Thursday, June 28, 2012

Post #18 What do you see when you look at the forest?

Over their working lives, each naturalist adopts and hones a unique way of understanding a landscape.  I've met naturalists that are instinctively aware of a landscape's surface and ground water: where its flowing from, where its flowing to, the sediments its carrying and where it is likely to deposit them.  To these naturalists, ancient landforms made by water (like deltas, kames or outwash plains) are the building blocks of the landscape; the initial eye-grabbers upon which all other landscape features fit into.  

Other naturalists think in terms of edible and medicinal plants.  When they walk through the forest they first see the roots, buds, leaves, and inner bark of these useful plants which, to them, are the landscape's building blocks, upon which all other ecological information relates to. 

I am unlike these naturalist; I don't automatically see underground water and I can't instinctively assess the medicinal value of a hillside.  I do, however, have my own way of understanding a landscape instinctively repeats as I go from region to region, place to place.  My way was not taught to me or deliberately developed; it just sort of came about.  Here's my way:  I consider how a place's 3-dimensional space is shaped and filled.  An ecologist would call this an ecosystem's 'structure'.  I instinctively wonder, "Is the forest dense or is it spacious?", "Are there holes is the forest's canopy?",  "What is the topography like?", "Are there lots of plants growing on the forest floor that make it difficult to navigate and maneuver through?"  As I ask myself these questions and process their answers, I construct a 3-D mental image in my head to help keep track of all the information.

A place's 'structure' is how its contents are spatially arranged.  An example of an uncommon forest structure, the Ossipee Pine Barrens of New Hampsire.  Here, there is a dense mat of lowbush blueberry on the ground and a stand of even age pitch pine trees.  

Why do I focus on a place's structure?  Why is a place's structure tell me me?  A place's structure tells me: 
  • what animals might live there
  • what plants might live there
  • how wind might move through it 
  • how sunlight intercepts it
  • where water might be found (which goes on to tell me lots of other things...)
  • about past land use
  • about past disturbances, etc.
Yes, all of these little details are foretold to me by a place's structure– how it is laid out, filled up and arranged.  Instinctively focusing on structure is my way of initially understanding a place.  You can call it my 'framework', and you can think of it as my brain's auto-pilot or mental scaffolding.  It's the way that I naturally experience my world.

Although it is my framework (and therefor I am a bit biased toward it) I must admit that both the naturalist who thinks of water and the naturalist who thinks of edible plants use their frameworks to deeply understand their natural environment as well.  Really, there is nothing special about my framework, except that it is mine.  As long as a framework works, it's as good as the next.  The best naturalists slide easily from framework to framework as they construct a comprehensive understanding of a place.   

So now I ask YOU a question.  How do YOU make sense of your surroundings?  What is your framework?  What do you see first?  What makes the most sense to you?  What are the building blocks of your backyard?  How do you arrange the pieces of your landscape?  How do you arrange your thoughts?  How do you arrange your thoughts about your landscape?  Is your framework built around sound, light, angles, bugs, birds, dirt, hills, topography, stone walls, air?  Surely, there is no right or wrong way to understand a landscape–there are only different ways.

The way you think about your environment is kind of like mental scaffolding.  Mental scaffolding holds and secures your concepts, assumptions, unknowns, fears and past experiences into an understanding.  

What if I don't consider myself a naturalist?  Do I still use a framework to understand nature? 
Of course you do.  Everyone uses a framework to understand nature.  The gardener, the painter, the casual hiker, the admirer of sunsets and the dog walker all use a framework to understand their natural environment.  Frameworks are a natural part of thinking.

Why is it important to identify your framework?
Most of my readers are interested in being stewards of their backyards, watersheds and towns.  The first step toward stewardship is knowing your natural environment.  What organisms do you share your backyard with?  What are the animals that have to cross the street in order to breed?  Which plants are affected most by the white tail deer?  Tuning into your surroundings is key.  As you tune in, your framework is dictating which pieces of your natural environment you understand and how you understand them.  By identifying your framework (in other words, understanding how you understand nature) your study of nature will be expanded, deepened, illuminated, enlightened and simply, made better.  Your framework is working to shape your world 24/7 weather you acknowledge it or not, so you might as well identify it and use it to your advantage.

