Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Poem

Art & Environment

by Edward Hessler

Image from

A poem for Halloween by Louise Gluck.

And here, a biography of one of this nation's finest lyrical poets.  I include a review of her most recent collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night.

Happy Halloween 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Evolutionary Biology for Children

Biological Evolution, Science & Environmental Education

by Edward Hessler

Image from

You must read/listen to Barbara J. King on a new book for children on biological evolution.  King is a regular contributor to NPR's Cosmos & Culture: Commentary on Science and Society.  The commentary is titled When Should You Introduce A Child to Evolution?

Grandmother Fish is for 3- to 7-year olds and was written by Jonathan Tweet and illustrated by Karen Lewis. And King describes the book as "a feast for the senses." Tweet places technical material and terms in an appendix for parents/adults while writing honestly about evolution in a way that engages a child's sense of wonder. King notes that above all "The book is very good on the science."

Now, an even nicer fact about the book is that it is free as a PDF (its development was paid for by crowd-sourcing).

Monday, October 26, 2015

A month along the Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

An obscure sanctuary harboring some of the world's oldest and grandest cypress trees. An intimate interview with a 78-year-old Mississippi Delta blues legend. Glimpses into the world occupied by ancient Mississippi valley mound builders. A giant (348'-long) painted panorama of the Mississippi River—the only surviving example of an art form that was popular in the mid-1800s that is now on display at the St. Louis Art Museum.

My just-completed month-long documentary journey from the Headwaters to the Delta and back left some powerful impressions of the great river and its lands and peoples. By way of a preview of the many stories from the trip that will populate much of CGEE's upcoming Mississippi Multimedia Gallery project, here is a highlights reel:

A Mississippi River Journey—Headwaters to Delta—in Five Minutes

Serendipity led me to John Ruskey—a river explorer and artist who builds his own canoes; paints intricate, colorful navigational maps; and, through his Quapaw Canoe Company, leads paddle excursions on the lower Mississippi, with its surprisingly wild reaches and many massive barge tows. Bluesman YZ Easley opened his home for a personal talk about the music that has flowed through the life of his family and community. Albert LeBeau, a Lakota who works as a Cultural Resource Manager at Effigy Mounds National Monument, shared perspectives on how native people continue to thrive and have left intriguing legacies among blufflands—a region that was managed in prehistoric times as oak savanah, not as the densely forested landscape found today.

For land-based travelers, the river is often frustratingly out of view behind levee walls and the wooded floodplain. I was able to achieve an aerial perspective in many places, however, due to an amazing new flying camera (the 3DR Solo), and a helicopter flight used to capture images of New Orleans' post-Katrina flood-control system and the heavy shipping traffic on the Big River.

Between the two, the drone revealed the most unexpected surprises: the Mississippi's vastness where it has received the waters of the Missouri. Seeing the upper river valley as an eagle would, soaring beside 400-foot bluffs.  And at the top of two huge trees discovering naked, weathered branches that were pointing skyward like gnarled fingers above the lush canopy. One tree is Minnesota's biggest white pine at Lake Itasca. The other is a cypress more than 1,000 years old and 2,000 miles downstream in rural Mississippi.

Flight of the Whoopers

Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

This morning a short newspaper article caught my attention, an announcement of a recommendation by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that the use of ultralights in guiding whooping cranes south from Wisconsin may end.

Whooping Cranes Flights
Whooping crane pair
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
(Flickr: whooping crane pair)
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Lee Bergquist, an environmental reporter for the Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI) has written a great piece which discusses the decision as well as provides context and information about whooping cranes.

If you are interested in learning more about these flights, Jon Mooallem devotes a chapter in "Wild Ones" to this practice. It provides the science, history, cultural influences, and personal narratives about those involved.  The other two chapters focus on an icon of conservation, the polar bear and a much less well-known species, the Lange's metalmark butterfly.

Mooallem began this exploration when he started to notice the number of imaginary animals which surround out children--on pajamas, animal-themed rooms, toothbrush handles. This made him wonder whether we see (can see?) wild animals or something else. This review may help you decide whether you want to read it.

I found it a powerful book about our relationship with the natural world.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sustainable Farming as Told by Lentils

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability

by Edward Hessler

Recently I left the new books section of the campus library with Liz Carlisle's Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America tucked under my arm. The Amazon link provides a peek inside.

