Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Phenology Network

Fruit trees in bloom the last day of January 2002 on the
Hofstra Campus.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann
I noticed these beautiful fruit trees in bloom on the Hofstra campus this last day of January.  I wonder if anyone else is noticing any early blooms of fruit trees around the country.

Here is a link to a cool website some of you may enjoy--the National Phenology Network that seeks to keep track of long-term trends in plant and animal behavior.  They have some great resources and visualizations.  You can also join the network and upload your own information for your area.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gilded Age Greenhouses

Me and Mario (left) in the camellia greenhouse at Planting
Fields State Historic Park.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love botanical gardens.  One of my favorites is Planting Fields State Historic Park near Oyster Bay New York.  It houses an extensive arboretum and series of greenhouses designed, in part, by the famous Olmstead brothers in the early 20th Century.

Greenhouses in the gilded age were a bit of a status symbol in that they housed rare and exotic plant species that were collected from all over the world.  Why else would one have a camellia or hibiscus collection in Long Island on a private property?

Regardless of the motivation, the preservation of exotic plants in greenhouses has a long and interesting history.  For example, this brief article provides some interesting historical perspective within the context of the term "orangery".  There are many examples of amazing greenhouses, conservatories, and orangeries that were built during the gilded romantic age of the U.S.  Take a look at this beauty that some of you may have seen in your travels.  I have found that each conservatory is different and each takes on a unique expression of the individuals involved with their development--from the greenhouse designers, to the modern-day volunteers who tend them.

Gilded age conservatory construction essentially ceased with the modernist movements in the 20th century.  For example, take a look at these photos of the retrofabulous space-age conservatory in Milwaukee that was designed in the the late 1950's.  The conservatory consists of three "domes" of glass and are part of a larger park system called Mitchell Park.  How will our present era be expressed through greenhouses?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Poetry Bay

Check out Long Island's quarterly on-line poetry magazine, Poetry Bay.  I love this poem by Gladys Henderson in their recent issue.

Long Island commercial fishing boat.  Click for photo credit.

Calls of the Gull

We follow the fishing trawlers 
wait for the sacrament 
         of rejected fish, the blood 
                and oil of their broken bodies 
             to be released from the holding wells 
requiem on the cobalt rush 
       that breaks beneath the bow.   
       We travel until we can go 
no longer, the ship’s mission beyond our reach, 
              its promises held outside our strength.  
In the thin strands of foam 
                  that trace the endings of waves, 
we still our bodies and call to each other— 
       these unheard hymns of resignation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Boston Red Sox Have a Green Team

Click for photo credit.
I was dreaming about spring training and I ran into this interesting Website about the Boston Red Sox green team at Fenway Park.  The video is worth watching.  While I could quibble with some of the content, it is encouraging to see sustainability go mainstream within professional sports.  My favorite part of their pitch on the video is that they are proud of their non-electronic score board.  While I remain a Rays fan and am an incipient Mets fan, I will be giving a green cheer to the Boston Red Sox for their efforts come spring training.

If you have any stories about what your local team is doing to go green, I'd love to hear about it.  Please post in the comments.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Religion and Climate Change in Flushing, New York

Click for photo credit.
The Guardian came to Flushing, New York, right down the road from where I live, to look at communities of faith and their reaction to climate change.  This interactive website with video links is really interesting and I thought I would share the link with my readers.  The video also points out the unique religious diversity and history of Flushing.

I have written before about local governments, small businesses, and non-profits and their leadership role in climate change policy in the absence of any strong federal leadership in the U.S.  The advent of strong religious leadership on climate change underscores the acceptance of climate change problems in our general society and demonstrates the need for political leadership on the issue.