What now? 
Go step outside and, as your thoughts start to process the natural world, pay attention to them.  Write these thoughts down and organize them into a concept map.  Talk about your thoughts with different people.  Continue to pay attention to your thoughts, your framework will reveal itself.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Post #17 The sit spot

My last post was a list of observations I made from my back patio while drinking my morning coffee.   It illustrated that wild nature is found everywhere–even in our backyards–and it is our job as responsible stewards to observe and understand it.  Today's post is about a simple technique that will help you observe and understand your wild backyards a little better.  The technique is call a 'sit spot'.  A sit spot is simply a convenient place that you return to frequently to sit.  Your sit spot can be as simple as your porch, patio or garden bench; you don't need to seek out an adventurous or otherwise impressive sit spot like a mountaintop or deep ravine.  Once at your sit spot, you are only to observe.  Anything and everything is fair game:  calling squirrels, chirping birds, hiding moths, blowing wind, dripping water, tunneling ants, falling acorns.  There is no goal, per se, but the idea is that by sitting in a place again and again the sitter slowly gains insight into nature.

Insight from sitting?  Is Tate crazy?  Well, let's take for example the American robin, one bird that almost everyone knows.  The American robins can be found just about everywhere you look: farms, small woodlots, cities, suburbs, college campuses.  They are present in our various stages of human development– they are the first birds identifiable by children and the last birds forgotten by aging adults.  I even found them on the Arctic tundra of Alaska!  Yet considering their commonness, can you answer the following questions about the American robin:
  • What do robins sound like?    
  • How deep are their nests?
  • How can you tell a male robin is courting a female robin?
  • How do robins clean their nest?
  • What noise does a robin make when it spots a cooper's hawk in the forest?
  • What do robins eat in the winter?
  • What do robins eat in the summer?
  • What is typical foraging behavior for a robin?
  • From which part of a tree can a robin be expected to sing from? 
The ubiquitous American robin.  So common, yet so mysterious.   

When we start to think about the details of the robin's life, we realize that we know almost nothing.   
When we start to realize that the robin has its own life–outside of our briefly identifying it–we can begin to understand and relate to it.  I often use the following analogy:
Think of a good friend.  Picture their face and recall their name.  Think of some notable experiences you have shared with them.  Think of how deep your relationship is.  Love.  Respect.  Openness.  Understanding.  Now think of all that would be lost if your relationship was instantly reduced to only knowing their name and being able to identity them in a crowd.  No more passion or family, history or camaraderie.  Just 'Bob, the guy with a beer gut, glasses and a shaved head'.  Wouldn't that be a shame?  Believe it or not, the same goes for your relationship with the robin.  It can be as deep or as superficial as you like.

Now back to your sit spot.  By visiting your sit spot over and over again, you will begin to see patterns, cycles and changes in nature.  The place around your sit spot will take on new meaning and put the rest of your life into a larger context.  You can expect to feel a connectedness and familiarity with your sit spot.  You will start to see the lives of the trees, bugs, birds, and rocks of your backyard.

You may have some questions.

How often should I visit my sit spot?
As often as possible.  Every day is great.  Once a week is better than nothing.  Less than once a week might make it difficult to build momentum.

Where should my sit spot be?
Very close to your house.  Backyard, side yard, front yard, porch, your kid's tree house– it doesn't matter as long as you are comfortable and outside.  Ideally, your
 sit spot should be very convenient– this way you are more likely to visit.  
A yellow Adirondack chair on a back patio.  This could be your sit spot. 
How long should I sit at my sit spot?
15 minutes per sit would be great.  You would be amazed at what you can experience in 15 minutes.  Imagine what you can experience in 30 or 40 minutes at your sit spot.  Some days will be longer than others and that's ok.