Lentil Underground
Lens culirnaris
By Rainer Zenz at German Wikipedia (Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto.))
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"Lentil Undergound" is about Timeless Seeds, a Montana organic lentil and heritage grain business founded in 1987 by four farmers, one of whom, Dave Oien, "seeded the first organic lentil in his county."  And Carlisle notes just how radical an act this was in a state where farmers responded to nearly all problems by following the forceful instruction of former U. S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. Butz is remembered for recommending planting "fencerow to fencerow" and "get big or get out."

Why lentils?  The basic reason Carlisle writes is "Instead of mining the soil for nutrients to fuel an impressive harvest, this Robin Hood of the dryland prairie gathers the abundant fertility of the aboveground world--of the air, in fact--and shares it freely beneath the earth's surface. Inside the plant's nodules, bacteria surreptitiously convert atmospheric nitrogen into a community nutrient supply.  If wheat is the symbol of rugged individualism, then lentils embody that other agrarian hallmark too often overlooked in the western mythos: community."

Farming & Risk-taking in Lentil Underground

Image from

The book is an engaging story about the farmers and their families, farming methods, risk-taking,  hard times, legumes (Black Medic, a relative of alfalfa, and the lentil varieties, French Green and Black Beluga), research, cash flow, groceries and a restaurant, ecological logic, governmental organizations/regulations, agricultural policy issues, eating food that is grown responsibly, marketing, and events which shaped Timeless Seeds.

The map of farms and towns mentioned in Lentil Underground is an immense help while reading.   There is also a useful glossary of terms, e.g., agroecology, base acres, cover crop cocktail, inoculants, kamut, Natural Products Expo West, pulse crops, undersowing, triple bottom line.

An epilogue describes where things stand with Timeless Seeds and the farmers when the book went to press.

The farmers are not who you think they might be either.  They are diverse educationally, politically as well as in their beliefs, backgrounds and experiences. You might remember Robert McCloskey's children's book Lentil (nothing to do with lentils, it is about a harmonica playing boy).  It is a story about determination and perseverance, core characteristics of this group of Montana lentil farmers.

Land Sharing as a way to fix the food system
On the dust cover of Lentil Underground, author Bill McKibben wrote, "Who knew?"  I certainly didn't. Now, I can say that I know, well I need to be honest...sort of...I'm aware. This kind of farming is seasonal work with one season informing the next in one iteration after another. Nor do I have the long experience of farming that these farmers have or of paying attention to what must be noticed.  They are also capable of modifying or fixing machinery. And then there is the sweat and hard work, notably absent in my case.

Carlisle closes this story by noting that Timeless Seeds is a demonstration of the possibilities. "(Timeless Seeds) can't fix the food system alone (they contract with only about 20 farmers).  That's a job for all of us." A way to think about this fix is as land sharing which the book's glossary defines as "An approach to conservation ecology in which agricultural production and biodiversity conservation are integrated."

And what changes will be required if/when these are taken to scale. The changes will be far from the same since agroecosystems and outcomes are characterized by particulars and many twists and turns. The land sharing concept also includes many other things that humans do. While some of the harms can't be undone the future requires that we learn to live in harmony with nature rather than defying it.

2 Farmers: Jerry and Kathy Sikorski
Jerry and Kathy Sikorski are two of the farmers in Carlisle's book who provide an interesting example of living more harmoniously within harmony with nature. It is a small example of adaptation. They live in eastern Montana which has a climate suitable for corn.  Corn is included in their grain rotation, "but they pay attention to rainfall totals and reduce their seeding density accordingly."  Jerry Sikorski says that "It means less grain, but it also means fewer plants to use the available moisture."

A story about dental claims reminded me of a local bank teller I once knew. He was from Pakistan and the bank was small enough for occasional small talk as we made transactions.  I remember a conversation that included agriculture and lentils. Once in search of lentils to fill a very large order, Dave Oien thought that "precleaned" lentils he had purchased meant they were stone free.  However, he was soon to learn that grade one lentils meant fewer that 0.1 percent stones (or 10/pound).

As you can guess someone eventually broke a tooth on a stone.  From that time forward, Oien never sold lentils that Timeless hadn't cleaned. My bank teller-friend mentioned that one of the many things he liked about living in the U. S., was having fewer chipped/broken teeth from eating lentils that hadn't been cleaned of small stones.
In what seems great timing, I just discovered that the United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of the Pulses. Lentils are a member of this ancient family of crops.

