Category Archives: environment

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.

Share

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

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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

Share

From the Petri Dish to the Backyard Grill

photo by stevendepoloEven if you wanted to, you couldn’t buy test-tube hot dogs for your Memorial Day barbecue, but maybe in a decade or so we’ll all be noshing on barbecued goodies raised in the sterility of a laboratory near you. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Or yucky?  For me, it’s a little bit of both.

I’m fascinated by in-vitro meat. In part, I’m drawn in by this strange intellectual and visceral war it brings out in me. The resulting meat could eventually be tasty and environmentally sustainable. At the same time, I like good, real food. I just joined a CSA. I grow herbs and vegetables. My parents each grew up on farms. I can see where science might be able to feed people with high quality meat from a lab. But, intuitively,  my body isn’t quite sure whether I’d like it. Considering how wary I used to be of “mystery meat” in school cafeterias, it’s hard to figure out whether there’s a real future for it in supermarkets and restaurants.

I love the complex cast of characters that enter the discussion of lab-grown meat: a hodge podge of scientists from stem cell researchers to engineers, animal rights activists, chefs, food activists and sustainability experts. So Michael Specter‘s New Yorker story, “Test-Tube Burgers” was right up my geeky alley.

Lab-grown meat is a fascinating tissue-engineering problem, with all the same challenges of building organs in a laboratory for transplant. It has all the great drama of an automated architectural design challenge. What structures, conditions and chemicals do you need to allow a few seed cells to produce the marbled muscle that becomes good meat. The biggest scientific challenge is producing blood vessels to feed the tissue and create meat-like texture.

Specter’s story connects all of the threads of science, food, sustainability and even “the yuck factor” right back to the Petri dish. If you have a chance this weekend, it’s worth the read. I dare you to read it while the burgers are on the grill.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo on flickr

Where my interest in in-vitro meat began: I wrote this short item for Discover about 5 years ago.

Share

Whales in NY Harbor, Part III

Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyrIn our corner of Brooklyn, we’ve been waiting for our local whale sighting. But it looks like it just might be a matter of time. According toNY Daily News article, local boat owners are already making money off a revenue stream that seemed confined to calmer waters: whale watching tours.

I’ve posted before about the acoustic evidence that whales are living right here in the busy New York shipping lanes. Christopher Clark and colleagues listened in on the giant mammals with underwater microphones and recorded a complex chorus of several species. But lack of funds has paused any follow-up research.

Once the weather gets warmer, I’ll try to time my harbor walks for whale sightings  and bring along my binoculars. But I hope we and the whales can adapt to each other. I’d like to keep cetaceans in my neighborhood.

Image credit:  iStockphoto.com/roclwyr

Share

Urban versus rural nature

Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist: this week’s New York magazine waxes poetic about ecology in  The Concrete Jungle. Not what I was expecting when the city has been teeming with fashionistas and urban wildlife on the pop edge of culture. But, there it is in the first photo: Staten Island turkeys!

In our heat island, enveloped by concrete and lush parks engineered to look natural, the nuance here goes beyond rabid coyotes and bears in the suburbs.

An ecological feedback loop is a natural extension of the idea that nature exists in the city, but it requires a change of thinking that is equally profound: There is no difference between urban nature and rural nature. It is all one ecology, adjusting and cross-pollinating in the face of change. This can be disturbing, since local stresses threaten to disrupt wildlife hundreds of miles away. But it is, in fact, a hopeful idea. If New York City’s ecology has taught us anything, it is that nature likes intrusions—counts on them, even. Change makes for vibrancy. We are not just a city of bedbugs and rats; we are a wellspring for regional vitality.

But it’s a challenging metaphor for the City and our global community. As urban dwellers, we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.

Scientists believe genetic diversity is as important to species survival as sheer numbers. It has a lot to do with the mix, in other words, and if it is characteristic of human nature to look at things metaphorically, then it turns out that the city serves the same function for nature as it does for human beings. It is an intersection, a place where outsiders arrive to set up camp anew, to commingle, to move on, carrying influences and encouraging dynamism elsewhere. Like cities in the seventies, our global ecosystem is in trouble; we are flirting with environmental bankruptcy. If we are to save nature—which is to say, save ourselves—then we need to embrace that which is around us.

Over Labor Day weekend, I got to spend time on a friend’s farm in western Colorado– a wonderful experience that left me more than a wee-bit jealous of wide-open rural spaces. I love my city, too, and I’m glad to appreciate it as nature, too.

UPDATE Sept 30th: This post got a nice shout-out in New York magazine’s comments.

Share

Making sense of 200,000 gallons per day

View of the Gulf Oil Slick from the Terra satellite Credit: NASA/Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center MODIS Direct Broadcast system.

How much? It’s one of those basic journalism questions, but when it comes to many science stories, it can be a tough one to answer in meaningful way. In most of my writing and reporting, I’m trying to find analogies to describe features smaller than the eye can see. But on the macroscale– like with the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico– comparisons are equally challenging.

This weekend, NPR’s On The Media looked at how reporters have characterized the size, scope, and political implications of this environmental disaster. Here’s a piece of the size discussion:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean conservation association, says that describing the scale of the leak in geographical terms, or how it looks from outer space, gives the public an incomplete understanding of the spill’s true dimension.

JACKIE SAVITZ: It may paint a picture of an area on the surface of the ocean that’s the size of Delaware, to the exclusion of all that area down below the surface, where lots of fish and other marine animals live who are also being exposed to the contamination. It might be more telling to think of it in terms of volume, like how many Olympic-sized pools is that or how many stadiums would that be, or what lake might that be equivalent to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the fact that can see it from space actually convey anything meaningful?

JACKIE SAVITZ: Most people don’t really have a sense of how far away space is, and even when you say it I’m not really sure how far away you’re talking about. Is it a satellite that’s circling the Earth or are you seeing it from the moon, right?

Yet another reminder to think carefully about analogies to thread that needle between cliche and useful comparison.

Listen to the whole segment here.

Share