A Naturalist Looks at Pregnancy

Hello again. It’s been a while.

I’ve been reminded by my fellow interpreters at the latest NAI Region 6 conference that it’s time to break the silence; it’s time to post my own #FieldNotesFridays again, and get back to regular writing and online publishing. So I thank them and you for the encouragement, and the patience, as I gathered myself over the last months.

You helped me through a dark time, when I felt ecologically estranged and depressed. I can’t say I’m through that stage, but I can say that hearing from you, learning that I wasn’t alone, meant a lot to me and helped me see light at the end of the tunnel. I feel closer to our in-person and online naturalist community since sharing how I felt and learning how you feel. You were with me on that journey, and now I’d like to share another journey with you.

The driving factor in my life right now, the inescapable and obvious-even-to-others fact: I’m pregnant.

I’ve wanted to share the steps and moments with you all the way. I’m fascinated by the biology of pregnancy and excited to be ‘attempting’ our first child.

For example, I wanted to post around week 6 that – eww – my ‘baby’ still looks like a deformed tadpole and – fascinating! – has gill arches which will someday turn into a jaw, inner ear bones, and more. (More on the evolution of those homologous arches in Your Inner Fish – and hey, there’s a companion TV series on PBS we should watch)

And I wanted to post on week 23 that – strange – our kiddo might survive out of the womb with modern medical technology, but still has translucent skin, so would look like a baby-shaped bundle of blood vessels for a while.

And in week 31, I was excited to learn that our little human’s cortex was furrowing into a more spacious place for cognition.

At least, these were the developments we assumed were taking place, if everything was going well.

And that’s what stopped me cold. Once we got pregnant (and it seemed to take a long time, although I know it’s taken others longer, and some are heart-broken that they can’t get pregnant), I was quickly reminded of the social taboos of sharing your news “too early.” Too early – in the first three months! – because of the danger of miscarriage. Miscarriages are strikingly common. 50% of fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, and 10-20% beyond that are also miscarried (this doesn’t even count stillbirths, the term used after week 20). Those are sobering odds.

As a friend studying sonography(?) said, when you learn about all that can go wrong, it seems amazing that humans can procreate at all.

I’ve been… scared.

I’ve been scared of what can go wrong – not that I wasn’t previously aware of these possibilities, but now I am keenly aware of them, and they’re personal. If we lose this child I know I will go through a period of doubting myself, questioning anything I might have done wrong, and having a hard time forgiving myself.

And if, medicine forbid, I contract Zika virus… well, there’s a whole new worry for pregnant women. (More on the CDC’s suggestions for pregnant women avoiding mosquitoes and Zika here).

But part of being a naturalist, and therefore being scientifically aware, is not only recognizing possibilities, but recognizing probabilities. I’m not likely to contract Zika; there fewer than 20 cases in Texas so far (or were when I first drafted this in March), and all but one them is from travel. (One is from sexual contact, a transmission method more likely than originally thought – again, see the CDC’s recommendations.) Even if I do contract Zika, studies in Brazil show that only about 30% of fetuses are adversely affected*. (Right, I know… who wants to be in that 30%? Who wants to take those odds on their future kid? But my point is I’m more likely to experience complications from not taking my vitamins and from gaining too much weight.)

The fear has a positive side: I didn’t realize how much I would care about our first child surviving. I didn’t have any concept how much I would want this pregnancy to come to fruition, how much I would anticipate meeting our son, giving him all the chances I’ve had in life, and hopefully more.

So maybe now that I’ve shared my fears I can share the joy more readily. I’ve come far enough to be facing the very real, highly likely possibility that this pregnancy will be successful, that little Sagan Shane will enter the wider world healthy and ready to learn, and I’ll have a whole new set of possibilities to worry about and come to peace with.

Here I am, just another primate procreating… but to me, this journey is sacred. I have a support network of family and friends, I chose to be pregnant and chose a loving partner with whom to raise a family, and I recognize, because I’m aware of the biological process, that this is a precious, dangerous, treacherous, joyous, once-in-his-lifetime journey.

I look forward to sharing the rest of the journey with you.

bumpin' out.png

Pregnant naturalists can still hit the trails! Here I am bumpin’ out in the wilds of Village Creek State Park in March (left) and the LLELA Nature Preserve in February (right).

