Romantic Writers, Short Memoir–and the Dark, Romantic Ecology Element I Love So Much are all in this Online Workshop

This fall I’m leading a workshop series on Romanticism-era writers, focusing in large part on women writers (without ignoring the male writers), such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft is a fascinating figure who pioneered early feminism. Radcliffe was the first woman writer of gothic novels (who was so successful at it that she retired early) and her novels laid foundational ground for Victorian Gothic writers like the Brontës, and later, Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the novel, Rebecca, and even later, Shirley Jackson, who wrote “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House. Radcliffe was also very keen on creating intelligent, educated heroines who showed an aptitude for botany, poetry, and languages. (Critics focus too much on her heroine’s fainting episodes and ignore the original poetry and botanical knowledge.) And we all know that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, beginning in summer of 1816, at Lake Geneva—but have you ever thought of Frankenstein as fictionalized memoir? I have. We’ll investigate this further in this unusual workshop!

I contemplated the lake. – Frankenstein. Mary Shelley

Some of the people in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s life. Stetson visual.

I am also excited to include Maine’s first novelist, Sarah “Sally” Sayward Wood, who is my ancestor by way of marriage to my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, General Abiel Wood, who was her husband. Wood’s first novel, Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800) was a gothic novel. Sally Wood helped to establish the oldest women’s organization in the country, of which I am a member, the Female Charitable Society of Wiscasset, Maine. In this workshop series, I share my passion for Dark Romanticism, and for life writing, and help to guide participants through the writing process as they experiment with hybrid genres. The course content will be housed on the school’s online LMS but I’ve also created a private Facebook group for the participants to provide another way to engage in group discussion. Check out a sneak preview in the video below.

In this online workshop series, which is hosted by Westbrook Adult Education in Maine, I will guide participants through a discussion of several readings, including excerpts of the literary works of Romantic women writers, as well as a fairly in-depth read of Frankenstein. One of my questions for the group: Was Frankenstein a partially fictionalized memoir? We’ll look at elements of life writing as it shows up in the short memoirs by Wollstonecraft and Shelley–as well as examples of contemporary short memoir and flash nonfiction. I am also interested in all of the dark elements of Romanticism, otherwise known as “Dark Romanticism,” in which I see a lot of examples of what I call “dark, Romantic ecology.” I am exploring this as a writer myself, and will be highlighting how Romantic women writers shared an interest in botany, science, and geography–the building blocks of early ecology.

A scene from Mary Shelley’s novel, Mathilda. Watercolor by Leah Stetson.

Participants will have an opportunity to experiment with hybrid genres: flash nonfiction, fictionalized memoir, epistolary memoir, short memoir, and short creative nonfiction. This workshop series runs 6-8 weeks starting Oct. 20th. The first six weeks will be a combination of reading the literary works and some self-writing experiments, which will draw inspiration from the Romantics, as well as one’s own life experiences or environment. One of the writing prompts is the lake. In order to register for this class, which starts Oct. 20, 2020, please visit Westbrook Adult Education: https://westbrook.maineadulted.org/course/romanticism-writers-short-memoir-writing/

Sebago Lake State Park. Stetson photo.
a sneak preview of my workshop series that starts Oct. 20th, 2020

Strange Wetlands: Sci-Fi TV Review: “Swamp Thing” (DC Universe, 2019) Series (Coming Soon to the CW, Fall 2020)

“The swamp. It’s been damaged. It’s been abused.” –Swamp Thing

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Swamp Thing (DC Universe photo, 2019)

Bugs. Angry trees. Flesh-eating bacteria.

These are typical relationship problems between a scientist working in “epidemic intelligence” for the CDC, and a giant green monster, whose entire body is not only covered, but comprised of plant-material: vines, leaves, stems and tendrils. She’s petite, brilliant, fearless (sort of), and tenacious.

Swamp Thing has red eyes; his voice is a roar in the swamp. He is/was a biologist, researching a bio-restorative formula that might (have) advance(d) science and medicine—but something goes awry in the swamp during a reconnaissance mission. (Don’t you hate when your standard, run-of-the-millpond data collection sampling task transforms you accidentally into the data itself? It’s transformative. Wetland research, that is. But this TV series is a science-fiction series with very little reference to wetland ecology, which is one of the few things I found disappointing about it. (There are some references to cypress trees. I don’t think other plant species are named.)

When I started writing this blog series, I was fascinated with the original “Swamp Thing” comic series, and penned an “Ode to Swampthing” years ago. Later, I posted my take on “How to Design a Swampthing Costume.”

This is my review of the 2019 sci-fi TV series, “Swamp Thing,” (DC Universe, 2019) and why I feel it’s eerily timely (and binge-worthy) for wetland devotees. It’s going to appear on the CW this fall; it’s currently available on Amazon Prime and the DC channel. Len Wiseman is one of the directors and executive producers. Wiseman directed and produced the cool, dark “Underworld” series of vampire and werewolf flicks (which I loved), so I am drawn to other projects of Wiseman’s. This version of “Swamp Thing” has a good balance of light and dark, or I should say, a balance between the “green and the darkness,” the tension in the story, the threat facing the swamp’s ecology. The “darkness” is depicted as rotting vegetation, decay, vegetation overtaken by some kind of fungi, and rot as a metaphor for death. Unlike most swamp-horror on the screen, there are no suspenseful scenes with gators, crocodiles, or cottonmouths, or pythons. (There is a scary snake scene, but it’s not in the swamp.)

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The TV series was “cancelled” on other channels; I suspect that the producers and television managers didn’t think viewers at home would be interested in watching a series about a mysterious disease that’s nearly impossible to treat, spreads easily, causes tragic death and mayhem. In my opinion, I have had zero interest in watching “Tiger King” or some of the other shows that have popular almost to a cult following in 2020. Maybe I have strange taste? I am intrigued by the premise of this “Swamp Thing” revival and its chief conflict: Nature v. Man. So, without spoiling any fun for those who have yet to see “Swamp Thing,” you can probably guess a few things. Yes, the swamp is both the setting and a “character,” if that makes any sense. I appreciate the balance of creepy, supernatural effects with the “realness” of the swamp–the vegetation part of it anyway. There are few signs of wildlife in the series, which is odd, aside from insects. Lots and lots of insects! The heroine, Dr. Abby Arcane, is a practical woman. She wears practical outfits, although, I am surprised that she doesn’t wear rubber boots or hip-waders. She’s level-headed. She’s a logical thinker, but she has a vulnerable side, too–so she’s got the makings for a wetland-heroine. She cares about people–but she’s at home in the swamp.

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There are environmental violators who dump substances, illegally, into the swamp. And the swamp “fights back.” In a totally science-fiction way, at times, with horrific, gory special effects that emphasize the fecundity of insects in the swamp, the vegetation in the swamp begins to defend itself against the attacks of the environmental violators. For anyone who ventures into the swamp, no matter their intentions, the swamp seems to trigger traumatic memories. The trees remember. The plants have “memories” and they remember all of the violations (illegal dumping, bulldozers, axes, toxins, crimes, etc.)

No Spoiler alerts: I won’t give away any of the plot, although it draws from the original comic series, and involves many of the original characters. This series takes place in a small fictional, coastal town of Marais, Louisiana. (The show is filmed in North Carolina.) French for swamp, “Marais” was also the setting for the 1982 film, “Swamp Thing,” starring Adrienne Barbeau, Ray Wise, and Dick Durock (as Swamp Thing). I’m not able to review the 1982 film, but I gather that the 2019 series draws some parallels, and even takes directly from their film posters to promote the 2019 series. Adrienne Barbeau reprises her role as the CDC’s Dr. Palomar, a director who supervises the work of Dr. Abby Arcane, the heroine of the 2019 Swamp Thing. See the two photos below.

