Category Archives: Art & Lit

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

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.

Lutes & Lily Ponds ~ Classical Music Inspired by Wetlands

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a piece on National Public Radio (NPR) from the “Wuthering Heights” opera composed by Bernard Herrmann. Today is Anne Brontë’s birthday, so it is fitting for Strange Wetlands to have a post on classical music inspired by wetlands. I am the grand-daughter of a composer of classical music—mainly for orchestra, jazz and big band swing in the 1940s:  my grandfather led the “Bob Chaplin Orchestra” on lead clarinet, and years later, composed chamber music. He advocated strongly for wetlands protection, serving on his town’s planning board from the 1960s-1990s. Incidentally, my grandfather’s family farmland is now, much transformed, the same location as the ASWM headquarters—where I write this blog and advocate for wetlands protection.

One piece of classical music I heard recently on NPR &Maine Public Radio with Suzanne Nance was “The Fairy Queen,” a Baroque semi-opera composed by Henry Purcell, known for his nature-inspired music. I’ve noticed a number of classical pieces have titles that take inspiration from nature, and in particular, wetlands, rivers, lakes and forests.  Even those who aren’t fans of classical music may be familiar with the Grand Canyon Suite, composed by Ferde Grofe, with songs that sound like they were composed for a great western, such as “Sunset,” and “On the Trail”—a humorous melody about a ride on mules along the waters of the Colorado River. Other famous works composed for film scores and orchestras were inspired by life on the Mississippi River, such as the contemporary film score composed by William Perry in 1980 and Ferde Grofe’s Mississippi: A Journey in Tones (Mississippi Suite), with dark flowing chords that suggested a scene along the Mississippi River, with a nod to Mark Twain. American composers were drawn to large natural landscapes in the 1920s and ’30s, when national parks were newly established. This music echoed into the subconscious minds of listeners for generations.

In other pieces, such as My Native Heath, suite for orchestra, composed by Arthur Wood (1875-1953) in 1924/25, the work was inspired by the composer’s childhood spent on the heath and moors of Yorkshire. This music depicts the moors and heaths—something out of a Brontë novel. His other works were inspired by life on the moors, such as Yorkshire Moors Suite but his most famous piece, “Barwick Green,” came from My Native Heath. “Barkwick Green” was chosen for a long-running BBC soap opera, “The Archers.”

Below is a list of classical pieces available online. If you search for these wetland-themed classical pieces on this website (here), you’ll notice that some of the longer works, such as symphonies, ballets and chamber music, list individual songs. Many of the songs sound as though they were inspired by wetlands, waters and natural places. For example, in River of Ponds, composed by Larry Bell, you can listen to songs called “Black Creek” and “Silver Lake.” A word of caution: “bog” is also Russian for “god,” so at first glance, it seems there are a lot of classical pieces inspired by bogs, but in fact, I only found a few pieces relevant for this list, such as The Peat-Bog Soldiers, composed anonymously (post-WWII), arranged by Hans Eisler and performed by Paul Robeson in 1997.

For those of you interested in making wetland videos, some of this music might be available or appropriate for use in video. Recordings can be found at the links below (titles are linked).

“Amidst the shades
and cool refreshing streams,
where lovers ease their panting hearts in dreams…”
-Henry Purcell, Z355, c.1680

In the Fen Country, a symphonic impression composed by Ralph V. Williams, 1935. This music has a dark romanticism flavor to it.

Marsh Lute Book, chamber music with the song, Chi passa per ‘sta strada, composed anonymously, performed by Paul O’Dette on lute (2003). Sounds like flower fairy music.

Langenhoe Marshes, contemporary classical music composed by Peter Pope for voice & piano, performed by Susan Legg (2011). Songs inspired by the marshes of England in lose connection with a project about England’s marshes.

Swan Fen, a Heathland Symphony, composed by Arthur Meulemans (1844-1966), later performed by Belgian orchestras (an album released in 1999).

The Peat-Bog Soldiers” (Moorsoldaten – Song from a German concentration camp) composed anonymously (post WWII), later arranged by Hans Eisler and performed by Paul Robeson on his album Songs of Free Men, 1997.