My first experience with faith communities in climate change was in the early 1990's when the evangelical movement in the south started the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign.  You can read about that effort here.  I started seeing their bumper stickers all over Florida and Georgia and they received a great deal of press for outreach to the large evangelical churches.  The Catholic Church also started the Catholic Climate Commitment.  Pope Benedict XVI has made many statements urging world action on climate change and other environmental issues.  I am sure there are other religious organizations that have taken a stand on this issue.  If you know of any others, feel free to post them in the comments section.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Military Bases for Green Energy

Click for Photo Credit
One of the interesting statements in the President's State of the Union Address was his commitment to build extensive clean energy facilities on public lands--enough to power 3 million homes.  I think that this is a terrific idea.  The US Government owns extensive areas of land in the United States with low intensity land uses.  Military bases, with their many acres of unused land, would be great sites for the development of this plan.  There are a number of bases that are not used all that intensively that have large swaths of land suitable for the development of wind, solar, or other green energy sources.  Many have old areas of development that occurred in the 1940's to accommodate the troop build-up during World War II.  Thus, little environmental damage would be done if these areas were to be used.

What many do not realize is that the US Military has been a leader in green energy and sustainability.  They have instituted a Net Zero plan across bases and across services.  Take a look at this document from Fort Bliss.  It demonstrates that the Military understands the issues associated with sustainability and thus intensive green energy installations would find a culture that understands the significance of energy independence, particularly given the conflicts of the last 20 years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Top States for Green Buildings Per Capita List Raises Questions

The US Green Building Council published the top ten states for green buildings per capita for 2011.  The list includes an 11th non-state, the District of Columbia.  The top 11 are in order (with the square foot per capita in parenthesis).

The District of Columbia (31.5)
Colorado (2.74)
A LEED certified floating structure in Lake Mead,
Nevada.  Click for photo credit.
Illinois (2.69)
Virginia (2.42)
Washington (2.18)
Maryland (2.07)
Massachusetts (2.00)
Texas (1.99)
California (1.92)
New York (1.89)
Minnesota (1.81)

The list is very different from the 2010 list with some exceptions:

The District of Columbia (25.1)
Nevada (10.92)
New Mexico (6.35)
New Hampshire (4.49)
Oregon (4.07)
South Carolina (3.19)
7 World Trade Center is New York's first gold
certified LEED skyscraper office building.
 Click for photo credit.
Washington (3.16)
Illinois (3.09)
Arkansas (2.9)
Colorado (2.85)
Minnesota (2.77)

The data are interesting for several reasons.  First of all, it is difficult to determine any regional patterns from the list.  Evidently green buildings can occur almost anywhere in the United States.  Clearly the District of Columbia stands out due to its high number of offices relative to its overall population.  The states that were on the list twice were Colorado, Illinois, Washington, and Minnesota, suggesting that green building is taking hold in those states.

But a deeper look at the data indicates that the amount of square footage per capita in the top 10 is significantly down from 2010 to 2011.  For example, the last place of 2010, Minnesota, constructed 2.77 square feet per capita of green building space compared with only 2.74 square feet of space per capita by the number one state, Colorado, in 2011.

This is a LEED certified multifamily building in Chicago.
Click for photo credit.
What is the cause of this change?  My guess is that it is due to the nature of the American economy.  We just aren't building as many buildings--green or otherwise.  I suppose another argument could be made that green is losing its luster as a choice for developers.  I doubt this is the case since the costs of green construction have reduced significantly.  Plus many public and private organizations have set policies to direct that all future buildings be certified green.  I expect that when the economy starts bubbling again that the per capita area of green building space will increase again.

Monday, January 23, 2012

New How To Book on Urban Farming

Eagle Street Rooftop Organic Farm in Brooklyn.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
The folks at Civil Eats posted a review of a new book about urban farming that you might find interesting.  You can read the review by clicking here.  Given the content of some of my recent posts, I thought some of you might find the book interesting.  The book is called The Essential Urban Farmer and is published by Penguin Press.  You can read more about it on their facebook page here.  If you don't have a local bookstore, I am sure the nice folks at my local bookstore, The Dolphin Bookstore, would be glad to order it for you.  I am going to stop by and order it myself.  I'll let you know what I think of it once I get a chance to read it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Old friend Bruce Cochrane posted this article from The Guardian about lab-grown meat and was interested in my thoughts about it.  In summary, the article suggests that lab-grown meat could address food shortages and improve the environment by reducing the environmental impact of farm-raised meat.
Click for photo credit.