What should I do at my sit spot?
Just observe.  No observation is too small or unimportant.  For example, the number of times the robin called before flying to the ground, the color pattern on a fly's wing or how a tree bends in the wind– all these things have significance.  Here is what you do:
  • Allow your body to relax.  As you observe things, catalog the experience.  Write things down or sketch pictures in a special notebook (don't worry, if you don't consider yourself an artist no one else will see it).  If you are the diligent note taker, after just a few weeks of periodic sitting you will have a rich set of notes, pictures, diagrams and maps– keep these, they are priceless for understanding what's around you.
  • Catalogue what's around you.  Flowers, trees, bugs, rocks, water, wind–they are all important.  Don't worry if you don't know the name of a plant or animal.  Give them your own names. Instead of naming it 'highbush blueberry' you can call it 'canoe-leaved berry bush'.  An organism's name is not currently important, their lives are important.  Their names will come with time.  Keep records as organisms come and go through time (for instance, how winter birds differ from summer birds).          
  • Make a 'sound map' (see below).  A sound map is an illustrated 'map' of the sounds that you are hearing in relation to you.  Don't worry about precision or scale, the purpose of the map is just to organize what you are hearing.       

A sound map made by a child.  A sound map like this helps you organize what you are hearing and give it a spatial context.  This is a very simple sound map.  Yours may have many more sounds on it.    

Can I tell anyone about my sit spot?
Yes, talking about the experiences at your sit spot will help you process them.            

Here is an interesting video where nature mentor Jon Young talks about the importance of keeping a sit spot.  Although his purposes are a little more sophisticated and advanced than ours, he is tapping into the fundamental power and usefulness of sitting.  This is a cute video about keeping a sit spot.

What does sitting have to do with our Living Lighter on the Land campaign?  Remember that through  Living Lighter on the Land we strive to rethink our place on the planet?  Sitting shows us what we never knew about nature.  More importantly, sitting teaches us what we didn't know was even possible to know about nature.  With these new tools, we can start to rethink our place on the planet.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Post # 16 Meet the neighbors

The following is an account of this morning's activities:

7:01 am.  Rise

7:02 am. Visit bathroom

7:03-7:25 am.  Stretch

7:32 am. Start coffee, step outside, sit on patio.  Observe:  
  • blue skies, no clouds
  • 58 degrees F.
  • humidity low
  • no noticeable scent on air

7:33 am.
7:34 am.
  • honeybee flies past (where is it feeding?)
  • high altitude jet flies overhead, heading south, leaves contrail
  • motorcycle speeds past the driveway (probably in 4th gear), heading south
  • vireo continues to sing
  • nuthatches continue to call
  • chipmunk chirps from patch of grass on hill
  • wineberry flowers are opening, no bumble bees on them yet

7:35 am.
  • light breeze twinkles the tops of mature trees next to the house
  • single leaf falls from black birch tree next to the clothes line (falling in June?)

7:36 am.  Inside kitchen, pour hot coffee, add half and half

My patio and backyard.  Weather permitting, this is where I enjoy my morning coffee and tune into the lives of my (nonhuman) neighbors.  

7:37 am.  Back outside sitting on patio.  Observe:
  • unidentified bird (dark colored, compact, slightly smaller than a robin) whistles from the pignut hickory tree, flies to a nearby sugar maple, calls, then flies back to hickory
  • nuthatch calls increase and are matched by nuthatches on opposing side of the house
  • sip coffee
  • nuthatches spread out among four trees and continue to call
  • unidentified bird (similar in size to a robin) flies over the house from the south
  • American robin calls from the cliff to the south
  • vireo continues to sing
7:38-7:39 am.
7:40 am.
  • take a big sip of coffee
  • two planes overhead, one flying south, a higher one flying southeast
7:40 am. and 30 seconds- 7:43 am.  Walk with coffee in hand to a patch of grass next to the porch.
  • the blue-eyed grass is still closed from the night (I wonder what time it opens?)
  • red admiral butterfly is startled and flies away
  • the lady's thumb is in full bloom 
  • the white clover is in full bloom
  • gulp coffee
  • nuthatches again congregate on a single tree
  • unidentified moth (smaller than red admiral, white wings with black spots near wing tip), flies over the patch of grass and continues toward the flowering dogwood tree
7:44 am.  Back to the porch, sitting.  Observe:
7:45 am.  Inside kitchen to make breakfast...I wonder what else I'll find today...

