Getting Back to Nature

I breathe deeply.

The air is crisper than a freshly picked apple, the leaves tumble around each other as they float delicately to the ground. There is a familiar sound of black walnuts colliding with the earth below as they plummet from above. Birds call to one another in the distance; I hear crows cackling to each other, and I am curious as to what their conversation entails. The breeze heightens, and a smattering of branches thwacking amongst themselves overwhelms my eardrums just for a moment. But suddenly it is calm once more, back to the gentle rustling of leaves and subtle chatter of beetles and crickets in the forest.

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This is Autumn. The most beautiful season, overwhelming and teasing the senses. Life winds down for many species, knowing winter will soon be upon them. It is their time to sleep after seven laborious months of photosynthesizing, working to bear their fruits through the summer and early fall months. It’s beautiful to watch trees shed their leaves, exposing themselves to the elements to come. Taking a moment to step back, and consider the intimacy of their life cycle is humbling. These magnificent organisms spend their life reaching for the sun in order to reproduce, and each fall they shed their leaves to supply nutrients to the soil that they have removed throughout the year. It’s incredible how complete their cycle is, and it’s one of the wonders of nature. I wish more people would take the time to sit outside during this miraculous season and just breathe in the natural beauty of it all. The experience forces you to slow down and appreciate the world around you, calming you down. Problems seem to melt away, because in the grand scheme of things it is not as crucial as we once thought. This is a great opportunity to sit back, slow down, and reevaluate your life as it is. Forget about the bills, the job, the failing economy. None of that matters in this stretch of time. Think about your happiness, your health, your loved ones. And while captivated by the beauty in autumn, consider how devastating it would be to lose this. This oasis of serenity could be lost if we forget to embrace it and care for it. I strongly recommend taking 15 minutes out of every day to go off alone, settle down in nature away from the encroaching sounds of sirens and construction. Find a happy place for your mind to wander, experience and appreciate how small you are and how much smaller your problems must be. Just be thankful to experience everything that you have: appreciate viewing the leaves dance to the ground, hearing the crunch of leaves below footsteps. Just take a moment to get back to nature, and breathe.

Are All The Children In?

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Google Images: Children

A booming, melodic voice rang through the auditorium inquiring, “are all the children in”? Reverend Kelly Wilkins presented this dilemma to us on multiple occasions throughout her keynote speech, and I sat there in awe at the point she presented. She interlaced the issue faced with my own and younger generations; that we are being left behind. This is becoming the ‘norm’ in multiple cases, and for my purpose I’m focusing on the issue of lacking exposure to environmental concerns. It is noticeable from walking around the Chesapeake Watershed Forum that environmental awareness seems to lie with the elders in our communities. This may be because they are witnesses to changes in the environment, and therefore feel obligated to assist in restoration projects. Yet all the same, why does it seem that younger individuals are unaware of this field, when we need the newer generations to fix the problems at hand?

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Google Images: Chemical Companies

Our current society is highly consumer based. We care about jobs and the economy over most issues that matter outside of the scope of our society. Children are taught about the importance of obtaining a job to pay for our overpriced clothing and over the top technologies. But why aren’t we teaching our children the importance of keeping chemicals out of our water ways and households? The environmental movement has been going strong for centuries, and still many do not understand this notion. I believe one of the largest problems we face is what Dr. Levin hopes we take away from this semester: asking the right questions. After all, this is the most effective way to learn, and I fear we do not implement this learning tool as often as we should. We have become wired to ask simple, non-invasive questions opposed to reaching the bottom of whatever the subject matter is. People no longer ask about the natural world around them, which is the fault of our society influencing older generations. I believe our society has done a great disservice to the people, filling minds with stuffing opposed to knowledge. If we accept this, there can be no hope for future generations. We are fed stories about what is safe for human consumption, but this information is brought to us by the corporations creating the chemicals, which are interested in solely creating a profit. But does anybody question this? Very few people do, and this has to change before we can see a change in the world. But children cannot do this on their own. We need our elders to join the cause and be willing to ask these questions, educating themselves before we can ask others to do the same. Our parents and grandparents have a responsibility to their children, to discover the issues at hand and spread the word. Share these stories with your loved ones, implore them to ask the right questions, accepting nothing less than the truth. And most of all, begin to wonder “are all the children in”?