I've been following the whole lab-grown meat phenomena with some interest, largely because it is so incredibly weird and funny in an Island of Dr. Moreau sort of scenario.  In many ways, it seems like bad 1960's science fiction turned real.  My guess is that the meat produced is as like meat as Tang is like orange juice.  The chemicals might be right, but the real thing is far superior.

The arguments that it will improve the lives of others and limit environmental impact is a bit of a red herring.  As we have seen with many scientific modifications of crops, such as bovine growth hormones and genetically modified crops, there are unforeseen consequences.  Plus, I wonder about the chemistry behind the production of the frankenmeat.  What are the chemicals used to produce the product?  Where do they come from?  Are they energy efficient or environmentally neutral?  Plus, what about the waste issues associated with production?  In addition, we are making incredible strides to improve food sustainability around the world--I am not sure that we really need to go down this path to feed the world.  The article posits that there are energy and water efficiencies associated with this meat production, but I wonder.  

Plus, what are the costs of production?  Will lab-grown meat be expensive?  I would imagine it would be rather pricey, at least at the outset.  Thus, I doubt that lab-grown meat is the answer to world hunger.  But if it will be produced inexpensively, what will happen to farmers? Do they start harvesting stem cells to grow meat in barns outfitted with flesh stretchers instead of stalls?  Does meat production become more of a biotech industry?  

I have read that some are concerned about the ethics of creating this meat.  Is it a new life form?  Should we create flesh without consciousness?  Not being a philosopher, I do not have any strong opinions on this issue.  But, one positive aspect of this development could be the reduction of butchered animals.  But, I suspect that the lab-grown meat will add to food production, not diminish existing production.  So, I am not particularly comfortable with statements in the article about the environmental benefits.

I also wonder about the health consequences of eating lab-grown meat.  There are many micronutrients  that we get from our natural foods that are probably not present in the lab-grown meat in the same way.  I wish that the big science and agricultural dollars were spent on improving and developing small farms in tune with local environments near population centers.

So, I remain unconvinced as to the benefit of lab-grown meat to the environment and to human health.  But, I predict that it will be on our grocery shelves within 5 years and that it will be marketed as a green product.  We could do so much better by developing environmentally-sound small diversified farms.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Peking Duck-Good Locavore Option for Long Island

This 1930's building celebrates Long Islands duck
production.  Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Long Island is surprisingly one of the most important duck producers in the United States.  Odds are that if you've eaten duck, it originated in my region.  That is why we have a building that looks like a duck in the Riverhead area of Suffolk County.  It was built in the 1930s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thus, while we are in the midst of Chinese New Year, it makes sense to think about celebratory foods.  Lighthearted Locavore provides a good recipe using local duck.  It is a bit complicated, but sounds delicious!

Now, if we can only find some recipes for the numerous local Canadian Geese that seem to be everywhere.  I remember some folks in my family hunting them when I was a kid.  I wonder how they taste?  I apologize to my vegetarian friends, but there are plenty of Canadian geese in my viewshed to give everyone in my neighborhood a meal all winter.  Just sayin'.

Some Blog Changes

I've added a slew of links to the lower right side of the blog.  The links are to blogs that I like and to some blogs and links associated with family and friends.  The list is by no means complete, but it is a start.  I'll also be adding links to other websites soon.

If you have any links you would like to share, please send them along. 

Thanks to all of you for reading!

Friday, January 20, 2012


Snow fall in Roosevelt Park on Long Island in 2009.
Click for photo credit.
We are finally expecting snow to fall on Long Island tonight.  The last serious snow was over Halloween weekend when I was in Florida.  So, I really haven't seen any snow at all to speak of.  I can't wait!!

I thought I would take an opportunity to put on my geology hat and write about ice in general. Years ago I had a very brief stint doing ice crystallography work on sea ice.  I even took a graduate geology course eons ago on ice that I think was called something like ice geophysics and engineering.

