Reducing Rumination

With the onset of winter and the reduction of natural light, holidays, and ugh…the elections, we may have a tendency to fall into rumination. As a biologist rumination sounds like ruminants, which are mammals like deer that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion through microbial actions. It can be fun and rewarding to ruminate on a thought, pondering, digging deep into the realm of pure focus. Rumination, however, is a medical term describing the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.  Rumination is the retracing of past mistakes.

Rumination shows up as increased activity in a brain region called the sub-genual prefrontal cortex, a narrow band in the lower part of the brain that regulates negative emotions. If rumination continues for too long unabated, depression can set it.

While visits to psychologists to cure one’s ruination might be expensive, one of the most effective cures is free.  An American nature philosopher penned the answer to rumination more than 150 years ago. In 1862, Henry David Thoreau wrote  “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods.”   Thoreau extolled (and extolled and extolled) the virtues of walking in untamed environments. In the decades since, psychologists have proved him right. Exposure to nature has been shown repeatedly to reduce stress and boost well being.

The same research promoting walking in nature also shows that mere walking, especially in an urban/suburban environment does not yield the same effects. For a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford scientists examined whether a nature walk could reduce rumination in 38 mentally healthy people. They picked city dwellers because, the researchers predicted, they would have “a somewhat elevated level of rumination resulting from the ongoing and chronic stressors associated with the urban experience.” Half the participants walked for 90 minutes through a grassland dotted with oak trees and shrubs (“views included scenic hills, and distant views of the San Francisco Bay”). The other half took a jaunt along El Camino Real, a four-lane, traffic-logged street in Palo Alto.

The nature walkers showed decreases in rumination and in activity in their sub-genual prefrontal cortices. The urban walkers showed no such improvements.

Decreases in rumination are linked to so-called “positive distractions,” like taking part in a hobby or enjoying a long chat with a friend. You’d think that walking in uninterrupted nature wouldn’t provide many diversions from a whorl of dark thoughts. Surprisingly, the opposite seemed to be true: Natural environments are more restorative, the authors write, and thus confer greater psychological benefits.

On this Sunday, brimming with color autumn day, it is time for a walk.~

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The Ecological Beauty of Wasps

Our first full day of autumn has arrived and the oak leaves have already shown brilliant reds and yellows.  Bluebirds and other migratory birds are doing their zugunruhe dance, and though predicted to be a poor year, steelhead trout are returning to their freshwater homes.

It is also a great time for picnics because our friends the wasps are starting to wane and soon disappear when cold temperatures take over.   A new study (not at all surprising) places wasps at the bottom of our insect like list, while their close relatives, bees are now a favorite.  From minus five to plus five choices, 750 surveyors from 46 countries gave wasps an average of minus 3.  Common words associated with bees were “honey, flowers, and pollination,” and with wasps “stinging, annoying, and dangerous.”   However, wasps also pollinate flowers, and are just as important to the environment as bees.

Nearly every pest insect on our planet is preyed upon by wasps.  Wasps are so adept at destroying true pests that the agriculture industry regularly employs them to protect crops! As a pollinator, without wasps we would be overrun with insect pests, and we would have no figs, and no Fig Newtons.

While the wasp sting is generally feared, only percent of wasps sting for defense. Most are solitary.  Some have great names like tarantula killer and mud dauber.  When the colonial yellow and black wasps show up at your next picnic, they are most more interested in finding insect prey to bring back to their hives to feed their larvae.

Wasps and Yeast

Researchers at the University of Florence recently discovered another important role of both hornets and paper wasps–they carry yeast cells in their guts. We know little about how yeast lives in the wild. The researchers found that wasps and hornets feed on late-season grapes, which are rich in wild yeast. The yeast survives the winter in the stomachs of hibernating queen wasps and is passed on to their offspring when the mother wasps regurgitate food for their young. The new generation of wasps carries the yeast back to the next season’s grapes. So raise your glass to the wasps and hornets!~

 

Small Water

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Lake Itsaca source of the Mississippi River

 

Many ponds make a bucket.  Many ponds make a lake, and many lakes make an ocean.”       Percy Ross

After four months of triple-digit drought, to feel the sensation of cool wind-driven mist last evening, I offer an Ode to Water, a hearty salute to small bodies of water such as springs, seeps, ponds, invisible ground water emanations and of course puddles!