Case Analysis: Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

The Chesapeake Semester presents a fabulous opportunity to gain hands on field experience, as we discovered through the first twelve day journey. Prior to departure, Professor McCabe held a lecture discussing Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Leopold presents the notion that society must make the transition between instrumentally valuing the land and learn to value the landscape intrinsically. Instrumental value is placed on objects that individuals cherish merely for what it gives to the person. For example, cell phones are valued for what they allow us to do: contact people in different areas. Intrinsic value is applied to something for the nature of itself. Therefore, human beings and priceless works of art may possess intrinsic value. Difficulties arise once a request is made for individuals to consider intrinsically valuing the land. Nature has always been perceived as a commodity: how many crops can fit onto this plot of land, what type of structure can be constructed on these soils, how profitable are these pelts? Leopold claims, “A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state”(Leopold, A Sand County Almanac). While traveling around the Bay, I considered Leopold’s proposal, digesting the paradoxical system we were participating in.

Road

The mobile classroom rolled over seemingly endless miles of impermeable surfaces, passing hectares of disturbed lands: flecked with buildings or transformed into sterile, monoculture fields. Absorbing this, I reconsidered how I viewed the entirety of the journey. Prior to remembering Professor McCabe’s lecture, I could barely contain my excitement to travel around the area and discover these interesting, new locations. However, I began to think about the impact we made during the adventure. Snaking our way around the Bay, we covered over six hundred miles. Just in this six hundred mile stretch, try to envision the amount of deforestation that occurred in order to pave the way to our destinations. How much earth was displaced while creating the quarries that provided the construction companies with stone to pave these roads?  Consider the amount of fossil fuels burned in order to cart ourselves to these various regions. Thinking back to the origin of fossil fuels, how much destruction of land and aquatic ecosystems occurred in order for us to explore these areas?  And think of the vehicle used – a large, fuel inefficient bus. This hunk of metal, rubber, and plastic was created from materials which wreaked havoc on the environment during extraction. Countless hours were dedicated to developing the quarry, from which the iron ore was extracted in order to create the steel shell of the bus. As most tires are petroleum based, that is another material that comes from the oil rigs. I will refrain from delving into the disgusting concept that is plastic, which now finds its way into everything. This paradox has left me stumped – this semester is an opportunity to experience systems that desperately need tending to in order to thrive once more, like the Chesapeake Bay. This semester sheds light on potential career paths, one which may promise a better environment for our future children and grandchildren. Choosing this phenomenal program stemmed from a similar desire to make a mark, make a change, make a difference in the world, all through an environmental lens. Yet from the get-go, we pollute the environment. The idea is there, yet our actions do not correspond with our desires.

farmers market

Dr. Schindler brought this concept to my attention one night while camping at Chino Farms. He expressed his concern that individuals walk to the local farmers market, with their reusable bag, and purchase goods directly from the farmer. Sporting a smile, they pat themselves on the back for their good deed and travel home, content with their ‘green’ action for the day. But what did this actually accomplish? The food was still grown by another individual, delivered to this community environment, and is not that much different from purchasing the vegetables from the supermarket. At first I disagreed with him, annoyed with the fact that he dismissed these people as simply demonstrating a valiant effort to be more environmentally conscious. However, reflecting on our journey, as well as his words, I now agree with his opinion. This ‘valiant effort’ concept pertains to the journeys also. Yes, it is incredible to visit these locations and I would have hated to miss this great opportunity. But it does contradict what we hope to accomplish: reducing our impact and minimizing our involvement in the cycle which negatively impacts the Chesapeake.

I suppose this is the part that becomes most painful: deciding what is most important in our current societal situation. We are always making compromises, ensuring it is always in our favor. Take the idea of a land ethic. Few have committed themselves to sustaining a lifestyle which fits this description, because it becomes inconvenient. I hate knowing my mode of transportation contributes to the unsustainable, insecure reliance on finite fossil fuels, and that it adds to the demand for oil. But I also want to travel to Peru. Our human nature is highly contradicting, and this makes it incredibly difficult to adhere to what we perceive as our moral obligations, especially when discussing the environment. Because while it is an organic, animate system, we have detached ourselves so much from the beauty of its existence, creating blinders for ourselves to see simply the extractable resources of the landscape.