Ice crystals are pretty amazing things.  They can grow to great sizes and they change greatly almost all the time due to subtle temperature and pressure variations that go on during the day.  That is part of the reason we see so much variety in snow, sleet, and ice in our weather and why we see snow piles change with the seasons.

Ice, as shown in this video forms in hexagonal crystals forms which represent the molecular bonds that form when water freezes.  There are times when nature seems pretty chaotic.  But the crystalline forms of ice are among the more ordered things we can see in nature.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Urban Heat Islands and New Entries in Photo Contest

Former student JoAnn Sullivan sent along these photos for the photo contest.  She took them near Los Angeles.  The first one is called Sunset on the Bay, the second is called Discarded Heroes, and the last one is called Mother Nature Reclining.  They are all really wonderful shots, but I am going to pick Mother Nature Reclining for the contest entry.  I love the blues in the photo and I feel relaxed just looking at it!  Thanks for sending them along.  

JoAnn is also a visiting professor at William and Hobart Smith Colleges in way upstate New York.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of South Florida under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Collins, her  main advisor.  I served on her committee, so I am familiar with her dissertation work which was on urban heat islands.  She conducted one of the most detailed assessments of heat island phenomena I have ever seen.  What I mean by this is that she had a very detailed geographic grid in which she sampled temperature every hour for many days.  To do this, she distributed miniature heat sensors all over Tampa to record the temperature.  She downloaded information from the sensors over regular intervals and mapped the data.  What she found was that there is indeed an urban heat island that occurs over Tampa, as others have found in cities all over the world.  However, most importantly, she found that the heat island was not so much an island, but an archipelago.  The results indicated that the heat islands are much more complex than previously thought and are very much impacted by local land use, vegetation, and other factors.  JoAnn, if you read this post, perhaps you could post some links or more detailed information in the comments section about your work.

These are all the photos I have in on the photo contest, so if you sent some in and I did not post, please resend.  Also, we still have a few weeks until the deadline (February 10).  So, please send in your nature photos if you want to enter the contest.  The winner will get a bat t-shirt.  The photos do not need to be recent.  Send them to robertbrinkmann@rocketmail.com

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Long Island Index Releases New Report

I was at the launch of the Long Island Index's new report today and was really impressed by this video that they showed as part of the presentation.
Long Island at a Tipping Point from Long Island Index on Vimeo.

I think it nicely demonstrates some of the choices that Long Island is facing.  I also think that Long Island has the ability to tip in the right direction.  The Long Island Index has some great reports on the region.  Poke around on their site here to get a sense of their work.  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Artisanal Wheat and New Entry in Photo Contest

My sister Patty sent me a link to this article in Smithsonian about artisanal wheat.  The article is really interesting and focuses on the emerging artisanal wheat and "nouveau-wheat" movement emerging in New England and other parts of the country.

The timing was rather interesting in that today I was finishing up an article I am writing comparing sustainability in the global north and the global south.  I am writing the article with a Ph.D. student from the University of Georgia who works on cultural geography issues in Chile.  I think I referred to this paper in an earlier post.  I know that I posted about my co-author's work here.

The point we make in the article is that sustainability has an elusive meeting and that it depends entirely on the situation of the person involved with the sustainability issue.  So, for those involved in artisanal wheat, it all about recreating what they see as a more sustainable agricultural system.  But, in Chile, where many are trying to hang on to traditional life-ways, it's all about trying to maintain the status quo. They do not have too many concerns about artisanal wheat, but about the native potatoes they have domesticated.  

In some ways, the Chilean rural life way becomes a sustainability product that can be marketed to the north as a sustainable idea or trend (can't you see locally grown Chilean potatoes on the menu in Manhattan?).  Plus their systems are increasing under threat due to globalization and market forces.  Currently, salmon farms and other agribusinesses that service the global north are transforming large areas of Chile.  We are trying to recreate what they have and many in Chile are trying to build the consumer-based and globalized society we have.  Interesting?

