Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The River Rushes Through Me

This is the second in a series of my Nature Poetry and Artwork . This one was written in the nineties sometime, and revised recently. I did the pencil drawing in the late eighties.

The River Rushes Through Me

A promise from the earth and sky
Conceived by lightning
Nurtured in the womb of the cloud
Born on a raindrop
The River rushes through me

Bending its destination
Carving the great mountains
Plunging into the shadowy depths
Racing, sparkling over the rocks
The River rushes through me

Giving life to all it passes
Along its ripulous sojourn
Creating harmony
With its own shrill and guttural tones
The River rushes through me

Mirroring the rolling hills
Reflecting the light of a new day
Nurturing a mosaic of life
Discovering the breadth of its span
The River rushes through me

Becoming Life to the observant watcher
Ever twisting, . . . turning
In quiet meander or violent torrent
Journeying onward to the sea
The River rushes through me

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rainy Day Reflections in a Reservoir (and a Mill Pond)

We couldn't resist the lure of the lakes and ponds of Taney County on this rainy day in the Ozarks. After a slow start of mostly Mallards on some of the urban ponds in Springfield, we headed south. At Lake Springfield we spotted a mixed flock of divers. This was good news to me, as ducks have been in short supply this fall, and divers have been nearly impossible to find. The flock was nearly socked in by the fog created by vapors from the warm lake water rising into the cold air that recently descended into our area. Our flock of divers included 23 Ruddy Ducks, 6 Lesser Scaup, two Bufflehead, one Ring-necked Duck, and one Horned Grebe. Twenty some Corms sat in their normal place, and a Ring-billed Gull circled along the south end of the lake. Showers continued to dampen our enthusiasm, but we headed for Branson.

Our next stop was the boat ramp at monstrous Chateau on the Lake resort on Table Rock Reservoir. We quickly spotted 4 Common Loons (photo courtesy of Marvin DeJong). The rains stopped as we slipped onto the private marina to get a closer look. While photographing loons on the marina decking, I spotted a flock of 11 Horned Grebe along the opposite shoreline. A couple Pied-billed Grebes fished near the marina. And no security guards stopped to ask what we were doing.

We made our way across the dam and downstream to our next stop of the day. It was the beautiful campus of the College of the Ozarks. There were my favorite looks of the day. On the first of two ponds near Edwards Mill, four pair of Bufflehead (photo courtesy of Marvin DeJong) frolicked at close range. A few Lesser Scaup and a pair of Mute Swans swam nearby. In the lower mill pond, a mixed flock of 30-40 Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup, with a single Mallard drake, leisurely swam nearby, seemingly unbothered by our presence. Perhaps that was the neatest thing about this place. Each year Bufflehead, scaup, and Ring-necked Ducks spend their winter in this beautiful setting growing accustomed to passing students every day.

And so, a rainy day saw a respite, and we managed to find some pretty cool species. Special thanks to Marvin DeJong for sharing the great outdoors with me, and for providing the wonderful shots of Common Loons and Buffehead for this post. I took this picture of him working deligently for me. :)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Patterns in Nature: Making Connections in the Classroom

For the past six weeks, I have been teaching a unit to my gifted students called "Finding the Order in Chaos". In teaching chaos theory, I rely heavily on nature because fractals represent applied theory, and they are ubiquitous in natural settings. I get excited when one of my junior high students experiences an "aha!" moment and begins to understand the concept behind chaos theory.

In a nutshell, chaos theory states that natural systems are dynamic, and that small, seemingly insignificant random events reiterated over time produce significant outcomes. The most popular example is illustrated in the Butterfly Effect, which is described by saying that the flapping of a butterfly's wings can begin a pattern of atmospheric disturbances that could result in a hurricane in China six months later.
It is indeed something to celebrate when one of my junior high students begins to understand that even minuscule actions can have significant outcomes within dynamic systems like those on our planet. It's even better when he/she can discover and document examples on his/her own. But my joy isn't dependent upon the success of my students, because today I discovered and documented several examples of chaos theory in nature, and I share them joyfully with you.

