness a flower blossom, or glimpse a dragonfly skimming the water’s surface.

We understand that experiencing nature enhances our ability to reason and solve problems. We know how being immersed in nature relieves our stress and energizes us.

We need our youth to understand these things too.

School outing at Winterhaven Wildflowers and Monarch Preserve

School outing at Winterhaven Wildflowers and Monarch Preserve

We Save Only What We Love

Our youth have little opportunity to bond with nature. Bombarded with technology that, sadly, discourages outdoor activities, they need encouragement and assistance getting outside.

In 2013 Letha’s Fund enabled almost 2,000 youth to visit natural areas or participate in outdoor experiences. And over the past five years Letha’s Fund has facilitated approximately 6,800 youth to learn about our amazing natural world.

Cold Spring students dig in, planting 400 plugs of forbs and sedges

Cold Spring students dig in, planting 400 plugs of forbs and sedges

Help Us Empower More Youth

Help us invest in a healthy future for our environment, one full of diversity and natural splendor, understood and loved by its future caretakers. Take a moment to learn about Letha’s Fund, share the flyer, and spread the word about such a wonderful program that is possible because of your aid.

Learn about Letha’s Fund on our website or send us your questions at lethasfund@inpaws.org or call us. Remember, knowledge is power. So pass it along, and help us help the next generation get into nature.

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Harshman kids plant seedlings grown by Cold Spring School students with the help of INPAWS stalwart Donovan Miller (my dad!)

We will save only what we love;
We will love only what we understand;
We will understand only what we have been taught.

Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum

All photos courtesy of INPAWS.

Postscript: To read my dad’s invitation to INPAWS members to share their love of nature with children, click here and search on “Expertise Not Required.”

 

Portal to the Wider World

“An environment-based education movement―at all levels of education―will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

―Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

A few weeks ago I had the chance to stop in on a special activity at Avon’s Hickory Elementary School. Jen Davies from Avon Outdoor Learning Center—a total rock star in the kids’ eyes—had come to talk minerals. By day’s end 120 children would make the connection between minerals and something they encounter every day, toothpaste.

In each hour-long session, Jen touched on Coke cans’ recyclability, Lunchables’ sodium content, Crest’s new products—and the broad appeal of minty-tasting toothpaste.

Discussing the sodium content of common foods.

Discussing the sodium content of common foods.

Throughout, Jen telegraphed the absolute awesomeness of minerals. These third-graders were right there with her.

This time of year, most of Jen’s work takes place in the classroom, but the Outdoor Learning Center is true to its name in every other season (and on some milder winter days).

Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes.

Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes. Photo courtesy of Avon OLC.

On seven acres belonging to the Avon School Corporation, students encounter the real-world stuff that makes science, math, and history come alive. Over 9,100 students, parents and faculty members visited the OLC in 2012-13, exploring two miles of trails and habitats spanning prairie, woodland, and wetland. A beehive and 7,000-square foot vegetable garden—tended by a garden club of 85 budding gardeners—offer further learning opportunities.

Back at Hickory Elementary, Jen divided the kids into groups and funneled them to one of four tables to make toothpaste. At one table they measured a half teaspoon calcium carbonate with a quarter teaspoon baking soda, according to the recipe. At the next, they could handle crystals, stones, and a Coke can in the “mineral museum.”

Geologist-in-the-making

Geologist-in-the-making

The final two stations were the most exciting: droppers to add the coloring and flavoring of their choice.

Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.

Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.

Would it be tutti-frutti, traditional mint, or maybe cherry, coco-lemon, or some other variation? And what color should it be? Tints of cherries, neon green, and ice blue bloomed in the paper cups.

blue

Blue proved to be a popular color.

Wrapping up, Jen told them, “Minerals are really cool—you might decide on a career using this, where you can do something like make toothpaste.”

When I spoke to her afterward about why she’s so passionate about her work, she told me she wants the children “to see themselves as part of this amazing whole.”

“We are all just circles within connections within circles. We need healthy soil and clean water and clean air to be able to thrive. The choices we make on a daily basis affect not only us but everything around us.”

Sadly, Avon OLC faced major budget cuts in 2011. Jen has been raising money and finding grants to pay her own salary. Late last year word went out that funding had dried up—without help, her position would be gone by this month. Since then several thousand dollars have been raised. It’s enough to keep her, for now, until the end of the school year, but the future is uncertain.

As Jen wrote me in an email, “It’s just so innovatively unusual for a public school district to have such a resource, we are giving it all we have to keep going.  When kids bring me their entire piggy bank, how can I not try everything I can think of?”

Several fundraisers are in the works to keep the center going. Visit the center’s site to see how you can help.

Update: After I posted this, Jen was awarded the 2013 Donald H. Lawson Award for Conservation Education from the Hendricks County Soil & Water Conservation District.