Friday, February 27, 2015

Come to the (Climate Change) Cabaret!, March 13, 7-9pm

It's time to forge comedy out of angst, to take carbon and make carbonation, to have some serious fun with a subject that people feel so strongly about yet talk about so little. Attend the premier of the 

*** Climate Change Cabaret ***

to gain fresh perspectives on Carbon (a seductive renaissance atom, but beware--not all carbons are the same!). Meet the new, improved, and highly lovable Mr. SustainableWitness a man's tragicomic breakup with his car. Take an Ironic Ride to the Dinky, and explore Earth Logic in Space. These theatrical sketches were born and raised in Princeton by writer/director Steve Hiltner, better known as me.

The music portion of the evening will be provided by members of the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, featuring a wind-powered saxophone and an incredibly acoustic piano, with a special appearance by Princeton High School's fabulous a cappella group Around 8. There may even be a Special Delivery at the end--a surprise solution to all our earthly problems--followed by light refreshments. The event is free! (We're all working on the carbon-free part.)

This trail-blazing, consciousness-raising event is being hosted by the 2015 Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Friday, March 13, 7-9pm, in the Princeton Public Library Community Room.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trenton Students and Science Mentors, Healing the Earth and Themselves

Last month, I found myself sitting at a table in the NJ State Museum, with a budding hyacinth for a centerpiece and a conference room full of high school students showing a budding interest in science. This trip to Trenton began with a surprise email that had arrived out of the blue two months prior:

"My Name is Tatyana and I am in a program called Science Mentors where teens are paired with a mentor and come up with a question that they will solve in order to enter their experiment and project into the Mercer Science and Engineering Science Fair. My mentor and I are very interested in the environmental factors of floods and while searching around the Internet we came upon a little information on water gardens. After visiting your blog we found out how knowledgable you are on this topic. Would you be able to meet with my mentor (Lisa Olson) and I in order to give us more information on water gardens and even be able to give us a tour of your water gardens so we could see them in person?"

So Tatyana came up to Princeton with her mentor for a tour of Princeton High School's ecolab wetland (fed by the school's "Old Faithful" sump pump) and the recreated stream corridor in my backyard. That gave her some ideas for two spots in Trenton, one being the empty lot next to her house, which gets lots of sun and could have some water directed to it from nearby roofs. 

The other is an empty field downtown with a river that runs through it. Well, actually, the river is a creek called Assunpink Creek, and it's been flowing underneath the field rather than through it, ever since the creek was buried to make room for urban development. That may change before too long, if plans put together by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers to daylight the creek are finally realized. 

We discussed what would be a good project having to do with raingardens. Identify what plants are growing in the field? Create a small raingarden there? I encouraged Tati and Lisa to consider inventorying the existing raingardens in Trenton, and see how they're doing. There's a great feeling of promise and achievement when a raingarden is planted, but birth is only the beginning. For a raingarden to thrive, it needs periodic infusions not only of rainwater but also of a love that expresses itself in the form of plant knowledge and periodically remembering to stop by to pull a few weeds. 

Science Mentors operates on a similar principal, that kids will thrive if given ongoing attention and caring. "If you have unconditional love, you can achieve anything, " says Maureen Quinn, the nonprofit's leader and soul. It was touching to see science so clearly paired with the healing power of love, and the awareness that one receives through giving. That is, after all, what drives a raingarden, and our lives.

Each student spoke in front of the group, describing their project.

You know, the world doesn't lack for sad stories. In the corridor leading to the museum's conference room, the story is very well told of the loss of the Carolina Parakeet,

and the passenger pigeon.
But those sad endings only make more moving the stories of thriving and renewal, stories that continue to be told through organizations like Science Mentors.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Water for the Birds

With temperatures consistently below freezing, the outside of our chicken coop has become littered with big "ice bowls", which are like ice cubes but bowl-shaped. We give the chicken and duck fresh water, it freezes up, then later in the day we cast out the frozen remains and refill the bowls. A heated water dish would involve running a long cord out to the coop. One post that made me feel better about not having a heated bowl can be found here. It also makes me feel better about not having covered every last crack where the wind can get in. Warmth is less important than adequate ventilation, as long as the coop isn't drafty.

I periodically search the internet for a solar water heater for birdbaths or chicken coops, but no luck thus far. Seems like there should be a system in which a small solar panel hooks up to a heating element in the winter, and a water fountain for an outdoor pond in the summer.

Wild birds are apparently either getting water from the snow and frozen berries, which requires expending their own energy to do the melting, or heading down to the local stream. It drives home the importance of "daylighting" urban streams, which have often been buried and are therefore not accessible for birds to take a winter's drink.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Winter Fun: IceLax, and a Hidden Dinky Rink

A couple other blogs I write had nature-themed posts this past weekend. One explains this mysterious pattern we found in freshly fallen snow while skating on Carnegie Lake.