This first example is probably my favorite because it is a dual example. Check out the venation in the leaf. Although the forces of nature (light, soil nutrients, temperature, cloud cover, winds, etc. ) that served as stimuli for the eventual direction and structure of the very first vascular tissue formed in this leaf were entirely random and unpredictable, an underlying order emerged as time progressed and we use that orderliness to identify this leaf as a representative of a particular species.

Now check out the frost that formed in the early hours this morning. What random stimuli combined to cause the initial water molecule to crystalize? Certainly, it was a synergy developed from a nearly infinite number of variables (temperature, humidity, winds, dew point, topography, soil type, etc., etc.). This original permutation iterated over time produces an orderly and intricate pattern of ice crystals on the surface of the leaf.
I was immediately drawn to the surface patterns in this photograph. Notice the random distortion of the water's surface caused by the presence of immeasurable stimuli; including underlying rocks, invertebrates, algae, and other countless biotic and abiotic factors. But enlarge the photo and pick out all the orderly patterns of spirals and waves that have emerged out of this dynamic biological system. There is an underlying order present in applied chaos theory.
My third example of applied chaos theory is illustrated to the left. Branching is a recurring pattern in Nature that is manifest in everything from trees, to watersheds, to circulation of blood through the body. Of course there are many other examples. But, again, see how the nearly infinite numbers of factors that determined the direction and structure of the leaf earlier in this post also have a say in determining the direction, structure, and shape of the tree itself..... or the direction, structure and shape of the river system........or the circulatory system in your body. You get the idea. By the way, there is a less than randomly marked Fox Sparrow in this picture!
It is here that chaos theory merges in my mind with the theory of natural selection to bring order to the natural world. What fascinates me about the two theories is that both begin with seemingly insignificant random events, occurring over time, and resulting in somewhat predictable outcomes. In nature, predictable outcomes emerge from initial random permutations which reiterate over time. Thus, the theories play out in the occurences of natural fractals, convergence, adaptive radiation, just to mention a few.
All natural processes are capable of being explained through scientific and mathematical processes. However, we must foster an atmosphere where science is alive, well, and respected in our society. The results of math and science inquiries so far seem to support a universe with rich mosaic of order emerging out of what we perceive as chaos.
"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day."
Albert Einstein

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Nature Poetry/Drawing

Over ten years ago, and in spite of all the discouraging remarks that I received from art and English instructors in my early years, I got the idea that I could write poetry and draw pictures. I still love natural metaphors. At the time, creative writing and drawing seemed like a great way to express a few thoughts that were running through my mind. Although attempts at both were clearly not destined for greatness, they filled some winter down time and also fulfilled a part of my lifelong "Things I Want to Do" list.

And so, I offer this from 1996:

Seeking Solace

As frigid winds of cynicism and ignorance paint the walls of the world that I'm inhabiting

I spiral downward, crashing upon the ground in a puddle of tears

I lie close to the earth for a longing moment

Seeking the solace that only Nature can bestow upon me.

Soon the river sings,

"Flow around through effortless action, smooth out the jagged edges of the rock"

The trees join in countermelody,

"Sink your roots deeply. Bend and be straightened. Grow toward the Light."

In time the rock itself acquiesces, powerless against the miniscule droplet of the river and sky, and yielding to the invasive roots of the sapling.

I balance at the edge of the nest, wings outstretched...

For the Light of the world is migratory,

And I have been given the gift of flight.