Every river starts somewhere.  I am fortunate to be writing by a fair-sized river and amazingly I am alone here with gray skies and non-swimming temperatures.  Somewhere upstream lies the river’s source, its entry to the world.  No Olympics-worthy steelhead trout can negotiate the steep terrain to access that precious locale.  No one has any interest in recreating there.  No environmental regulations protect the vital space.

These watershed beginnings will dictate the condition of their downstream brethren.  Whether the creek flows year-round may depend on how much flow is pumped by the headwaters during the dry months.  If the small water riparian area is logged, flooding will be exasperated, and if livestock stir the silt, spawning area salmon eggs could suffocate. And while the rivers teem with the big fish, minnows and froglings frolic in small waters.

To our societal credit we seem to protect our small water drinking sources.  Portlanders can trace their sweet tap water to the utterly pristine Bull Run Lakes, off-limits to humans. Now, if we can only extend our blanket of conservation priorities to other oases.

Take care of small waters and the big waters will rejoice.  ~

 

 

 

 

An American Tourist

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“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

— Gustave Flaubert

“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.”   — Bill Bryson

We are back today from our third trip to one of the most scenically beautiful spots in all of Italy, the town of Lecco.  With granite Alp foothills framing one side, the sky-blue Lake Como on the other,  and being newly diverse in culture, Lecco is surprisingly not a place to findother American visitors. And not a place ever featured in Lonely Planet Italy.

Traveling abroad puts your country of origin in the spotlight.  Despite political landmines, it is easy to find many topics of agreement and interest with your host nation’s citizens.  It is not “How’s the weather,” starting conversation on the trains or in a cafe, but of course, “Where are you from?” or “Where is the…?  During our 12 days, it was a 50-50 split between we asking how to get somewhere versus people looking to us (for unknown reasons?) for assistance.  While Lecco-ans would not normally acknowledge us as we walked by, to a person, they would always respond with a smile and response if we initiated the greeting.

I prioritized saying hello to others who I met and tried to be helpful, though language barriers can really interfere with comfortable and effective communication.  Once I thought I was asking my Italian mother in law whether she like focaccia bread and instead inquired whether she liked cheese!

Lecco has abundant mountain trails, ski areas, lakefront for strolling or bicycling, but no one to promote or interpret them. I know these facts to be true because I co-taught with my son two classes on “How to Become a Local Tour Guide” to English-speaking college students.  Lecco reminds me of the Columbia River Gorge 30 years ago when the area was overflowing with tourist potential, yet wind-surfing/kite boarding were invisible, and Mt. Hood skiing was the only outdoor recreation of considerable interest.

My basic premise on conserving lands is that if you educate the local citizens (especially students) on the importance of protecting your nearby natural treasures, they will become the best ecologists.  With the vast majority of hikers we encountered being Italians, Lecco can enhance its tourism image by promoting and interpreting their nature landscapes, while at the same time making contact with the Australians who apparently are the largest group of tourists.  ~

 

 

 

 

 

A Four Note Hoot: Spotted Owl Surveys under a Mt. Adams Moon

CaliforniaSpottedOwl_FlickrCommons_IlyaKatsnelson_BYFor years our Memorial Day weekend has been a halcyon outdoor adventure to explore mostly unknown wild places in Oregon and Washington.  A week ago, our trip had to be delayed due to The Blind Princess musical being scheduled during the holiday and due to an unexpected invitation to conduct spotted owl surveys for the US Forest Service.   The thread between the two events was not lost on me: a play about turning blindness into sight, versus also attempting against all odds to hear a local extinct owl echo our Mp3 player series of calls.  Regarding the surveys, I wonder what nearby campers were thinking when exposed to the strange recordings at one in the morning!