Another explores the origins of this dinky rink and other sculpted features of Herrontown Woods.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hawks and Chickens

In New York City's Garment District, a giant hawk-like creature stands proud and somewhat menacing, as traffic swirls all around. "Crafted from maple saplings", it is one of five "Avian Avatars meant to indicate transformation, encouraging the public to heed to the stories about current human impact on the changing natural world."

This particular one represents a falcon named The Taste Maker, described as "an idealist, a philosopher and an opinionated vocalist with a social vision." Sounds like the falcon should have a blog.

Out here in the suburban wilds of central New Jersey, nature is less filtered through myth. This Coopers hawk too stands proud, while indicating a transformation much more localized than climate change. Any ideals it might hold can't compete with the exigencies of hunger in a less than generous winter landscape. As for social vision, it goes along with the driving vision of nature, which in all its beauty and generosity is built on passing energy from one trophic level to the next. One creature dies so that another may live.

The hawk's most recent visit marked the end of an era, in a way. The backyard ponds still freeze and thaw, wax and wane. The native wildflowers planted along our reconstructed miniature tributary of Harry's Brook will rebound in spring. But one of our two chickens was less lucky.

We started several years back with four chickens--the ardent brainstorm of our younger daughter who I think was inspired by a movie she saw at school. Once parental resistance was overcome, the birds turned out to be a delight. We got them locally at Rosedale Mills, where they sell chicks in the spring so the birds have enough time to grow up before winter. Finally, a pet that truly enjoys the (fenced in) backyard, inspecting every square inch for any morsel of food. Skittering insects, wiggly worms, stray seeds--all were eagerly gobbled up and transformed into eggs with dark orange yolks. The hens got the run of the place all day, before being closed in the coop for the night.

Their success prompted followup requests for ducks--pleas so persistent that we finally caved, despite the seeming impracticality. The one-day old ducklings arrived in a box at the post office, in November--not prime time for frolicking in the backyard. They were unbelievably cute, like windup rubber duckies that followed us everywhere--endearing traits that surely contributed to their survival, first in a spare bathtub and later in a box in the sunroom, until spring came.

The ducks, too, flourished in the backyard, adding a complementary appreciation of water features to the chickens' preference for the backyard's terra firma. They loved the ponds, and thereby made a mess of the ponds, in much the same way our love of, and appetite for, the earth and its resources has made a mess of things. But at least their droppings on the lawn, unlike those of geese, were liquid enough to disappear into the ground, sustaining a landscape that was still people-friendly.

There was some attrition along the way. The first loss was a chicken early on, the one night we left them out. They had looked so happy perched up on a brick chimney on the patio that we got lax. A neighbor claimed to have seen a fisher that night. Raccoons seem curiously absent, perhaps because we have a dog. The second loss was to a Coopers Hawk one afternoon, in the fall, after the protective backyard foliage had dropped off. That daylight attack above all brought home the tough choice between giving the birds a high quality free range life and keeping them safely cooped up. Our grief was mixed with an awareness of how extraordinary are these wild predators, living by their wits.

Then there was a long spell of stability, as it seemed that the large, white Pekin duck, with its exaggerated waddle, big voice and intimidatingly pokey beak, was making all predators think twice. Along with this "guard duck", we had a smaller, more graceful runner duck and two remaining chickens, and were rolling in eggs, so to speak. Each duck produced daily, while the Aracana chickens each produced two blue or pink eggs every three days or so. We worried the ducks were talking too much during the day, but neighbors would tell us they loved hearing them. Their backyard calls were a welcome relief from the frontyard din of traffic along Harrison Street.

Whatever powers our guard duck had were not enough to deter a red-tailed hawk that finally shattered the sense of backyard calm on the evening we returned from the Climate March in Manhattan. I had been gone for five days, perhaps reducing the human presence in the backyard long enough to embolden the hawk. This time it was the runner duck, more upright, with more grace and less waddle than other ducks. It was enough to bring one closer in understanding of what a rancher feels after a sheep is lost to wolves.

By this time, my daughter had grown to highschool age, with her interests largely flown elsewhere than the backyard chicken coop. I had become, as with the family dog, the default caretaker. When a Coopers hawk last month claimed for its meal her favorite chicken, a brown beauty called Buttons, she took things more philosophically.

Do these losses take an emotional toll? Should we have kept the birds penned in rather than expose them to the risks, freedom and richness of the yard? I really can't say if we'd do things differently. There have been some hard lessons about how nature works, but a lot of joy and delight.

Our last remaining chicken, Buffy, keeps Daisy the Pekin duck company. The duck suddenly stopped laying last fall, and for awhile we had no eggs at all until Buffy started laying her baby blue eggs again, undeterred by winter's cold or the memory of the 2004 Kerry/Edwards campaign she perched next to at night. All those plastic signs left along the road can find new purpose winterizing chicken coops. Democrat, Libertarian--it matters little in this second life. I like to think that the air chambers in the hollow signs help insulate the coop a bit. Signs with hollow slogans might be even more effective.

