All posts by Sarah Webb

At home among the natives

Last year, I wrote an essay about our initial adventures in growing native plants. The article published just a month after we planted, and we only had small green mounds– and mulched beds– which were a significant feat in our clay-laden Tennessee soil. And even in the heat of last summer, our flowers were pretty, but not overwhelming.

But this year our plants busted out in all their native abandon– bee balm for a couple of weeks in June, followed by blankets of purple coneflowers, and sweet black-eyed susans for more than a month. Unlike last year, the American beautyberry has borne striking violet fruit. I managed to plant some aromatic asters in the spring, which have grown, but don’t seem to be flowering. At least not yet.

The next native plant sale is in a couple of weeks. I’m already starting to think about new shrubs.


View from “The Last Frontier”

Even though I like my creature comforts, Alaska has become one of my favorite spots on Earth. I’m drawn to extremes– snowy mountains next to ocean, days of endless light (or none at all), seemingly suicidal salmon hurtling up waterfalls. Bald eagles appear at every turn in the road– landing on the eaves of local shops, the Alaskan equivalent of pigeons. And the moose– who couldn’t love these massive beasts that meander from remote forests to backyards across the state.

When I visit cities, I’m awed by human civilization and culture, but in Alaska I marvel at pure nature completely separate from human beings. But despite its beauty and otherness, humans are inextricably linked to it, both by our care and our carelessness. (The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is an amazing facility– funded by money paid out after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989.)

In June, we went back, this time with our 7-month-old son. He won’t remember this trip, but traveling with him reminded me of my responsibilities, as a witness and a steward of the Earth he and his generation will inherit. I hope that the wild beauty of this last frontier will still be available to him when he’s old enough to appreciate it. Will Aialik glacier– receding at a quarter mile per year– be there when he goes back? Already crippled by accumulated contaminants, will the transient orcas be extinct? Will there be enough ice for walruses and polar bears?

Though no one person can wrap a protective cocoon around these natural wonders, I can focus on these pictures and hold their beauty close to my heart. And drinking in that remote wilderness reminds me that a rich, green world sits right outside my door, waiting for me to come outside and explore.

Photo credits: Sarah Webb, Feature image: Kachemak Bay and Homer, AK


Another online project: Bracing for Impact, reported by Flux

In case you were wondering, Webb of Science hasn’t disappeared, but I have been busy with a variety of other projects. The Science Writers’ Handbook website continued to publish regularly through December, and I had a baby boy in October.

In addition,  I was part of a team of reporters (named Flux) who launched a crowdfunded reporting project (Bracing for Impact) looking at how communities are responding to and preparing for climate change. We started publishing stories in August, and we’ll be wrapping up our initial run this month. We used the brand new Beacon platform, specifically designed for journalists.

Our leader, Virginia Gewin, wrote a blog post describing “The Experiment” back in July. Crowdfunding is hard work. I have a whole new appreciation for the fund drives on public radio and television, and an awe and respect for artists, journalists, and others who are routinely supporting their work in this way.

At the same time it’s incredibly freeing to be able to create a new project and direct its path without having to make stories fit the exact specifications of an existing publication. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and publishing with this great group of colleagues has sharpened my reporting and editing skills.

I wrote three stories for the project (Some stories may be behind Beacon’s paywall.):

Photo by Sarah Webb, reservoir in Clayton County, Georgia


Adventures in Native Gardening

The humidity of summer is slowly pushing spring out of Chattanooga these days. But before the seasons change, I wanted to share our recent adventures in gardening and landscaping (published in OnEarth).

As recent New Yorkers and Tennessee transplants, we really didn’t know that much about plants when we started to think about our yard, the blank slate. As a graduate student in Indiana and later on our front porch in Brooklyn, I had tried my hand at growing herbs and tomatoes. And while I made plenty of batches of basil pesto over the years, my tomatoes weren’t always very productive. And other than marigolds or a few other potted outdoor plants, I never really invested the time and effort in making green things grow.

But now that we have a permanent home, we’re making the effort. I spent a lot of time reading up on plants, particularly native species. I spent a day at a native plant symposium in March, and we’ve put a couple of weekends of blood, sweat, sore muscles, and blisters into our new yard.

I still hope to put in a raised bed with vegetables and herbs, but right now I have those in pots on our back deck. This year we’re all about the wildflowers, and I can’t wait to see if the bees and birds show up this summer.

More photos in my story for OnEarth.


Signs of Spring

Intermittently, the gray damp of winter is finally yielding to signs of spring. Though winter hasn’t hit my corner of Tennessee particularly hard, on this cold, damp St. Patrick’s Day, the lack of sun leaves me listless.

