Field Notes Friday 0039: Sneak Preview of West Texas

I’m in a beautiful place that’s inspiring me to sketch. Photos are wonderful but they just can’t catch the full scale of the views I have… I only have a few moments of wifi so will have to give an update later. Guess where I am! 



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Field Notes Friday 0030: Monarch Day!

It was a day of Monarchs! I’ve never seen a migration like this… or rather, I never knew to look up at the right time before.

The actual journal page is below, but I know how my handwriting is, even when I do my best to slow down and smooth out the curves… so here’s the transcript/translation:

Social media CAN be used to reconnect people with their nature! Before I got out of bed (it was SO COLD this morning! We slept with the windows open and it dipped into the upper 40s), I checked Facebook. Both Suzanne & Michelle had commented on monarchs flying through their backyards/are (in Fort Worth). So I kept my eyes open [throughout the day], and HOLY COW! As I approached LLELA, I saw ever-thickening numbers – at first I was delighted with one, but then 15 in as many minutes… and this gave way to 150 in an hour and I lost count! They seem to be using the area just South of the dam as a highway, flying East to West. The only two or three times I saw them deviate was when a couple circled each other or a dragonfly chased one. (about 2.5 / min or 5 every 2 min)

There is something sacred and special about feeling a part of something as epic as this journey of thousands of miles. To be witness – to be graced with a canopy of monarchs – to see beauty and fragility but know it belies strength and tenacity – to finally be awake and aware enough to see how grand nature’s stories are – I am honored to be this awake, and indebted to those who have made the invisible visible by studying this incredible… being.

Monarch Day

Dad got to see it, too – he surprised me and showed up to see what the Dutch Oven Club is all about. Then we walked to the Homestead. SEeing monarchs, and honey locust, and a few other items of interest caused him to say ‘now I remember what I enjoyed so much about Lufkin.’ His family used to visit the grandparents every summer, I think.

Dear Curiosity: An Open Letter to the Curiosity Rover

Dear Curiosity, I heard about your wheel troubles recently and wanted to write to encourage you.

We’ve been your supporters since you were a baby – an idea, really. We were so excited to hear about the planning that went into making you, the testing you endured… you were bringing such promise of discovery into the world!

We were with you during your long trip, and we were with you during your harrowing landing. How tense we were during those 7 minutes – or were they 7 hours? It felt like it! – of silence as you plummeted through thin atmosphere, facing searing heat and blowing sand… and then your amazing landing! What skill! I admit we were worried – skeptical, even – about your vertical landing, which was so dependent upon 4 thrusters and a lot of other technology, but WOW. You pulled that off beautifully. It was a great start to your excellent career.

When you sent your first picture home (a photo of your foot safe on firm ground) I almost cried. You’ve continued to work steadfastly ever since then, and humanity is already benefitting from the knowledge you’re sharing. Do you have a favorite discovery yet? A favorite picture you sent, or a favorite place you’ve visited? Which of your images or discoveries do you think will impact humanity the most?

I bet the terrain looks oddly familiar. Weren’t some Earth deserts included in your training? Those rugged, red rocks, the sand and dusty horizon… although they’re Martian, the images you send home remind me a little of Arizona & New Mexico.

Which makes me wonder, are you homesick at all? Or does Mars feel like the place you belong? In a deep sense which no living creature (at least that we know of) can boast, you were made for Mars. I hope you feel a sense of awe knowing you are one of the only explorers on a planet almost as large as the entire land surface of Earth.

Let the grand scale of what you’re accomplishing buoy your spirits. Don’t focus on the state of your wheels. I know you have to travel more slowly now, and some paths may not be open to you. That’s ok. Every explorer has faced similar challenges at some point. If you continue despite hardships, and take setbacks in stride and continue to do the best work you can to benefit humanity (and the Earth and Mars of course; I don’t want to sound too human-centric), that’s what makes you a hero.

Yes, traveling through space, flying through the atmosphere, exploring for years through uncharted terrain, sending telepathic messages across millions of miles – those are all exciting endeavors, and make you worthy of the title Explorer. To be sure, your powers are like a super hero’s! But its your day to day commitment to persevere in the face of adversity that makes you a real hero.

Keep up the good work.