I await the warm winds that will carry me away.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Something's Happening Here

It was only 3 days ago that I entered Valley Water Mill Road as the sun rose on a balmy 60 degree morning. A Cooper's Hawk strafed the side of the car. My first Oregon race Dark-eyed Junco in Missouri hopped out of the brush to an opening near the shoreline. Just three days ago that I basked in the morning sun as I watched a Loggerhead Shrike hunt along the roadside between Valley Water Mill Pond and Fellows Lake. (photo off of Internet) In the warmth of the morning sun I set up the scope at the north end of Fellows Lake, where I spotted over a dozen Common Loons, occasionally hearing their lonely calls across the water. By 11:00 am I was on the Aldrich arm of Stockton Reservoir shedding layers of clothing and wishing for a cold front that would promise to bring massive flocks of waterfowl down from the north country.

Today at 7:00 am I checked the thermometer. 63 degrees F. It's now 5:00 p.m. 38 degrees F. Few birds have come to the feeders today, only a few goldfinches, a couple House Finches, and a lone Cardinal. The regular flock of Pine Siskins was nowhere to be found.
At Springfield Lake, a lone Ruddy Duck, a Ring-billed Gull, a Pied-billed Grebe, a Belted Kingfisher, and a flock of American Coots were all that I could see through the fog rising off of the waters.

Yes, Old Man Winter has arrived and is due to settle in for a while on this Thanksgiving eve. He has cut like a knife through the American Midwest.

But, the promise of northern birds and other vagrants holds me in its grip, as Iowa and northern Missouri continue to report arrivals from the north and who knows where else. Even a Fork-tailed Flycatcher appears to have made its way to Iowa to join the likes of Northern Shrikes, Evening Grosbeaks, Northern Goshawks, a Black-tailed Gull, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-throated Loons, Pacific Loons, Black Scoters, and more. (The FTFL photo was taken by Peter Kondrashov in Tama County, Iowa on Friday, November 23, 2007)

"Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear", There's a lake with a bird over there, telling me I've got to beware. I think it's time we embrace these frigid winds and get out birding!

Finley River Ramblings

Weather in the Ozarks for the past week has been quite phenomenal, and on Tuesday we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in the most wonderful setting during these waning days of autumn.

There's just not a lot of words that can express what it's like to be on a beautiful Ozark stream with the best of friends, so I'll let the pictures have the say on this blog entry.
All I can say is that our visit with college friend Margaret was our elixir, as our kindred spirits merged after a long absence. Our river wise guides and long time friends, Cathie and Ted, added to the joyous moment.
As a result, I've been walking on air all week long.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Child Left Indoors: Why Johnny Can't Learn

I dedicate this blog entry to our dear friend Margaret, who recently introduced me to the concept of "Friluftsliv". Through the years, she has been both and inspiration and an encourager in our quest to live simply, and to give back whatever we can to the precious ecosystems in which we all live and to our communities anchored firmly within those ecosystems.

I copied this excerpt from the NeoVox website, and I acknowledge and thank the website and, specifically, the author Christian Peters, for furthering my knowledge of "Friluftsliv".

"In contrast to Americans and Germans, Scandinavians even have a word for their tradition of living with nature and in the outdoors. They call it "Friluftsliv." Coined by Henrik Ibsen, famous Norwegian writer, dramatist, and poet, the term "Friluftsliv" can not easily be translated into foreign languages. Translations like "Life beneath the stars," "Open Air life," "Life in (and with) nature," only approximate the holistic content of the term............
"Friluftsliv" is the lived experience in the outdoors, being out in free nature all day and night long. It concerns an aspiration towards a genuine meeting face-to-face: nature in its primacy, as it genuinely is! This quality of experience is unfettered by an aggressive human agenda of conquest or study of nature as "other", or nature as a cultural construction. "Friluftsliv" is a quality of practical knowledge through which guides and students come to understand and experience a particular spirit of connectedness." end of quote.