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“Swamp Thing” (Film, 1982)

In the 2019 revival, Crystal Reed (of “Teen Wolf”) plays Dr. Abby Arcane, a brilliant doctor with the CDC, who grew up in the town of Marais, but for mysterious and tragic reasons, left for college fourteen years prior to her return to Marais in her official capacity for the CDC, which has sent her to Marais to deal with a strange and deadly disease, locally called “the green flu,” that somehow comes from the swamp. When Dr. Arcane visits the hospital for the first time, she encounters a charming yet arrogant plant biologist, Dr. Alec Holland, (played by Andy Bean) who tells her, “You’re going to want to talk to me.” Eventually, he convinces her to visit his lab that’s in a river cabin on stilts.  Fortunately, he’s not creepy, and he has a nice dog, and they talk. Dr. Holland shows her the strange discovery he’s made about the way the plants are growing; there’s some kind of accelerant in the swamp that’s creating lightning-fast growth.

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At no point in the series does Dr. Abby Arcane dress in a white frilly nightgown and sprawl in the swamp. She wears practical jeans, shirts, hiking boots, cargo jackets. She carries a flashlight, gear to collect samples. This promo poster (at the right) seems to sell some kind of sexual promise that is never fulfilled. Frankly, I didn’t need the nightgown-in-the-swamp scene.

Swamp soulmates? Alec and Abby really click.

Alec and Abby share stories from their past; they bond. They team up to figure out what’s causing the disease, to treat the patients dying of the “green flu,” and to analyze his findings of the unusual plant growth in the swamp. Dr. Holland sets out to collect further samples in the swamp. Dr. Arcane returns to the hospital to treat her first patient, a little girl named Susie Coyle, whose father has died of the “green flu,” in grotesque, horrific ways; she’s in the hospital with green snot. This wouldn’t be so unusual to see except that she seems to hear what the plants are “saying” to her. Something bizarre happens to Dr. Holland while he’s collecting samples in the swamp. Without ruining the suspense for readers, we all know from the comics that Dr. Holland becomes Swamp Thing. While in the full green costume, Derek Mears plays the Swamp Thing. Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Bride, The L-Word) plays the local sheriff, Lucilla Cable, a strong character, whose son, Matt, is also on the Marais police department (portrayed by Henderson Wade); Matt is a love-interest of Abby’s and was her high school classmate.

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Henderson Wade and Jennifer Beals in “Swamp Thing,” 2019

When Dr. Abby Arcane returns to Marais, she reconnects with old friends, but is haunted by the memory of her best friend, Shauna, who died under tragic circumstances in the swamp two nights before their high school graduation. Shauna’s parents, the wealthy, prominent Sunderlands (played by Will Patten and Virginia Madsen) are also Abby’s former foster parents. There’s some toxicity there—metaphorically juxtaposed by the illegal dumping of other (mysterious) toxins and substances in the swamp. It’s clear that the Sunderlands are at the heart of everything “dark” and illegal in town—but they live in a garish mansion, and keep up appearances at town hall meetings.

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One of my favorite moments occurs in Episode 7 of the first season of “Swamp Thing,” as Abby and Alec, who she can see as his former “charming self” through a mist of hallucinogenic flower swamp fairy dust, walk together in the swamp. (See photo above of the scene.) This is their conversation:

Dr. Abby Arcane: “I’ve spent my entire child in Marais, hours in the swamp, and I don’t think I’ve seen it this lush before. Plums appear. Flowers bloom. How is any of this happening?”

Swamp Thing/Dr. Alec Holland: “It’s …uh…a little hard to explain. Only that it’s not connected to a world that has anything to do with logic.”

Abby/Dr. Arcane: “Or science.”

Swamp Thing/Alec: “Well, science is real. It’s profound. But now I know that there’s other parts of this world that are just as profound, just as natural.”

Abby: “Like the green.”

The “green” is part of the essence of the swamp. It’s the very life of the swamp—its vegetation, its ecology, its deep ecology. And there’s a darkness, too. A dark ecology. The darker elements of the series stem from the destruction of the swamp. Locals who disrespect the natural ecology—whether by poaching, dumping and doing other “bad things” in the swamp, they’ve got some pretty bad swamp karma. And once the swamp starts “fighting back,” things get scary. Some scenes contain graphic violence, gore, largely of a plant-nature, however, sensitive viewers should be aware that there are scenes that truly could be called sci-fi horror. Personally, I dislike horror. Some scenes were too gross for me, but I watched the series because I was so enthralled with the story, and the character development, primarily of the hero (Swamp Thing/Dr. Alec Holland) and heroine (Dr. Abby Arcane), who both deeply respect the nature of the swamp. Dr. Arcane continually says that she is on the “human side” of this fight. Dr. Holland, a plant biologist, and once he’s Swamp Thing, he’s tapped into the “plant side” of the conflict. Be forewarned, however, if you’ve got any sensitivity around the themes of water-related or swamp-related death, including death by drowning, or if the sight of insects bothers you, this isn’t the series for you. For wetland regulators, and those who work in the fields of wetland science, policy, or wetland conservation, it might appeal to you—as long as you bear in mind that this is science fiction (sci-fi fantasy, bordering on sci-fi horror) with a wetland-hero, who punishes the violators.

Of course, there’s a mad scientist. Kevin Durand plays the strange mad scientist, Dr. Jason Woodrue, who is trying to find a cure for his wife’s Alzheimer’s, which is a noble cause. But his methods are atrocious, unethical, and unconventional. Think: vivisection.

The show also has some spotty plot-holes that take us out of the swamp, if temporarily. Tarot card readings (which, in my opinion, don’t include any real understanding of Tarot). Unethical research funding proposals. Infidelity. A strange, recurring guest-appearance by Ian Ziering (90210, Sharknado, Spiderman, JAG), who plays a guy who has a weird sort of “deal with the devil” that forces him to remain in Marais (not a well-developed aspect of the story, I’m afraid). Ziering’s character has a heroic moment later in the season as the “Blue Devil,” an electric fiery rescue-ranger.  The tragic loss of 18 year old Shauna Sunderland (one of the darker elements to the plot) that’s part of Abby’s back-story, adds a swamp-ghost story to the mix.

Swamp Thing: “That fight we just saw… it’s all around us. Here in the swamp. And it’s a fight to the death. Maybe I’ve turned into this thing to be a warrior in that battle.”

One thing that strikes me in this series is that Swamp Thing is a sympathetic, intelligent anti-hero, and he’s very sensitive. Despite his glowing red eyes, the costume designers and make-up artists on this production did a very good job of portraying this wetland-hero with a compelling nature. He’s not goofy-looking or just a big green monster. The actor who portrays Swamp Thing, Derek Mears, also does a very good job of delivering an authentic blend of the original comic hero with a contemporary sensitivity. I like it. I will be intrigued to see if CW decides to create a second season; as it stands, the DC Universe cancelled the show, and decided not to create a second season. There are ten episodes of Swamp Thing’s first season, and it has an “unfinished” feel to it at the end, due to the cancellation of the show mid-production.

Despite that, I liked this series.

Glaciers as Social Spaces: Oral Histories, Frankenstein, and Pearl Jam’s Gigaton

Lately I’ve been thinking about glaciers. I re-watched “Chasing Ice,” which is a fascinating documentary film with the first large-scale ground survey of glaciers, directed by Jeff Orlowski and led by photographer James Balog. I’m sure you’ve seen Balog’s incredible documentary films on PBS/NOVA if not “Chasing Ice” or his photography in National Geographic.

