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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Photo: Tony Luong.
Robert Vallières brings a raptor when he speaks to veterans about how birds helped his recovery, like here at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire. When asked the worth of this Great Horned Owl, he told the vet: “I can’t put a value on it.” 

Tomorrow, November 11, is Veterans Day, one of only two federal holidays that hasn’t been switched to a Monday. The other is July 4. I saw today’s story around this time last year and decided to save it for you.

Purbita Saha and Tony Luong wrote at Audubon magazine in 2017 about a former soldier who found solace in Nature and then used his insights to help other veterans.

“The first bird that saved Robert Vallières,” they report, “was a Black Hawk helicopter. It was October 1990, and the then 28-year-old Army soldier was serving in the Persian Gulf War. While riding in the back of a truck on a mission to fortify a foxhole in the remote Arabian Desert, a heavy beam slammed into him, sending him flying and causing severe head injuries and swelling in the brain. The chopper sped Vallières to a field hospital for emergency care. …

“After being honorably discharged, Vallières returned to Concord, New Hampshire. While he appeared to be on the mend, he continued to grapple with chest spasms and Gulf War Syndrome—the mysterious mix of symptoms, including headaches, exhaustion, and memory problems, that plagued up to a third of returning veterans. On top of that, he had lingering effects from a pre-deployment aneurysm, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. … The PTSD led to serious depression and horrific anger, he says. He was overwhelmed with trying to readapt to civilian life when he saw a newspaper ad for a birding trip in the White Mountains. Remembering his hikes with his nature-loving father, also a veteran, Vallières signed up immediately. Up on the slopes, as he scanned the leafy ledges for passerines, a Peregrine Falcon hurtled into view, seizing a Northern Flicker mid-air in a puff of feathers. He followed it back to a snag, where it tore the woodpecker apart, yellow shaft after yellow shaft. ‘I was glued,’ Vallières says. …

“Vallières credits that Peregrine with saving him from despair. The encounter sparked a full-fledged birding obsession that ultimately helped shape his philosophy on healing. He quickly signed on to monitor raptor nests with New Hampshire Audubon. The first site he claimed was Joe English Hill, near Concord, where he and his son Andrew would watch American Kestrels speed rodents to their begging chicks’ mouths. As his identification and observational skills deepened, his responsibilities multiplied. He began tracking breeding Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles, aiding in the recognition of an uptick in chicks that confirms the birds’ nationwide resurgence since the pesticide DDT was banned.

“Vallières finds strength and hope in their comeback. ‘They keep my defeats in perspective,’ he says. And, he discovered, while painkillers reduced his chronic pain, his ailments often temporarily vanished in the presence of birds. Besides taking his mind off the hurt, tracking wild birds also allowed Vallières to beat back depression and regain much of his physical strength. …

“He began rehabilitating raptors, first with Audubon, then with the local wildlife hospital Wings of Dawn, where he learned to train unreleasable birds as educational ambassadors.

Working with the feathered charges allowed him to pay forward the care and kindness he’d received from doctors, nurses, and therapists, he says. It also made him feel like less of a burden.

“Given the profoundly soothing effect raptors had on Vallières, he was motivated to share the experience. He brought other vets to the New Hampshire Audubon hawkwatch platform to take in thousands of Broad-wingeds during fall migration. He cowrote a memoir, Wounded Warriors, about his experiences in battle and birding. And he started bringing rehab birds to the New Hampshire Veterans Home and Manchester VA Medical Center. (Vallières is a patient at the latter, receiving therapy for his chronic pain, taking drawing lessons to relieve stress, and learning cognitive exercises to combat memory loss from a second aneurysm in 2012.)

“On the Friday before Memorial Day, Vallières made his rounds at both facilities. In the solarium of the medical center that morning he saluted each of the 15 seniors, many in wheelchairs and Vietnam and Korean War caps. Then he introduced a male Great Horned Owl that is permanently grounded due to a wing injury. Vallières walked around with the raptor on his arm, lifting it above the veterans’ heads so they could feel the rush of its beating feathers. The room buzzed with questions and anecdotes of pet cockatoos; placid faces broke into grins. With his audience transfixed, Vallières related his story. He showed them sketches he has drawn of being airlifted out of Kuwait, shared dark reflections of his struggle with PTSD, and explained the important role that birds have played in his recovery.”

We owe so much to veterans, but you know as soon as a war starts that many, if not most, will be physically or mentally wounded or never come home. And the services to help them will be limited. All by itself, that’s a good reason not to go to war. Sometimes it’s necessary, of course, as the Ukrainians who take up arms today already know. Below is art that shows why they do it.

More at Audubon, here. No firewall. A description of the art is at WordPress, here.

Protecting the children: Kathe Kollwitz’s ‘Grieving Parents’ at Vladslo: ‘Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground.’

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Writer Phil Primack’s baby sitter, Miss Anderson, in 1957.

How important were “other adults” in your life? Adults besides the ones who raised you. I once heard about a little boy whose home life would have marked him for a very troubled future if not for a kind neighbor doing yard work across the fence and engaging in friendly chats.

In another example, at the Boston Globe, Phil Primack gives credit for his love of the natural world to a baby sitter.

“In the late 1950s, back when Republicans liked Ike and I was a third-grader in Haverhill, my parents introduced my older brother and me to Jennie Anderson, our new baby sitter. Her approach today might be considered borderline neglect — but it influenced my life.

“I was short, chubby, and unathletic, always the last kid picked for any team. Happily, Miss Anderson had no interest in bouncing balls. Rather, her plan for productive after-school time was to go over pictures in the nature magazines she would bring, and then to send me off into the nearby woods to find this butterfly or that tadpole. Accompanied only by my dog Caesar (no leash or poop bags then), I’d wander the pine forest and wetlands by Round Pond for hours. Maybe I couldn’t catch a fly ball, but I became a whiz with a butterfly net. At summer camp, bunkmates began to call on me when they needed someone to trap a chipmunk for the scavenger hunt.

“Miss Anderson steered me to bigger things than bugs and critters; in the woods, I also found identity and self-confidence. I still have some of the butterflies she and I framed more than 60 years ago, as well as the brass magnifying glass we used to study markings on beetles and other bugs. …

“Thinking about her recently, I dove into Ancestry.com and found that Jennie F. Anderson was born in 1885 in Kent, Connecticut, to a Swedish father and American mother. I’ve been unable to learn much more. She never married and apparently had few relatives. Through high school and into college, she welcomed my visits to her in the single-room apartment she rented in Haverhill until I left Massachusetts for a newspaper job in eastern Kentucky.

“When I went to visit her on a trip home sometime around 1973, the room was empty. A neighbor told me that Miss Anderson had been committed to Danvers State Hospital, a psychiatric institution built, fittingly, where a Salem Witch Trials judge once lived. I made the trek there. ‘She doesn’t know who you are,’ an aide cautioned me. Still, Miss Anderson beamed when I pulled out some of our framed butterflies.