Pamunkey Indian Reservation: Fish Hatchery

“Over the years, we have lost much of our land to greed as other people have taken our resources. Now, with this reservoir, people want to take our river as well.”
–Assistant Chief Carl Custalow (Mattaponi), Bay Journal, May 2003

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Speaking with Ashley and her Grandfather at the Pamunkey Reservation supplied me with a wealth of knowledge, even in such a short time frame. It is somewhat distressing to think of all the struggles these people experienced throughout the generations. One of the most devastating factors is loss of resources; this includes losing their tribal lands and destruction of aquatic ecosystems. Ashley, director of the Pamunkey Reservation Museum, explained a recent threat to the river: potential dam development upriver. This would have displaced thousands of acres of wetlands. Luckily, environmental activists assisted in the eradication of this plan, which had a greater impact on aborting the plan than the reservation had. The river has been an important part of the Pamunkey tribe for generations. Shad is the fish of choice, however this species has been placed under a moratorium as the population has declined over the years. The treaty signed by the Pamunkey people with the English government permits them to capture these fish, disregarding the moratorium. Their culture believes in giving back to the earth, and attempting to return or compensate for what resources they remove. In the case of Shad, the fishery satisfies the desire to replenish the resources they’re taking out of the river.

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Source: Google Images: Pamunkey Fish Hatchery

Ashley’s grandfather largely participates in the fish hatchery, which is in operation each Spring when the Shad run is in full swing. The fish are caught with expansive drift nets, or gill nets, constructed from an acrylic-like substance, typically 250-300 feet long. From there, eggs are collected from the captured Shad, fertilized, and transferred to hatching jars, which each hold approximately three liters of eggs. Water is fed to tanks from the river via a gravity system, where the eggs will begin to hatch in approximately six days, and will then swim into large, circulating water tanks. These are released after approximately a week of growth, simply by removing the plug in the large tanks which empty into the river. This process began in 1918 “…to help Mother Nature to get a better run of fish”, as stated by Ashley’s grandfather. However, Ben Norman, a member of the Pamunkey tribe and an employee at the National Museum of the American Indian, had some information for us about the status of Shad: “In 2012, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation put out a report card of the different species in the Bay, and they gave Shad Fish an ‘F’. So even today the population is at a pretty big risk.” Norman also reminded us that the Pamunkey tribe is one of the only groups retaining the right to fish for Shad, which is puzzling, and almost contradicting. If the goal is to bring back the population, why would these people continue to capture this species? Why not adhere to the moratorium for a year or two in order to see if that assists the Shad run? Further, how much is the hatchery really helping? Is interfering with the natural spawning patterns, thus having a negative effect opposed to positively influencing the population? Which is benefitting more from this hatchery, the Pamunkey culture or the Shad population? While it is understandable that Shad is a part of their history and culture, it may be time to commit to a cultural shift in order to move on from the conflict of ethics.