With gratitude,

Erin Taylor

The Happy Naturalist

Dear Curiosity

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

Caterpillars and Curiosity

My recent strange interaction with caterpillars led to curiosity, then inspiration. During a wilderness survival weekend, I was on “Earth Time” as Mark Suter calls it, and I leisurely observed caterpillars around us. But I’m not as adept at up-close vision as E.O.Wilson (who lost his long-distance vision as a child but has seemingly microscopic vision up close), so I needed help from some handy-dandy tools.

Here’s a friend’s camera and a $4 jeweler’s loupe, and how I used them together. I put the loupe at the end of the camera lens, and WOW! could I see detail!

Makeshift macro lens

I used my makeshift lens to observe a caterpillar even more closely. I was amazed at the tiny critter. I had thought its pattern was simple (a white “skull”, some blue and yellow stripes)…

tent caterpillar

Normal macro setting

…but the pattern was complicated, intricate.

tent caterpillar

the view through a loupe and macro setting

I was surprised again when I turned the loupe to a second and third caterpillar: Each caterpillar’s patterns and colors were recognizably different. I could tell the caterpillars apart.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

Start by looking at the white spots. Then look at the difference in colorful patches.

I was so intrigued, I created a palette for each, using the colored pencils I’ve recently added to my field bag.Nature's palette

Being able to tell individuals apart humanized (for lack of a better word) the caterpillars. They weren’t objects; they were individuals. Perhaps this is why (as I’ve discovered) sketching something leads to caring about it. The closer we look at anything in life, the more we understand and appreciate.

And don’t we want people to appreciate and care for the environment and its inhabitants, whether local or global?

My interest deepened to inspiration, so I’ve set brush to canvas to paint my fascination. (The tetraptych is still a work in progress, but I’ll share it eventually.)

All of this – the interaction, observation, curiosity, endearment, photography, inspiration, art – was before I knew what the species is called. But in a deeper sense, I knew the caterpillar in a way I won’t soon forget. I’d wager that this species will stay in my mind throughout my life, whether or not I recall the scientific name.

I even had a friendly wager going with a coworker. Was this a species that made the ‘tents’ on nearby tree branches, or not? As it turns out, we were both right and both wrong, at least according to the Texas Bug Book. This is a tent caterpillar, but it’s a kind that doesn’t make tents. Weird! Maybe that’s why they were falling on us from Grandmother Bur Oak…?

Obviously, there’s more to learn, and I’m grateful for the printed and online resources I’ll use. But please note: the curiosity, inspiration, endearment, and deep memorable learning wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had an experience with this species in its native habitat.

If someone had simply toldme about these caterpillars, or if I had only read about them, I might have retained the information but wouldn’t have made profound connections – connections which will deepen with time and experience, rather than facts which will erode due to irrelevance and disuse.

Field Notes Friday 0012: Kayaking for a New Perspective

If you want a new perspective of wilderness, travel by water. This is Part II of my journey down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com (Part I is here). Shameless plug: join us next time! Or tour your favorite wild place via water soon.

The SIZE of this tree! The photo doesn’t even capture it. I wondered how on earth a tree so big could have roots so shallow. I took this photo to pose the question to you. However, I think I found the answer (below). You’ll have to tell me whether you agree.Mystery tree roots

Those aren’t leaves. Grackles! It was amazing hear their noise before we could see them. They are a cacophonous group! I’ve only previously seen them congregate like this in parking lots. It was quite majestic (raining poop notwithstanding) to see them in such a large group in a wild setting.Grackles!

These look like the same root structure that puzzled me (above), and they’re attached to a live Sycamore tree. More evidence below.Sycamore roots

We discovered a mystery, and formed a hypothesis. This boat may belong to Waste Management, who runs the (very) nearby landfill. That pole may be for picking up trash along the river. Oh! And I just noticed the shovel to the right of the walkway. Perhaps there’s a regular effort by WM to clean up what the wind carries from the site. If I worked for WM, I’d ask to be on that crew.Mystery boat

As close as I could get to a nesting Great Blue Heron.Great Blue Heron and Nests

The same tree the Heron and nests are in. Look at those white branches: Sycamore for sure. Now look at the roots. Same as the mystery tree? I think so. What do you think?Sycamore with Heron Nests

The white Sycamore branches against the blue sky. (Because… color!) Without the river to erode the land, I’d never see Sycamore roots displayed so clearly. Sycamores are spread widely in the area, so unless I hike for many miles, only traveling by river will give me this perspective.Sycamore and Sky

Two species compared: Turkey vulture and Black vulture.Black and Turkey Vulture comparison

I learned something about kayaking in the late winter: it’s a birding fiesta. Winter birding on the water is breathtaking. You startle Great Blue Herons and Egrets (unintentionally, of course), who fly hundreds of yards down the river just to be disturbed by you again and take to their giant wings in dramatic fashion, uttering prehistoric calls.