Since March 2012,  I have written weekly Blog posts describing specific ways that people can live lighter on the land: ecological landscaping, garden tips, energy efficient appliances, green home-building techniques.  Today's post marks the beginning of a new thread, and one that is foundational to all the rest – knowing what you are living among.  As stewards of the earth we must first know the earth.  As stewards of your backyard you must first know your backyard.  As I have illustrated above, there are entire worlds taking place in our backyards; rich lives of plants and animals that go wholly unknown.  One of these days– when you're ready– go out and meet the neighbors.  That's the first step to Living Lighter on the Land.        

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Post #14 Insulating your hot water heater

Imagine...its a cold February morning and the dog needs to be walked.  Overnight lows were in the teens and you slept to the sound of a hard winter wind nipping at the house.  Anyone that has experienced a good, cold winter knows that getting up and out the door in the morning requires a fair bit of technical planning; there's the long underwear, thick socks, snow pants, turtle necks, wool sweaters and to top it all off, a big jacket (down parka or stylish ski jacket, perhaps).  As the dog crosses his legs, you apply the appropriate armor.

Now're on a summer vacation at the ocean (use your imagination...Hawai'i, maybe Florida?).  The shade from your umbrella is the only thing keeping you from melting away in the blazing sun.  You dig your feet into the sand to a depth that is still moist and cool.  You grab a cold soda from the cooler and it immediately starts to sweat.  Instinctively, put it in a 'coozy' (see picture below).  That coozy – that little piece of decorated foam – is the only thing keeping your drink from turning into a hot mess.    

A Simpsons-inspired 'beer coozy'.  
What do these two scenarios have in common?  That's right – INSULATION!  When I was younger I didn't fully understand how insulation worked; I thought that there was something warm inside my turtle neck.  I thought that there was heat produced from my down jacket.  Now, after knowing a little bit more about the universe, I understand the true role of an insulator.  An insulator's job is to merely act as a barrier between an internal environment (for example, your body) and an outside environment (for example, the cold January morning).  The down jacket doesn't produce the heat (your body does), but it keeps the heat near your body.  The coozy doesn't produce the cold (the ice in the cooler makes the soda cold), but it keeps the cold near the soda.  Amazingly simple and effective technology, really.

Now on to the Armstrong House, which – like most houses- has a hot water heater.  How do we keep the heat in the hot water heater?  We put a removable 3.2 inch thick foam insulator around our tank to constantly trap its heat.  Think about it.  Your hot water tank is usually hot (or at least warm) and whenever its temperature exceeds that of the outside air (essentially all the time) it is releasing heat.  Every minute, every hour, ever day the average home owner is heating up water only to loose some of it as waste heat to a cold room.  Take a look at our water heater's insulator, essentially a giant beer coozy. 
The removable 3.2 inch foam insulator for my hot water heater.  Just one of the steps toward energy efficiency at the Armstrong House.  
Our insulator and the tank it was specifically designed to fit, were manufactured by Schuco, a German company specializing in solar power, high insulating windows and 'solar hot water' systems (the topic of a future Blog post).  You can see from the picture that the insulator fits snugly and even has windows and little detachable pieces to facilitate the tank's service.  You may be saying, "Well that's great for you, you bought your insulator and tank together so you know they fit perfectly.  But how do I insulate my standard water tank?"  There is hope.  There are companies out there that make insulators to fit your tank- whatever the style, size or model.  See this video about do-it-yourself tank insulation part 1, part 2.            
What about savings?  Energy and $$$?  The amount you will save depends on many factors, including the size and current insulation value of your tank and how hot you keep it. Here is a website from the United State Department of Energy that quotes annual energy savings and payback period.  

Remember- part of Living Lighter on the Land is about reducing our use of energy.  By incorporating energy efficient appliances and technologies that – each – save a little energy, we will see a big difference over the long haul when they are integrated.  This gets me thinking...what else can we insulate?