*Please note: this figure is from a newspaper article I read in March 2016. I need to find the article and link to it; I apologize for not having the source available at the time of publication. Til I can provide a source, take this figure with a grain of salt (healthy skepticism), just like I hope you treat every unsupported claim.

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Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church: Please Don’t Litter!

Imagine enjoying a vacation in one of your favorite outdoor places. You come upon trash tangled in the grass by a river: a card attached to a pink ribbon and the remains of a ragged green balloon. The card has a friendly message from a church and a request for you to respond with where and how you found the card.

A group I was with last month was in this position. This is my response.

 

Dear [Undisclosed] United Methodist Church,

I received your Easter card attached to a balloon. Thank you.

But please consider finding another way to share your message.

The Story

I was in LLELA (the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area), a 2,000 acre nature preserve in the heart of the metroplex. The group I was with hiked and explored beautiful forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems for three days. On April 26 we were surprised to find your card near the river, tangled in the grass. We read your message and although no one disparaged it, three people in the group are members of United Methodist churches and seemed to cringe at their denomination being associated with litter.

About the Nature Preserve

I do not represent LLELA when I send this letter, but I’m someone who cares about the place and all the life within it. Putting LLELA in context, the land is recovering from a history of harsh use by humans. The forests were cleared, the prairies were plowed, the wildlife was killed, and the land was used as a dump. LLELA staff and volunteers work diligently to restore ecosystems, reintroduce and care for native species (like Wild Turkey and Texas Bluestar), and ensure that our natural heritage is here for future generations. Slowly, LLELA is again becoming a refuge for wildlife and native plants and a place people fall in love with.

What’s the big deal about a balloon?

Plastic pollution is a crisis for our wildlife, fisheries, and fellow humans. (More info at Plasticpollutioncoalition.org)

Ribbons, string, nets, and fishing line are devastating to wildlife, including birds. LLELA staff show pictures like these to fishermen to encourage them to clean up their trash:

Balloons and plastic bags, once in water, look like jellyfish. They tempt and choke countless wildlife, including turtles.

You and I may seem landlocked in prairie, forest, and city, but we share a watershed connected to the Trinity, which flows to the Gulf.

Trinity Basin and Texas Counties

Trash, just like water, rolls downhill.

The Gulf of Mexico, as you probably know, faces plenty of pollution problems. Seagulls, pelicans, dolphins, turtles, fish and humans contend with oil spills, agricultural and suburban fertilizers, chemicals pouring in from our storm drains, and humanity’s ceaseless flow of unnecessary trash.

But it’s not just the Gulf that suffers. The problem is local, too. People at LLELA find wildlife tangled in fishing line and ribbon too often, and usually only after the situation has become fatal. There are lakes, ponds, and rivers near you, too, and if you look closely, scenes like this are common:

Great Egrets are a common Texas shorebird, and often end up fatally tangled in fishing line, rope, and twine: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

A Great Egret (a common Texas shorebird) with a mangled leg wrapped in fishing line: http://morningjoy.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/seaside-tragedy/

Due to ocean currents, even places where humans don’t live, or where humans don’t produce plastic, are swamped with debris.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the terrible plight of the Midway Atoll Albatrosses, where thousands of young birds die each nesting season because they eat plastic debris. Long after they perish and their bodies completely decay, the plastic remains, to be eaten by the next generation of chicks. One piece of our throwaway plastic can contribute to untold deaths.

Chris Jordan's heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Chris Jordan’s heart-breaking photography of Midway Atoll Albatrosses: http://www.blog.designsquish.com/index.php?/site/plastics_dont_disintegrate/

Alternatives

I implore and encourage you to use your creativity, passion, and love to find another way to share your message.

  • Send paper airplanes off a tall building, or leave little cards on benches, on buses, or in restaurants. You might be shocked to hear a conservationist propose strewing paper about, but paper is biodegradable and, in the United States, usually sustainably sourced.
  • Join the Geocaching community and leave messages of hope and love that way. When you add to or create geocaches of your own, you’re tapping into a network of engaged, interested searchers.
  • Start a sustainability club or committee to consider your outreach, even looking at your utensils, cups, and plates. I hope you ascribe to the well-founded belief that every action and choice an individual or organization makes changes the world – for good or ill. With more information, we can make decisions that better all species.
  • This website suggests alternatives to balloons.
  • You’ll find even more info and alternatives here.

