Category Archives: natural history

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.

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.

Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden for the National Wetlands Awards Ceremony

Last week I started my new job as Editor of the National Wetlands Newsletter, a bi-monthly publication of the Environmental Law Institute, based in Washington, D.C. It was the first time I visited Washington as an adult (not counting changing planes at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA). My grandfather, Rufus Stetson, brought me to Washington when I was 13 and we stayed at his “club” and visited the Washington Zoo. Bebop, as I called him, was a U.S. tax attorney for the federal government (Justice Department, U.S. Treasury, etc.) in the 1950s and ’60s, and so it seemed fitting to me that I would begin this new role at the Environmental Law Institute while walking in his old stomping grounds in the NW quarter.

I stayed on E Street, a few blocks from the Smithsonian museums–although I worked until after 6pm most evenings, and the museums closed at 5:30pm (except for Fridays and weekends) so I didn’t get a chance to see any of the Smithsonian museums during this trip. On May 9th, I attended the National Wetlands Awards ceremony at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which I loved exploring. Severe allergies gripped me as soon as I arrived in D.C. on Sunday evening, and I couldn’t breathe well most of the week. As I walked around the exhibits of various ecosystems in the Botanic Garden, I breathed easiest in the “Hawaii” exhibit.  I confess that I went to “Hawaii” every chance I got (a few times) throughout the evening’s activities en route to the ladies’ room or just to catch my breath. The ceremony recognized seven leaders in wetland categories, e.g. State/Tribal Program Management, Community Leadership, Education/Outreach. ELI’s President John Cruden gave the keynote address and all of the speakers, including the presenters and the award winners, inspired us with stories about protecting and restoring wetlands. Starting in a couple of weeks, I will become the Manager of the National Wetlands Awards program.  I’ll be responsible for planning the ceremony for May 2014, the program’s 25th anniversary.

If I don’t write much in this blog for the next few weeks, it’s only because I’ve taken the helm at the National Wetlands Newsletter, and I’m focused on setting up my new office. I will also be working on the two new websites for the National Wetlands Newsletter and the National Wetlands Awards in the coming weeks. If you’re an avid reader of the NWN, please reach out to me with feedback or suggestions as I work on the new website and summer issue.

The Love Lives of Horseshoe Crabs, Not Cannibals

Amidst the studies on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on coastal communities—which affected the lives of people, most notably—some recent studies have examined the impacts on the lives of a strange ancient creature: horseshoe crabs. Distant relatives of scorpions and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, or crustaceans. They’ve been around for over 1 billion years and lived alongside dinosaurs. See “The Life and Times of the Earliest Horseshoe Crabs,” (Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum). Unlike a scorpion, crab or spider, horseshoe crabs don’t bite, sting or pinch. And unlike cannibalistic crustaceans, adult horseshoe crabs do not congregate (except to spawn seasonally), which is possibly a way to avoid large crabs attacking smaller horseshoe crabs—thus, avoiding cannibalistic behavior as a species. (Sekiguchi, Shuster, Jr., 1999) Their anatomy is interesting, as illustrated below.

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn along creek-mouth beaches and shoals. They like sandy beaches. Naturally, these coastal areas, rich in wetlands, peat bogs and saltwater marsh, were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. What’s more, sea level rise has eroded certain coastal beaches where horseshoe crabs used to spawn, decreasing the habitat suitable for spawning. See Sea Level Rise and the Significance of Marginal Beaches for Horseshoe Crab Spawning (Botton and Loveland, 2011).

In the Delaware Bay, for example, the American Littoral Society, along with the Wetlands Institute, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and New Jersey Audubon, have assessed the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab populations in the Bay. Watch this video of horseshoe crab spawning in Delaware. Read Hurricane Sandy Race To Restore Horseshoe Crab Spawning Grounds (March 2013). Videos depict horseshoe crabs spawning, swimming upside down and righting themselves.