Thinking of glaciers as “social spaces” allows us to consider the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—the frozen layers of the Earth, including glaciers and permafrost, from a variety of perspectives. We can examine glaciers as “social spaces” by exploring the ethnography of oral history traditions in the Yukon Territory, the socio-economic impacts, such as the melting of the cryosphere, in those ‘social spaces’ in Alaska, as another example. Additionally, we can explore glaciers as social spaces in literary ecology and contemporary music. How do glaciers “listen?” I explore a few ways below.

51Z+K0PRVIL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region of the southern Yukon Territory (Canada) relayed complex natural and social histories to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank when she did ethnographic research recording the life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders. Her book, Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination was published in 2005 (Paperback edition, 2010) but I think it’s still highly relevant. She found that the elders, “grounded precise social histories of twentieth-century life within a scaffolding of much older narratives. [They drew] on established long narrative conventions to reflect on complex life circumstances. In the words [of one elder] Angela Sidney, ancient narratives had helped her to ‘live life like a story.’” (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank, while living with the elders, “heard narratives about glacial caves inhabited by intemperate beings that might emerge unexpectedly: and others that depicted glaciers as living and responsive themselves. Stories dramatized […] bursting of ice-dammed lakes into river valleys, and […] told stories of travel […] sometimes crossing crevasse-ridden glaciers on foot and sometimes piloting hand-hewn cottonwood boats beneath glacial bridges…” (Cruikshank, 2005) They told stories of strangers called “cloud people.” (Cruikshank, 2005) The women’s stories depicted a “winter world” that crossed economic borders, of coastal Tlingit traders, and the shifting power relations described by economic historian Howard Innis on the 19th century market for furs, gold, cod and timber. (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank’s writing is wonderfully evocative of the culture and arctic wonder.

Glaciers, according to the stories, radiate heat and energy. They’re alive. Cruikshank pores into the Athapaskan elders’ stories like a glaciologist drills an ice core, studying its layers, noting the environmental, geophysical changes in a glacier—which tells a social story, since glaciers are part of the Athapaskan and Tlingit life stories. The Little Ice Age (1550-1850) is within reach of the memories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders; some of their stories are memory and some, myth. After the Little Ice Age, the glaciers receded enough to make coastal lands accessible to Eyak, Tlingit, and Athapaskan nations to converge. Stories map the geography and human ecology of the glaciers and the ecological and social corridors connecting glaciers. Through the study of oral histories, we can glean that “glaciers present some navigational, spiritual, and intellectual challenges of a sentient “land that listens.” (Cruikshank, 2005) This is what is known as sentient ecology. (Ingold, 2000) This is what the elders explained to Cruikshank when they told her stories about glaciers listening and responding.

Similarly, a human ecologist could study the environmental changes, such as those impacts from global climate change on glaciers and permafrost, two related ecosystems, and their ecological place in our world—both as social spaces and quintessential geophysical, temporal yardsticks with which we measure global environmental change. These stories, from oral tradition, captured local traditional knowledge of the Saint Elias Mountain region of southern Yukon, and other parts of Canada, and the stories themselves seemed to shift and transform infinitesimally much like the glaciers.  One of the elders, Annie Ned, told stories of “caribou ‘blackening the ice’ on nearby lakes early in the (20th) century.” (Cruikshank, 2005) When Cruikshank and Shelia Greer prepared a report on the region’s oral history for the Archaeological Survey of Canada, Ned’s story about the caribou became important in another context: “Scientists reporting discoveries of ancient tools and caribou droppings melting from a high alpine ice patch above [Ned’s] trapline cited her oral account in their initial scientific paper on prehistoric caribou.” (Cruikshank, 2005) Thus, the oral histories were not solely cultural translations and transcriptions of the women’s life stories; the stories were also part of a larger natural history of the region. Also, the issue of personhood comes into play: these women tell stories that “summon up a moral system that includes relationships with non-humans – animals and also features of the landscape, like glaciers – that share characteristics of personhood.” (Cruikshank, 2005) I am intrigued by the idea of personhood, the Rights of Nature movement, and an old idea—perhaps ancient, and pan-human, of connecting with land and water—the way headwater streams braid and combine to form a stream, intermittent or ephemeral—after storms, and each stream tells a story as it carves through sediment in the streambed. Similarly, anthropologists and human ecologists study the layers of permafrost, or analyze the many ways to tell a story about navigating a crevice in a glacier—the successful and failed rescue attempts, in order to discover the human dimensions of that glacial ecology. Literary ecologists seek to find meaning in the stories of the ways in which people interact with the natural world, including glaciers.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818), she begins and ends the famous story about the mad-scientist, Victor Frankenstein, a graduate student from Geneva, and his creation, a Monster, comprised of human parts reanimated by electricity—on a glacier in the Arctic. At the start of the novel, a ship captain writes to his sister about encountering a strange man, crossing the ice on a sled, totally bereft but driven by a vengeance to confront his creation, the Monster, who fled to the “Land of Mist and Snow,” the glacial Alps, because he wanted a refuge from the cruelty of mankind. At the end of the novel, the reader rejoins Victor and the Monster, as they have one final showdown on the glacier. In Shelley’s real life, she and her fiancé Percy B. Shelley, had traveled through the region of Mont Blanc, home to Mer de Glace, the second largest glacier in the Alps in 1816. Later, while pregnant, Shelley writes the novel, the plot of which takes her heroes to Mer de Glace, that glacier. “Until the eighteenth century, the Alps were believed to be infested with devils, monsters and dragons. By setting her story of Victor Frankenstein and his Monster at Mer de Glace, Shelley links Victor’s activities with those of mountaineering scientists like Horace Benedict de Sausure.” (Nardin, 2006) Why set a story on a glacier? Her 19th century readers most likely shared her interest in alpine mountaineering, science and exploration. (Mary Shelley was an explorer herself; she had the moon in Sagittarius, a sign associated with wide open spaces, exploration of great frontiers and the outdoors. She was well-traveled even before she met Percy, and then they traveled Europe together. The astrological piece is my own theory.) In their travels, Percy and Mary stopped at inns along the way, and heard German stories, including a strange tale about a 17th century alchemist who had lived at Frankenstein Castle. (Sampson, 2018)

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In studying Romanticism, and in particular the work of Mary Shelley, I would argue that she pushed the borders of what it meant to be human, and the limits of our imagination surrounding consciousness and creation. Her two heroes, the Monster and his creator, Victor, are both intellectual, Miltonic philosophers; the epistolary structure of the novel has several characters communicate via letters; but the Monster, by contrast, writes in a journal. After failed attempts to socialize, he took refuge in the forest, along the river, and in the Alps at Mer de Glace. At Mont Blanc, he built himself a house, an ice cave within the glacier, and that became his home. He desired a mate and implored Victor to supply him a female counterpart, who the Monster planned to live out his (immortal) days, at Mont Blanc on Mer de Glace. I wish I had a cool photo of Mer de Glace–but I haven’t traveled there–but a quick Google Images search yields lots of incredible photo results! Have you been there? Leave a comment and let me know what it was like!