Discovering Jamestowne: Nature and Culture Lens

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Unbearably hot summers, harsh winters, starvation, disease: these are all factors the colonists experienced as they struggled to survive in the new Virginia environment. Located on the James River, this provided a supply of food, namely Sturgeon, as well as a navigable water way. Thick, lush forests provided men with the timber to construct the triangular fort, requiring thousands of hours of labor. Within the fort, misery was prominent. The swampy area was hardly enjoyable and fresh water was difficult to come by. Digging wells allowed for the retrieval of said water, however, it would become stale within months. Brackish water made it into the water table, as well as sewage, for the colonists did not understand the concept of feces seeping into the ground water. As these Englishmen were the first agriculturalists to till these soils, the environment was the perfect accommodation to grow hearty cash crops. However, these fields were rapidly depleted of nutrients from the lack of crop rotation.
Understanding these men came to the Bay in order to make a living off of tobacco farming, it is still puzzling that they did not spend more time growing crops for their own consumption. Although vegetables were not a staple part of the diet, farming would have been more dependable than awaiting a shipment of salted meats coming across the Atlantic. Why is it that the colonists did not take this into consideration after the first starving time? Resorting to heinous activities such as cannibalism should have been an indicator to the population that it was essential to produce more grains and tubers that could be stored for the winter months. Reflecting on these times, however, it should be duly noted that these were Englishmen. Their culture influenced their behaviors, as many of these individuals worked in accordance with the Virginia Stock Company. Therefore, motivation for farming was oriented around receiving a small silver coin which could be utilized back in England. The cultural aspects largely influenced how these men existed than their natural environment. This can be seen today as well, for our society revolves around the dollar.
We are born, educated, and sent to work for the rest of our lives just to make a buck. But for what? It is certainly not to achieve happiness. All of the items money can buy have merely instrumental value; they can be replaced once the newest idea comes along. One could claim that money could never make someone happy, simply because the system in place keeps you coming back for more – everyone wants the latest and greatest and cannot be pleased until that new toy is purchased. But as soon as its bought, a new one comes onto the scene and now you need more money to buy the next one. Jumping back in time, just to reiterate, these men could not achieve happiness; many colonists left their families behind to make money, not to start a new life. This is something to consider in our present time, and understand that our relationship between nature and culture should be examined in order to avoid mistakes of the past.

Food for Thought

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A delicious, nutritious dinner of quinoa, butternut squash, rabbit, and beans.

The Chesapeake Semester has begun.  We were christened with the water kissing the shoreline of Chino Farms, located in Queen Anne’s county.  The group marched single file into camp as would little ducklings waddling after their mother along a river bank. After taking time to set up camp, equipped with tents and a makeshift kitchen, we scurried off to discover some flora and fauna of the farm lands. Food was certainly on our minds as we came back from romping around in the “wilderness”.

Dr. Schindler, professor of Anthropology at the college, joined us for day two of our camping trip to expose us to the foraging techniques used by people who lived in this area many years before. We expended a fair amount of energy clawing at the roots of cattails in the mud, collecting grit under our finger nails to obtain part of our meal. The robust, starchy roots were highly desirable due to their caloric density, and also how palatable they are. Following this, we padded around the surrounding area searching for more edible plants, uncovering an assortment of under ripe fruit, prickly pear cacti, seeds, and sassafras root (which made a delicious tea!). Considering the caloric densities of these foods, survival in this area would be difficult without supplementing diet with animals. Venison and poultry could be obtained in this area which would allow one to sustain themselves here. Dr. Schindler provided us with squirrel, duck, rabbit, and cow femurs for bone marrow to incorporate into our meal. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to crack open the femur using brute force and stone tools. I was shocked with the amount of force which was required to access the buttery liquid. I also consumed rabbit for the first time, which was also the first meat (besides fish, which began this summer) that I had consumed in four years, as I was vegan before starting this adventure around the Bay.

Preparing and cooking our dinner took hours – which was all accomplished through our fire and pots which were also provided by Dr. Schindler. The most interesting part, to me, was boiling the quinoa, squash, and beans inside of a pumpkin. You get to eat everything there – the cooking vessel too! After throwing stones in the fire to heat them, these were transferred into the pumpkin which brought the water to a boil. Aside from some grit and ash that made its way into the mixture, it was quite delectable, even without seasonings. This was the most connected to food I had been in a while – I was able to appreciate how much work went into retrieving calories and how precious they can be. Our western society has become absolutely detached from food – we have broken it down into individual aspects of fats, carbohydrates, protein. But this only needed to be analyzed so closely once we became sedentary individuals. People sitting on couches in sterile living rooms scanning through hundreds of television channels have to diet, and watch their weight, for they consume calories in vast quantities through junk foods. The calories are empty – think of potato chips. Light and crispy, but what do they actually provide? Fat and salt, but not other vital nutrients.Not to mention it would require a bag of potato chips to even begin to consider being satiated.  I enjoyed experiencing this deeper connection to the food I consumed through spending ample time collecting and preparing it. I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves to make connections such as this, or else we too fall victim to the advertising companies flashing pictures of the packaged snack foods and sealed packages of meat products, boasting about what they DON’T contain. Things such as “low calorie”, “no HFCS”, “low fat”; the list goes on and on. One of my goals throughout this semester is to make these connections throughout our journeys, and try to trace the food on my plate back to its home base.