Other than our early bloomers, red buds and dogwoods and the grass that’s slowly regreening, the predominant colors out my window are still brown and gray. Last week, I took my camera on a short walk to capture the slow change creeping around me. I’ll soon cash in my view of the hills through vacant branches for verdant leaves. I’ll miss my hilltops, bridges, and hints of skyline, but I wouldn’t trade them for my lush summer vista. And I’ll see them again in seven or eight months.

Fortunately plants move much more slowly than my brain does, pulling me out of my daily life measured in seconds, minutes, and hours to think about seasons, years, even decades. Even thinking about them and what I might plant forces me to stop, to breathe, to contemplate soil, shade, and sun, forces and a rhythm that seem constant in an inconstant world.

But for today I’ll hold on to my hibernation just a little while longer, pull the jacket a little tighter around me, and take one last nap before spring.


Strings of Collaboration

Before I became a scientist, I was a musician. I started piano lessons when I was six, despite some warnings to my parents that I was too young. My mother was sick of hearing me ask to learn, so she caved in and signed me up for weekly lessons. That I loved. Sadly, I rarely play today, but Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are old friends whom I love to visit.

Last year, we discovered Chattanooga’s String Theory chamber music series at the Hunter Museum of Art. My science geek self can’t help but love the name, and the schedule is top notch. World class musicians who I rarely could have afforded to hear in New York City come to my local art museum and play chamber music for sold out audiences. (I worry about the age of those audiences– mostly men and women a generation older than I am. I’d like to hope the classical music lovers my age are busy raising a new generation, but most of the data out there suggests that interest in classical music has waned dramatically.)

In addition to the sounds that weave together seamlessly, I’m fascinated by the relationships in chamber groups. There are subtle signals, cues, movements, the way that individuals play off of each other. Musicians learn and even intuit each other’s ticks. And it’s hardly surprising that chamber music groups often include people with close personal as well as professional relationships. In December, the String Theory concert featured sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian, and Ida’s husband Steven Tenenbom.

I experienced this subtlety when I played chamber music in my teens. Though I loved to play the piano, I disliked performing solo. Nerves got the better of me at recitals, and though working toward that performance goal was satisfying in certain ways, I rarely came out of a recital or performance feeling happy with the outcome. Then I began taking lessons from Bernice Maskin, a piano teacher who had made it her mission to create opportunities for kids to play chamber music. She knew all the local string teachers in my hometown, and she’d pull together trios, quartets and quintets, based on ages, playing level, and even existing friendships if she knew of them.

Chamber music is the essence of teamwork, where every member of the group contributes a critical component of the tapestry. Unlike an orchestra or concert band, where a weak link can sometimes go unnoticed, every member in a chamber group is vital, essential, a lifeline of the fabric as a whole. Playing in a group wasn’t easier, but it taught me to collaborate. Following a great musical plan, I learned when to charge forward and show off my part and when to dial back and let the cello, violin, or clarinet take the lead. If I faltered, I had to adjust, and my fellow players would adjust along with me. When they had problems, I covered as best I could. The music is both simple and delightfully complex as is the lesson. Keep going, don’t stop, be flexible, and enjoy the ride.

Those lessons have extended far beyond the piano bench, to the chemistry lab and the writing desk. Great relationships and collaboration make good work much sweeter.

Image Credit: Phil Ortenau via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Alligators, Spanish moss, and a sense of wonder

Growing up in North Central Florida, I took my environment for granted.

My parents still live in the same house where I grew up. Their home feels familiar, almost a time capsule of my old life. But after years living away, I view everything around them like a tourist. On a visit in December, my eyes traced the outline of the heavy boughs of every live oak, the curtains of gray, Spanish moss weighing their branches like Florida snow.

Half my life later, I realize how little I explored my environment, how little I appreciated the strange beauty that surrounded me. So as an adult, I’m trying to recapture the wonder that escaped during my childhood and show my husband the places I wish had been more important to me. So, on December 26, we went to Paynes Prairie Preserve, 22,000 acres of grasslands just a short drive south of where I grew up, full of birds, bison, wild horses, and, of course, alligators.

Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, in the shadow of the University of Florida and Gator Nation, alligators feel too normal. People occasionally find them in their backyards or their sewer drains. When I was a teenager, my father talked about how a visiting Estonian researcher asked to see alligators. I didn’t get her fascination.

Now I do. My husband and I walked along the La Chua trail on the north end of the preserve, most of it is a wide, mowed strip with few barriers, people of all ages, and signs like this one.


Because of creatures like these, sunning within 10 feet of the walkway.

alligators at Paynes Prairie

We saw dozens of alligators, but no bison or horses. With keen eyes and binoculars we picked out ibises, egrets, a Great Blue Heron, wild turkeys, and hawks. We even heard a hawk, caught next to the trail in marshy brush.

In many ways, the walk was a tiny glimpse of what I hope 2014 will bring. I want to appreciate moments, hear, see and feel what happens around me, and fan each spark of wonder into a steady flame.