I am currently reading Mary Shelley’s travel journal, which includes her experiences traveling through the Mer de Glace area (I think she and Percy saw it from a distance). Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.34.13 PM

Last year, I began to analyze Shelley’s use of water and wetland metaphors throughout her novel as part of my graduate work in literary ecology. It’s intriguing that she creates this social space on the glacier—instead of within a city, or along a river, or in a forest—other places where the Monster hides and takes refuge throughout the story. The Monster feels safe in the harsh environs of the glacier. Unlike a man, the Monster is not vulnerable to the cold, strong winds, snow and ice. Other scholars, researchers, poets and writers have shared this fascination with Shelley’s use of the glacier, Mer de Glace, as a social space in Frankenstein. I am analyzing this as a part of my literary ecology of works by Romantic women writers–and still have a long way to go to read and digest what scholars have already discovered.

I wrote a Mary Shelley tribute poem, “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, On the Eve of Her Wedding,” published last summer on Boned literary magazine’s site; my poem revisited the idea of the Monster, having his wish granted for a mate, and is about to return to the glacier. I wrote the poem from her perspective, while she is preparing for a life in the “Land of Mist and Snow.” This is one way that I have explored Shelley’s novel from an ecofeminist perspective.  For the bicentenary of Frankenstein, poet and scholar Fiona Sampson published the biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (2018). I loved this biography!! She writes, “Mary has ‘gone missing’ from literary history; she has faded to white like Frankenstein’s creature who ‘goes out, alone again, onto the Arctic ice to die.’” (Hewett, 2018) The iconic profile of the Monster, loping out across the ice, has haunted my imagination since I first read Frankenstein at seventeen, while my family lived in a historic, haunted house in Maine.

I have been having fun playing with this “Literary Witches” deck of cards, by Katy Horan and Taisia Kitaiskaia, who created a clever way of translating mini biographies on each card of women writers from all sorts of genres and all sorts of periods of literature–from all over the world. Perfect activity for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month! I like to use the cards for inspiration. And yes, Mary Shelley is in this cute deck. The idea is that each of these writers created “magic” through their literary works. (None are suggested to have been “witches” here–it’s just a clever metaphor.)

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Part of Shelley’s genius was her way of weaving together Enlightenment and Romanticism-era science, the including the invention of electricity and the Linnaean classification system, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s botany and natural history articles, as well as Shelley’s own explorations with Percy, sometimes with a toddler in tow, endowed her with additional “tools” of her trade. Her novel brought glaciers to life for readers with her first-hand observations; she enlivened Mer de Glace into an imaginary landscape accessible to her readers. Today’s literary ecologists are re-examining works in Romanticism (and later periods) to extrapolate Romantic ecology, “dark ecology” and the EcoGothic—related themes that frame how we continue to think about the environment today. Industrialization occurred at the time when Romantic ecology was born—the onset, as many scholars believe, of the modern environmental movement. Is it still relevant? There are some literary ecologists who believe we are still in a Romantic treatment of nature. Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Morton, two ecology writers who promote the idea of a “dark ecology,” are examples of those who believe the age of Romantic ecology may never have ended. We continue to be awed by glaciers—their melting, their sublime power, even, on a smaller scale, glacial erratics—geologic memories of prehistoric, ancient glaciers.

In socio-economic terms, we can analyze the social space of a glacier, and related ecosystems, such as permafrost, and the effects of climate change on that ‘social space,’ for instance, in Alaska, where communities have already been seeing socio-economic impacts of climate change. These impacts include the need for relocating and replacing infrastructure that’s been damaged, lost or threatened by permafrost thawing. Permafrost is a frozen, arctic wetland type; specific grasses, lichens and shrubs are frozen in water most of the year, in some places, frozen year-round (thus the name permafrost) creating a carpet-like vegetation. Thinning, melting permafrost can be found at Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve in south central Alaska. Glacial melting has caused increased large landslides in the national park. In 2015, 180 million tons of loose rock fell into the Taan Fjord causing a huge tsunami-like swell that flattened forests. “Tsunamis of some sort triggered by landslides in bays or lakes are fairly common, but it’s rare that they’re this extreme,” according to Brentwood Higman, author of a study on tsunamis in the Taan Fjord, Alaska. (2018) Melting permafrost is also allowing archaeologists ways of uncovering evidence of human and animal use of the cryosphere—with brown ice layers revealing evidence of caribou use, such as illustrated by the senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region whose stories Cruikshank recorded and transcribed—detailing their ancestral memories of the “browning ice” phenomenon associated with caribou use. Additionally, archaeology of melting glaciers provides newer access to human artifacts such as wood arrow shafts, darts made of antlers, and birch bark basket fragments found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Dixon, et al. 2005) This is, I think, further evidence of the value of oral histories in adding historic context and narrative basis behind newer findings during archaeological research projects made possible in part by glacial melting and permafrost thinning in that region.

In a 2018 study on the economic effects of climate change in Alaska—pertaining to changes to glacial ecology, including permafrost melting, “five certain large effects can be quantified, […] to impose an annual net cost of $340-700 million of Alaska’s GDP.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) These large effects include the melting and thawing of the cryosphere—notably glaciers and permafrost. “Glacial melt affects availability of phosphorus, iron and organic carbon to terrestrial and marine organisms.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) “Melting glaciers will increase the role of seasonal precipitation patterns in determining hydroelectric capacity.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The melting of the cryosphere affects several industries in Alaska and ‘social spaces’ including fishing, forestry, energy demand, tourism and recreation, agriculture, marine and coastal shipping, as well as public infrastructure. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) For native Alaskans, the effects of climate change on the cryosphere include impacts to subsistence living:  “harvest cycles, changes in important food sources, loss of some locations used for fishing and waterfowl hunting,” are among the changes affecting those social spaces. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The largest effects are directly caused by melting glaciers and permafrost in western and northern Alaska. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) There are far more examples, but these are just two significant ones that quantify the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—and that as a “social space.”

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Glaciers are weighed in gigatons. Pearl Jam, my soul (read: more than favorite, since 1992) band, is an environmental activist band. Pearl Jam’s new album, Gigaton, features the close-up image of a glacier on its cover, (at left) and while it’s not out yet, I will be surprised if there isn’t a song about glaciers, or something environmentally-conscious. (I will post a review once the album comes out March 27th.) I love their new song from this album, “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” Pearl Jam has, in the past, taken inspiration from environmental issues like coastal wetlands, hurricanes, and ocean conservation and incorporated those into their music and activism. They create a social space for environmental activism through their music, their Surfrider Foundation, and their concerts. That’s another way of exploring a glacier as a social space. Set it to music.

This spring, I am teaching a literary workshop on Romantic women writers and short memoir for Westbrook Adult Education in Maine. Participants will have the opportunity to explore some literary works by Romantic women writers such as Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe—three writers of Romanticism who were keen on incorporating the sciences of the day, which included the origins of modern ecology. They crafted stories that weaved in botany (as translated by Erasmus Darwin, et al.), based on the formalized classification system of Carl Linnaeus, as well as geography and alpine/arctic mountaineering, and biology. The workshop will also allow participants to experiment with creative writing in hybrid genres, including short-form nonfiction with a focus on memoir. I will be offering this workshop through Westbrook Adult Education through mid-May 2020. If you’re interested, please visit their website to learn how you can register.