Thus, while it is lovely that there is artisanal wheat and that there are kneading conferences of nouveau- wheat farmers and traditional bakers here in the United States, we must remember that there are many people in the world who live a very artisanal life because of the reality of their circumstances.  They might not call their choices artisanal.  Certainly the artisanal wheat movement and other sustainability efforts in the global north are important developments.  But, the overall impact of the global food system on both the global north and south have implications that are much greater than what the artisanal wheat movement can address.  I love the idea, but it is a bit precious.  But thank goodness for these precious ideas.  They are slowly and surely changing things.

In other news, I did receive the beautiful image I put in today's post from the same sister who sent me the link.  Her husband took the picture of a fox that visited their woodpile in Wisconsin quite frequently.  They named the fox Artemis.  The story is worth a direct quote from the email that accompanied the image:

"Artemis is standing in the brush that you can see from the kitchen window.  She had been coming for a while, and he (Patty's husband) tried putting the camera on a tripod with the shutter somehow attached to a "line" that ran through the basement window.  When she showed up he squeezed the bulb, and this picture is the happy result.  We knew she was a "she" because after a while she brought her babies.  Our grey foxes are bigger than the little reds.  At some point I wondered if she was a coyote, but the face is a fox face.  Magnificent silvery grey tail."

The picture is really a stunner!

Keep the images coming!  Please send your nature photo(s) to me at robertbrinkmann@rocketmail.com

Friday, January 13, 2012

New Report on State Funds for Green Energy and Economic Development Plus New Photo Contest Photos!!

The Brookings Institute in Washington DC just released a new report on leveraging state funds for green energy for economic development.  The report is worth a read if you have time.

For those not involved with economic development planning, some background might be useful.  As the readers know, we are in an economic downturn in the US.  Indeed, much of the world is in the midst of some sort of fiscal crisis.  Because of this situation, state and local governments are developing a number of strategies to improve economic development.  I’ve written before about Long Island’s efforts that are part of a broader statewide scheme in New York.  State governments are trying to find ways that their dollars can be better used to support the development of jobs and support economic growth.  They are also reviewing policies that limit economic growth.

At the same time, state and local governments are seeking ways to develop green energy strategies that limit reliance on traditional energy sectors. 

The Brookings report examines the two issues and how economic development and green energy programs can successfully work to transform the economy of particular areas.  Case studies are presented and several policy recommendations are highlighted.

The entire report is interesting and has value, but the map on page 2 is fascinating.  The map shows states that invested in clean energy funds invested in renewable energy.  Most of the states are in the northeast, Midwest, and west.  Most of the southern tier and Great Plains are not investing in renewable energy according to the map.  But in looking deeper, the map defines “state clean energy funds” as funds supported by a utility ratepayer surcharge.

To provide more detail, one can read about the clean energy funding process here on the EPA’s website.  It is a way to develop clean energy sources by charging a surcharge (tax) on the utility bill.  The EPA’s site has a tremendous amount of information about policy suggestions and also has resources for more information.

I know that there are many green energy investments in the south and Great Plains.  I am not familiar with the funding streams for them.  I would imagine they are funded through bonding, state and local tax dollars, selective rate payments, private investment, and grants.  I wonder how successful they are compared to the clean energy funding stream described by the EPA.  In other words, has anyone measured the success of the green energy funding streams in the states on the map in comparison with other funding mechanisms in states that don’t have clean energy funds?  It would be a great research topic if someone hasn’t already done this work.  I did a quick google search and I didn’t see anything out there.

In other news, I keep getting images for the photo contest.  I received several beautiful photos from Carlsbad, New Mexico reader, Vicky Teague.  I selected four of my favorites to feature on today's post and I picked the beautiful image with the pink clouds (the first one in this post) to be in the contest. I think all of her images capture the colors of New Mexico.   Keep the entries coming!  The last day for me to receive entries at robertbrinkmann@rocketmail.com is February 10.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fracking 101 Continued Plus New Entries in Photo Contest

This image has nothing to do with fracking, but is
an entry in the photo contest.  They are baby
cardinals in Wisconsin.
In my quest to better understand the issues around fracking (see this post for explanation), I ran into this pretty amazing interactive website that explains the process of fracking and the environmental issues associated with the process in a particular geologic setting in Pennsylvania..