Image Credits: Sarah Webb


Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river

State lines bring out natural rivalries. New Yorkers like to pick on New Jersey, and when I lived in Indiana, Kentucky seemed to be the butt of most regional jokes. But here in Tennessee the foe is Georgia, and the scuffle may go to court. Over water.

Not just any water, mind you. We’re talking about the mighty Tennessee river, the waterway that writhes its way through the center of Chattanooga, my fair city. The state of Georgia is prepared to sue Tennessee for a chance to tap the river for Atlanta just 100 miles southeast.

It’s not a new idea, and Georgia is already in a longstanding legal feud with Alabama and Florida  for related reasons.

Creeks and streams in North Georgia feed in to the Tennessee river watershed, but the river itself skirts the boundaries of the Peach State, barely missing its northwest corner before dipping south into Alabama and even a tiny corner of Mississippi before turning north toward the Ohio River. (Eastern water rights mean that they can’t tap it because it doesn’t flow through the state.) I can see why Georgia lawmakers might think that the river is taunting them. Continue reading Georgia’s quest for a sip of the Tennessee river


In search of cranes

a stuffed sandhill crane
The closest we got to a sandhill crane. A stuffed bird among the exhibits.

After 6 months in Tennessee, I’m still a little overwhelmed by the number of beautiful overlooks and natural spaces within a short drive. So we’re already compiling a mile-long mental list of places we’ll want to visit, particularly to take a peek at the various animals that live there.  But the tricky thing about going in search of wildlife the way that nature, weather and the animals themselves can thwart your plans.

Case in point, in January, we couldn’t resist a trip up the road to the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, an annual event that celebrates the stopoff of thousands of  these birds. In November and December, they nest and raise their young in Florida. Then the sandhills stop off here, in the gray months of January and February, to feed before spending summers in the upper Midwest.

We wandered through the exhibits at the host school and waited in line for the bus to the Hiwassee Refuge. Except that there were no cranes. Well, to be fair, we might have seen 20. It was a far cry from the thousands that had been munching on corn and grasses in these fields just days earlier.

several sandhills in a field
A few cranes showed up for the festival

Mother Nature didn’t get the memo about the crane festival this year. For several days before, we’d had sheets of rain. The local dams had released water to control the risk of flooding. And, voila, this favorite spot had suddenly become too soggy for the birds. Rangers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency told us of hundreds of cranes that had moved to nearby farms, so we drove around the country roads before turning our car toward home. No cranes.

But we are determined. And we suspected that the cranes would be back. So, two weeks later, we turned the car north once again.

This time we saw fewer people and more birds.  The sandhill cranes seemed to prefer a small island up the road near Blythe Ferry. But we saw (and heard) hundreds rather than a handful of these majestic birds.

hundreds of sandhill cranes on a small island in the lake
Hundreds of cranes just a few weeks later

We lingered until sunset because we hoped to see an endangered whooping crane. As we were watching the sandhill cranes, we met volunteers with the International Crane Foundation who had just released an injured whooping crane back into the wild. As the sun got lower and the temperature got colder, we shivered but kept thinking we’d see that great white bird among the scores of red headed sandhills.

But alas, the whooping crane eluded us. Maybe next year.

The most interesting part of the video is the sound. These birds make a racket.

Photos by Sarah Webb. Video by Preston Foerder

Share my other online project

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending the bulk of my blog-related time on a new project: the website for The Science Writers’ Handbook. The book, which will publish in April, is a collaboration involving more than 30 science writers. I contributed one chapter to the book about “The Diversity of Science Writing.” I write about the many gigs that science writers can take on to build a sustainable business. I’m also the editor in chief and project manager for this new website. So over the last several months, I’ve been working with a web designer to build that site and working with a small group of colleagues (Hannah Hoag, Stephen Ornes and Monya Baker) to edit that site.

We’re live now, and we’ve been posting throughout January, so there’s plenty to explore. We’re covering the craft, commerce and community of the profession. Already you can get expert tips on interviewing for audio and video, learn about how to handle loneliness when working in an exotic location, and learn how to network at conference cocktail parties. We provide a peek into our writing workspaces and even confess to how a certain corporate caffeinator fuels our work.

So if you’ve wondered what happened to Webb of Science, I’m still here, and I’ll be back here soon. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a peek around the new site.

I’ll be at ScienceOnline 2013 this week, so if you’re going, I hope you’ll find me and say hello. My colleague Emily Gertz and I will be talking about The Science Writers’ Handbook website during a BlitzTalk on Friday. See you there or on Twitter at #scio13. And, speaking of ScienceOnline, there’s a new interview with me on on Bora Zivkovic’s blog at Scientific American.

P.S. Huge thanks to the National Association of Science Writers for an Idea Grant that funded our book and the website!