En lille fro i mosen sad” (A Little Frog Sat in the Bog), a Danish traditional children’s song

Dismal Swamp, a poem for orchestra with piano composed by William Grant Still in 1935, performed by the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra.

On the Heath (for Two Lutes), a piece for chamber music, composed by Ronn McFarlane (b. 1953- ) with individual songs called, “Thistle,” “Honeysuckle,” and “Haeddre,” a Scottish word for heather, the plant. McFarlane is a renaissance lute player from West Virginia. He played in pop bands for a while but was more known for making the lute more popular.  His many works for the lute were inspired by nature and wetlands. See (and listen) to some here.

Beneath the Linden on the Heath, an early German love song composed by Walther von der Vogelweide in 1170. This song was written for a married lady (unavailable to the admirer, who sings for her). Interestingly enough, unrequited love in songs and poetry was considered noble, whereas requited love was regarded as “lowly love.” The music is a mix of flute, harp, lute and shawm, a type of woodwind instrument from the 12th century and Renaissance period. This particular song depicts a scene on the heath, where the two lovers meet in secret for a kiss under a linden tree.

Amidst the Shades & Cool Refreshing Streams, a Baroque semi-opera with vocals and music that mimics bird song, composed by Henry Purcell around 1680. He autographed a copy of this piece in 1683 and it’s held in the British Museum. The piece was much admired in its day.

Walden Pond, a song for cellos and harp composed by Dominick Argento (b.1927- ) in 1996, while he was a professor of theory and composition (for several decades) at the University of Minnesota. Walden Pond, featuring the vocals of Minnesota’s Dale Warland Singers, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003.

The Pond (Remembrance), a brief (2 minute) symphony composed by Charles E. Ives in 1906, was inspired by his father’s tune coming over the mists of a Connecticut pond. Ives studied music at Yale. He and a friend co-founded the first Mutual Life Insurance Company in Manhattan. Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947, though many of his songs were written in the 1880s.

River of Ponds, for cello and piano, composed by award-winning Larry Bell (b.1952- ) in 1986 included pieces called “Black Creek,” “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” and “Silver Lake.” Bell’s music has been performed all over the world. Visit www.LarryBellmusic.com. “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” may refer to Earp’s association with Amy Pond, a Scottish woman, rather than a water body. Wyatt Earp’s wife, Urilla, died a year after they married, and the famous Tombstone gunman went off the deep end, devastated by that loss. Later he reinvented himself as a law man and became a U.S. Marshal. Dr. Who fans would know more about the association between Wyatt Earp and Amy Pond, recurring characters in the TV series. By contrast, the reference to Wyatt Earp’s Pond might be associated with the water fights in Tombstone over use and management of aquaducts in the 1880s, when Earp was a city marshal. If you know the significance of “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” referenced here, please leave a comment.

Pond Life, composed by Ann Southam (b.1927-2010) with this album posthumously released in 2012. She also composed a piece called Rivers. Most of her early works were composed in a lyrical Romantic 19th century style. Since she was one of Canada’s first women composers, there’s evidence to suggest feminist elements in her music. In the 1960s, she was recognized for composing electronic music. For a long list of her works, see this page. Pond Life, which she composed in 2008, was written for a solo piano piece to be accompanied by a ballet dancer. To see a Youtube video of a performance from Pond Life, click here.

A Lily Pond, composed by Billy Mayerl, who composed largely between the 1920s-1950s, wrote poem-like suites. It was considered British, but he was drawn to American music. His Aquarium Suite, which included the songs, “Willow Moss,” “Moorish Idol,” “Fantail,” et.al. in 1937, was very much admired.

Forest of the Amazon, by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a prolific Brazilian composer, wrote this in 1958. In his later years, he was composing music in Paris and New York.