This image also has nothing to do with fracking.  It is
a lovely bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in
Basically, in the case of the Marcellus Shale in the example, deep wells are drilled to reach the gas reservoir.  The shale is thousands of feet deeper than residential or municipal wells.  As the well is drilled, a steel casing is cemented in place to prevent leaking of well fluid or extracted gases into the surrounding bedrock. When the shale is reached, the well is drilled horizontally to access up to 10,000 feet of gas-bearing rock.

The shale is then shot with a perferating gun that blows holes into the shale.  Pressurized fracking fluid, mainly consisting of water, is then pushed into the shale from the holes created by the perferating gun.  The fracking fluid can contain a large number of other chemicals seen on this list.  Some of them are hazardous to human health.  The fractured rock provides a route for the gases trapped in the shale to travel to the surface through the well.

This picture is the last of three sent in by my sister Sharon.
I love them all, but I have to go with the baby
cardinals for the entry.
Next up, environmental concerns about fracking. Here is your reading assignment for this week.  It is a summary of the fracking process writing by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and focuses on the timing and nature of the fracking fluid insertion process.


In other news, the photos in the photo contest keep coming in.  The ones scattered throughout the post are from my sister Sharon.  If you send in multiple photos, I'll pick a handful of photos to list, but I'll pick one for inclusion in the contest.  In this case, I am picking the photo of the baby cardinals to compete.  Keep the photos coming!  Send them to me at robertbrinkmann@rocketmail.com

Monday, January 9, 2012

Quiet Campus + Quiet Campus Haiku

I know that many of my friends are back at work on campuses across the country today.  At Hofstra, the students are not back for the Spring session until the end of the month.  The campus is quiet and peaceful.  Many university faculty, staff, and administers enjoy this time of year as distinctly unique.  Campuses take on a different, more contemplative quality than normal.  Here are a few images of Hofstra's quiet time this very peaceful and calm January day.

This is normally a busy area outside of Adams Playhouse.

The Library is quiet and almost empty.

This area near the dorms is usually bustling.

A Quiet Campus Haiku
Footsteps on gravel
No wind, no birds, no students
Campus is waiting

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Squirrel Love

My cousin Carol sent in this photo to compete in my photo contest.  She didn't give it a name, but I am calling it Squirrel Love.  The squirrel in this photo is in love with the ceramic squirrel in her garden.  Cute!

Keep your photos coming in!  They have to be photos of nature somewhere near where you live.  They do not need to be recent photos.

Send your entries to robertbrinkmann@rocketmail.com

All photos must be received by February 10.  We will have an election for best photo starting February 14th.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

First Entry in Photo Contest

This is the first entry in the photo contest.  It is of the
endangered Pine Lily and was taken in Myakka Prairie in
Florida by Dianne Davies.
I received the first entry in the photo contest.  It is of the endangered Pine Lily and was taken on the Myakka Prairie in Florida.  The photo is called Skyward and was taken by reader and former student Dianne Davies.  She has a tea business and tea blog you can read about here.  You can also read a bit more about the pine lily here.

Please keep sending your photos.  There is no time frame over which the photo must be taken.  However, I ask that your photo be of some aspect of nature near where you live.  It doesn't have to be your back yard.  It can be in your state, a place you've travelled near your house, or some other nearby location.  The winner will get a cool bat t-shirt designed by Mario Gomez.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Photo Contest!

As I alluded in an earlier post, I am having a start of the year photo contest for the best photo of nature in your area.  It can be a landscape, plant, animal, or other photo that expresses the beauty of nature.

I will post the photos when they come in and we will have a group vote online on my 1-year blogovesary on February 14th.  All photos must be submitted by February 10.  The winner will get a cool bat t-shirt!