Berman, Matthew and Jennifer Schmidt. “Economic Effects of Climate Change in Alaska.” Weather, Climate and Society. April 2019

Cruikshank, Julie. Constructing Life Stories:  Glaciers as Social Spaces, from Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. 2005

Dixon, E. James, William Manley and Craig Lee. “The emerging archaeology of glaciers and ice patches: examples from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.” American Antiquity. Vol. 70, Issue 1. Jan. 2005

Hewett, Rachel. “In Search of Mary Shelley Fiona Sampson Review.” The Guardian. Jan 2018

Ingold, Tim. The Perception on the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. 2000

“Mountain Waves: Glacial melt is increasing land instability in mountainous regions, with huge tsunamis rising in frequency as a result.” Geographical. Vol. 90, Issue 11. Nov. 2018

Nardin, Jane. “A Meeting on Mer de Glace: Frankenstein and the History of Alpine Mountaineering.” Women’s Writing. Vol. 6. 1999

Sampson, Fiona. In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. 2018

Sharon Blackie’s Book, If Women Rose Rooted (2016), Inspired Me to Go to Ireland

This is partly a book review of a nonfiction book by Dr. Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (September Publishing, 2016) and part of my own journey as an “eco-heroine,” a journey that took me to Ireland in June 2019. Dr. Blackie’s book inspired me to come into my own as an “eco-heroine.” 20190207_205421

At the time I read Dr. Blackie’s book, I was studying the anthropological dimensions of environmental policy, with a strong focus on the intertidal zone, and oceanography, at University of Maine as part of an Interdisciplinary PhD studies program. At the time, I was still getting my footing as a graduate student, having returned to pursue my degree after working in the fields of wetland science and policy for a number of years, and having reached a point where I knew I wanted to teach, write and contribute somehow to collaborative projects and initiatives involving water, wetlands, climate change–and human ecology. I was also coming to terms with the idea that I had lost a sense of my purpose (something that I don’t typically experience) and felt a little like an “Indiana Jones” / “Lara Croft” adventurer getting itchy feet, feeling my way through a quest I’d only vaguely glimpsed in a dream once, while studying human ecology at College of the Atlantic nearly two decades ago. Then, I read Blackie’s book. I cannot explain it except to say that after reading her book, I wanted to live it. Or, come as close as I could possibly get to experiencing what Dr. Blackie described so that I, too, could feel that sense of “belonging” to the land. I grew up on the coast of Maine and have always felt close to nature. That really wasn’t my struggle (being close with nature). But, I felt a little lost in my graduate study program, and somehow, this book helped me figure out how to re-calibrate my inner compass a bit better, to get a sense of direction.

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Hiking in Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve, Co. Cork, Ireland

Become a haunter of edges: sea-swept tide pools of islands, the dark mysterious peat and depths of blanket bogs, the fertile wetlands of the “buried feminine” drench the natural and cultural landscape of Sharon Blackie’s book, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (September Publishing, 2016). Students, readers, poets, human ecologists, nature-lovers, wetland ecology scientists and/or wetland professionals, as well as those interested in Celtic mythology, political ecology, eco-feminism, human ecology, environmental psychology and cultural anthropology—with a special interest in place-attachment, will respect the multidisciplinary, multi-species, and holistic suite of stories and case-studies covered in this book.

A 2016 Nautilus Book Award winner in the genre of “Environmental Feminism,” Dr. Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted is a call to action. By the end of the book, it is difficult for any ecologically-conscientious reader not to identify with the journey of Blackie’s “Eco-Heroine.” The journey begins in the “Wasteland,” an internal and external manifestation of the planet in environmental crisis—climate change, fracking, the destructive effects of Alberta “tar sands” on the boreal forests, along with many deeply personal examples of women activists who found themselves at a point of personal or professional crisis—and realized they needed to make a dramatic change (or leap of faith) to return to their roots, to community, to gain a sense of place. Place-attachment evolves into an intense identification with the land, water and wetlands—with a special focus on the Celtic countries of Ireland and Scotland. The “Eco-Heroine’s Journey” delves into the cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, Celtic mythology and ecology of the natural and cultural landscape of Ireland and Scotland—with some fascinating, liminal forays into the Celtic Otherworld through stories of myth and the Celtic Fairy Faith. Dr. Blackie invites the reader to entertain a new philosophy of eco-feminism, to put aside the patriarchal “hero’s journey,” or “quest,” and instead, to embrace a new path. The reader will be introduced to numerous real-life “eco-heroine” leaders, activists, policy-makers, crofters living “off the grid” while also advocating for forestry policy, medical professionals who have adopted new ways of healing and treating patients in remote, nature-inspired retreats, lawyers who proposed an “Ecocide” law to the United Nations (2010) and sparked a new interest in restorative justice.

Four components of the book anchor the “Eco-Heroine’s Journey.” The first component is comprised of stories from the Celtic Otherworld. Stories of selkies, Celtic fairy women, the well-maidens of ancient Ireland, the “mad women” who lived in the wild—these stories serve as metaphors, historic precedent and a prompting to rethink the dualistic argument between two groups of eco-feminists: there are those who advocate for equality to the point where they want to embark on the masculine/patriarchal “Hero’s Journey” (likened to those of the chivalric Arthurian Knights of the Round Table), and in modern society, these women strive to accomplish equal or better jobs as their male counterparts. Blackie proposes an alternative to that dualistic stance, and instead suggests that the Eco-Heroine’s Journey is completely different—not better, not equal to, not lesser than—that of the Hero’s Journey.  Blackie plunges the reader into the Celtic Otherworld, and with poetic and skillful precision, then interweaves an ethnography of environmental advocacy among women, who Blackie interviewed. These women exemplify the qualities and actions of the “eco-heroine,” often marked by unusual, charismatic and fearless quests for some area of environmental policy, or an authentic way of living closely with the land—and their way of showing others a new way of living, healing, being. Put simply, I loved this book. This book became a touchtone for me as a graduate student, as a writer, as a human ecologist. I realized, thanks to this book, I, too, am on the eco-heroine’s journey. Perhaps you are, as well. After reading her book, I joined the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, and I registered to attend their annual conference, which was held at UCC in Cork, Ireland in June 2019. There, I attended a seminar talk on selkies by poet, artist and archaeologist Erin Kavanagh, who opened my eyes to the intertidal nature of selkie mythology. Since I’d just read about selkies in Dr. Blackie’s book, I was even more “in tune” to Kavanagh’s poetic discussion of selkies at the conference on water, climate change and spirituality at UCC in Cork. After I attended the conference, I rented a car, and traveled around southwest Ireland, and swam in the ocean in a strong current. I’m certainly no selkie; I nonetheless felt transformed and awakened in a spiritual way.

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After my swim in the Wild Atlantic, Co. Cork, Ireland, June 2019

Blackie’s observations, first-person narrative and perceptions of the “eco-heroine’s journey” make up the third component of the book, and some readers may appreciate her distinctively poetic voice. Blackie is a poet, as well as a psychologist with a background in neuroscience, and special expertise in Celtic mythology. This multidisciplinary background lends itself to an interesting exploration of woman as a shaper of the land, as a part of the natural landscape—inextricably linked to “Mother Earth” through the “Fertile Fields of the Buried Feminine.” Ultimately, Blackie proposes while the quintessential quest for the “holy grail,” which one could argue has long been considered a destination for the “hero,” can be transformed to reveal the quest for the eco-heroine: that the eco-heroine, herself, is the vessel, the holy grail. She, the “Eco-Heroine,” is the “voice of the wells,” the voice of Mother Earth, who possesses the power to lead in a different way.

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Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

Blackie’s book chapter titles read (at least to me) like names and classifications of wetlands. Any wetland-lover would enjoy the rich, detailed wetland ecology–and the spiritually rich discussion of human connections with wetlands and submerged landscapes in her book. While in Ireland, I was very sick with an illness, but I made the most of my time there. I hiked around in Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve in Co. Cork, attended a workshop on seaweed harvesting and the intertidal at Reen Pier, Unionhall (Co. Cork) and paddled a kayak in Lough Hyne, a rare saltwater lake (Co. Cork) at night.

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Raheen Castle ruins near Reen Pier, Unionhall, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

I will post more of my adventures from Ireland in the near future.