Strange Meadowlark,” a song by Dave Brubeck (b.1920- ), one of America’s most prolific jazz composers, has been associated with the West Coast Jazz revival of post-WWII. His 1960s jazz ballet, Points on Jazz, premiered with Louis Armstrong at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Listen to Strange Meadowlark on Youtube. This song is from Brubeck’s Time Out record (1959), one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

See related blog posts on Wuthering HeightsSwan Lake & Tchaikovsky and Swamp Music Revisited: A New Take on William Blake.

Swamp Music Revisited: A New Take on William Blake

From the first chord, I knew I was going to enjoy Martha Redbone’sGarden of Love. Her vocal and musical interpretation of William Blake’s poetry is hauntingly beautiful. It’s swampy. It’s spiritual. It’s romantic ecology set to music.

My favorite aunt introduced me to Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth and William Blake when I was fifteen. I read and analyzed their poetry; I tapped my fingers to iambic pentameter. I wrote essays and sonnets. Reading their poetry probably influenced my passion for environmental science. I was born a poet but I grew to love ecology–partly born out of my love for William Blake and the Romantics.

The poetry of Blake is rich with nature imagery. Some of his poems deal with man’s relationship with nature, and specifically swamps and wetlands in a literal sense, but perhaps as metaphors for the human spirit. Like others of his time, Blake’s poetry called for action—to protect natural places, including wetlands, which he believed were vital to the human experience. Blake and his colleagues were the “eco-poetics” and they promoted the ideas of deep ecology, an interconnectivity among living things and the intrinsic value of nature. Nowadays analysts of this stage in the environmental movement refer to it as a genre of ecological criticism, or “eco-criticism,” in which the writers and thinkers of that time were motivated by environmentally-driven ethics and activism. For example, Blake’s line, “everything that lives, / Lives not alone, nor for itself ” and other verses pointed readers to the idea of economic values of nature (Hutchings, 2007). Today we call this eco-economics and talk about the functions, ecological services and value of wetlands. In Blake’s poetry, he used a very similar terminology in poems set in wetlands.

For Strange Wetlands, I surveyed a few examples of swamp rock in a previous post. But there is more to swamp music than rock and blues. Swamp-inspired music can be folksy, indie pop, gospel and acoustic. Martha Redbone, a southern songwriter, recently released a new album, Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. She sings the poems as Blake wrote them—but set to original music. The singer explains that she “wanted people to be reminded of the beauty of [Blake’s] messages and the relevance that rings so true today — his sentiments of ‘Mercy, Pity and Peace / Is the world’s release.’” I would add that Blake’s eco-poetics are also a relevant call to action for the nation’s wetlands. Given the timing of Redbone’s album release during the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, this swamp music may be part of a soundtrack to herald in a new dawning of clean water protections for streams, rivers and wetlands. Listen to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. Find her on Youtube.

I laid me down upon a bank
Where love lay sleeping
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping Weeping

Then I went to the heath & the wild,
To the thistles & thorns of the waste
And they told me how they were beguiled
Driven out & compelled to be chaste

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

-Garden of Love
William Blake

Climate Change Films: Sea Level Rise in the Lens

Since Strange Wetlands’ post on wetland videos anddocumentaries a few years ago, climate change adaptation and wetlands, including sea level rise and water conservation—have taken center stage in recent films. Some films address climate change adaptation, water resources, sea level rise and/or other impacts of climate change affecting wetlands. Others deal with the stressors on wildlife and natural resources, including wetland habitats. The IMAX documentary film, “To the Arctic,” about a family of polar bears and the issues facing wildlife in the Arctic, narrated by Meryl Streep, premiers this spring (2012). Another award-winning film, “The Island President,” illuminates the threat of sea level rise to the Maldives, a developing nation of 2000 islands off the coast of India.

The American Museum of Natural History posted a short video on arctic ecosystems in the face of climate change called “The Ecology of Climate Change” earlier this month. The film presents some research on boreal forests from Woods Hole Research Center and University of Florida. Like other recent films, it turns the attention to natural resources and adaptation as opposed to a focus on reducing carbon emissions, which was a more common theme in media a few years ago.

NOAA Climate Services and its Digital Coast webpages have a lot to offer for videos and visual presentations, including a short general video called “Climate Change: Impacts, Solutions and Perceptions” and a number of other climate change videos.