Twenty years ago, I began teaching a course at Drury University's Pre-College program. The course, entitled E.A.G.L.E., short for Environmental Awareness and Group Leadership Explorations, combined group dynamics with environmental awareness in an attempt to "bathe" its participants in the subtle beauty and wisdom of Nature. Through sensitivity training, Native American teachings, quotes and readings from the transcendentalists, a book called Many Winters by Nancy Woods, music by Douglas Wood, and, most powerfully, the woods, the rocks, the rivers, the hills, the caves, and all of those things found within Nature and ourselves, I wanted to permanently connect a generation of youth to the sustaining natural world around them. I hoped that this experience would lead to increased environmental activism and appreciation for the miracle of life around us. The experience was truly life changing and affirming for both the adolescents and me.

The challenge each year, however, was to recreate the experience in my classes during the regular school year in the public school system. I know now that it simply cannot happen within our current educational system as long as we cling to the idea that learning occurs when 30 students are surrounded by four walls and that academic success is defined as proficiency on a "one size fits all" test at the end of each school year.

I have reasonable success with all types of students in my Missouri Wildlife and Habitats summer school class. We are fortunate to have the Finley River within walking distance. Along the river my class has set up a Prothonotary Warbler trail, and on the hillside of our campus, we have a Bluebird trail.

Monitoring the nests and compiling graphs of mortality rates and fledging success allow my students to discover that math is something we find a great use for outside. In repeating the process year after year, we further the great wealth of scientific knowledge contributed by amateurs in the field of ornithology. Best of all, my students are empowered to become environmentally aware movers and shakers in our communities.

The language arts requirements are a breeze (pun intended) to accomplish in a natural setting. Nature journaling becomes an outlet of expression for some of my students, while scientific reports on qualitative invertebrate research in the river appeals to my left brained students.

Water pennies, amphipods, isopods, large and small mouth bass, and yellow suckers all indicate that our stream is still healthy, but threats of rapid population growth and development serve as a mandate to my students to become involved in the political process to preserve and restore this aquatic treasure.

Old railroad bridge trestles and the mill pond beckon from the past to appeal to my kids who are history buffs. Local historian, Bruce Pegram, has offered his historical photographs to community activist Victoria Johnson, who has created a webpage to access this river communities' past at my students' fingertips.

Arts, no's beautiful, serene, and inspiring here near the river in the middle of our town, just a short walk from our school. Yes, true education can occur entirely in an outdoor setting.

But, it probably will not surprise you that I had to fight to continue my class last summer because since No Child Left Behind legislation was enacted, the "cores" are all that matter to administrators and school boards. Enrichment is out these days.......

I could go on and on, but my point is this:

Everywhere, if we want our children to learn exactly what they need to learn, we must connect them to the natural world around them. We must create classroom environments that inspire our students to rekindle their natural curiosity and sense of wonder. We must instill within each student's heart the knowledge that through sharing of one's unique gifts, that one truly receives. It's only in this way that we can begin to establish a culture of peace within a sustainable natural learning environment.

So, let's get it right this time; Let No Child Be Left Inside!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Old Bingham Farm

Yesterday I mentioned that our subdivision was built on the Bingham Farm. This land, according to old timers in the area, was once the best agricultural land in the area, even known for growing corn. To put that into perspective, you have to know the Ozarks. The Karst topography of our bioregion is dominated by chert and red clay from the surface downward. There simply is no top soil, but the old Bingham farm is an exception. I have actually dug into the ground in my back yard and not hit a rock. That fact shocks most natives. Actual topsoil is something we took for granted in my native Kansas, but the rocky Ozarks forced me to redefine gardening.
In spite of the fact that most of the area is now dominated by housing developments, there still is some decent sparrow habitat whereever development gives way to steep terrain or city limit signs. I can easily walk to my favorite of these areas 1/4 mile north of my house. Along the way, agriculture meets development, as a lone bull stands in a one acre field surrounded by lots destined for cookie cutter homes.