To learn more about Sharon Blackie’s books, her work, her poetry, and the workshops she offers, I encourage you to visit her website here.

Find her book on Amazon here.

I am American Beachgrass

Call me Ammophila. Long, flexible stems, like strong limbs, withstand the force of powerful winds—winds that stimulate root growth, rhizomatous—a sprawling system to stabilize dunes. My clones and I anchor windblown sand, guard against the highest full moon tides that might otherwise flood the land. Dare to tread “barefoot” over my tall blades, and my gritty green leaves become daggers, laid on their edges. We live in a foredune community, closer to the sea than our inland neighbors.

Amophophila

American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)

To them, we are pioneers. We are “ecosystem engineers.” After we have established our colony, our flowering neighbors can take root, too, in this shifting sand dune community: Beach-pea, red raspberry, bristly gooseberry, poison ivy. Sometimes, I get the sense—through my auricles, ear-like lobes that do not listen—but receive information nonetheless, that golden heather or little blue stem, or tufts of reindeer lichens have grown here before, but they’re not here now. My ramets and I dominate the dunes.

Native to Maine, I have lived here perennially for the past three summers. I am hardy, salt-tolerant and adaptable. Terns return, every year, and nest here. Sometimes, I see the rare oystercatcher, or piping plover, but there are many gulls and a few short-eared owls; they soar high above my florets. Owls swoop down over my spikelets—never close enough to study more than a silhouette against a blue sky. Right now, my spikelets have reached an impressive height of fourteen millimeters, that is, when my stems stand upright. One might think that I lack subtlety but up close, I am not so easily seen. Look closely, and note that my flowers are not so obvious. This is a trait of strength—in my community. Weirdly enough, we do have a noneventful relationship with the sea rocket, its lobed leaflets resembling “rocket ships,” and we like that it’s not very abundant. Sea rocket typically gives an aggressive root reception to strangers—anyone not in the mustard family,—and this is not community gossip—we get along just fine. But the neighbor I mind the least—poison ivy. She/he/they—the pronouns elude me, keep the two-legged kind away and minimize the chances of getting trampled.

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Path through beachgrass

Rays of sun revitalize me. But I am always a little rough and sandpapery. Supporting us, somewhere deep beneath all that shifts and blows, we adapt and send runners and build our defenses; we thrive even when no one knows. Together, we repair the damage done by trampling and storms. It may appear to others that we are too shifty, or that we “take over.” I’ve been called a “bulldozer,” but I don’t know what that means; I suppose it is a compliment. Our foundation is unlike—theirs. Ours is spread out, and spreading, rhizomatous, unseen so it cannot be buried or carried away with the winds.

If I were to dream, —and I do not dream, I might have some deeply-embedded geological urge to fear replacement. (Some of my neighbors might say that I overanalyze, but we are engineers, after all.) One day, perhaps, the two-legged rangers shall come and replace me with Virginia wild rye! Morphologically speaking, she may be similar in many ways—my inflorescence is not obvious—and I am hairless; she has a hairy inflorescence!

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Beachgrass along stream bank, Kettle Cove State Park

For coastal management resource information on American beachgrass in the Northeast, click here for NRCS Plant Materials Program – Coastal & Shoreline plants. For more technical information on coastal sand dune coastal management topics, click here for the Maine Natural Areas Program.  For two scholarly journal articles on Ammopila breviligulata (American beachgrass), see Cheplick’s discussion paper on “Patterns in the Distribution of American beachgrass,” in Plant Ecology and “Non-target effects of invasive species management,” (Zarnetske, Seabloom and Hacker, 2010) in Ecosphere.

Collecting Micro-Algae in the Gulf of Maine

On several cold, windy days this past winter, I did something strange. With fingers puckered bright pink from bitter cold saltwater, I maneuvered what looked like a child’s “butterfly net,” called a No. 2 plankton net, dipping it into saltwater off of the pier at the college, and over the sides of rocks at Kettle Cove with one goal:  to collect micro-algae. 29512469_10215096996719687_200223694655488735_n

I’ve been studying marine botany–the first time experiencing SMCC as a student, rather than as a member of the adjunct faculty. I collected phytoplankton (micro-algae) using No. 2 plankton nets (see below), both at Kettle Cove State Park and off the pier and docks at SMCC this past winter (January-March).

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Kettle Cove State Park, Maine

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No. 2 plankton net for collecting micro-algae

In addition, I accompanied Prof. Megan McCuller to learn how to scrape algae off of the side of the dock and floats in order to obtain a sample of benthic diatoms (and dinoflagellates) that were attached to the side of the dock. I learned how to use the dissecting microscope (my favorite part) in the lab, and I transferred a number of samples to a wet-mount slide to examine the tiny organisms that were drifting and even swimming through slimy green algae. When I say “benthic,” I’m referring to the life found at the bottom of the sea, or in this case,
the bottom of the littoral, or shoreline zone, and sublittoral, also known as the “spray zone,” where the waves crash on the rocks between the high and low tide.

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Dissecting algae scraped off the side of the dock, looking for benthic diatoms and dinoflagellates

The benthic scrape method yielded the most results (mostly pennate diatoms and one dinoflagellate) while my final plankton tow at the floats on March 20th yielded more results (centric, pennate diatoms and two dinoflagellates) than my previous plankton tows at Kettle Cove or off the pier January-March. My observation was that collecting phytoplankton during the weeks of nor’easters yielded fewer diatoms, or I only collected very tiny diatoms (mostly Navicula sp.). My hypothesis was that ephemeral run-off from storms, high winds and choppy conditions had an impact on those plankton tows.

Is your head spinning? Mine did.

First, it’s important to know that phytoplankton are the “plant” variety of plankton, whereas zooplankton are the “animals,” such as copopods. Here’s a copepod (below), swimming through some Phaeocystis pouchetti, which is not a diatom, but in the genus of algae belonging to the division of Haptophyta. It blooms in March and April, so it dominated several of my samples from plankton tows off of the SMCC pier in early to mid-March. A copepod, however, is an example of zooplankton, a microscopic crustacean found in both marine and freshwater habitats. As an aside, COPEPOD is the Coastal and Oceanic Plankton Ecology database with an interactive atlas on plankton. Pretty cool! Copapod by Pouchetti

 

For the basics of plankton, see “Plankton 101: the Basics on Gulf of Maine Plankton and Why You Should Thank Them,” by Sally Mack, UNH Sea Grant.

Below are a few images captured using the Leica microscope at 100x and 400x magnification, calibrated to microns for measurements. I identified fifteen diatoms and three dinoflagellates, some of which I’ll show in a series of posts yet to come. (Side note: I got a 100 on the micro-algae project, which made the cold, challenging plankton tows certainly worth the effort, besides the pure joy of learning.) Phytoplankton are microscopic, photosynthetic organisms. There are two main groups of diatoms and these are pennate (Pennales) and centric (Centrales). For identification purposes, I used a number of guides, including this one developed by my professor, Charles Gregory, at SMCC, and University of Maine Sea Grant. Once under the microscope, these diatoms (micro-algae) are quite dynamic, distinctive and fun to examine.

The golden “bracelet” pattern below is a pennate diatom called Licmophora lyngbyei.  I collected several Licmophora during the benthic scrape from the side of the SMCC dock/float on March 20, and identified them under the microscope at 40x magnification. Since it is a colonial, epiphytic type, it is often observed attached to other plants/macro-algae such as in the image below. The cells are characteristically wedge-shaped, with fine striations separating parts of each cell. Cells are united in fan-shaped colonies. To me, it looks like a great idea for a charm bracelet for a marine scientist!