A simple search for “sea level rise” on Youtube lists over 5000 videos, including this USGS video: “Sea level rise, subsidence and wetland loss.” A number of videos look at the planning and analysis that went into coastal adaptation management plans in states like Florida such as this 2012 video: Adapting Coastal Communities to Sea-Level Rise: Why Isn’t Anybody Doing Anything? And this New York City (Wall Street Journalvideo on sea level rise. Some of the Youtube sea level rise videos explore the topic in other areas of the world, such as islands, internationally. For example, a series of short videos look at climate change adaptation in Tanzania.

States working on climate change adaptation plans have presented their analyses in short films to help educate citizens. For example, a Wisconsin’s Changing Climate video was produced by the WICCI Climate Working Group, looking at climate impacts in the state of Wisconsin projected to 2055. There are a number of other similar educational videos if you look for them state-by-state, or visit state universities’ websites to search for current research projects, which often have videos or short documentaries about the work. Student-made films can be very good, too. A creative example is the Beneath the Waves Film Fest Student Film Winner: “Tropic Cascades” (2012). A Brown University student made a film on Cape Cod salt marsh ecology.

The U.S. Forest Service has compiled a good list of climate change videos and presentations that pertain to impacts to natural resources, including water and fish, forests and carbon and adaptation.  For example, a presentation on “Challenges for Conserving and Managing Headwater Aquatic Ecosystems Under a Changing Climate” is available on its website.

ASWM’s Climate Change—and specifically the Sea Level Rise Tools webpages—have a number of resources, including USGS’s video on “Effects of Sea-Level Rise on Coastal Wetlands in the Mississippi Delta” and this video, “Converging Currents in Climate: Relevant Conservation: Water, Infrastructure and Institutions” by Conservation International (2011). Communicating to the public about climate change is often difficult when the language is constantly changing. See NOAA’s video on Communication & Climate Change (2012). Other short films illustrate the dynamics of coastal wetlands protection in the climate change context such as this one on mangrove forests by Wetlands International (2011). The Sea Level Rise Tools section of ASWM’s website also points to Coastal Climate Learning Tools (includes videos, wikis, webinars, training, etc.) and a video presentation on “Sea Change: Researchers Use Computer Modeling to Understand Rising Seas and Coastal Risks.”

Earlier this winter, Strange Wetlands looked at the link between Red Cross, extreme weather events and climate change. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre has a webpage with a number of short films and videos presenting topics ranging from hurricanes and climate change to preparing for climate change and adaptation.

If there are other good (and recent) videos, films or documentaries that I missed on this short list, please leave a comment below with the title and link. Thank you!

Update: November 2012: Chasing Ice, a film capturing the faster-than expected melting of glaciers http://www.chasingice.com/ is a breathtaking documentary and award-winning film. Watch the trailer here: http://www.chasingice.com/

From Bog to Bough: Reflecting on Wetland Trees in Winter

Scrub

If I grow bitterly,
Like a gnarled and stunted tree,
Bearing harshly of my youth
Puckered fruit that sears the mouth;
If I make of my drawn boughs
An Inhospitable House,
Out of which I never pry
Towards the water and the sky,
Under which I stand and hide
And hear the day go by outside;
It is that a wind too strong
Bent my back when I was young,
It is that I fear the rain
Lest it blister me again.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay


Today’s my birthday, so I am feeling nostalgic. I turned 18 on Kaua’i, where I drew this illustration of Norfolk pine.  Lately I’ve been thinking about trees…especially those that grow in my black ash swamp, lean over my clothesline and sway in winter storms. Sometimes they remind me of the trees of my youth, both of us growing stronger along the riverbank. I’m not the only one reflecting on old trees.  In the latest issue of Orion Magazine, Dan Shepherd shows (and tells) a story about how people’s memories of trees connect them to their lives in Draw Me a Tree. In thinking about that exercise, I pictured the trees I have drawn in pastel, Norfolk pine trees of Hawai’i—so exotic, so different from the pine trees I knew in Maine; the Norfolk pine stood out to me as symbolic of a personal milestone, the week I turned 18 (in February) on Kaua’i. Since I turn 35 today, another milestone, I thought it was a good time to reflect on trees and their impact on us as environmental professionals and as human beings.