“Miss Anderson died in 1975 at the age of 89. … My brother and I remember her, but I worry no one else does. Too often, people who quietly imprint our futures just as quietly become anonymous and forgotten. That was Miss Anderson’s likely fate. And that bothered me.

“In almost the same year that she died, the destiny seed she planted in me matured as I bought some mainly wooded land in Epping, New Hampshire, and built a little house deep in the woods. I still maintain the land but I’ve transferred its ownership to the nonprofit Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire (SELT), thus assuring its undeveloped future for young and old nature wanderers. Recently, SELT asked if I wanted my name on something to acknowledge my donation. Thanks, but no need, I said.

“Then I had an idea. …

“SELT plans to place a kiosk at the entrance to the Pawtuckaway River Reservation, nearly 700 acres of land, including mine, that SELT owns or otherwise controls along that river. The kiosk is supported by Phil Primack, a sign will say, ‘in honor of Jennie Anderson, who sent him out to hunt for tadpoles.’ “

More at the Globe, here. I love that Primack is remembering Anderson in that way. By coincidence on Twitter yesterday, journalist @tednesi remarked on how sad it is when someone dies unnoticed. He wrote, “I always find these death notices placed by the state so sad – the thought of someone dying and nobody around to notice. Who was Geraldine Boucher? What was her story? (via today’s @Projo).” He shared a photo of the state’s request for information.

If you could honor some adult in your life with a marker, where would you put it and what would it say? We had Frieda living with us for a while in my childhood, and I think what I am most grateful for is that her opinions were not the same as my parents’. She never tried to undermine my parents, but sometimes an exasperated huff would burst out and I could tell she thought something was really “off.” It has been important in my life to know that there were many ways to see things.

I would put the marker for Frieda someplace lovely in Switzerland, her homeland, and it would say, “Frieda Plüss. Thank you for the window on common sense.”

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Princess Mononoke.

In July, Princess Mononoke, the animated film for grown-ups of all ages, turned 25. I have thought about it often since Asakiyume first pointed me toward the work of the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki. So many things in life remind me of the movie’s wisdom.

The BBC highlighted the Princess Mononoke birthday with a deep think.

Stephen Kelly reports, “In 1997, the British fantasy author Neil Gaiman received a call out of the blue from then-head of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein. ‘This animated film, Princess Mononoke,’ Gaiman recalls him saying, ‘it’s the biggest thing in Japan right now. So I thought I’ve got to get the best to do it. I called Quentin Tarantino and said, “Quentin, will you do the English language script?” And he said, “You don’t want me, you want Gaiman.” So, I’m calling you.’ Miramax, a then-subsidiary of Disney, had acquired the rights to distribute Princess Mononoke, the newest film from Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, in the United States, and Weinstein wanted to fly Gaiman to Los Angeles to watch a cut of the movie.

” ‘I had zero plans to do it,’ Gaiman tells BBC Culture. ‘But the moment that changed everything for me was the scene where you’re looking at this large pebble. And then a raindrop hits it. And then another raindrop hits it. And then another raindrop hits it. And now it’s raining and the surface is slippery and wet. And I’m like, “I have never seen anything like this.” ‘ …

“When Princess Mononoke was first released … it represented something of a departure for master animator and director Hayao Miyazaki. During the late 80s, Miyazaki had built his reputation (along with the success of Studio Ghibli, which he founded with fellow director Isao Takahata) on films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro; formally ambitious, thematically rich works, but generally affirming in tone and family-friendly in nature.

“But something changed during the 90s. Firstly, he began to bristle at the popular idea that Studio Ghibli only makes gentle movies about how great nature is. … Even more significant was his growing despair at a world which he had increasingly come to believe was cursed.

” ‘He used to be what he called leftist in sympathy, a believer in people power,’ explains Shiro Yoshioka, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University. ‘But for obvious reasons [the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the escalation in ethnic conflicts across Europe], his political beliefs were totally shaken in the early 1990s.’

“Japan itself was also going through something of an existential crisis. The country’s bubble period, an economic boom during the late 80s, burst in 1992, stranding Japan in a seemingly endless recession. Three years later, in 1995, the country was hit by the Kobe earthquake, the worst earthquake to hit Japan since 1922. It killed 6,000 people, and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands more. Only two months after that, a terrorist cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Miyazaki, who was sickened by the materialism of the bubble period, was now living in a country traumatized and confused – both by its relationship with nature, and a creeping sense of spiritual emptiness.

” ‘He began to think,’ says Yoshioka, ‘maybe I should not make this entertaining, light-hearted stuff for children. Maybe I should make something substantial.’

“Set during the 14th Century, the Muromachi period of Japan, Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a young prince cursed by the hatred of a dying boar god, who has been corrupted by an iron ball lodged in his body. … To seek a cure for his curse, Ashitaka travels across the land, hoping to find the Shishigami, a deer-like forest spirit with the power to bring life and death.

“Along the way, Ashitaka discovers a world out of balance. The ironworks community of Tatara, run by the enigmatic Lady Eboshi, is ravaging the nearby forest for resources, provoking the wrath of ferocious wolf god Moro and her feral human daughter San (the titular Mononoke, which roughly translates to spectre or wraith). Caught in the middle is Ashitaka, who must figure out how to navigate this difficult world with ‘eyes unclouded.’ …

” ‘I believe that violence and aggression are essential parts of us as human beings,’ Miyazaki once told journalist Roger Ebert. ‘The issue that we confront as human beings is how to control that impulse.’ …

“Hayao Miyazaki is a self-confessed bundle of contradictions. Read his writings, listen to his interviews, watch him speak, and he paints a portrait of an artist caught between idealism and nihilism, optimism and despair. …

“This idea of a man at war with himself is obvious to see in the characters and world of Princess Mononoke: a film that, as Miyazaki told a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival in 1998, ‘was not made to judge good and evil.’ Take Lady Eboshi, whose mining colony is manufacturing an arsenal of guns to use against the forest gods. In most animated movies, she would be cast as the greedy, villainous scourge of nature. But Eboshi is also a generous leader, someone who has liberated women (implied to be former sex workers) from feudalistic oppression, who has provided a safe haven for leprosy sufferers and outcasts, and whose industrialization work is raising the standards of human life.

” ‘It would have been so easy to have a “technology is bad versus the good beasts of the forest” story,’ says Susan Napier, professor of the Japanese Program at Tufts University, Massachusetts, and author of Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. ‘But the foundry helps these marginalized people live. It gives them jobs, a source of community, pride.’ Speaking in 1997 to Cine Furontosha magazine, Miyazaki himself once rationalized Lady Eboshi with ‘often, those who are destroying nature are in reality people of good character. People who are not evil diligently take actions thinking they are for the best, but the results can lead to terrible problems.’ “

It’s a long and thoughtful article. Read more at the BBC, here. No firewall.