In the distance the Finley river bluffs rise and remind me that this is still an active riparian zone. An immature Bald Eagle soars overhead. Turkey vultures also catch the thermals on this breezy day.
I walk up one of the Finley's small tributaries to find my sparrow habitat. It is where the forest meets the pasture that the birds congregate, where buckbrush and greenbriar dominate. Brushpiles remain where the forest has been pushed back toward the creek. I am in search of the Harris's Sparrow, which I've seen here for the past 2-3 years. This time, however, he does not make an appearance. I'm hoping that it is the mild weather that has delayed his return and not the ever present destruction of habitat in the area.

Many other species made the day worthwhile. I tried my built in Screech Owl call. The first to appear was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-throated Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Juncos, soon arrived to check out the threat. A striking Rufous-sided Towhee then peaked out of the brush. As the action was dying down, two Hermit Thrushes passed through and headed southward.

In the new development across the road, Goldfinches and House Finches clustered to feed on the seeds of annuals. As I turned toward home, a single Song Sparrow hopped up to the crown of a ragweed, a fitting testament to the evolution of this habitat. And so it goes.....From deciduous forest to rich agricultural land to fescue pasture to scarred chert and clay landscape to annual invaders to manicured lawn. It's the most commonly repeated story in this neck of the woods........ or shall I say in this neck of the lawns.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Changing Habits.....and Habitats

Ten years ago, we gave up a country home overlooking the Finley River. The place had outstanding habitat, and our yard list exceeded 100 bird species. However, the need to simplify, to reduce fuel consumption, and to make our life as parents of active children easier provided just the impetus we needed to leave our fixer upper and relocate in a subdivision just one mile from our workplace.

Coming from a 70's "back to the land" mindset, the transition to urban habitat was a shock. I witnessed firsthand the destruction of farm acreage and the accompanying exodus of species. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Eastern Bluebirds, Dickcissels, Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows, Northern Bobwhite, and Eastern Meadowlarks dominated the area in our first year, but disappeared quickly as home construction turned the Bingham farm into a scarred landscape filled with houses in various stages of construction. Although the convenience of living near work and school justified our move, our thoughts turned to how we could environmentally adjust to this lifestyle.
It was not long after we planted native trees and plants in our yard that we began to see the new avian residents appear. First came the House Finches and Chipping Sparrows, following by an occasional Cardinal, then Chickadees, Titmice, and Downy Woodpeckers. The new yard list is coming along. I even had a January Eastern Phoebe a couple years ago.

Of course, the grassland birds of previous years were among the first on the yard list. An occasional Eagle and other raptors soared overhead, and a Cooper's Hawk scouted out our feeder. The urban habitat was great for Purple Martins, and their laughter and social gatherings have entertained us each summer since our move, as their numbers have correspondingly increased. A Great Horned Owl perched atop a two story home this past summer.

But enough rambling, I have decided that for the current irruption of Pine Siskins, I have prime habitat. The flock has increased to 20+ birds/day and they are truly a joy to watch. Their aggressive nature makes them easily approachable, and assures that less desireable species such as Starlings, House Sparrows, and House Finches are at least kept in check. In the past, I have had trouble here with thistle seed becoming stale and unappetizing to my other finches, but there is no way that's going to happen as long as the siskins are in town. They gobble up the stuff like there is no tomorrow, waiting in nearby branches as I refill the feeders, and alighting on them immediately upon my departure from them. I find myself staring at the spectacle each time I glance out into the yard to see them.

Yesterday I drove only one mile from my subdivison home to Garrison Spring, a beautiful spring and surrounding forest, preserved remarkably through times of rapid growth and development. Ernie and Mary Lou Braswell, the landowners, are strong conservationists, and always have multiple full feeders for the birds. I was sure that they would have tons of siskins at the feeders, and I wanted to remind them to sort through their Goldfinches to discover them. But, guess what?