And finally this post would be incomplete without some recipes for lentils.

A Free Science Book for the Younger Set (and the Older Set, Too)

Biological Evolution, Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers calls attention to a free children's book for those who like Charles Darwin and Dr. Seuss. To me, this means the audience also includes adults.

Great Adaptations: A Fantastical Collection of Science Poems is by Tiffany Taylor in collaboration with DS Wilson and Robert KadarTaylor is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Reading, UK.  The book consists of 10 illustrated poems about "remarkable adaptations".

All the necessary information on how to download the book may be found here.

What a deal!
Image from

Image result for people in nature

Environmenal & Science Education
Sustainable Energy & Transportation
Edward Hessler

Several months ago on November 30, 2015, world leaders met in Paris, France for the United Nations conference on climate change.

I call one document to your attention released by the Vatican before the meeting.

Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home). This encyclical seems to me a must read. The message that we need nature and each other resonates with me. I very much like its ecological and cultural tone. Reading it reminds me of a phrase in Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail where he stated that “we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality,” one that we still barely recognize. And it reminds me of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.

Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote a great review for the New York Review of Books (here). And, of course, the encyclical is available, on-line. (here)

Real Climate, a technical blog written by climate scientists/modelers has a review that will add insight into any analysis/consideration of the document. (here)

Is it the answer to all things climate? No, of course not. The Pope & the Market by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus is a thoughtful, market-based perspective that adds to a thoughtful discussion and consideration of Laudato Si.

It has, of course, received some negative commentary, mostly on blogs, but you can search those out, read them and use them in thinking about the document. Some of it has to do with the religious nature of the document. But, hey, as is said, "Is the Pope Catholic?" What else would one expect?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Stone Fruit

Art and Environment, Environmental & Science Education

by Edward Hessler

A stone fruit tree, possibly a plum (Prunus species); Wellcome V0043705
See page for author
 [CC BY 4.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Art Professor Creates Live Tree Sculptures
Art professor Sam Van Aken creates live tree sculptures of forty different fruits through grafting, one branch at a time. He is a faculty member in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University.

A full-blown Tree of Forty Fruit is comprised exclusively of stone fruits--fruits with pits. The pecan may be a bit of a surprise but not in the botanical world.  Van Aken grew up on a farm and had seen grafting done as a child.  An article by Geoff Herbert provides the details of the project including the serendipitous event that led him to his present preoccupation with grafted fruit trees.

About this event Herbert writes "The project began in 2008 when Van Aken discovered an orchard at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva that had more than 200 varieties of plums and apricots. When he learned it was to be abandoned, he picked up the lease and began...." 

Video on Van Aken's Grafting process

Apple tree grafting 2
By Karelj (Own work) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
In a National Geographic video Van Aken talks about his work, provides a tour of his nursery, demonstrates the grafting technique and shows pages from his meticulously kept notebooks.  Each page is a visualization of the grafting design for a particular tree. The resulting diagrams are lovely and provide a glimpse of how this artist keeps a working record of his work.

In this web page are found photographs of Van Aken's work. The full grafting process takes from five to ten years.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Chemistry at the University of Virginia at the Time of Jefferson


by Edward Hessler

Rotunda UVa from the south east
By terren in Virginia (flickr)
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
A press release from the University of Virginia describes a chemistry hearth from the time of Thomas Jefferson found in the rotunda during its renovation.

There was a news story and an article with more pictures on NPR.

Cool is way overused. Not here!

The 1895 8th Grade Test from Kansas

Environmental & Science Education, Literacy, Mathematics Education

by Edward Hessler

You have probably seen the famous test given in Kansas in 1895.  It has been subject to a lot of ink and debate. But who took it? Is it authentic?  What does it say about general literacy today?

Valerie Strauss has written an essay about the test which answers these kinds of questions and provides some important background.  In addition, she includes a copy of the test just in case you want to take it again or share it with someone else.

Politicians use test questions
Bhs int classroom ss
By Bhs_itrt (talk) (Uploads)
 (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.)
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Several questions from this test have been used by conservative politicians, including one candidate for president, as a talking point on the state of education then and now. Guess when things were better. You are right. Not now.