Please send your photos to me at robertbrinkmann@rocketmail.com

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Warm End of the Year

I noticed that my Elementary School through High School chum, Lynda Miller noted that her area was about to break a temperature record that goes back to the 1800's.  It is forecast to reach the 40's in Wisconsin tomorrow.

I looked at the weather for Long Island and we will be approaching the 50's in the coming days.  It certainly is a warm winter.

Take a look at the weekly temperature anomaly from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the last week of the year.  Almost all of the country was above normal.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Getting a Fracking Education

There is a tremendous amount of activism around fracking.
Click for photo credit.
The other night, I was having dinner with some new friends in New York and one of them asked me my opinion about Fracking.  Fracking is the cracking of rock deep underground by pumping highly pressurized fluids into the earth.  When the rocks crack, oil or gas is released and can be recovered.  It is a highly controversial process and there is a great deal of environmental activism around the issue throughout the world.  It is a highly charged issue in New York state and there are efforts underway to try to ban fracking.

I realized that my knowledge of fracking was not very deep and was comfortable in only saying my standard:  we probably wouldn't need to frack if we had a coherent energy policy in the US.  But, I also used my standard, although often unpopular, statement that at least it is a local source of energy and that we are taking the full environmental and social responsibilities for energy production.  It is easy for us to import lots of energy without feeling the impacts of production.

So in the coming months, I will have several posts about fracking facts and figures in order to get me and my readers up to speed on the topic.  In the mean time, here's your reading assignment:  the EPA website on fracking.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Headless Horseman, Bigfoot, and Nature

The headless horseman.  Click for photo credit.
When I visited Walt Whitman's boyhood home on Long Island recently, I purchased a small book of short stories by Washington Irving.  I read Irving when I was young, but I am currently making my way though some of the regional writing of New York and New England in my leisure reading.  Irving's short stories seemed a good addition to my bedside book pile, particularly given my love for 19th century literature.

The first short story I read was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The story is simple.  A small hamlet, Sleepy Hollow, is an out of the way village near the Hudson River that is home to numerous supernatural stories of ghosts, witches, and most importantly, the headless horseman.  The horseman is supposedly a ghost of a revolutionary war soldier who's head was blown off in battle.

The surrounding community engages a superstitious and imaginative teacher, Ichabod Crane, who evinces the superstitious nature of the community and augments the sense of the spectral with stories of his own from his native Connecticut.

Of course, like many good stories, there is a love triangle with the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Ichabod's desired partner, and a burly local young man the third of the triad.  Ichabod, between teaching the children of the rural area and imagining ghosts and witches all around him, dreams of improving his lot in life by marrying the wealthy young woman.  of course, in due time, might and brawn wins over brains and imaginations and poor Ichabod is rejected by her.  To make matters worse, he is chased out of town in terror by his burly rival in the form of the headless horseman!

Bigfoot out surfing in Washington.  Click for photo credit.
While reading this story, I was reminded of my friend and former student, Joe Murphy.  Joe was part of a field geography class I taught some time ago.  I took the group from Florida to California.  We spent time in the coastal ranges of Sonoma County and in the Sierra Nevada Range of Plumas County.  As part of the class, students had to develop their own field projects on the physical or human geography of the regions we visited.  Joe decided to pick a very unique topic--Bigfoot--as his research theme in the Sierras.

Bigfoot sightings are recorded for various areas of California and Plumas County has its fair share of notable incidents.  It is home to many Bigfoot enthusiasts and some of the local restaurants and stores have photos on display Bigfoot or Bigfoot footprints.  I wasn't particularly thrilled with Joe's choice of topic.  I wanted the students to be quantitative, scientific, and analytical.  But, Joe rightly made the case that the topic fit nicely within the realm of cultural geography--a topic with which, at the time, I had little experience given my background in geology and soil science.

Another reason that I was uncomfortable with Joe's topic is that I really had no time for people who were superstitious or who embraced pseudoscience.  Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I, like Ichabod Crane, was highly aware of ghosts witches, and other supernatural specters.  I could also tell a good tale as well.  However, my college education taught me reason and the scientific method.  So, Joe's topic made me uncomfortable.  But, I gave him the green light to go ahead the develop his ideas within the context of the cultural geography of Plumas County, California.