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What a great time of year for New England nature photos — really, any photo that benefits from strong sunlight.

The first two iris photos are from the the grounds of the Buttrick Mansion at Minuteman National Park. The next one shows wild irises in a swamp near Walgreen’s.

Finding rare Lady Slippers is always a thrill, especially finding a large stand. The photo after the Lady Slippers shows fragrant lilacs and wisteria. That one is followed by a field of pink Dame’s Rocket near woods. The little bridge with the crab apple canopy is just off a busy parking lot. Even small pockets of nature are important.

The next photo is by Kristina, whose yard has a stream running through it. The painted turtle was not found there, however. It was on a high stone wall by the park. Someone must have rescued it from the middle of the road. It didn’t seem to know what to do about being so high up. Perhaps it was injured. I moved it to a field across the street. Not sure I did right.

A lot of people in town have been holding off on mowing in order to protect our pollinators. See the signs. I love that they are doing that — and not just because of the reprieve from noisy, polluting lawn mowers.

A different kind of sign is in Walden Woods. Author Toni Morrison once noted that there were few markers preserving the history of the enslaved. This one honors former slave Brister Freeman, well known in town during Thoreau’s time.

Next we have spring wreaths, a high school senior dressed as a clown for Pranks Day, glamorous table legs in a bakery, and the dogwood at my house.

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Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO.
Jean Shin’s installation “FALLEN” at the Olana State Historic Site, part of the recent “Cross-Pollination art show.

I don’t know if growing up near the Hudson River has anything to do with it, but I’ve always loved the monumental nature paintings of the Hudson River School. In recent years, different kinds of art have made the region famous, including art shown at Dia Beacon and the offbeat Visitors film screened at the ICA in Boston and elsewhere. (That’s the one with the Icelandic musicians playing haunting music in the bathtubs and salons of a ruined Hudson River mansion.)

Not far from Rokeby, the ruin in question, another mansion has been turned into a museum called Olana, and today’s post is about putting its classic paintings together with more modern conceptions of nature.

Sarah Rose Sharp wrote at Hyperallergic last October about Cross Pollination, “a collaborative exhibition that spans institutions and centuries, to put artists in conversation with each other on the topic of ecology — and hummingbirds.

“The exhibition is organized between the Olana Partnership at the Olana State Historic Site (once the home of Frederic Church), the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. The historic presentations include 16 paintings from a series of hummingbirds and habitats — The Gems of Brazil (1863-64) — by naturalist and painter Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).

“This Audubon-like survey of Brazilian hummingbirds — and the resulting writing on the artist’s part to protest the overhunting of their populations — serves as the aesthetic and philosophical inspiration for a series of new works commissioned for the exhibition. The exhibition also includes paintings by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, as well as botanical works on both paper and porcelain by Emily Cole, Cole’s daughter, and Isabel Charlotte Church, Church’s daughter. This generational affair also features some highlights from natural specimens collected by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, including items from the Church family’s extensive collection of bird eggs.

“The exhibition is presented simultaneously at both Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York, and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York.

“With these 19th-century collections that focused so intently on natural systems as their inspiration, a cohort of 21st-century American artists present works in response. The contemporary artists are known to take on issues of biodiversity, habitat protection, and environmental sustainability, and contributions include new works by Rachel Berwick, Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood, Lisa Sanditz and Emily Sartor, and Jean Shin.

“On location at the Thomas Cole Site, ‘The Pollinator Pavilion’ is a public artwork by Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood created for the exhibition, where pollinators and humans can share the same space. Jean Shin used the remains of a fallen hemlock tree at the Olana site to create a memorial artwork in its memory, titled ‘FALLEN’ (the tree died of natural causes). …

“Ironically, though Heade, Cole, and Church advocated for the preservation of natural spaces, the fad of biological specimen collections like the ones being presented fueled a market for hunting the birds that Heade idealized. Even these days, as evidence of our excess mounts in flaming piles on land and sea, it seems we can still hardly even agree that the planet is a finite resource, let alone determine who is entitled to take any little piece of it that catches their eye. Perhaps this exhibition [holds] the seeds of change within it.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

The video below did a pretty good job of educating me, but it’s painful. The “10-Minute” professor doesn’t ultimately shy away from our destruction of nature and native tribes.

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There were quite a lot of opportunities for photos on sunny October days this year, and I’m not even counting funny pictures from Halloween in Providence, where one grandchild was Harry Potter, another was Princess Aurora, Suzanne was the Fairy Godmother from Disney’s Cinderella, and Erik had turned into a vampire after getting vaccinated (as some would have you believe).

I didn’t get to see my young Captain Marvel and her scary brother the Mummy in person. Fortunately, their mom sent a dramatic action shot.

I do try to be a bit restrained with family photos on social media, so today I will show you other shots I’ve collected. The photo above is of a kind of mandala that a Providence resident is in the process of creating near Blackstone Park. She encourages passersby to add something. I added more red leaves.

On the library lawn back home, I got to see Dr. Seuss’s famous Thing One and Thing Two and Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar. There was also a “walking” book, consisting of signs showing page spreads. The current choice is The Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade (illustrator).

My husband had been reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson — particularly about the influence that Quaker thinker George Fox had on him — and so decided it was high time to visit Emerson’s house. Among other things we learned was the fact that in the early 1800s, people didn’t know that tuberculosis was contagious. Emerson’s first wife died of it at age 18. Also, the original Emerson family still owns the home. It’s a rather dark and gloomy place, though. I preferred the recently restored barn and took a picture there.

Moving right along, I have art for you from the Umbrella. The two pieces of door art are “Pop Art on the Trail,” by Howie Green, and “Remember the Future,” by Amy Cramer.

Then there’s the art center’s fabulous annual Art Ramble in the Hapgood Wright Town Forest, which I generally hold off on visiting until the first frost kills off the mosquitoes that breed in Fairyland Pond.

The Shibori hanging series, “Windblown,” is by Kiyomi Yatsuhashi. The beautiful Luna Moth Life Cycle is by Jude Griffin. The lungs of the forest are depicted by Barbara Ayala Rugg Diehl (BARD) in a work called “In and Out.”

The next photo shows Lisa Nelson’s “Waves of the Aerial Sea.” And last but not least is a huge dragonfly, or “Ethereal Dreamer,” by Laurie Bogdan and Kimberley Harding.

Thanks for joining me in New England.

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Rx: Nature

Photo: Jim Wileman/The Guardian.
Seven of the UK’s National Health Service care groups received [$6.9 million, combined] in government funding for projects harnessing nature to improve mental health.