However, the politicians and commentators who use this as "evidence" to make a point for a personal belief, miss a few things such as the source of the questions, the pass rate then (25%) as well as the percentage of actual school age kids who took it and the source of the quote itself.  The Tocqueville citation does not exist.  However, it has been traced to the original source. You may read all about it here.

Did Dorothy say it best when she stated "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore"?!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Teaching the Truth About Climate Change

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability, Sustainable Energy & Transportation

by Edward Hessler

Video by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An editorial in the October 10 New York Times is a strong endorsement of teaching the facts — the truth — about climate change in schools.

The editorial notes that the Next Generation Science Standards provide a scientific, researched-based framework for teaching this concept in a way that helps students understand the science. The authors call attention to their adoption by fifteen states and also about 40 school districts. The editorial also describes the adoption landscape.

The editors point out that "Children today stand to inherit a climate severely changed by the actions of previous generations. They need to understand how those changes came about, how to mitigate them and how to prevent more damage to the planet. Schools can start by adopting science standards that deal extensively with human-caused climate change and that accurately reflect the scientific consensus."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Workshop on Wind Energy at Campus Sostenible

by Steven Beardsley

Making our windmills at the workshop

While I was abroad in Spain, I went to a workshop at Espinardo, one of the two major campuses of la Universidad de Murcia, on Wind Energy. The presenter showed us a video on windmills that detailed the various kinds of windmills such as horizontal ones versus vertical ones.

We also got the chance to see various diagrams that highlighted different parts of the windmill. For instance, there are safety mechanisms within the windmills that are designed to stop the windmill if it gets too windy in order to prevent damage to the windmill. I’ve also noticed that in Spain it can get pretty windy, which surprised me since it’s typically warm and sunny most of the time.

Presentation on Wind Energy

Length of a blade of a windmill
In addition to the video, the presenter showed us various mini-windmills with little circuits where spinning the windmill lights up the light along the corners. He mentioned how this is inefficient since one has to either continually spin the windmill and the spin has to be consistently strong. This led to a discussion on the various types of renewable energy.

For instance, solar energy is highly valued in Spain since Spain receives the most sunlight out of most countries in Europe and is usually used in conjunction with wind energy. Additionally, the presenter mentioned the difficulties of accumulating energy through windmills in addition to talking about the size of one of the many blades. I was surprised to find out that the blade of a windmill is actually the length of two highways as depicted in this image:

Making our Own Windmills
He also talked more about the differences between windmills that are used to take water out of the ground versus windmills that are used for accumulating energy. He also gave a general explanation of the use of wind from early navigation on boats to modern day constructions of windmills. After answering questions and talking more about the mechanisms of the windmill, we also got the chance to make our own windmills.

We first constructed a mast like that of a boat in order to see which direction the wind was coming from. We were able to color our mast and cut different designs into it. After that, we made the windmill itself and put it into place with a plastic cylinder that slid tightly onto one end of our mast. Luckily, it was windy the day of the workshop, so we got the chance to see our windmills spin and move in the direction of the wind. 

Overall, I found the experience to be very fun with a great mix of theory and practice. I now know that windmills are very impressive and great sources of energy accumulation. It was also interesting to hear about the various strides that Spain is making in renewable energy.

Me with my Spanish friends and our windmills

Grading a Watershed

Environmental & Science Eduction, Water & Watersheds, Rivers, Sustainability
by Edward Hessler

By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Mississippi river basin has been assigned a grade of D+ by America's Watershed Initiative. Well, it is better than a D!

250 rivers plus flow into the mighty Miss and these include many hundreds of watersheds.  We are always in one but it takes a lot of noticing and thinking for that to register.

At America's Watershed Initiative you can explore the report card for each of the Mississippi's sub-basins and see the grades assigned for recreation, economy, ecosystems, water supply, transportation and flood control/risk reduction.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On Being Successful in Mathematics

Mathematics Education

by Edward Hessler

Bulletin international de l'Académie des Sciences de Cracovie. Classe des sciences mathématiques et naturelles. = Anzeiger der Akadémie der Wissenschaften in Krakau. (20254306899)
By Internet Archive Book Images
 [No restrictions],
via Wikimedia Commons

Over at Diane Ravitch's blog you can find a short note about Joshua Katz who teaches mathematics at University High School, Orlando, FL.

He greeted his students this fall with a wordless video on how to be successful in mathematics which includes what he will do to help them be successful in learning mathematics. He sets reasonable and realizable expectations.