In my high school biology class at Gould Academy, the biology teacher assigned our class to go climb a tree, then to remain sitting in its branches for an hour, recording our observations—up close. I had learned an appreciation for this kind of “close-up” observation with trees from reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which eloquently balanced a trilogy of poetry, science and spirituality. There is something fascinating about trees, the kind of power that compelled conquistadors to search for the mythological Tree of Life in the Amazon during Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth, and many others before and since. Trees stand as symbols in many religions—such as Celtic Trees, used in divination and the Celtic alphabet, as well as mythology, science, philosophical doctrines, genealogical (family trees) and financial illustrations.

We know that the age of a tree can be counted among its inner rings, or estimated by its diameter.  In a recent blog post on Brainpickings, writer Rachel Sussman tells the story of the Senator, the oldest Cypress tree in the world, which died last month after a fire, at 3,500 years old. Sussman compares it to some other very old trees—though not quite as old as the Senator, throughout the world. Most of the trees in her blog post are not wetland-dependent species, however, the Senator was an example of a very old wetland-dependent tree, and there are slightly younger comparisons throughout the U.S. In certain forested wetlands, where it’s a logistically-challenged area, whether inaccessible because of water and dense vegetation,  it is harder for people to access some trees—and in some cases, the trees have a chance to grow larger, causing the forest to grow even more inaccessible. I suppose it’s a kind of self-preservation tactic that protects the trees. The Pinelands, also known as the Pine Barrens, a heavily forested coastal plain in New Jersey is an example of such a forested wetland. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission serves to protect the wetlands and forest of the Pinelands.  Heavily forested wetlands among the Great Lakes are another example.Forested wetlands are the most common type of wetland in North America. For an in-depth explanation of forested wetland types in the Northeast, see ASWM’s report on restoration and mitigation practices in forested wetlands of the Northeast. (Developing Performance Standards for the Mitigation and Restoration of Northern Forested Wetlands)

In winter, I find my 1970 edition of a Winter Tree Finder handbook (Nature Study Guild) useful to identify trees and shrubs. It covers most of North America and includes all deciduous trees. The guide begins by outlining possible habitats, for example streambanks, lowlands/wetlands, high altitudes, bogs, sandy soils, edge of the forest, disturbed areas.  Then it breaks it down by climate—where winters are cold or mild, and whether there are houses, parks or cities nearby. It depicts the scars found on a twig, which offers clues as to the kind of tree.  Reading through the small guide feels like a “choose your own adventure” storybook, in which the naturalist may advance to this or that section depending on the traits of a tree, based on what’s visible in winter. There are a number of good guides available (online and in print) on identifying winter trees, but many of them are specific to a region. All you need to identify winter trees is a nose, hands, brain, seasonally-appropriate clothing, a camera or a sketch/note pad. Have fun!

A Beginning Guide to Winter Tree Identification

Michigan: Winter Tree Identification

Army Corps of Engineers Guide to Winter Tree Identification in Wetlands

Winter Tree Identification Exercise (Includes assignment to sketch a winter tree)

How to Identify Trees in Winter (wiki)

USGS: Island Trees:
http://sofia.usgs.gov/sfrsf/rooms/wild_wet_eco/tree_islands/

Romantic Ecology: Fairy Tale or Serious Thing?

If you’re like me, you can’t resist a good fairy tale. I’ve been hooked on the new CBS series, “Grimm,” based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. One of the theories in analysis of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen is that the characters in fairy tales represent problems in nature that humans must face. Sometimes a fairy tale depicts a “lost Eden,” a lost paradise, but in more cases, a fairy tale presents an environmental problem and the characters symbolize various solutions. Often the hero of the fairy tale makes a choice based on something equivalent to “best professional judgment” and the morals to the story deal with making the “right choice.” Many of Andersen and Grimm fairy tales were set in a natural environment—a marsh—as in “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” the woods, a riverbank, even—in the case of Thumbelina, upon the water lily pads in a stream. This has been called “nature romanticism,” or “Romantic Ecology.” 