I understand.

I’m sure you’re not intending to cause harm. I’m sure, like me, you’re trying to reduce suffering in the world.

I also understand that your balloon release was intended to be a joyful and community-enhancing event. My horror at finding a balloon in the wild doesn’t squelch my curiosity: I’m fascinated by the distance this balloon traveled: about 25 miles in 6 days (as the crow flies). I have lots of questions I’d love to ask you about how many responses you received, where they were from, and more. I’m not writing to squash your joy or outreach; I’m writing to help you do less damage.

I recognize your denomination and possibly congregation face many challenges in the future. As you decide your path and actions, please carefully and compassionately consider the environment in your ethics. Your decisions affect humans and all other species, the least of these, who have no voice in our society. With just a few habit changes, you can profoundly influence the world for good.

I have mailed this to [four staff members] and also posted it on my blog. I didn’t include the full name of your church, because that might expose you to undue criticism. I’m not here to gripe; I’m here to help.

Please, please find another way to share your message, and consider the environment when you do.

 

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Sincerely and hopefully,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

Idea for Lent (or any time): REFUSE Plastic

You want to make your life and the world better. Do both by reducing your plastic footprint! Here are some tips (just in time for Lent) about refusing single-use, disposable plastic.

What do I do?

Reduce how much plastic you buy and throw away. Find reusable, recyclable, compostable alternatives to plastic and Styrofoam. (Want to make it official? Take Plastic Pollution Coalition’s pledge.)

Why refuse plastic?

Pollution: In all production stages, plastics produce chemicals we end up breathing and eating. Single-use plastics (e.g. bags, straws) become plastic pollution.

Energy: Plastics are made from oil and require energy to produce. Let’s use our resources more wisely; it doesn’t make sense to create something permanent for a temporary use.

Health: All water (and trash) rolls downhill… and much of our trash ends up downstream. If you eat seafood, you ingest chemicals leached from plastic.

But you don’t have to eat seafood to be affected. Plastics are already in you, and even in newborns. Plastic additives (like BPA) are linked to cancer.

At best, we’re not sure how plastic affects human health. At worst, we’re poisoning ourselves. Diminishing the plastic waste stream can only be a good thing for our health and the planet’s.

What about recycling?

Recycling isn’t bad, but it gives a false sense of security.

  1. Most plastic isn’t recycled or recyclable. It ends up in the landfill, taking up precious space.
  2. Most “recycled” plastic is actually down-cycled. Bottles aren’t turned into more bottles; they become something of lesser quality that will be thrown away shortly. That’s not a continuous cycle; it’s just one added step before the landfill (or the plastic gyres in the oceans).
  3. Recycling saves energy, but produces pollution. Recycling isn’t as straight-forward as you think.

Can I make a difference?

Every thing you do makes a difference, especially setting an example. What if, through your example and others, American’s decided to go just one day without buying plastic water bottles? That would save 576 million bottles!!! (Americans throw away 2 million plastic water bottles EVERY 5 MINUTES).

How about inspiring people to use reusable bottles? Millions of bottles could quickly become billions of bottles saved. That’s a lot of plastic and oil saved, and a lot of trash that wouldn’t end up in our streets, our drinking water, and our food chain. Change starts with you, and continues because you set an example.

But plastic is everywhere!!!

If you’re overwhelmed by how much plastic you use, pick one item you regularly purchase and find an alternative. Change one habit a week, and by the end of a month you’ll significantly reduce your plastic consumption and start great habits.

Don’t throw out perfectly functioning plastic items. If you’ve already bought it, use it till it can’t be used any more, then recycle/repurpose it, then buy or create a non-plastic alternative.

 

There are lots of ways to reduce your plastic footprint. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more tips, and share yours! Together, we can make this a #plasticfree world. #RefusePlastic!

Creationism: Answer Fear with Love

In all things, answer fear with love.

Just before Darwin’s birthday (February 12, also Lincoln’s birthday), enthusiastic science spokesperson Bill Nye publicly debated Ken Ham (Creation Museum founder) about the merits of science, particularly evolution.