Spotted owls have been studied since the 1960’s, and miraculously, the species became federally threatened in 1990 just one month after starting my Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife career.  As the local Habitat Biologist tasked with determining suitable spotted owl habitat, I was immediately thrust into a boiling cauldron of environmental controversy.  The shy bird became the savior symbol of bio-diverse old-growth forests while conversely as the ruination scapegoat of the timber industry.  The spotted owl may still be the only bird to ever grace the cover of Time Magazine.

In the early 1990’s when spotted owl surveys preceded nearly all timber sales on the Mt. Adams Ranger District in south-central Washington, dozens of pairs were discovered through the same call and response system used today.  A positive call prompted the next phase of trying to locate whether the owls were nesting.  It was time to bring the lab mice into the woods.  Believe it or not a sacrificial rodent was placed on a branch and the owls would swoop down and either eat their dinner on a nearby tree or tote the mouse to the nest site to be consumed by their owlets.

Ten years ago, owl surveyors returned to the White Salmon basin and instead of locating plentiful numbers, they only detected one bird.   So far, our work has not revealed any spotted owls.

If there is a place and time for any unpredictable occurrences to arise, it would be in the middle of the night, in the deep forest, and definitely under a full moon.  So we continue our surveys with that hope, that dream, because a landscape without night denizens is far too quiet and lonely for me. ~

Migration

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We are just beginning to see birds return to the Columbia Gorge from their southern paradises.  At its most basic, migration is the movement of a group of animals from one place to another and, in most cases, back again. Most migration is seasonal when birds return here in the spring and leave in the fall.

While we are most familiar with avian migration, land and sea mammals can roam hundreds of miles, tiny monarch butterflies flitter thousands of miles, spotted frogs hop to ponds to lay eggs, snakes slither to communal den sites in the autumn season, and even jellyfish larvae undertake a journey.

Many animals migrate to avoid harsh winter conditions or to follow available food as the seasons change. Migration can have another important benefit. By allowing animals to escape from habitats where parasites have accumulated and by weeding out infected individuals that are not able to survive the journey, migration can reduce parasite infection in animal populations.

When human-provided food resources allow some animals to forego migration and form resident populations, the consequences can be dire. For one thing, by the time migrants return, resident individuals may already be taking up breeding territories and resources, putting the migrants at a competitive disadvantage. And many of those resident animals the migrants encounter may be infected by parasites.

Placing barriers to species on the move becomes seriously problematic.  Dams, barb-wire fences, Border Walls, highways, clearcut logging, and polar waters without ice all unnecessarily prevent animals from reaching their destinations.

The dams result in less fish and a sea lion smorgasbord.  Barb-wire fences prevent bison, antelope, and elk from finding home.  Highways create deadly hazards for wildlife and people.  Clearcuts reduce wildlife diversity and make it kind of hard for tree-nesting species.  Ice-free waters bring starving polar bears into northern towns. And a Border Wall would bring additional misery and challenges to desperate migrants.

Migration occurs in the animal realm because resources on Earth fluctuate and the benefits of long distant travel outweigh their costs.  Migration occurs in the human realm because politics and power fluctuate and the benefits of long distance travel outweigh their costs.  Migration will only work for all if greater commitment is shown to eliminating all forms of exploitation and discrimination that migrants experience and to ensuring that their fundamental human rights are upheld. ~

 

Youth on the Move

The children of the United States have taken up the cause of Anti-Gun Violence and it seems for the first time we are seeing change.  New organizations such as “Youth Again Gun Violence” are attracting young people not only in the cities but in the gun-toting West.