One creature dies so that another may live. I'm not ready for that personally, but I'm ready to sacrifice, personally and collectively, so that changes don't overwhelm the lives of generations to come. There can be joy in that, too, a feeling of connectedness with those who follow--joy that comes with less risk, not more. Maybe that's the message to all who walk in the shadow of the looming falcon in Manhattan.

Past posts about our backyard chickens include the Joyce Carol Oats connection.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Walking On Ice

Yesterday, with sidewalks made slippery by freezing rain overnight, my daughter made her early morning departure to walk to the high school. My first thought, hearing the door close behind her, was that I should have offered to give her a ride.

Usually a second thought is more cautious than the first, but my second thought was comforting. Walking on ice is a skill best learned when young, when reflexes are quick and bones resilient. With practice, one learns how to minimize the risk, how to test the traction as one goes, and the eye learns to identify the ice's subtle differences in texture and shade that determine where best to put the next foot. "Testing the ice", having to do with how kids can safely learn about risk, is a concept Richard Louv speaks of in his book "Last Child in the Woods".

My own walk on morning ice involved crossing the backyard to feed the duckens (we're down to one duck and one chicken). Each step on ice-coated snow required a calculation so quick it merged with instinct. Partway across the yard, my muscles remembered this particular style of walking that must have been learned during long winter treks to school as a kid, a style that combines small quick steps with forward momentum, so that weight doesn't linger on any one foot. It speeded me safely across the treacherous frozen snow, water and food in hand.

Later in the day, we got an email from the Princeton Public Schools superintendent, apologizing for not calling for a delayed school opening, given the icy conditions. He had a good excuse. The ice didn't form until 7am--too late to delay the opening--and a predicted late-morning freeze had made it sound like a delayed opening might be more dangerous than beginning at the regular hour.

All students reportedly made it safely to school, and I'll bet that a lot of learning happened even before school began, as those who walked gained valuable experience with walking on ice--experience that will remain in their muscle memory and serve them well in years to come.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Winter Weekend Report, and "Snowbound Language" Reprise

First, an ice update. As of this morning, the Princeton Recreation Dept. is sticking with its Thursday announcement that Lake Carnegie is open for skating, but the other locations are not safe. Check the hotline, (609) 688-2054, before heading out, and also check the flags next to the lake/ponds. Red flag means not safe.

Snow this winter has been persistent, but less creative than in previous years. It's doing an excellent job of recycling the season's meagre light, which would otherwise get absorbed by the drab browns and grays of land and sky. If you're feeling a little socked in, or a wee bit precarious and annoyed as you negotiate unshoveled sidewalks, some comic relief can be sought in a post from last year entitled Snowbound Language. To compete with the Eskimos by expanding our snow vocabulary, consult Principitation--a glossary of playful terms for the myriad varieties of snow that have decorated Princeton in previous years.

Gardening Event at Library Today, Saturday, Feb. 7

A last minute notice for anyone happening to read this blog this morning. I'll be at the Princeton Public Library's gardening event today, Saturday, from 11 to 12, in my capacity as member of the Princeton Shade Tree Commission. The event runs from 11-3, and includes representatives from various local organizations involved with gardening. It's meant to jumpstart your planning for the coming growing season.

Another inspiration is an article in the NY Times friends have been mentioning to me in the last few days. By Anne Raver, it focuses on a talk given recently by Douglas Tallamy, about an approach to gardening that fosters native plant-insect interactions, which in turn supports other wildlife as well, particularly birds that need insect proteins to feed their young. According to Tallamy, “In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.” Tallamy spoke at DR Greenway previously, and I wrote a post about him in 2009. The research he and his students at U. of Delaware have done has provided compelling evidence for the ecological importance of native plants.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Snow Forts and Memories

On a recent walk around the block, I encountered three boys building a complex of snow forts in the front yard. My first thought was, "You mean kids still build snow forts?" It brought back memories of all the dramas we superimposed on the landscape I ranged over as a kid.

Within those protective walls, we'd have stacks of snowballs ready to hurl at any who dared attack. My free-range childhood territory included windswept fields where the observatory's facilities crews would erect snowfences to keep snow from blowing over the sidewalks. Snow would gather in drifts five feet deep on the lee side of the fences, perfect for excavating and augmenting, following much the same impulse as the gophers that were hibernating in the ground below.

Like hunting, which I really enjoyed until I actually killed something, our building of the snowy equivalent of a Maginot Line was fun until war actually broke out. There was one traumatic day when our fort complex was attacked, by a couple college students who penetrated the flurry of snowballs and proceeded to destroy our carefully crafted fort. Those were some big bullies.

Here was the other scene during the walk around the block that brought back memories. Start with a small clump of snow, push it across the grass, gathering snow with each revolution. When the snowball was too big to budge any further, we knew where the snowman or the fort would stand. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, that we are snowballs, making tracks through time, experiences sticking to us as we go, gaining character, or at least characteristics, until we find ourselves outstanding, or at least out standing, in a field.