It’s no surprise that Bill Nye won (as the NCSE explains). Nye exposed Ham’s flawed thinking and made clear Ham doesn’t represent most Christians.

What’s surprising is a side story that bloomed concurrently. At the debate, a Buzzfeed staff member photographed creationists with their handwritten questions for the ‘other side.’

The photos expose the very human face of creationism. Look again, without the questions.

These are real people with real questions. People with lives, smiles, brains… and curiosity.

I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re actually interested in answers. Unfortunately, they’ve been handed mostly condescension via the internet.

But one blogger (Ethan Siegel, StartsWithABang) raised the standard by answering with kindness, sincerity, and science. (Read his stellar [*ahem*] response here. Thanks to TheBlaze for bringing Siegel to my attention.).

Maybe the photographees will never read the answers. But someone with those questions will. So I’m grateful for Siegel’s tone.

Please note: I’m not saying that people who make a career of undermining scientific progress don’t occasionally need a swift kick in the pants, or to be singed with searing, enlightening rebuttals. Sometimes what’s needed is a hailstorm of political-legal action, or a maelstrom of sharp-tongued truths. AronRa is a great example of the latter in his Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism, and the NCSE of the former. Neither of these tactics is my specialty, but I appreciate them.

I resonate with Siegel’s response because he honed in on the rawness, and perhaps without even knowing it, the fear underlying many of the questions.  These people are not stupid; they’re ill-informed, and many fear their worldview is at stake. That’s a scary feeling.

If you want to reach people with truth, avoid:

  1. exacerbating fears and negative emotions. We need more bloggers, vloggers, educators, politicians, and peers to personally reach out with love and sound science. This requires preparation, and luckily there are resources for those in creationist crosshairs.
  2. mocking and alienating anyone who asks sincerely, who’s interested in truth, who might become an ally or at least gain understanding and common ground.

With just a little more intellectual freedom and caring guidance, the people who asked those questions could become science’s new advocates. Look again. Seen through a discerning lens, the folks who thought they were asking rhetorical, unanswerable questions are revealed to be probing the cutting edge of science. How can we describe physics “before” the big bang? How did life begin, and where do we draw the line between life and non-life? How about between humans and other hominids? These are questions with scientific merit. Let’s not shrug them off. Let’s share the answers.

Oh, and I love this person’s enthusiasm for nature (below).

The world is amazing. On that we agree.

Happiness and Heroes

This week, nature has benefitted from the actions of an organization full of happy naturalists. And by “happy”, I mean people who exercise the choice to be positive and proactive. Texas Parks and Wildlife recently exemplified real positivity in response to a negative ad.

If you haven’t already heard from Children and Nature Network or Adventure Journal or your friends in the nature biz, here’s the low-down: Toys R Us recently produced an ad that paints nature field trips in a very unflattering light, and uses under-served kids as their pawns to do it. What’s the company’s suggested alternative to visiting a boring ol’ forest or spending time in the icky outdoors? Acquiring lots of (new shiny expensive breakable plastic made-in-sweatshops) toys, of course. (I’m loathe to encourage more Youtube views but if you want to see the commercial, click here.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with gift-giving, with toys, children’s joy, or philanthropy (well, highly publicized philanthropy is questionable). But among the more despicable claims about this commercial, the film crew purportedly took underprivileged kids who were actually excited to go on a field trip to a forest, trapped them on a bus, drove them around for an obscene amount of time, and exposed them to a terrible mock-up of nature interpretation, all for the purpose of a grand switcheroo – a surprise trip to a toy store for a free toy. A very emotionally charged, well-paced, exciting commercial, which unintentionally(???) stabs at less expensive, more meaningful experiences in nature.

I actually wasn’t going to respond to the commercial at all, since I couldn’t think of anything helpful to say. But Texas Parks and Wildlife did something wonderful. Did they moan? Did they write a nasty letter? Did they even deign to mention the offending commercial? No. They created a positive counter-message which stands on its own merit.

I want to shout this example to the mountains. I want us to take a page from TPWD’s book. Let’s tip our hats and hashtags to these brave and thoughtful harbingers of happiness. And in honor of them, let’s enjoy the outdoors, and inspire others to do so.