Ravitch notes that the video has gone viral and it is easy to see why.  You will also find a link there to a TEDx talk Mr. Katz gave.

After viewing the video I think you will agree that this is a great way for students to start a year in a subject they might have some reservations about.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Nature 365 TV

Art & Environment
Environmental & Science Literacy

by Edward Hessler

(295-365) Amazing (6080523405)
By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands
([295/365] Amazing)
 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
OK, today is October 7 and I've just learned of a video project--each video about a minute-and-a-half long, launched by world renowned nature photographer Jim Brandenburg on January 1, 2015! A video a day.


So, just in case you missed it and I hope you didn't, here is a link to an article about the project and a link to the website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Symposium on Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers

Environmental & Science Education, Water & Watersheds, Sustainability, History of Science

by Edward Hessler

By Donald Emmerich, Photographer (NARA record: 3045077)
(U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Reserve Mining Case & Lake Superior
Names and terms such as Reserve Mining Company, Silver Bay, Judge Miles Lord, taconite, and mineral fibers, may remind you of the Reserve Mining Case.

For years the Reserve Mining Company had dumped waste rock and water from its taconite facility in Silver Bay into Lake Superior.  In the late 1960s, elongated mineral fragments were traced from Duluth's drinking water to Silver Bay, the location of the taconite processing plant. These fragments bore an uncanny similarity to asbestos fibers, long known to be harmful to humans.

Bottled drinking water replaced the fresh, untreated pure water of Lake Superior as drinking water in communities that had relied on it. It led Duluth to construct a filtration plant which is still in use.  A very bitter, heated and bumpy court case was initiated in August 1973 which wasn't resolved until 1980, when the waste rock and water from Reserve Mining's taconite plant was pumped several miles inland where it was deposited in a disposal pond, a method that is still in use today.

This case is a landmark in the relationship between humans and the environment. Natural resources could be protected from industrial pollution.

Conference on Dr. Philip Cook's research on Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers
A technical conference, "Asbestos-like Mineral Fibers in the Upper Midwest: Implications for Mining and Health Workshop," started yesterday in Duluth.  This conference is referred to by insiders as the Cook conference.

Dr. Philip Cook was a chemist who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Duluth when these fibers were discovered.  He wondered whether they were really asbestos?  Were they harmful to humans?  Did they cause a rare cancer, mesothelioma, the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases which destroys the lubricating functioning of the lining of the lung? 
Respiratory effects of exposure to dust in taconite miners and processing workers includes concern about mesothelioma.

Work on these fibers was the focus of Dr. Cook's research since then and this conference will report on his results (Cook died of cancer in 2013).  One of the most interesting findings from his research is his discovery of small fibers in rats' lungs into which standard length fibers has been introduced.  These would break-off from the longer fibers.

Stephanie Hemphill, a reporter who has followed this environmental and health issue for a long time wrote a lovely piece for MinnPost on this conference.  It previews the conference, pulls some of the science together and describes the painstaking and brilliant research done by Philip Cook.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What Time is It Until Doomsday?

Environmental & Science Education, Sustainability, Water & Watersheds, Sustainable Energy & Transportation

by Edward Hessler

One Canada Square, Canary Wharf
By Garry Knight (Flickr: 4:06 PM)
 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
I just received the results of the 24th annual "Questionnaire on Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind" from the Asahi Glass Foundation. A few highlights follow:

The average time for the Environmental Doomsday Clock this year was 9:27 pm, an advancement of 4 minutes from last year.  The time reflects concern about human survival prospects.

"Climate change" continued to be the most frequently selected environmental condition of concern in determining the time, followed by "pollution/contamination," "water resources," "biodiversity," and "land use."

Overall, when arranging the top-ranked environmental conditions of concern in descending order of severity on the Environmental Doomsday Clock, "biodiversity" and "population" have the most advanced time of 9:36 pm.  These were followed by "pollution/contamination," then "lifestyles" and "environment and economy" at the same time on the Environmental Doomsday Clock.

Questionnaires were mailed April 2015 with a return deadline of June 2015. 25,306 questionnaires were mailed (24070 overseas and 1236 within Japan). The response rate was 8.2%.

For access to the results, a description of how the time on the Environmental Doomsday Clock is calculated, regional doomsday times, perceptions of time based on respondent age and shifts in time by generation, the complete responses to the questionnaire and other details see here.