As it turns out, his work was among the more remarkable student works of my career.  He reviewed the history of Bigfoot sightings in the area, and spoke with a number of local residents about the topic.  He found that Bigfoot was a big part of the cultural identity of the region with material culture goods in the form of Bigfoot trinkets and other memorabilia, and non-material culture in the form of place names, menu items (Bigfoot sandwich I believe), and other interesting features.

Would the region be the same without Bigfoot?  The sightings certainly brought tourists to the area.  But Like Sleepy Hollow, many people in the region had a disposition to accept and repeat the Bigfoot legends.

But Joe took his thoughts one step further.  He argued that Bigfoot was symbolically important.  In many ways, he noted, Bigfoot is a metaphor for nature--a nature that is wild and unknown.  He made the case that a world of reason that rejects Bigfoot is a world without nature.  We culturally construct Bigfoot legends because of the very wildness of nature and because of our fear of the unknown and the anticipation of danger lurking in the dark.

In the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, we have the headless horseman legend existing among an out-of-the-way hamlet connected with the outside world by isolated shadowy roadways.  Lonely churchyards, graveyards, and bridges full of historic mysteries and the unknown add an ethereal nature to the community.  The expansion of New York City, at least at that time, did not include this corner of the world which is now not too far from the current Tappen Zee Bridge.  In Ichabod's time, this now suburban landscape was a mysterious land.

After reading Joe's work, I asked myself whether I preferred to live in a world where Bigfoot exists, or a world without the beast.  The answer was clear.  Bigfoot is indeed a symbol of wilderness and I want to always have Bigfoot, the headless horseman, the Chupacabra, or other things that roam around the wold forests, swamps, and plains of the world.  While my reason tells me that these creatures are not there, my heart looks for them.

Last year, I visited a friend who lives in a remote valley of the Catskill Mountains.  His young neighbor is quite a hunter and set up motion sensor cameras in the woods to catch images of animals as they go by his preferred hunting stands.  He does this to try to figure out where best to hunt during the season.  During my visit, the neighbor stopped by to say he got an image of the local Bigfoot in the motion camera.  Of course, we all wanted to see and we marched off to his house to crowd around his computer.  What we saw was a blurry outline of something that was probably a close-up image of a deer that happened to walk right by the lens.  But others were convinced it was the Bigfoot.

As an environmental scientist I was asked my opinion.  I didn't believe for an instant it was Bigfoot and I told them so.  But, I was pleased that my opinion had little impact on the young hunter.  To him, he got a perfect image of the creature.  He will continue to look for him.  He will continue to believe.  He will always have Bigfoot in the hills around him.  And nature remains.

Monday, January 2, 2012

California's Fort Ross State Historic Park Celebrates Bicentennial

A view of Fort Ross compound with the Pacific Ocean in
the distance.  Click for photo credit.
California's Fort Ross State Historic Park is celebrating its bicentennial this year.  The site is the location of the southernmost extent of Russian pioneer settlement in North America.  The Russians came down the Pacific coast in the early 1800's from their successful colonies in Alaska to find a more temperate location where they could grow food to support their more northern settlements.  They also were looking for newer sources of seals.

They, along with native Alaskans and Californians, built a settlement at the current site of the park that was in operation until their departure in 1841.  The site is interesting in that it exists in one of the more agriculturally challenging regions of California.  The summers are cool and can be foggy.  The winters are cold and damp.  Plus, the topography is rugged and the soils are rocky.  But, they did forge ahead and build an encampment, many buildings (including a Russian Orthodox Church), and a ship building manufacturing site.  They also built a cemetery.  I spent three summers working with archaeologist Lynne Goldstein at the site of the cemetery.  You can read a paper Lynne and I wrote about the cemetery here.

Congratulations to Fort Ross on its bicentennial.  If you are ever in the San Francisco area, Fort Ross is an interesting side trip.  It is about an hour and a half from the city.  The drive along Highway 1 is breathtaking.