            Thumbelina – a wetland fairy tale

Far out in the stream grew a number of water-lilies, with broad green leaves, which seemed to float on the top of the water. The largest of these leaves appeared farther off than the rest, and the old toad swam out to it with the walnut-shell, in which little Thumbelina lay still asleep. The tiny little creature woke very early in the morning, and began to cry bitterly when she found where she was, for she could see nothing but water on every side of the large green leaf, and no way of reaching the land. Meanwhile the old toad was very busy under the marsh, decking her room with rushes and wild yellow flowers, to make it look pretty for her new daughter-in-law. Then she swam out with her ugly son to the leaf on which she had placed poor little Thumbelina. The old toad bowed low to her in the water, and said, “Here is my son, he will be your husband, and you will live happily in the marsh by the stream.” For the full fairy tale, click here.

Readers may recognize the imagery associated with “romantic ecology” in fairy tales like Andersen’s “Thumbelina.” This romanticism is present in some classic poetry and other literature, too. Romantic ecology is a phrase first coined by Jonathan Bates in his book, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991) but the term is later used by a number of environmental writers. Romantic ecology in literature is believed to have shaped environmental consciousness and action, influencing readers of poetry and literature—spanning a wide spectrum of people with varied beliefs and values—and appealing to their sense of the natural world. For some, the idea of a “paradise lost,” a beloved homeland or wild place, which has since been developed for urban or suburban use, is most persuasive. For others, it’s simply the beauty of nature—a romanticized version, seeing the naturalenvironment through rose-colored lenses, as depicted in love poems or nature writing from the era of The Romantics that inspires readers to fall in love with the environmental cause. I must admit I fell under their spell, long ago as a teen-ager. My high school classmates weren’t assigned to read The Romantics—but a favorite aunt encouraged me to read Wordsworth and Blake, for starters, and I’m sure that their words affected my budding interest in ecology. I carried thick biology books along with slim volumes of poetry as if they were a combined discipline.

But is it just a fairy tale, or does “romantic ecology” give roots to something more important? The writings of early American “nature writers” persuaded us to shift our perception of the environment—in essence, to care about it. In the early part of the 20thcentury, critics of the Nature-Study Movement wrestled with whether it was a romanticized version of ecology, or if it should be taken seriously. Given the success of that movement, and how The Romantics are required reading for any student of environmental studies in colleges today, it is clear that “Romantic Ecology” is beyond the blush of fairy tales. It’s gotten serious.

Sons & Daughters of the Nature Study Movement

Over the past few weeks, a number of tweets on Twitter have related to the topic of women in science—with posts about equality, so-called “science kits for girls,” and fighting stereotypes. While reading a biography on Rachel Carson, a daughter of the “Nature-Study Movement,” I became curious about this educational movement that drew young women to science during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  In Carson’s case, it was her mother, Maria, who shared an interest in natural history with her daughter, Rachel, from a very young age. It is clear from Rachel’s writings that her mother was influenced by the nature-study movement. How did this movement come about? What engendered it? For those of us studying and working in the natural sciences, I wondered:  Are we daughters—and sons—of the nature-study movement?

Cornell University became one home to the nature-study movement.  The university at one time received state funds to teach ‘nature-study’ in rural New York schools.  During the depression of 1893, the state of New York established a Committee for the Promotion of Agriculture. It grabbed onto the ideas of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a Cornell professor, “who believed that children should grow up appreciating nature.”  He wrote some of the first leaflets on “nature-study,” promoting new classes and a whole program at Cornell during the summer of 1897. Bailey founded the American Nature Study Society, the oldest environmental organization in the U.S., in 1908. But Bailey did not act alone—he hired Anna Botsford Comstock, who ran the program in New York.