I’d be the last person to tell any person who badly needed therapy to take a walk in the woods. But as today’s article indicates, nature does have healing properties. If you’re feeling down, you could try it. Like chicken soup, “It wouldn’t hurt”!

Reporter Damian Carrington at the Guardian has been talking to patients.

” ‘It sounds dramatic, but this place saved my life,’ says Wendy Turner, looking out over the Steart salt marshes in Somerset. ‘I am really loving the colours of all the marsh grasses at the moment, and the flocks of dunlin and plover. The light is just so beautiful.’

“Turner was once a high-flying international project manager. ‘But the Covid pandemic resulted in me losing everything – my business and my home – and I had years of abuse in a marriage.’ In July 2020, she attempted suicide and woke up in [the emergency room].

“But then she discovered the Steart nature reserve. …

“Turner is one of the fast-growing number of people using nature to improve their health and wellbeing and she is now helping to boost the rise of ‘green social prescribing,’ where health and community services refer people to nature projects. She has helped co-create a mental health and nature course with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), which manages the Steart reserve, and the Mental Health Foundation.

“There is already good evidence of nature’s efficacy, such as a 2019 study showing that a two-hour ‘dose’ of nature a week significantly improved health and wellbeing. The missing link has been connecting health services and nature activities.

“ ‘These activities have being going for years, it’s just that they often have not had that connection into the health systems to enable them to receive the people who need the benefits the most, and to deliver precisely what they need,’ says Dave Solly, at the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP), which was launched in 2019 with funding from the Department of Health.

“But things are changing. Seven NHS care groups from the Humber to Surrey received a combined £5m in government funding in December for projects harnessing nature to improve mental health, including tree planting and growing food. There are also now more than 1,000 social prescribing link workers working in GP surgeries and health clinics, helping doctors link patients to nature activities, as well as arts, heritage and exercise groups. A million people could be referred to social prescribing in the next few years.

Among the projects championed by NASP are Wild Being in Reading, an open-water swimming group in Portsmouth, Dorset Nature Buddies, the Green Happy cafe in Northampton, and a Moving in Nature project in Chingford, Essex.

“Back in Steart marshes, NHS rehabilitation physiotherapist Ralph Hammond is setting off on the weekly 30-minute health walk he leads. He started the walk as a volunteer in 2017, having found there was no suitable walking group for recovering patients.

“The flat landscape and good paths on the reserve, which hosts otters and samphire beds, are important, he says: ‘We are trying to break down barriers – the people I am after are not walking at all.’ The group have been following the fortunes of a pair of white swans and their cygnets. …

“Suzanne Duffus tackles the walk enthusiastically with a sturdy wheeled walking frame. She started coming to Steart after her husband died and is now a volunteer, giving support and encouragement to newcomers. …

“Increasing access to such activities requires staff dedicated to connecting nature groups to the health service. The WWT’s Will Freeman is doing this at Steart and says: ‘For a lot of people, it is very exciting, but it can also be difficult as the cultures of organisations may not match.

“A lot of nature reserves have not been that well connected with their communities.’ … The social side is key too, he says: ‘We sometimes miss the simple human side – just having a chat and asking how you are. Nature is an asset that adds to all that.’ …

“Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of NASP and of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, says: ‘[During the pandemic] we have all become increasingly reliant on our local outdoor space as other activity was restricted. From allotments and parks to walks in the country, being outdoors has been a lifeline for many of us.

“ ‘However, all too often those who would benefit more from time “closer to nature” simply cannot access it. … Social inequalities mean that those in the most deprived areas spend less time outdoors. As a practising GP myself, it is so heartening to see so many projects flourish right across the country, making the most of this approach to health provision.’

“Solly, who is on secondment to NASP from Natural England, hopes that green social prescribing will become routinely offered to those who would benefit: ‘Instead of a prescription for further medicine, your prescription is to go to an activity, with a suggestion of a few options that work for you.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Alia Smith.
Playing the Wingspan board game.

Are you a board-game enthusiast? I am not usually, but as Hurricane Henri sweeps over Rhode Island and activities are shut down like it’s the pandemic all over again, I’m thinking we may need more board games in the house. And the one in today’s story looks like a winner.

Dan Kois writes at Slate about Wingspan’s recent phenomenal success.

“In the winter of 2005, Elizabeth Hargrave, a health policy analyst, took a ski trip with a group of friends from her church. The problem was, she said, she grew up in Florida, ‘and I don’t actually enjoy skiing, or any winter sports.’ One of the friends had brought a selection of board games. … Hargrave, who played bridge but hadn’t really played board games since she was a kid, was ‘totally hooked,’ she said. …

“After she returned home to the D.C. suburbs, she continued playing games. She loved the math of them, the way they became puzzles. … In her newfound fandom, Hargrave was like thousands of adults who’ve rediscovered the joy of board games, especially as a new kind of game took over the market.

“In ‘Eurostyle’ games, players complete complex, evolving challenges more involved than simply traveling around a game board answering trivia questions or paying rent. And in Eurostyle games, players are never eliminated. …

“[But Hargrave] and her friends found themselves annoyed that all the games seemed to revolve around medieval villages, or trains, or trading economies in vaguely Mediterranean locales. ‘At one point we placed a moratorium on games about castles,’ she said. This led her to a question: Why weren’t there games about subjects she actually found compelling? Maybe she would design one, she thought. And that led to another question: What did she like enough to want to make a whole game out of it?

“That one was easy. Birds.

“My family discovered Wingspan,” the Slate reporter continues, “with its beautiful, hand-painted cards and gentle, strategic gameplay, last year, and soon we were playing it every weekend. Wingspan has transformed the way I think about games, about competition, and even about art. ,,,

“When it was released in 2019, it was an instant hit, and that was before everyone found themselves stuck inside during the pandemic. In 2020, as the pandemic drove Americans both into their homes to stare at their families and out into the woods to stare at birds, Wingspan blew up, outselling every other game its publisher makes combined. That company, Stonemaier Games, has now sold 1.3 million copies of the game and its expansions, plus another 125,000 digital editions on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and iOS. …

“Wngspan is what’s known among serious gamers as an ‘engine-building game,’ which means that as the game goes on, the combination of birds you play becomes more and more efficient at generating points each turn, like an engine running faster and faster. Your cuckoo lays eggs, and the eggs not only give you points but make it possible to play more birds, which also give you more points but have their own powers that generate points in other ways. I prefer thinking about the mechanism of Wingspan not as an engine I am building, but as an ecosystem I am fostering.

