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.

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:

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.”

 

My Dad, Who Made the World Better

Father’s Day meant a pilgrimage to a few places special to my Dad, who died last year. His handprints are all over this town, but I chose a couple places with personal meaning:

1. Holliday Park, down by the river. Because he used to take the grandkids out into the water with a seine to see what they could catch. Also, he kayaked that river many a time. (Once with me. I was not in the best shape then, and he ended up tying a rope to my kayak and towing me into the wind, all the way back to our put-in place.)

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The water is not this muddy and high in my memories of Dad taking the grandkids out. All the rain lately.

2. Holliday Park Nature Center. Just to visit his brick.

We honored Dad with this walkway brick at Holliday Park Nature Center on his retirement.

We honored Dad with this walkway brick at Holliday Park Nature Center on his retirement.

3. A pocket park where he and I picked juneberries. Sweet memory. I picked yesterday in his honor.

In truth, Dad is ghosting about the edges of nearly every blog post I write. I see him in the anonymous man in the Keystone Pipeline protest photo—he used to wear that kind of cap, and he marched for important causes. I see him in Keith Johnson, sharing his passion for the natural world.

And I see him in David Forsell, facing death too soon, knowing that what counts is giving back.

A few months before he died, he received the Hoosier Environmental Council ‘s Land Steward of the Year award for his volunteer work (though “work” is a misnomer—he often said, “I’m just having fun.”) A sampling of his fun:

  • He started a multi-year restoration project to return Indiana State Museum’s Turner Gardens to Indiana native prairie (still going on now).
  • At Cold Spring School, he was “chief gardener” and caretaker of the greenhouse, introducing grade schoolers to the marvels of the garden.
  • He took student groups on rafting trips, and led them on tours of natural places.
  • He spearheaded Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society’s Letha’s Youth Outdoors Fund, funding field trips to get schoolchildren out into nature.
My dad at the kitchen sink. You can't tell but he's wearing his favorite "Life is Good" Shirt, the one with the dog wearing the backpack.

My dad at the kitchen sink in 2010. Strong as an ox. You can’t tell but he’s wearing his favorite “Life is Good” shirt.

Now and then my mail brings evidence of his impact, and it always makes me happy and sad. Two examples:

From Friends of Cold Spring School: The fifth-graders have adopted the prairie he led students in planting around “Mr. Donovan’s Greenhouse.”

From Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society: At Dad’s urging, a Gary-area nonprofit working with urban youth applied for funds to visit the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore—a wild place largely unexplored by these kids (who live less than a mile away!). The funding allowed 40 young people to experience the beauty of this national park.

I remember when he met these folks and encouraged them to seek funding. It was at the Hoosier Environmental Council luncheon where he received the award. He was quite frail by then, but still networking, still advocating for kids and nature. It didn’t matter that the title of INPAWS “Youth Outreach chair” had long since passed to someone else.

That’s my Dad to a T. Sure do miss him.

Addendum: I forgot to include this recent piece published in the Boiler Journal, describing a day soon after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.