They are among the siskinless in Missouri. Reading on the listserv Mo-Birds, I have found that many birders with feeding stations in traditionally great habitat have failed to attract Pine Siskins. At the same time, other "subdivision" feeders are attracting them in large numbers. So, for today, I am happy with my meager habitat, although I still long for the Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and Evening Grosbeaks that frequented my run-down, but beautiful, Linden home. (Nov. 11 edit: I stand corrected. Ok, maybe frequented is an exageration for my one time sighting of EVGR) I can only hope, that maybe this year, they will find their way to my town feeders in my gradually improving habitat.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Elusive Red-spotted Vorioles

It all started with a luring e-mail:

" Friday? We could go up the river on the raft......the fall colors are nice.....and, I believe there is nest of red spotted vorioles that might interest you (takes a couple of bottles of wine to see them)... Ted"

How could we resist? Great friends, beautiful scenery, potentially great wine, and what else? A chance at a life bird! No way I'd pass this up! We were headed for the river at 3:00 pm.
Not that the river wasn't calling, but we also cherish the thought of a great "under $20 bottle of wine". We visit tastings, peruse labels, take chances, all in search of the perfect bottle. We certainly wouldn't want to pay too much for a bottle of wine, not with all of the wonderful, inexpensive ones available these days. It's all part of the fun, to find a real treasure, cheap!

We share our quest with Ted and Cathie, who have converted their old storm shelter into an earthly wine cellar. Its rustic walls of native Ozark stone give it the ambience of Old World cellars, dust and mold adding the illusion of antiquity to the corked bottles and their surroundings.
To go with our dazzling fall foliage review, Ted selects a Spanish Red, and we toss in an Argentinian Malbec. We load the sturdy floating dock, sit back in our comfortable lawn chairs, and embark upon our autumnal adventure. The reds, yellows, burgundies, and oranges reflect vividly on the still water's mirrored surface.
We read aloud the label of our first bottle of the afternoon, the Spanish Red, a 2001 Abadia Returerta Sardon del Duero "Rivola" , and head upstream on the calm, Finley River mill pond at Lindenlure. At this point anticipation fills the air. The bottle is uncorked, camping cups filled, and the bouquet passes the test for excellence. Our first sips confirm it. This wine is a gem. (I bet Cathie and Ted wish they had bought a case!) Anyway, a toast to this day, and we are on our way, with much more stimuli awaiting to awaken our senses.
Soon we are basking in the warmth of a 60 degree day. There is no breeze to stifle the sun's radiant energy, as only an occasional shadowy stretch reminds us of the day's temperature. We head for a comfortable and secure spot along the high bluffs of the Finley. This is "Flat Rock", named after the large stone slab that, ages ago, separated from the overlooking bluff, cascading downward, only to rest on the river's bank. This place holds a lifetime of cherished memories for all of us, and we are again lulled away by a sense of Nature's grace present here.
Of course, all things must pass, and soon the first bottle is empty. But alas, another bottle uncorks. This time it is one of Martha's and my favorite recent discoveries, a 2005 Silvertop Malbec , (well under $10, and quite a bargain!) Sure enough, it is shortly after the last sip of Malbec that we hear a strange avian call note coming from the foliage. It is almost certainly a Voriole, as its call resonates against the bluff right on cue. We cling to hopes of photographing the bird, but it is not to be on this day. You see, the Red-spotted Vorioles are especially difficult to locate in the fall, when their crimson spots and yellowish orange plumage blend perfectly with the chlorophyll starved Sugar Maples and oaks of its preferred habitat. We do however, catch a fleeting glimpse of our bird, at the exact same time that we are viewing the white trailing edges on the wings of a large woodpecker gliding into the evening sun.
I take this moment to wax philosophic. Here and now we rediscover good friends, flaming trees, mythical birds, and fine wine............. all reflected in and flowing down this river we call life. I look over to Ted, who is leaning back, red-faced, and smiling. I smile back as I peruse the brim of his cap. "Life is good",it says. "Yes, indeed," I answer, as the last warm rays of sunlight give way to the cool twilight in the Finley River valley............