In a joint report by the Wetlands Institute, NJ Audubon Society and NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (“Damage from Superstorm Sandy to Horseshoe Crab Breeding and Shorebird Stopover Habitat on Delaware Bay,” December 2012), wetlands did well overall, despite some “wash over” during storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, according to Lenore Tedesco, Ph.D. Director of Research at the Wetlands Institute. Yet a major finding was a 70% decrease in suitable breeding habitat for horseshoe crabs. In addition, there was about the same amount of increase in unsuitable habitat for horseshoe crab spawning. Specifically, the scientists classified the types of habitat into five categories:

  1. Optimal: undisturbed sand beach;
  2. Suitable: sand beach with only small areas of peat and/or backed by development
  3. Less Suitable: exposed peat in lower/middle intertidal zone;
    sand present in upper intertidal;
  4. Avoided habitat:  exposed peat or active salt marsh fringing the shoreline;
    no sand present
  5. Disturbed due to beach fill, riprap or bulkheading.
    (Niles, Tedesco, Sellers, et. al. 2012)

In areas where the habitat is less suitable, with exposed peat, there is less sand for the horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs. The full report includes recommendations for habitat restoration. For more information about post-Sandy restoration recommendations, visit the Wetlands Institute’s website here.

Many years ago, I learned that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay at the heart of some medical advances in immunology research. Apparently, horseshoe crab blood and immunology can serve scientists with a model to develop treatments for patients with HIV, AIDS or other immune deficiency disorders. Its “blue blood” contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, which allows medical researchers to detect bacterial toxins. In ecological projects, the spawning and genetic diversity of horseshoe crabs is the focus, or the relationship between horseshoe crabs and fisheries. For an overview of various research projects on horseshoe crabs happening in 18 states and two countries, see these project summaries. There’s some fascinating research underway.

The Wetland Institute has a number of publications on its website related to horseshoe crab research and conservation. There’s also an “Adopt a Horseshoe Crab” program and horseshoe crab census data available from 1999-2009. In May, the Institute holds festival activities, including teaching tank/aquarium talks on saltmarsh ecology, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. For more information about the Horseshoe Crab Festival in May,click here.

More videos:

See horseshoe crab counting (Washington Post video, June 2012)
NATURE program on horseshoe crabs (PBS, 2008)
Horseshoe crab documentary (Nick Baker, Science Channel)

For more on horseshoe crab biology and ecology, see this National Park Service webpage and materials developed by the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant and NOAA joint programs on horseshoe crab research. Finally, check outhttp://horseshoecrab.org/ which houses an online warehouse of information on the biology, conservation and research of horseshoe crabs.

Wetland Ferns Webinar

February is one of my favorite months. Some may dislike “dreary February” but I am biased; it’s my birthday month. As a special treat, I participated in an afternoon “Swamp Seminar” to learn how to identify northeastern wetland ferns. The webinar is part of an online training series offered by Swamp School. After the training, I earned a certificate.  Since I’ve written about ferns a few times for this blog, I thought I better brush up on fern morphology, before I made a fern faux pas. And as it happens, I was wrong about one plant: sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a member of the heath family, not a true fern.

The “Swamp Seminar” on wetland ferns started with the parts of a fern. Prior to this class, I knew to refer to the frond, which is the whole fern leaf, and I understood that rhizomes are the roots, but the rest of a fern’s morphology was new information. It was fascinating to learn that a fern might be identified based on whether it is once, twice or thrice pinnate–meaning, the number of cuts on the pinna, or leaflet. Lady Fern, a common fern that grows throughout the northeast, is three-times pinnate with a rough-edged leaflet, making it look lacy. Several ferns have similarly feminine names like Venus Hair Fern (Adiantum capillus‐veneris) and Northern Maiden-Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), or Maiden-Hair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), which grows near waterfalls and is said to be “good for the spleen.”

For wetland professionals, the training addressed whether each fern is an Obligate Wetland species, meaning that it always occurs in a wetland, also known as a hydrophyte (loves water); a Facultative Wetland species, which means that the fern usually shows up in a wetland, but can also be found in upland areas; or, thirdly, it may be a Facultative species, commonly occurring in both wetland and upland areas. Ferns that fit this last category–facultative, are still important to know because they may help someone identify the edge of a wetland.

Identifying wetland plants is fairly complex. See this USDA page on wetland indicator information, for a more specific explanation. Last fall, the National Wetland Plant List was updated and published by the Army Corps of Engineers. ASWM offered a training session on how to use the NWP List website (see this recorded presentation).  Several publications are also available that aid in using this plant list, including A Field Guide to the National Wetland Plant List: Wetland Ratings for Plants of the United States by Steve Chadde, 2012.