Other writers and naturalists such as Gene Stratton Porter, Louis Agassiz and Wilbur S. Jackman were early members and founders of the nature-study movement.  ‘“Nature-study” attempted to reconcile scientific investigation with spiritual, personal experiences gained from interaction with the natural world.” (Armitage, 2009)  Naturalist Louis Agassiz coined the phrase “study nature, not books,” which meant that the emphasis was placed on learning from tangible things outside of the classroom.

Anna Comstock explored the idea extensively in her 1930 book, Handbook of Nature Study: “Nature Study is for the comprehension of the Individual life of the bird, insect or plant that is nearest at hand.” Comstock described “nature-study” as both an aesthetic and as a discipline. She writes, “But it should not be thought that nature-study is not a science. The promising science of ecology is merely formalized nature-study; indeed it might be said that nature-study is natural science from an ecological rather than anatomical view.” To critics of “nature-study,” especially male scientists, some of whom considered ‘nature-study’ to be romantic or sentimental, Comstock argued that nature-study was more than a science—that it was “not merely a study of life, but the experience of life.” Her book spelled out a philosophy of life.  Many of those who joined the nature-study movement shared this philosophy.

The nature-study movement inspired a change in school curricula for children in many of areas of the country, according to Nature, not books: scientists and the origins of the nature-study movement in the 1890s by Sally G. Kohlstedt (2005), and because of this shift, it allowed young women to study and prepare for scientific vocations, and more importantly, to find jobs. Rachel Carson, and other female scientists, benefited from this major shift in thinking about the way science was taught—in both the lab and field.  Kohlstedt’s more recent book,Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890–1930, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) examines this phenomenon more closely. For example, in the state of Wisconsin, from 1915-1920, the number of female biology teachers increased by 50-67%. (Tolley, 2003) Moreover, the movement influenced male and female environmental leaders alike, including Aldo Leopold. For more information, look for The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic by Kevin C. Armitage (2009).

For related blogs on the Nature-Study Movement, visit:

William Temple Hornaday and the Progressive Era Nature Study Movement
http://gregshistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/william-temple-hornaday-and-progressive.html?showComment=1323277806846#c5029543604266133864

Darwin, Schoenberg, and Sibley: A New Dawn for Nature Study?
http://blog.aba.org/2011/12/darwin-schoenberg-and-sibley-a-new-dawn-for-birding.html

Anna Comstock: http://drkv.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/anna-comstock/

The Gastropods That Restore Us

“Sometimes these animals are crushed seemingly to pieces,
and, to all appearance, utterly destroyed; yet still they set themselves
to work, and, in a few days, mend all their numerous breaches…
to the re-establishment of the ruined habitation.”
-Oliver Goldsmith, 1774

As a little girl, I loved picking up periwinkles and humming to persuade them out of their shell. Even after a painful incident with a blue mussel that heldfast to my toe in the Sheepscot River, I have always held a fond regard for mollusks. But slugs? Not so much. Gardeners might feel some frustration during the wet part of early summer when the slugs invade. My mother puts sharp sea shells in the soil because the slugs don’t like to crawl over them. Gastropods—slugs, snails and whelks—are particularly sensitive to their environment. Just as gardeners will insist that not all soil is the same, so will snails help wetland managers to monitor the success of wetland restoration sites. The slow-moving creatures are the time-keepers and monitors. They keep us in the know. They have the power to restore wetlands. They restore us.

I just finished reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s natural history/ memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010), which moved me to tears of joy. In the vein of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams’ nature-inspired narrative, Bailey’s voice is both clear and magical.

While she is bedridden with a strange illness at the age of 34, a friend brings in a pot of violets to put on her bedside table along with a snail from the woods. Bailey admits she “couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead,” but grows more and more fascinated with its nocturnal trips up and down the pot of violets, where it nibbles tiny holes in her letters and makes a meal of a wilted violet petal. Bailey’s bedroom window looks onto a saltmarsh and she longs to walk in the woods with her dog but her illness has trapped her into an uncomfortable stillness. When a friend freshens up the soil in the pot of violets, Bailey observes that the snail is unhappy about this—until the garden-enriched soil is replaced with humus from the Maine woods where the snail had lived.