Lots of Lichmyflora from benthic scrape

Licmophora lyngbyei – a pennate diatom growing in a colony

Real Gyrosigma to Use Final

Gyrosigma sp. collected during benthic scrape off dock at SMCC, March 2018

One of my favorite of the pennate diatoms that I collected is Gyrosigma, a canoe-shaped pennate diatom, shown below. It’s very common in the Gulf of Maine. But when we look at these microscopic diatoms, it’s important to note the scale; these are measured in microns because they are so small. In the specimen below, the end of the organism had broken off, and it had begun to disintegrate. That’s why it appears to have jewel-like features, when in actuality, these are other things–including bacteria, that have gotten inside its cellular structure. Another pennate diatom I collected at Kettle Cove had a “bracelet” pattern (at least to my untrained eye); in Thalassiosira nordenskioldii  have drum-shaped cells connected by barely-visible gelatinous strands to form a chain. According to Dr. Gregory’s Field Guide to Phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine, some species of Thalassiosira have been known to cause mechanical damage to fish gills, copopods and invertebrates. For example, this study details several examples, including the impacts of toxins found in Thalassiosira rotula on sea urchins. (Many types of diatoms are examined as part of that study by Gary Caldwell, in Marine Drugs, 2009.)

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Thalassiosira nordenskioldii, a pennate diatom collected at Kettle Cove State Park, February 2018

Thalassiosira is also described as a “harmful species” on AlgaeBase, an awesome resource for those studying algae. It’s a global database with the taxonomic, distributional and other information about micro and macro algae, as observed by scientists all over the world. As a student new to the study of algae, I found it an incredibly helpful resource, even if it helped to direct me to other sources on a species that I had collected for my class project in Maine.

Finally, I will end this post with my favorite discovery–a cool pennate diatom called Chaetoceros gracilis, which looks like something between a Star Wars X-wing fighter and one of the Cylon ships from BSG, if only…in a galaxy far, far away.  In many ways, this microscopic marine world is another dimension that’s just as deserving of our fascination. I will post a few more diatoms (and dinoflagellates!) in my next post.

Chaetoceros gracilis Star Wars Fighter

This pennate diatom has an oval-shaped cell in valve view, with distinctive spines that diverge at oblique angles to form an “X” shape. I collected this specimen at Kettle Cove in February 2018. 

Rarity and Ocean Conservation: Endangered Sawfish, Final Listing on ESA

On 8th Grade “Career Day,” my classmates and I were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember looking at a giant phonebook-sized directory of “careers” with code-keys for filling out a handout in class. I chose “marine biologist,” “oceanographer,” and asked my teacher, “where’s the code for “Ichthyologist?” Admittedly, I also wanted to write down on my sheet that I

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

considered “mime” and “poet” to be future, possible careers, but only one of those was true. Poetry remains a constant passion for me, and so does ocean conservation. I grew up reading poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and essays by Rachel Carson, including her book, A Sense of Wonder and later in high school, The Edge of the Sea, which remains one of my favorite books of all time. In 9th grade, I bought a text book on marine biology with babysitting money and studied it outside of school, over the summer, while I studied biology at Gould Academy. Years later, at College of the Atlantic (COA), I studied conservation biology, island ecology and environmental sciences as an undergraduate student. During a summer field course, my COA classmates and I explored over 30 Maine islands and visited Gran Manan, where we saw a 30-foot basking shark in the Bay of Fundy. Studying at COA, usually in a salt-sprayed hammock overlooking the ocean, definitely helped to shape my early passion for islands, oceans and wetlands into a career in conservation.

Sharks, rays and sawfish have always been fascinating to me. (Ocean conservation nerd alert: I even have a notepad from the American Elasmobranch Society on my desk.) I’ve spent some significant time on wetlands in my career, but I’ve also followed ocean conservation with great interest, never leaning too far away from my coastal roots. One area of ocean conservation that has kept my interest over the last two decades has been rare and endangered marine species, such as sawfish, which is the first sea fish to be listed on the U.S. Endangered Species list.  In recent years, there’s been some hope for sawfish populations in South Florida (see this video). Yet, rules published by the National Marine Fisheries Service listed five species of sawfish as endangered this past month in its final ruling.

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

“The final rule contains the Service’s determination that the narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidate), dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata), largetooth sawfish (collectively, Pristis pristis), green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) and the non-U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) are endangered species under the ESA.” (Miller, December 2014)  (See info on the rule in the Federal Register here.)

What makes a thing like the sawfish rare?

Rarity is driven by scale—how many, how much, how big an area. Rarity means that something occurs infrequently, either in the form of endemism, being restricted to a certain place, or by the smallness of a population. In conservation biology the proportion or percentage of habitable sites or areas in which a particular species is present determines the rarity of a species.[1] In addition to the areas in which a particular species is present, the number of individuals found in that area also determines its rarity. There are different types of rarity which can be based on three factors: 1) geographical range – the species may occur in sufficient numbers but only live in a particular place, for example, an island; 2) the habitat specificity – if the species is a “specialist,” meaning it might be confined to a certain type of habitat, it could be found all over the world but only in that specific habitat, for example, tropical rainforests; 3) the population size – a small or declining population might cause rarity. [2] Generally a species can be locally very common but globally very uncommon, thereby making it rare and furthermore, valuable. A species can also be the opposite, globally common but spread out few and far between so that individuals have a hard time sustaining their populations through reproduction and dispersal.

But usually when a person thinks of rarity, they are probably thinking about a species that occurs in very low numbers and lives in only one place, as in many of the endemic creatures on the Galapagos Islands. It is this latter-most perception of rarity that plays a critical role in conservation work. People value rarity because it makes a living thing special—even if it had intrinsic value before it became rare, if it ever lived in greater numbers or more widespread populations.

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish are a rare, unique—and critically endangered group of elasmobranches—sharks, skates and rays, that are most known for their toothed rostrum. Once common inhabitants of coastal, estuarine areas and rivers throughout the tropics, sawfish populations have been decimated by decades of fishing and survive—barely—in isolated habitats, according to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Seven recognized species of sawfish, including the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), are listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. In addition to the extensive gillnetting and trawling, sawfish are threatened by habitat degradation from coastal development. Sawfish prefer mangroves and other estuarine wetlands. Currently the sawfish population is believed to be restricted to remote areas of southwest Florida, particularly in the Everglades and the Keys. Sawfish are primarily a freshwater-loving creature but they occasionally go out to sea. Lobbyists proposed to add sawfish to Appendix 1 of CITES in 1994 (as part of the first Shark Resolution) to stop the trade in saws but the proposal was defeated in 1997 because it could not demonstrate that stopping trade would provide the necessary protection in wild populations. [See Petition to List North American Populations of Sawfish, 1999, here.] Subsequent proposals in 2007 and 2013 were successful, according to Shark Advocates International. According to the Mote Marine Laboratory conservation biologists, “even if effective conservation plans can be implemented it will take sawfish populations decades, or possibly even centuries, to recover to post-decline levels.” This is the fundamental crux of rarity in conservation biology: even if we do perfect conservation work, once a species is rare and critically endangered, it can take much longer for a species to recover than the time it took to reach the brink of extinction.  In November 2014, all sawfish species were listed on Appendix I & II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates explains to me:  The listing of smalltooth sawfish is therefore the most relevant; it has resulted in critical habitat designation, a comprehensive recovery plan, cutting edge research, and encouraging signs of population stabilization and growth.

See this NOAA Fisheries video on smalltooth sawfish conservation.