If I’ve strategized well, the birds in my ecosystem will be knitted together into a web of complex, mutually beneficial relationships. …

“It’s those interconnections that Hargrave began mapping out in a ginormous spreadsheet once she decided she really did want to design a board game. For four years, she researched birds, brainstormed play ideas, and — most crucially — tested the game, over and over, every week for years, with a group of friends. …

“During the years she was playtesting Wingspan, she worked as a health policy consultant, often running focus groups, and her experience with analyzing data and interpreting consumer response was also crucial to Wingspan’s development. The numbers work in Wingspan. What seems at the beginning like a set of coincidences or accidents reveal themselves by game’s end as a cleverly designed system that ensures everyone finds a way to score points.

“When Hargrave felt she had a solid game, she cold-emailed every publisher that seemed like it might be amenable to a game about birds by a first-time designer. Most ignored her or turned her down, but in 2016 she did land a few meetings at Gen Con, an Indianapolis board game convention. One executive, Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games, listened to her pitch for Bring in the Birds, as it was called, responded with a list of suggested changes, and told her that if she revised the game and came back to him, he’d consider it. That meant another half-year of unpaid work before Stegmaier accepted her revision and agreed to manufacture the game. Hargrave, as a first-time designer, received no advance, so until the game sold, she wouldn’t see a dime.

“But boy, did the game sell. …

“I think that the game’s sly cooperative nature — the way Hargrave’s design gently pushes you not to beat your neighbor but to succeed with her, together — goes hand in hand with its conservationist spirit. Of course passionate birders become Wingspan players, and Hargrave has heard from many nonbirder Wingspan fans who are now investing in bird feeders and signing up for eBird accounts (us, for example). But there’s also something inspiring about engaging with the outdoors in this constructive way, at a time when most human impact upon the environment seems so dire. Nature is not a zero-sum game, and neither is the human effort to preserve it: The more people you invite to the table to work together, the more everyone achieves. “

More at Slate, here.

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Photo: Hugh Warwick.
Hugh Warwick has collected over a million signatures calling for legislation to require planners and construction companies to create “hedgehog highways”

When we lived in Minneapolis, we had friends with a pet hedgehog called Hazel. I didn’t know if there were any rules about keeping hedgehogs as pets in those days. All I knew was that hedgehogs were adorable. And the way they curled up in a ball when anxious reminded me of myself. Or an ostrich.

Time to give up our ostrich behavior and do something about hedgehogs’ loss of habitat. Shafi Musaddique has a report at the Christian Science Monitor.

“Jo Wilkinson realized she was losing her students’ attention, so she turned to an old friend: the hedgehog. As a sustainability and engagement officer at Britain’s University of Sheffield, she wanted to rally students around sustainable foods and energy conservation. But it could be hard to hold students’ interest. That was until she proposed building a ‘hedgehog safari’ trail on campus. …

“ ‘I recognized straightaway that hedgehogs captured everyone’s imagination,’ says Ms. Wilkinson. ‘There’s something about them that does that to people.’

“Her effort to expand hedgehog habitats at Sheffield earned British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) funding in 2019. … Within 18 months, she had a fully funded national project that has certified 110 ‘hedgehog-friendly’ campuses across the country. …

“Britain’s hedgehogs need all the help they can get. The country’s ‘red lists’ categorize species based on how threatened they are. Hedgehogs joined the lists in 2020, officially classified as vulnerable to extinction. But advocates and organizations like Ms. Wilkinson and BHPS, which maintains her Hedgehog Friendly Campus accreditation program, are working to save the iconic British garden dweller.

“Researchers estimate there were about 1.5 million hedgehogs across England, Scotland, and Wales collectively in the mid-1990s.

The population size is difficult to keep track of, but studies show that British hedgehog numbers in rural areas have declined by 50% since 2000, though in cities and towns the decline is closer to 30%.

“ ‘It’s almost as if hedgehogs are moving out and doing the opposite of humans,’ says Ms. Wilkinson. ‘They’re moving into towns and cities because perhaps those places are providing them a bit of a refuge.’ Hedgehogs tend to follow people, she says, and have found that they can scavenge on cat and dog food in gardens. …

“That’s become more valuable as rural areas have lost wildflowers, bramble patches, and leaf and log piles in the countryside. Pesticides from intensive, modern farming practices and ‘habitat fragmentation’ – the ‘chopping up’ of Britain’s landscape into smaller pieces – have added to the rural challenges facing hedgehogs, says Hugh Warwick, author of four books dedicated to the spiky critters.

“The self-dubbed hedgehog connoisseur leads the fight in finding solutions to the destruction of hedgehog habitats due to ‘manicured gardens.’ From his garden shed in Oxford, Mr. Warwick has drummed up over a million signatures for a petition calling for British planning law requiring all new developments to include ‘hedgehog highways’: holes to allow hedgehogs to move freely between gardens.

“Mr. Warwick – once described by a British politician as the ‘Lorax of hedgehogs’ in reference to Dr. Seuss’ literary character who ‘speaks for the trees’ and fights suburban development – has managed to convince the government to change planning law guidance through his petition and online campaigning. …

“[The] hamlet of Kirtlington has already devised a hedgehog highway featuring eccentric holes, miniature stairs, and knocked-down walls that knit gardens together. Villagers took a map of the hamlet and spent time working out the minimum number of holes to connect a maximum number of gardens. A map of the hedgehog highway helps tourists trace the paths of the tiny inhabitants. … Recognizing the threat toward one of the U.K.’s favorite creatures is an opportunity for people to reconnect with their surroundings.

“For Ryan Wallace, sustainability officer at the University of London, which is part of the Hedgehog Friendly Campus initiative, that means ensuring hedgehogs thrive in the most unlikely of places: central London. Though surrounded by Regency-era houses and within walking distance of busy tourist attractions, the public squares of Bloomsbury offer overgrown bushes and ample foliage. That makes them – and the neighboring university – fertile ground for hedgehogs, though none were seen last year.

“ ‘They can travel up to 2 miles through the streets of London,’ says Mr. Wallace. … ‘Hedgehogs have loads of benefits people don’t realize. They keep the slug population down, and they’re natural pest killers,’ he says. ‘They’re also a good indicator of how well the natural environment is doing.’ …

“ ‘If there’s a space in your garden where you can let the weeds grow, do that and stop cutting the grass,’ says Ms. Wilkinson. ‘Let nature be nature.’ …

“[At] Nottingham Trent University, a ‘bronze-winning’ Hedgehog Friendly Campus … the school’s sustainable development projects officer has plans to add special hedgehog accommodations like ramps to provide safe exit from ponds. ‘They can swim really well, but they get tired,’ she says. ‘If they can’t climb out, they’ll get into trouble.’ …

“For many advocates, hedgehog conservation isn’t just about the survival of a species. It’s a chance to connect with bigger environmental issues such as climate change. ‘You can start with hedgehogs, because that doesn’t scare people off. Everybody has an anecdote about a hedgehog.’ “

Do you?