The same is true regarding environmental conservation: There is a refreshing wave of youth activism. University students, teenagers, and children are appearing on world stages, suing governments, affecting policy, using new tools, and making a difference. The conservation and restoration world is waking up to the power of young environmental activists. The most recent IUCN World Conservation Congress dedicated much of its programming to “Youth Voices” and “Next Generations.” The theme of the UN’s 2017 World Wildlife Day was “Listen to the young voices.”

Are we listening? Are we seeking the involvement of young leaders in our work? If not, we’d better start.

With their passion, drive, creativity, and ability to capture audiences we may sometimes find hard to reach, young environmental activists bring a lot to the table.

Let us highlight a few young environmental activists in the U.S. who are taking action at distinctly different scales.

Seventeen-year-old indigenous climate activist  Xiuhtezcatl Martinez from Colorado first spoke out on behalf of the environment at the age of six. By age 12, he was addressing audiences at the Rio+20 United Nations Summit. By 15, the U.N. General Assembly. Today he continues to inspire worldwide audiences, but his voice has extended far beyond speeches. An author, hip-hop artist, and youth director of the global non-profit organization Earth Guardians, he is at the forefront of an environmental movement that is mobilizing young people around the globe.

Evan Maminski, Destiny Watford & Charles Graham and members of their youth-led organization Free Your Voice prevented the nation’s largest trash incinerator from being built less than a mile from their high school. They are continuing to fight for environmental justice in their neighborhood, and the world is taking notice. Last year, they were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.

When nature-loving, nine-year-old Robbie Bond heard that President Trump signed an Executive Order calling for the review of 27 National Monuments designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906, he founded Kids Speak for Parks and embarked on a journey to visit all 27 sites and review them for himself. In sharing the wonder he discovers at each site through social media he aims to build an army of kids who will speak out to protect parks.

Locally in the Columbia Gorge, the Hood River Ecology Club is a group of high school students determined to make their school and the Columbia River Gorge more sustainable and environmentally aware. One of many noteworthy projects was building two compost kiosks to reduce the amount of waste Hood River Valley High School produces yearly.

Youth are leading the way.  They deserve our support and thanks!

 

The Place Where Air is Born

“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

We take air for granted.  Unless we are inflicted with respiratory challenges or live in a place where the air smells like snakes, we breathe in and exhale without effort or thought.  Where the air is perfumed with scent and blossoms, we breathe deeply.  We also may pause to appreciate the utter freshness of brand new air at its source…the ocean.

While air in the eastern states is sticky humid and in the desert west oven dry, air brought in from ocean waves invites us to recognize the pureness of our breath in order to maximize health and a sense of well being.

While I’d like to believe the ocean air is concocted by Thor or cloud nymphs with  wands, it is our invaluable source of life, El Sol, that creates the wind. Uneven heating of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere causes hot air in some areas, and cooler air elsewhere. This difference in temperature and pressure causes wind.

And what atoms comprise the wind? There’s oxygen from ocean plants in every breath we take. Most of this oxygen comes from the sea garden of tiny ocean plants – called phytoplankton – that live near the water’s surface and drift with the currents. Like all green plants, they photosynthesize – magically using sunlight and carbon dioxide to make food. A byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen.  This is the perfect relationship: our need for oxygen, green plants requiring our carbon dioxide. Breathing in, breathing out. ~

An Inextinguishable Hope

Welcome to 2018.  While many would like to say good riddance to a year of sewer-politics, deadly fires, last winter bone-chilling weather, and the all too many divisions that rip at our families and communities, we know there were other accomplishments and miracles to celebrate:

  1.  Hajar: The odds had been been stacked against Hajar, a lion cub born just hours after her mother Dana, rescued from a defunct zoo in a war-torn Syria, was released into a wildlife reserve in Jordan. Dana and 12 other animals had barely survived under harsh conditions in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a major battleground.  They were transported from Syria to Turkey and then to Jordan by the international animal charity Four Paws.
  2.   The Columbia Gorge Fire: 48,000 acres, days of breathing acrid smoke, Cascade Locks evacuations….and hundreds of logs to be placed into streams for fish habitat, new seedlings already thriving in the core of the fire Eagle Creek, and historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, fully intact and open for business.  Opportunities to explore new trails on both sides of the Columbia River.  A new beginning for stewardship.
  3. The People Have Spoken!:  In the heart of red-state Broadhurst, Georgia, the Wayne County commissioners were unaccustomed to a big audience. Over the previous weeks, the local newspaper had uncovered plans by an out-of-town waste hauler to expand a rail line leading to the community’s landfill. County residents were becoming increasingly concerned with each story. This new rail spur would enable the company—later found to be Republic Services, a $9-billion firm based in Phoenix whose biggest shareholder is Microsoft’s Bill Gates—to haul 10,000 tons of toxic coal ash through the county’s swampy forest lands and into the dump every day. Some 15 months later, to the great surprise of the anti-coal ash coalition, the community’s campaign paid off. In April, Republic abruptly announced in an email that it was withdrawing its applications for permits that would allow it to haul coal ash into Broadhurst!
  4. Starfish Comeback: Baby starfish are making a comeback in Oregon and California just two years after disease nearly wiped out the small but integral sea creature, scientists reported five days ago. 

    Starfish, also known as sea stars, are crucial predators that eat mussels and barnacles, keeping their populations under control, scientists said. Studies have shown large populations of mussels will crowd an area, leaving no room for algae or small invertebrates.

    Officials are hopeful the increase in babies will mean a resurgence of the starfish population. A new study by Oregon State University scientists showed an increase of purple ochre starfish babies that was 300 times the normal rate.

    May your hopes never falter, never flicker out.  Happy New Year!  Happy New Hope!

Fore Bear-ance

For years in the forested wild lands of northern Washington, a few Methow Valley landowners held a secret…wolves had returned to the Pacific Northwest and they were living on their property.  In 2008, the word was out. Wolf presence was big news in Okanogan County, especially when the Forest Service suddenly informed a rancher that he could not turn his cattle onto Libby Creek, where he’d held a decade-old permit to graze on public land, due to potential impacts to wolf dens.  Later in 2008, several Methow wolves were killed by ranchers.

Protection of wolves by some private landowners and persecution of wolves by some ranchers again focuses on the vital need for community input and dialogue regarding natural resource issues. Could the denial of the rancher’s permit have been handled in a different way? If the Methow ranchers had been approached by the government when wolves were confirmed in the area, might that outreach have prevented the wolf killings?

As the wolf management debate rages on in both Washington and Oregon, the inevitably of grizzly bears also moving in from Canada should give the government and private landowners a heads up to get out in front of the great bear’s return.

In Montana, there is a group of private landowners who have banded together to make sure both bears and cows can co-exist on private ranching lands in the Tom Miner Basin of Montana, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The 30-square-mile basin is home to not only a wolf pack, but also the densest populations of grizzly bears in the Lower 48. Thirty to forty adult bears live in the aspen-fringed draws and fir-studded peaks that weave through the Tom Miner Basin, and the area has become a model for what conservationists call “predator coexistence”: the art of sharing the landscape with bears and wolves.

Malou Anderson-Ramirez, a Montana rancher running 300 beef cattle, started the basin’s range riding program with her sister-in-law Hilary Zaranek-Anderson. They started hiring a few riders every summer to patrol the area’s herds. “The objective is very simple,” Anderson-Ramirez says. “You go out and check cattle.” Today, both women manage the program with the goal of minimizing livestock kills, but also helping ranchers stay more attuned to the health of their animals by relaying back information about the herd.

Ensuring the rare wildlife species survive into the future will involve private land and private landowners, and the lessons of the Methow and Montana can be instrumental in bringing all voices into the conversation to find ways to benefit for both wild and domestic animals. ~