Bailey writes that they were “both living in altered environments not of our choosing.” After a few months of co-habitation with the snail, a friend brings a glass terrarium and fills it with many types of moss, lichen-covered birch, rotten sticks, a mussel shell filled with water and ferns. The snail investigates her new forested ecosystem and dines on mushrooms. I was struck by Bailey’s breathtaking observations, at once emotional and ecological, the way she confused time: the ticking of the clock and the “unfurling of a fern frond” in the small slow world of the wild snail. She writes, “the snail kept my spirit from evaporating,” as she watched it drink from the mussel shell. The book is rich in wetland description and the science of gastropods. http://www.amazon.com/Sound-Wild-Snail-Eating/dp/1565126068/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309460437&sr=1-1

Bailey’s wild snail went onto lay eggs inside the terrarium once surrounded by the right vegetation and fueled by bits of mushroom, its favorite meal. In the wild, certain species of snails may be used as indicators of success in wetland restoration sites. If the native snails reestablish communities, it is one sign of success, however, sometimes invasive snails migrate into a restored wetland, which is a different story. For example, nonnative gastropods may pose a threat to endangered lichen as explored in a recent issue ofCanadian Field Naturalist in a study by Robert Cameron:http://www.canadianfieldnaturalist.ca/index.php/cfn/article/viewFile/697/697

While much of coastal wetland restoration falls back on the “field of dreams” assumption: built it and they will come, the richness and diversity of species that return naturally to a restored wetland are not always as wetland managers had hoped. In some cases, wetland managers will try reintroducing certain species to reestablish a community, for example, gastropods in a restored marsh in coastal California. A 2004 EPA study evaluated the restoration of benthic invertebrate communities, specifically the California horn snail, in a marsh.http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/upload/2004_8_18_wetlands_
MitigationActionPlan_performance_ArmitageandFong2004.pdf

Whereas in a 2009 study of invasive apple snails, the gastropods are observed to feed on both native and invasive aquatic plants at the Great Lakes Center (Buffalo State College in New York). One of the findings was that apple snails should not be considered a bio-control in wetland restoration sites. While they ate the invasive aquatic plants, such asEichhomia crassipes, the snails also ate the native vegetation, e.g.  Ruppia maritima, at an even faster rate.  http://www.buffalostate.edu/greatlakescenter/documents/
burlakova_et_al_2009.pdf
 Ironically, the same apple snail—native to the Florida Everglades, is the sole preferred food source for the endangered Everglades snail kite. This means that apple snails are critical to the successful restoration of Everglades habitat for the bird. http://fl.biology.usgs.gov/sofla/apple_snail.pdf (See Strange Wetlands: http://aswm.org/wordpress/strange-wetlands-endangered-species-day-the-first-list/)

As part of a large 2004 wetland restoration project in the Klamath Basin in Oregon, over a dozen species of endemic snails were identified as at-risk invertebrates and priority species http://www.oregon.gov/OWEB/GRANTS/docs/acquisition/Acq
Priorities_Klamath.pdf?ga=t
 For more information on the Klamath Basin Restoration work in Oregon, visit: http://www.oregonwild.org/waters/klamath/a-vision-for-the-klamath-basin/the-klamath-basin-restoration-agreement

Wetland scientists look to even smaller organisms, trematode parasites, which occur in gastropods, as indicator species for biodiversity in managed wetlands. Some studies have shown that the richness in diversity among trematodes increases after coastal wetland restoration. For a brochure published by the Pacific Estuarine Ecosystem Indicator Research Consortium, go to: http://www-bml.ucdavis.edu/peeir/
brochures/Parasites.pdf

For further reading and enjoyment, here are some interesting recent wetland blog posts on gastropods in wetlands with some great images, too:

Gaunt and Glimmering Remains of Gastropods
http://www.evilmadscientist.com/article.php/wetlandsnails

Some gastropod humor at Southern Fried Science blog
http://www.southernfriedscience.com/

Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project’s Photos
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ballonarestoration/5716284945/in/photostream

Poem: Persuading Periwinkles
http://aswm.org/wordpress/53-2/110-2/persuading-periwinkles/