Among the many types of ferns covered in the Swamp Seminar, participants learned how to identify Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis) and Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), which has a distinctive shape. The Swamp School webinar included access to an online tool kit, which allows participants to reference handouts. The website and webinar training are well-organized and condensed to relay a great deal of knowledge. It’s suitable for intermediate and advanced levels—and ideal for wetlandkeepers. Swamp School also offers classes on wetland delineation–in both classroom, field and webinar formats with live, interactive training.  For more information, visit SwampSchool.org.

Update: Hydric Soil Indicators Webinar March 20, 2013. For more information, visitSwampSchool.org

Dating Season for Toads

I am glad I don’t suffer bufonophobia, a fear of toads, because a gang of American toads (Bufo americanus) live under my deck. They come out at night and sit, fat as golfballs, one of them the size of a baseball, in the moonlight. Their posturing reminds me of the T-birds and the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the drive-in.

Careful not to step on them when I stand in the yard, I let my dog enjoy a few minutes of midnight sounds, smells and shadows, with caution. The toads barely budge if she sniffs their bumpy bodies. She doesn’t like toads, luckily. I’m nervous about taking a step, worried I might squish one, anticipating the inevitable movement—but a toad’s test of wills (or staying power) beats mine every time.

Some toads, including the American toad, have paratoid glands that can secrete a white poison to would-be predators (if bitten or handled, for instance). The poison is toxic inside a mouth—or if after a human handles a toad, touches the eye or mouth.  It can cause nausea, inflamed mouth or throat, irregular heart beat and in very severe cases—death. They can be a danger to pets for this reason. When you think about it, batrachophobes, who fear any reptiles or amphibians, have probably had an incident that caused a symptom, or knew of someone who did. I never believed one could get “warts” from a toad, but perhaps this myth originated from the handling of toads causing undesirable symptoms. National Geographic busted that myth for kids, here.

Toads are nocturnal. During the day the amphibians hide under the deck. I’ve wondered what they do all day—eat insects, sleep, burrow underground, intimidate baby garter snakes? The child in me imagines Toad and Frog riding around in their small motorcar. The ecologist in me wants to set up candid cameras under the deck and film the toads’ daytime activities.  This is their breeding time (March-July), when they emerge from their burrows to eat at night and mate. It is more likely that the underside of my short deck is dull by day and hoppin’ at night. Along patches of my seep, nicknamed “Fern Gully,” I’ve observed toadlets, baby toads, crawling along the muddy wooded floor. They are small, about an inch long in body, not counting legs. What’s amazing to me is that toad eggs can hatch in a matter of days (3-13 days) and the toadlets grow to adulthood in about a month. In Pennsylvania, there is an organization looking for volunteers to help with a program called “Toad Detour,” that seeks to help toadlets cross roads and get to safe habitats. Their website has some great photos and a recording of toad sounds. More about their work with toads is posted on the Philly Herping Blog.

My poem, “Romancing the Toad,” was published in a summer issue of the international literary magazine, Off the Coast. 

The American toad’s large range extends as south as Georgia, as west as Wisconsin and as north as Canada. There are other toads of concern throughout the U.S. For example, the endangered Arroyo toad in California depends on adiminishing wetland habitat. The Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance for Spring Amphibians kicked off its programs in Maine earlier in May, teaching people about the 9 species of frogs and toads in the state.

In other blogs, spadefoot toads have received some attention lately. Volunteers in different areas gather to help toads and frogs cross busy roads during their breeding season. A headstart program in Massachusetts visited the Cape Cod National Seashore this month to learn about vernal pools and amphibian habitat, includingspadefoot toads. According to Mass Audubon, the spadefoot is neither true toad or frog—it’s a primitive amphibian. A segment of a Hands-On Wetland Creation Workshop for Professionals, led in part by Tom Biebighauser, with the U.S. Forest Service, addressed the topic of spadefoots at the Long Pasture Sanctuary on Cape Cod. ASWM’s Executive Director, Jeanne Christie, attended.

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/

Gone Ice Fishin’ – Ice, Ice Maybe?