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Larry D. Moore/ Wikimedia Commons.
Prof. Gretchen Daily of Stanford writes about “natural capital” and argues that nature preserves are not enough: conservation awareness needs to be part of all development decisions.

Needless to say, we shouldn’t have to put a monetary value on nature to save it, but then again, we shouldn’t have to offer a million-dollar lottery to the unvaccinated to do the right thing.

For those who need capitalistic arguments about the obvious good of our natural world, there’s a professor who can provide the data.

Gretchen Daily, says Tik Root at the Washington Post, “is a pioneer in the field known as ‘natural capital.’ Using science and software, she shows stakeholders why it benefits everyone to prioritize conservation.

“Colombia’s Gulf of Morrosquillo is home to thousands of mangroves. Their roots arc downward into salty seawater while their limbs climb upward — a mesmerizing entanglement of branches and leaves.

“But the mangroves must compete with hotels, resorts and other financial ventures in the tourist-dependent area, which spans 325 miles of Caribbean coastline. One study found that between 1960 and 2011, the mangrove population in Colombia dropped by more than half, largely due to human activities such as development or trash dumping.

“The burgeoning tourist destination of Rincón del Mar, for instance, is one of many towns along the gulf that was built on land cleared of the trees. And because there is no central garbage collection system, people’s wrappers, bottles, bags and other refuse often end up in the mangroves that still stand.

“In early 2020, the government signed a five-year, $300 million pact to promote tourism in the gulf area, where approximately 350,000 Colombians live. It called for, among other initiatives, building hotels, a hospital and aqueducts to alleviate a dearth of drinking water that threatens the growth of the tourism sector. But the plan could also put even more pressure on the mangroves, as well as the sea grasses, coral reefs and fisheries offshore.

“For Gretchen Daily, threats like these are also moments of opportunity.

‘Nature is often just seen as kind of in the way of prosperity,’ she said. ‘What we’re saying is that nature is crucial to prosperity.’

“Daily is a professor of biology at Stanford University and a pioneer in a field known as ‘natural capital.’ The term refers to the soil, air, water and other assets that nature has to offer. As a conservation model, it is rooted in the idea that nature has a measurable value to humans and that protection efforts must go far beyond walled-off reserves and be broadly integrated into development practice and planning. …

“By the time Daily and her team had identified the potential for impact in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, the coronavirus pandemic had confined the 56-year old to her home in Stanford, Calif. Zoom — which is decidedly not her natural habitat — became the norm.

“But within a matter of months, the Natural Capital Project put together a report for the Colombian government detailing that more than a third, or 118 miles, of the coastline had high exposure to flooding and coastal erosion. Protecting and restoring mangroves, the authors said, could help with that issue — especially along two specific stretches of the coast, including Rincón, where local activists say they’ve removed many tons of trash.

“Mangroves, the report highlighted, also nurture robust fisheries for local communities and sequester carbon at a rate two to four times greater than tropical rainforests. Left in their current state, the Morrosquillo mangroves will store 62 million tons of carbon by 2030 — the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road for a year — which could help the country toward its commitments under the Paris climate accord.

“ ‘Until now we didn’t have the specific information in a simple way to show the importance of maintaining the mangroves,’ said Santiago Aparicio, director of environment and sustainable development for the Colombian department of national planning. He added, ‘you don’t protect what you don’t value.’

“The next step, he said, is to take the information to mayors and local officials to incorporate that value into their development plans. [One] ‘ideal situation’ would be using mangroves instead of cement walls as barriers against rising sea levels fueled by climate change.

“For Daily, the work in Colombia has met all three of the criteria she uses when deciding whether to pursue a project: There must be a policy window that allows change; partners on the ground must be committed to that change; and the change must be scalable. …

“Daily’s own scientific curiosity dates back to middle school — or rather, she says, to her walks on the way to school.

“In 1977, Daily and her family lived in Kalbach, West Germany, where her father was stationed in the military. Then a 12-year-old, Daily and her sister would walk about a kilometer to class. It wasn’t far. But the route passed a coal plant.

“ ‘You could taste the acid on the tongue,’ she said of the pollution. The smell of coal permeated the air. ‘That turned me on to science.’ …

“ ‘Reserves are too small, too few and too isolated to sustain enough nature,’ she explained. ‘We have to be able to integrate nature into our normal lives.’ …

“ ‘Gretchen has really been the forerunner in clarifying the natural capital movement,’ said Carl Folke, director of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He said one major catalyst came in late 1997, when Daily edited the book Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems — recently referred to as ‘one of the most influential books published on the environment in the past 30 years.’ Read more at the Washington Post, here.

By the way, Francesca Forrest has a delightful fictional take on the mangroves-versus-hotels issue in her novella Lagoonfire, which features an imagined world that is both uncomfortably and amusingly familiar.

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Photo: Erin Clark/Globe Staff.
Visitors pose with Birk, one of five trolls created by artist Thomas Dambo in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine.

Who doesn’t love trolls? Especially big, ol’, harmless trolls amenable to selfies?

Steve Annear, a reporter who gets all the fun assignments at the Boston Globe, recently wrote an article about the Danish trolls that have shown up in Maine.

“These trolls, including one that stands nearly three stories tall, aren’t dastardly by any means. They come in peace, settling in Midcoast Maine to share an urgent message with those who discover them tucked away in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay: Please appreciate and take care of the planet, before it’s too late.

“ ‘These are nature’s protectors,’ said Gretchen Ostherr, president and chief executive of the gardens, the largest botanical garden in New England.

“Later this month, visitors to the 323-acre property may discover a series of five giant, whimsical troll sculptures, each immersed in nature and made from reclaimed and recycled wood and other natural materials.

“The exhibit, called ‘Guardians of the Seeds,’ is the work of Copenhagen-based artist Thomas Dambo, and was put together by a team of people, including community volunteers, during the past seven weeks. …

‘I really want it to stir two things,’ Ostherr said. ‘That people have a wonderful, connected, restorative experience, and that they are inspired to take care of their planet’ and become stewards of the woods.

“The Maine display officially opens May 29. While it’s similar to dozens of other eye-popping troll sculptures Dambo has built across the world and part of a shared narrative, the storyline of the Boothbay trolls is unique.

“In the United States, Dambo’s trolls have drawn crowds in Illinois, Florida, and Kentucky, with much fanfare. But the arrival of the mythical creatures to the woods of Maine marks a first for New England.

“Officials from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens first reached out to Dambo in 2019 as they discussed ways to have more visitors ‘share the magic of the gardens,’ Ostherr said.