Approaching a volt of vultures who watch you dispassionately till you cross a threshold only they perceive, then suddenly, individually, take off and soar above you, is awe-inspiring.A Volt of Vultures 1 A Volt of Vultures 2 A Volt of Vultures 3

My grandfather-in-law wanted to reincarnate as a vulture, and I can see why.I love vultures.

I hope you’ve glimpsed how much wildness you can experience via kayak (or other human-powered water craft). Join us next time, or take a kayak or canoe to your own wild space.

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

Kayak for Better Eco-Vision

There’s nothing like seeing wild places via river! This is a mix of thoughts and images from a February 15 kayak trip down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com. I’ve made the trip before, but it’s enticingly different every time. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to explore, too.

Here’s Mike Swope (owner of KayakPower.com), demonstrating 1) a cut bank being eroded by the river, and 2) his dislike of being photographed. It’s great to review geology and hydrology while floating on the water and basking in sunshine. KayakPower.com

I love kayaking along tight lanes and tangled banks. Tangled Banks and Tight Turns

Have you noticed certain spots that are favorites of, and apparently often visited by, wildlife? This one wouldn’t be visible to me except via boat. This pile of barely-digested hackberries says ‘raccoon’ to me. What do you think? Raccoon Scat?

One of those tangled banks I love. I haven’t figured out how to photograph them and do them justice. The wilder the river, the more beautiful sites like this.Tangled Bank

In a side channel, I ventured out of the kayak, walked around and found stark differences in soil types exposed by the river. The yellow is sandy/rocky, and the grey is clay. The clay was sculpted by the ripples of the years. I’ve felt skeptical about ancient wave patterns becoming fossilized, but after seeing this clay preserve wave shapes so faithfully, I don’t doubt anymore.Clay and Sand

I thought this was the largest bobcat track I’ve ever seen… but the animal appears to have sunk in the mud so deeply that claw marks show. I reminded myself with a little research that bobcat tracks have an ‘m’ shaped palm or ‘interdigital pad’. But the track is so wide! I know a large male bobcat lives at LLELA near where I took this photo – I know it’s male because I saw him mark a tree – so I thought maybe this track was his. LLELA is an urban wilderness, so this could be the track of a very large, wide-footed dog. What do you think? Coyote? Bobcat? Dog?

It was a spot well traveled by several species. Again, inaccessible unless you’re willing to get wet.Well traveled waterway

Soil horizons? Urban upheaval? Different flood deposits? I look forward to spending more resources (like time) learning about soils. To me, this looks like Blackland Prairie soil overlaid with Crosstimbers soil. That might make sense along the Elm Fork, which has spent centuries blurring the boundaries between the two in its floodplain. Rivers lay bare the secrets of the soil. Soils

A tree which budded out very early. Elm?Elm?

The remains of a bridge from Old Town Lewisville. Was it for trains or regular road traffic? My kayaking companions debated.Old Town Lewisville Bridge

A perfect bank for a rest, a snack, and a sneak photo from a hill. I’ll take another rest now and keep my 500-or-fewer words promise. Please join me for Part II of the river trip!River bank

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

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!

Field Notes Friday 0010: If I Can Sketch, You Can Sketch

A compilation of my faltering, embarrassing, improving sketches… as encouragement to anyone who feels his or her skills are not good enough to share!

1. Sketching is a practice-able skill. No one is born able to do it.
2. Sketching hones your observation skills, encourages you to think in new ways, and adds life to your notes.
3. You are not the worst!

Here is clear, undeniable evidence that you MUST be able to sketch, and you can now be brave enough to share your sketches on #FieldNotesFriday.

I mean, come on. I’m sharing these.

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