Several different organizations, in addition to federal and state agencies, are working to protect and conserve sawfish habitat and the endangered species. Here are some links to a few of these organizations and their fact sheets on sawfish:

Save the Sawfish

Sawfish Conservation Society

Shark Advocates, Fact Sheet on Smalltooth Sawfish

Florida Museum of Natural History, Sawfish Conservation

Save our Seas, Conservation of Sawfish Project

Fact sheet for the 11th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP11) to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) on Sawfish (5 species)

IUCN Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy 

[1] Begon, Michael, John L. Harper, Colin Townsend. Ecology: Individuals, Populations, and Communities. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, London, et. al. 1990. Glossary pp. 859..

[2] Pullin, Andrew. Conservation Biology. Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp.199-201.

A New Year, A New Challenge: Writing 30 Poems in 30 Days

On January 1st, I joined eight other poets from around the world to write 30 poems in 30 days of January as part of Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Challenge. The challenge is twofold: 1) it pushes the poets to write a poem each day for a month, marathon-style, and 2) it engages readers of poetry (and those newish to poetry) in a variety of styles and voices–with the goal of prompting readers to support the literary wonder, Tupelo Press, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in California. Readers can support the poets, including me, by doing one of two things: 1) donate to Tupelo Press or 2) subscribe to one of its fine publications. There is a whole catalog of poetry journals. Think of it like community-supported agriculture since poetry is organic–grown from the fruits of our labors.

I am posting my portion of the 30/30 challenge poems on my Adventures of Fen Fatale blog here. Please check out the fine work of my fellow 30/30 poets at the Tupelo Press blog here. To make a donation to the Tupelo Press, click here. Thank you for supporting me in this unique challenge. I am sure to write a number of wetland-inspired poems this month!

Climate Change, Wetlands & Mitigation: A Workshop at Stetson University

Last week I traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida for the first time and walked along the beach in the dark. Moonlight sparkled on the waves, which I couldn’t see because it was pitch-black. The strange sound of chirping birds at my feet caught me off guard because I couldn’t see them; I spun around shining the Assistive Light app on my smartphone to light my path through the dark sand.

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Ed Thomas spoke about climate change adaptation and flood mitigation in a wetlands context

The Environmental Law Institute partnered with Stetson University College of Law to hold a workshop on the legal and scientific responses to a Supreme Court case known as Koontz. Nearly 70 people attended the workshop. For a local radio coverage of the workshop, click here.  I posted live Tweets for @ELI_Wetlands throughout the workshop, while the speakers, including renown wetlands ecologist, Dr. William Mitsch, Director of the Everglades Wetlands Research Park in Florida, and Ed Thomas, President of the National Hazard Mitigation Association, led the discussion. Royal Gardner, a professor of environmental law at Stetson and author of the book, Lawyers, Swamps and Money, framed the issues. (I’m reading his book now, thanks to Ed!) A series of panel discussions rounded out the day, ending with a pool-side reception, where the conversation about wetlands continued. It was a lively discussion enriched by student and audience participation during the small group break-out sessions. In my group, a number of participants discussed the NGO perspective of wetlands implications of the Koontz case. For more information about the Koontz case, see this SCOTUS blog post. (Supreme Court blog)

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Strange Wetlands: Preventing a Lesser Known Tick-Borne Illness, Anaplasmosis

My trusty dog, Sophie-Bea, a dachshund-pointer, and I frequently walk through wetlands. First, my land is rich in wetlands: a black ash seep, which I call “Fern Gully,” a vernal pool with wood frogs and sallies, and a perennial stream that flows into Raymond Pond. We like to walk along a pine-needled path from my woods down to the pond and back. Lately, a thick mustard yellow froth of pollen coats the surface of the pond. If I had let the dog wade in the water, she would have come out looking more like a yellow lab, albeit a weirdly shaped one. (She’s black and white.) At the edge of the pond, she sniffed the water and it turned her pointy black nose into a clownish canary blotch.  IMG_0295

This time of year, we’re more mindful of ticks. In addition to treating her with Frontline, I pat her down with a natural bug repellant called Skeeter Skedaddle™ – the kind that’s dog-friendly. I love how it smells. I wear it, too, and slathered it on that day, like any other day. I made the mistake of wearing sandals though and by the time I got home, I unstrapped the sandals to find a fat tick stuck to the top of my foot. It glowed red in its belly. I pulled it off and noticed two bite marks. After disposing of the tick, which is unwise to flush into the toilet I’ve learned, but to burn the tick with a match (carefully in the sink), I applied witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide onto the bites, along with a dab of antibacterial ointment. It doesn’t itch. It did worry me.

A year ago this month, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness called Anaplasmosis. It’s a tick-borne illness caused by a tick bite from a tick infected with the germ called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Last summer, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent out an alert about Anaplasmosis. The alert explained that cases of Anaplasmosis are on the rise in Maine. Previously, it was rare for someone to contract this illness from a tick bite in the Pine Tree State. Even in summer 2012, hospitals misdiagnosed people with “the flu,” when in some cases, it was actually this Anaplasmosis. In my case, it was most likely Anaplasmosis, since I walk through the woods often and come into contact with areas known to inhabit ticks. I occasionally find ticks in my home.

Symptoms of Anaplasmosis include fever, headache, malaise, severe body aches, cough, joint pain, stiff neck and confusion.  In June 2012, I thought I’d eaten a bad avocado, or been exposed to the bad kind of an algae bloom while swimming in the lake. (I wrote about the algae bloom in my Adventures of Fen Fatale series.) At the time, I was working for ASWM and I started to feel sick on a Monday–sweaty, coming down with a fever, nausea. Images of globs of algae clung to me as I suffered through a fever of 102 degrees for two days. On Tuesday night, I called 911 and the EMTs came to my house, since I was convinced I was dying of some kind of poison,  tetanus or some other ill fate. It felt like my organs had seized up and everything hurt.  Chills all over. The body aches were so severe that I had to crawl down the stairs to let the EMTs into my house (rather than let them bust in the door). The EMTs found me delirious from the fever. Even after the fever came down on Wednesday, I couldn’t walk for a few days; my relatives came to take care of me, since I was bedridden. (This is highly unusual for me, since I have an almost superhuman immune system.) It was frightening, too.

See fact sheets, prevention info and notices to Maine residents from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention here. 

Since then, I’ve done some research on how to prevent this from happening again. The reality is that Anaplasmosis is treated differently than that of Lyme Disease. When a person suspects that a tick bite has left that tell-tale sign, a bull’s eye shaped bite, that person has an option of getting an anti-biotic to prevent the onset of Lyme Disease. The same is not true for those who might have contracted Anaplasmosis. The main “prevention” is to reduce exposure to ticks by wearing appropriate clothing and checking clothes and skin for ticks. Apparently, in cases of people contracting Anaplasmosis, they often don’t remember getting a tick bite, and there is no tell-tale bull’s eye mark. For specific prevention and treatment information, visit http://www.cdc.gov/anaplasmosis/ . If you do get a tick bite, pay attention to symptoms if they occur. If you get a fever, and think you might have come into contact with a tick, contact your doctor or a health professional. Treatment is important. Anaplasmosis can be serious, or fatal, in babies, toddlers, elderly people and those with a compromised immune system. For others, it can mean a week of severe body aches, fever, malaise, etc. It certainly knocked the wind out of my sails.

Read these related blog posts:

Mosquitoes, ticks and bees are summer hazards, as are sunshine and poison ivy – Washington Post Blog – June 17, 2013

Drs. Oz and Roisen: Tick, tick, tick  – June 2013

Tick-borne disease is on the rise in Maine and Anaplasmosis in particular – May 2013