“ ‘We loved the story of the trolls, and Thomas’s focus on the trolls being about biodiversity and taking care of the planet and the forest,’ she said. ‘It perfectly aligns with our mission, which is about connecting people with plants and nature.’ …

“Dambo, 41, said he built the faces and feet in his workshop (a.k.a. ‘troll factory’) in Denmark before they were transported to Maine. But the bulk of the sculptures were constructed on site using several tons of recycled materials, their positions and designs inspired by the precise spot in the woods they call home. …

“It’s the first international project Dambo has done since the coronavirus all but shut down the art world last year. He said he hopes the sculptures will bring people out of their homes to appreciate the great outdoors while also educating them about society’s wasteful habits.

“ ‘My art is about trying to convey the message of the importance of taking care of our natural world, and being better at recycling,’ he said. ‘I try to use the trolls as a medium for being the voice of nature, and how nature perceives us.’ ”

More at the Globe, here. By the way, while we’re on the subject of amazing gardens in New England, be sure to visit Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH, where my brilliant friend, Jill Nooney, one of the founders, displays her wildly imaginative sculptures made of found objects, mostly metal.

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Rewilding in the UK

Photos: Murdo MacLeod
Scotland is inviting nature to return to abandoned industrial spaces.

The idea of “rewilding” industrial spaces, or turning them back to nature, makes me happy. One often reads about it happening in the UK, but we could do it, too, if we wanted to.

This photo essay in the Guardian is about how, in Scotland, rewilding often happens through benign neglect. Bella Bathurst wrote the text and Murdo MacLeod took the photos.

“Since the idea of rewilding took hold, it has generally been seen as a rural pursuit involving withdrawal from farmland so that animals and vegetation can restore their own ecology. At its most herbivorous, it includes allowing hedgerows or scrub to flourish unchecked. At its most primal, it involves deliberately releasing animals such as beavers or wolves in the belief that the re-entry of a single alpha species brings with it a cascade of ecological benefits. …

“The perception is that it is expensive, far away and often inaccessible. It certainly isn’t something that just anyone can do.

“But what if the wildest places of all were right under our feet? In the forgotten spaces in our cities, rewilding has always happened naturally, land falling under stone and resurging again, concrete lids flipped off before submerging once more. In the margins and the demilitarised zones, the abandoned embankments, the bits we don’t want or the lands already contaminated beyond human tolerance, ecology is thriving.

“In some places – such as the land around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine – plant and insect life has adapted to the extreme conditions: boars have moved in, there is a new radiation-munching fungus and, in the thin strip of no-man’s land between the borders of North and South Korea, leopards and Asiatic black bears have been spotted. …

“In Scotland, the 40-mile strip between Glasgow and Edinburgh has always been mined, for not just coal, but stone, gravel, lead and even gold. After centuries of hard pickings, parts of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire have an upended appearance. What was underground is now on top and what was above has gone below, with buildings and bridges slumped over old drift mines and razor-lined spoil heaps terraced by extraction tracks. Wildfowl nest on lochs made from old coal holes and an orchid called Young’s helleborine, discovered in 1975, favours only the best iron ore. …

“At an explosives factory once owned and operated by the Alfred Nobel Company, [sections] are still in use, but most of the 330-acre site was long ago abandoned. Along the cracks in the old pipelines and through the decaying buildings, it would be quicker to list the native plants that are no longer there than those that are. …

“Public feeling is that big business should be obliged to make good what it has taken, but human attempts to restore land are often amateurish. Planting a few conifers and flinging around a mix of wildflowers may be a quick fix, but sometimes it appears that the best thing to do is nothing. …

“In 1913 the 13th Earl of Home tried to lift local unemployment at Douglas by allowing mining nearby. The mining unseated [his] castle, it was demolished, and the flooded workings (known locally as the Black Hole) are now so patterned with commuting birdlife that it resembles an avian Heathrow. …

“On the other side of the Clyde, between the Erskine Bridge and the old John Brown shipyard, lies what used to be the Beardmore naval construction works in Dalmuir. In the early 20th century it produced munitions, planes, submarines and warships before being converted into a fuel-supply depot and then being gradually abandoned.

“Now a cycle path runs through it, but otherwise there is nothing new here except nature: golden leaves of birch springing from the concrete jetty, hawkweed drifting Ophelia-like in the drowned oil storage tanks, wrens nesting in the rusted embankments, mallards cackling from the blackthorn scrub. …

“Dalmuir is beautiful, dangerous – and almost certainly contaminated. … Halflands like these can be among the most joyous and optimistic places on earth, but they can also carry with them a polluting sense of menace. Finding them means that you may end up meandering across an indeterminate line between a walk in the park and full-scale urban exploration; you explore at your own risk. …

“They also have a habit of vanishing. Brownfield sites tend to be classified as wasteland, and with the pressure on housing, they are first in line for redevelopment. Ardeer is intended for ‘regeneration’ and Dalmuir will shortly be dug up to make way for the Scottish Marine Technology Park, a deepwater ship hoist and a new small-vessel fabrication yard.”

More at the Guardian, here.

Abandoned naval construction works in Dalmuir, Scotland. Explore at your own risk.

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Photo: The Wildlife Trusts
What the Broadmarsh area of central Nottingham could look like if the Wildlife Trust’s post-Covid wildscape plan gets the go-ahead.

Although headlines tend to feature the thoughts of leaders with limited imagination, that doesn’t stop other people from thinking. Stories like today’s make me happy, whether or not the ideas ever are fully implemented, because it’s reassuring to know there are always people working on creative solutions to problems.

Phoebe Weston writes about a UK mall at the Guardian, “An empty 1970s shopping centre in Nottingham could be transformed into wetlands, pocket woodlands and a wildflower meadow as part of a post-pandemic urban rewilding project.

“The debate about Broadmarsh shopping centre, considered an eyesore by many, has rumbled on for years. This year it was undergoing a [$116 million] revamp by real estate investment trust Intu when the firm went into [bankruptcy]. …

“As retail giants such as Debenhams and Arcadia Group falter, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has come up with a new model of inner city regeneration: urban rewilding.

“The trust wants to bulldoze the already half-demolished Broadmarsh building and turn it into [6 acres] of scruffy green space at an estimated cost of [about $5 million]. The designs were created with Influence Landscape Architects and could set a precedent for what to do with the growing amount of vacant retail space in other cities. …

“Ponds surrounded by reeds, crocus meadows and wet grasslands would attract butterflies, dragonflies and a range of birds including reed warblers and black redstarts, according to the Wildlife Trust, which is calling on people to back its green vision. It will put its plans to Nottingham city council in the coming weeks as the authority canvasses views on what Broadmarsh could become as part of a 10-week consultation process.

“The proposed scheme would run counter to the conventional idea of urban parks and instead hark back to what Broadmarsh would have looked like in centuries gone by.

“ ‘Often open spaces in cities can be manicured and a bit formal,’ said [Sara Boland, managing director of Influence].

‘The idea of this was to have more rewilding, restoring, protecting [so] the zones we then developed were about foraging, pond dipping and protecting species.’