It’s been 25 years since I last went ice fishing. I remember that the ice was so thick that Mainiacs drove their brand new Buicks across the ice, and even raced cars across frozen lakes in northern Maine.  But conditions are different nowadays, the ice isn’t as thick this year and people are more fearful of driving a car onto the ice. This has been called the ‘strangest Maine winter’ in 25 years. There have been several deaths this past month due to people falling through the ice in New England. Ice conditions change from year to year. My friend’sbrother, Caleb Lane, told me about ice fishing on East Musquash Pond in Maine about 10 years ago, and having to build a bridge using logs with his friends to access their gear, after the temperature unexpectedly rose from the teens to 50°F from one day to the next. This story, in particular, illustrates how a rise in temperature can dramatically alter the day’s events.

Caleb described it best: “The pond was so inundated by the rainwater that the ice had melted around the rim of the pond and there were about 10 feet of open water between the shore and the ice. This posed a major problem on how to get our gear that was left out on the ice. Fortunately we had driven the snowmobiles and 4-wheelers off the ice the night before. But we still had pack baskets and bait buckets and traps out on the ice. We found some lumber under the camps and made a bridge from shore to ice. We then ran around trying to find all our gear. The water on the ice was calf-deep most places and some were up to knee-deep. Each ice hole that we had drilled throughout the weekend was functioning as a large drain for that water. It was quite a sight to look out and see 200 holes with whirlpools going down them. And they were strong. Some that still had traps in them were going round and round very fast, while the holes got bigger and bigger…about a 10 foot radius, about 4 times the original size. And the traps had long since been dragged under the ice. …Fortunately no one went through the ice.”

This month a local ice fishing derby in southern Maine was postponed until February 25th because the ice on Crystal Lake was too thin. Normally in January, it’s about three-feet thick. An ice fishing derby isn’t necessarily a fast race. It might last a day or a weekend or the terms of a tournament might challenge the participants to “catch the most fish between January 1st-March 31st, 2012.” Plus, derbies often include related competitions, including ice shanty decorations.

Saturday I strapped ice cleats over my sheepskin-lined boots, and regretted my choice in footwear, as a slush of puddles coated Crystal Lake. There was no way I was going to “blend in” among the ice fishermen, since I wore a hot pink vest and not camouflage hunting clothes. I joined a group of a dozen excavators, and quickly learned a few things about their traditions. The first two things I learned about ice fishing—“you can never have enough beer” and trout was “the prized fish.” I asked about togus and pike, invasive fish that show up in Sebago Lake. The ice fishermen told me that Crystal Lake is a small pond with coldwater and warmwater fish, only about 59 feet deep and no known invasive species. But if they were ice fishing on Sebago Lake, then they would have a different strategy. On Crystal Lake, the guys baited their gear with shiners to attract trout, weighing the line so that the hook reached the bottom. They taught me how to set the gear, sometimes using homemade equipment, other times using hi-tech ice fishing tackle.  A spring-like action, similar to a mouse-trap, triggered a wire with an orange flag if a fish nibbled the hook. In the few hours I was on the ice, none of the 10 or so flags moved. At night, the men planned to sleep inside the shacks, and used a trap-door in the floor with gear set for overnight fishing. The fish are more active at night, I learned. (Of course, I was not spending the night out there! So I had to take their word for it.)

Barely a foot of ice held up their four-wheeled ATVs and shacks, fully decked with woodstoves, camping gear, coolers full of beer and food, and extra boots. A barbecue grill sat directly on the ice between two shacks (“the heat rises,” they assured me). Few people walked across the pond, like I did, except for one man, who accidentally stepped right down into a hole, which had been left unmarked, and he waddled back with his leg wet up to the knee. He held up his beer and said, “It’s okay, I’ve got heat in a can!” They all laughed. These guys seemed a hardy bunch. They were disappointed that the local derby had been postponed until late February, but remarked that it had to do with the slushy conditions and safety issues. In other parts of the country, ice conditions are a concern as well.

MI: Fish report: Ice iffy because of temperature changes, DNR says

WI: Greater Emphasis on safety at Weekend Fishing Tournaments

MI: With video: Weathering the warmer winter

NH/CT: For plenty of reliable ice, go north to CT lakes

MN: Lake Elmo Lions Ice Fishing Contest Cancelled Due to Thin-Ice Conditions

MI: Ice anglers in southern MI need to be careful because of fluctuating temperatures

MA: Accidents stir warnings over dangers of thin ice

CAN: Fishing season thin ice (Ontario)

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.