“Nineteenth-century maps helped architects get a clear picture of what this part of Nottinghamshire once looked like – a fertile garden area covered in fruit trees. Old street names include Pear Street and Peach Street; those fruits would be grown in the park to reflect its heritage. Crisscrossing the park would be walkways based on centuries-old street layouts.

“Nottingham Wildlife Trust has long wanted to create green corridors in this area of the city to connect it to Sherwood Forest to the north. It has put up nest boxes on many buildings close to Broadmarsh to encourage black redstarts, which used to live in the city but are now rarely seen. …

” ‘Over the past 20 or 30 years … we’ve submitted ideas for roof gardens and new avenues, all sorts of greener features,’ said Erin McDaid, head of communications and marketing at Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. ‘We feel this could be a real opportunity for the city to stand out from the crowd as cities across the UK look to recover their economies and find a new direction for urban centres.’ …

“ ‘Anyone coming into Nottingham on the train would have to pass by [Broadmarsh] before they reached the city centre, and it was just this horrible, ugly building with no windows. It was very unwelcoming,’ [Nottingham resident Ewan Cameron] said. …

“David Mellen, Nottingham city council leader, said the conversation about the Broadmarsh site had captured people’s imagination. He said: ‘It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine a significant space right in the heart of one of the country’s core cities.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: JN Phillips
A white-crowned sparrow sits near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. “During lockdown,” writes the Christian Science Monitor, “traffic in the city dwindled to levels not seen since the 1950s.” The lack of noise caused surprising changes.

One thing that’s been interesting in the pandemic has been reading about various wild animals that apparently feel safer exploring suburbs and streets now that they are quieter. Today’s story is about birds that have stopped feeling the need to shout.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “When the pandemic began, Elizabeth Derryberry wasn’t thinking about her research. Her focus was on the basics: how to teach remotely as an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; how to manage the lockdown with her young family; and how to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“But as she scrolled through social media one evening, she saw a picture of a coyote at the empty Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. She recalls thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, there really are no cars.’ And as she stared at that image, Dr. Derryberry thought about how quiet it must be nearby without the normal hubbub of traffic – and about the birds she had been studying there.

“Along with her colleague David Luther of George Mason University, Dr. Derryberry had been recording the songs of white-crowned sparrows in both the urban setting of San Francisco and the more rural Marin County to study how the birds responded to the hum of human-made noise. They’d found that the city sparrows sang more loudly, but with a much more limited range, than their country cousins. And the shutdown presented an unprecedented opportunity for the researchers to see if those urban birds changed their tune.

“Indeed, the urban sparrows took full advantage of the relative silence. When the research team recorded birdsongs near the Golden Gate Bridge in April and May of this year, they sounded notably different – and of higher quality – from those recorded during previous springs. Their findings were published [in September] in the journal Science. …

“As people stayed home this spring, many noticed more wildlife around them. Some pondered whether there were actually more birds, for example, or if the quieter cities just made their songs (and presence) more obvious. …

“ ‘When we’re going about our daily lives, we get used to the patterns of the animals that we see,’ says Allison Injaian, a lecturer in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the study. ‘It’s pretty hard to know what we’re missing out on if that never is visible or audible.

“ ‘But when this really unprecedented shift in human behavior occurred,’ she says, it presented ‘a great opportunity for all of us to realize the impact that we ourselves are having on the wildlife around us.’ …

“For the birds themselves, their songs encode information crucial to their existence. White-crowned sparrows, for example, listen to each other’s songs to pick potential mates in spring, and as a way to assess the fitness of another male from afar when deciding whether or not to fight him to try to take over his territory.

“But in cities, they’re typically making a trade-off between the quality of their songs and simply being heard, says Ken Otter, a biologist at University of Northern British Columbia who was not involved in the new study. …

“Before the shutdown, Dr. Derryberry and Dr. Luther found that birds in San Francisco were competing with nearly three times as much noise as those in Marin County. But when the pandemic closed everything down, there was no difference in noise levels. They attribute that to less traffic, as the amount of cars passing through had reverted to levels not seen since the 1950s.

“As a result, birdsongs could travel much farther. The researchers found that the birds sang more softly because they didn’t have to be louder than the anthropogenic noise, and even still, their songs could travel twice the distance as before the shutdown. 

“The bandwidth of the trill at the end of the sparrows’ song is also key to communicating physical fitness to potential mates or rivals. Researchers found previously that the urban birds limit their trills to higher frequencies so they don’t have to compete with the low hum of traffic. But during the shutdown, the team found that the city sparrows utilized their full range – and when they compared the 2020 songs to historical recordings in the area, they found that some of the sparrows were singing in ways not heard in the city since the 1970s. 

“Whether this has a long-term effect remains to be seen, says Dr. Derryberry. But she plans to study the San Francisco sparrows’ sounds during the breeding season once again next year. ‘I’m really excited to see what happened with the nestlings that learned their songs this year,’ she says. …

Birds don’t just adjust their songs’ volume and range. Research has found that some urban birds will adjust the time of day that they sing to avoid rush hour. …

“Studies like this one, Dr. Otter says, can also help give us direction. ‘It’s really important for understanding how we can move forward with planning,’ he says, ‘so that we can create spaces that not only attract the birds, but allow them to be successful.’ ”

More here.

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Bike path, Lincoln, Massachusetts

If you’re not traveling, you get to know your own neighborhood really well, both how it looks and sounds and smells, and what people are thinking about.

It can get complicated. People on the same side of an issue can disagree. Today for example, a small group of people is holding a rally to condemn our church, of all things! Another group, which I ordinarily admire, plans a counter-demonstration, even though the church has requested that no one show up to give the extreme talk show host the confrontation video she seeks.

Some days, you just have to turn to nature.

Above is a bike path I especially love. It goes past a farm with pigs and cows. I learned the farm has an honor-system, 24/7 shop in a big, airy barn. The food I got there was great. We had it last night for dinner.

I took the first picture of dahlias, and Kristina took the one from a Western Massachusetts dahlia farm. Did you know you have to bring dahlias in every year and replant them the next year? Whoa!

At the nature preserve Great Meadows, I was astonished by lotus leaves as far as the eye can see. Next year, I will definitely come when the plants are blooming.

The flowers in the next three photos — asters, clematis virginiana, and a wild bouquet — are mostly from our yard. Then there’s a local jewelry shop, which has wonderful window boxes in every season.

After the pumpkins, there’s a painted door called “Walkies,” by Kayo Burmon, located on the Bruce Freeman bike trail.

In the picture after that, my neighbors are holding up their pink voting slips at the coronavirus outdoor town meeting. Signs of the times.

Literal signs of the times, below, need no discussion, although I do wonder if any of you know the code in the sign copied from Tolkien: “Speak, ‘Friend,’ and enter.”

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