Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

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bird house.jpg

One of the pleasures we derive from living at high altitude and remotely are the birds that surround us all year long. While we enjoy an occasional visit from bear, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, elk, deer, and sometimes a grey wolf, we enjoy the birds the most. They are entertaining and educational, as well as some of the most devoted creatures on raising a family. They search for a good nest site and then lay their eggs and keep them warm until they hatch. Then they are  constantly in search of food for the babies until they are developed and old enough to fly away on their own. Once they are out of the nest and have been shown how to provide for themselves, they are on their way in life. Pretty effective and simple.

Providing Nesting Boxes

One way we keep them coming back year after year to nest and raise their families is to provide nesting houses for them. We have had generation after generation of various bird species nest around our house in those bird houses. They benefit us by keeping our insect population to a manageable level and we provide them a safe environment to raise their families.

My personal preference is the wren, which is a tiny bird that hops around on our firewood pile to find food that other species can not get to because of those tight spaces. The weather can be harsh and difficult in the mountains on both people and our feathered friends. The winds are sometimes strong and hail, snow and heavy rains make it tough on the birds but they are very resilient.

Birdhouse Design

Making bird houses is pretty simple and youngsters often start learning their woodworking skills making bird houses. They can be made from material on hand which can be scrap lumber to  hollowed out logs. They need to have ventilation and have a safe dry area. The opening should be big enough for the species that you hope to attract to nest there.

I have found that a 1¼-inch hole will accommodate most small birds. I prefer to use galvanized tin roofs painted with an exterior paint that contains no hazardous toxins. They also need to be hung high enough where predators can’t reach them so I usually use a ladder to hang them from a suitable limb.

I am told that the female selects the nesting site and then both male and female gather the material to build the nest. With four German Shepherd Dogs (also known as German Shedders) there is usually a lot of undercoat available to be used for the nests to make them more comfortable for the tiny baby birds.

Lumber from Trees

Like just about everything made or manufactured bird houses do not last more than a few years. Recently as I was cleaning out under our house I found some pre-cut birdhouse pieces that I had cut many years ago and totally forgotten about. As soon as I saw them in the box where they had been stored I recalled the pieces and where they came from.

We lived in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1985 when hurricane Kate passed over the city. It was only a category one storm but it generated considerable damage. We were without power for a week or more and ended up with 5 large pine and oak trees blown over and laying on our house. When the workers cut the trees off the house, I had them save the base sections so I could mill out lumber from them. That lumber is where the birdhouse pieces came from that are in the above photo.

Those trees provided lumber for many projects over the years and now they are providing dry, comfortable housing for birds here in Colorado. Making the two houses in the photo brought back memories of building bird houses over the years plus all the damage those trees did when they ended up on our home.

These pieces had been cut for decorative indoor houses and not functional houses. They are too large for wrens, so I subdivided them into a duplex for two family occupancy. One has an entrance on one side and the other family will have an entrance on the opposite side. I have no idea if two wren families will share the accommodations or not, but it allowed me to put these spare pieces to use constructively.

Helpful Hints

Some helpful hints would be to put the bottom on with screws so when the birds are through with the house the bottom can be removed and the old nest can be cleaned out for the next tenant. Also it is advisable to use an exterior glue to hold the pieces together. I use a powdered exterior glue that is designed for whirly jigs that have moving parts and bond well for outdoor use.

I use pegs on the front under the entrance since we do not have a problem with snakes at this altitude. Snakes can wrap around the pegs and stick their head inside to eat eggs and baby chicks. If we were at a lower altitude I would use a little piece of wood that the birds can grab onto and snakes can’t use for leverage.

I also like using a tin roof for its durability and it doesn’t allow water to enter. Two or three small ⅛-inch vent holes in the back of each house are enough for ventilation since it never gets very hot at this altitude. I also make sure that nails don’t come through to the interior for the safety of the birds. Almost any creative design will work as long as it is dry and ventilated.

Because birdhouses are simple to make, this really isn’t a DIY blog but one that points out how providing birds a nice dry nesting area is beneficial to both the birds and us humans.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and living with animals and birds go to McElmurray's Mountain Retreat. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Industrial residuals application in King William Co. Virginia
“You all are just a bunch of a tree-hugging, Bambie-eyed, bleeding heart liberal professors! You all sit in those ivy-league colleges of yours, sipping frappuccino and writing gobbly-gook articles about how bad biosolids are, but you don’t know first thing about the hardships of a farmer! Guys from the state office told me this is a natural fertilizer and it’s treated and monitored for any bad stuff! And it’s free!“

A football player sized farmer in a tattered Carhartt jacket and work boots caked with dirt (or biosolids?), his face flushed with frustration, was waving his finger in my face after the DEQ subcommittee wrapped up its public hearing and granted yet another 10 year permit to Synagro Technologies Inc. to spread industrial residuals in my neck of the woods. I got my allotted three minutes to tell the apathetic looking committee members why agricultural application of biosolids is a very bad idea, but it didn’t look like even one of the seven of them cared. They glanced at their smartphones, picked fingernails and drank cold coffee, looking quite ready to vote and call it a day.

I got in my car, parked near the General Assembly building in downtown Richmond, VA and hit the road. I took a day off from work to attend the hearing, whatever was left of the day I figured I will use to take care of some house chores. It’s almost an hour drive back home, we live deep in the countryside of central-eastern Virginia, on a picturesque 6 acre “hobby farm." Tree-hugging… I said to myself. How did he know that? I do sometimes fight the urge to hug my crabapple tree, especially in the late fall when I’m done picking all the fruit to make crabapple butter. The tree is producing tons of small, sweetly tart fruit. Then I slave for days at the stove to process endless jars of the crabapple butter, a staple for breakfast in our kitchen. As far as the hardwood beyond our property - there is definitely less to hug these days.

Last crabapple's harvest 

New Kent County where we live is being aggressively deforested by a motivated army of loggers and developers. Jarring, devastated landscape they leave behind is either developed for one more cookie-cutter subdivision that nobody wants or needs, or it’s turned into a farming field where the “genetically enhanced” corn, soybeans or cotton are grown. The best option for those barren places is to be reseeded with the loblolly pine for a quick growing, harvestable timber. I don’t somehow feel like hugging loblolly pines. Bambi-eyed… Not a chance! A quick check in a rear view mirror- naaah, he definitely is wrong on that one. What was the other thing? Bleeding heart… Yes, my heart bleeds often lately when I see what is happening to our beautiful countryside. The irresponsible, greed-motivated practices of loggers, the cash strapped farmers inviting biosolids distributors to spread toxins on their farmland under the pretense of a “free natural fertilizer”. He is right, my heart bleeds a lot these days.

Liberal. No - I’m most definitely not a liberal, but that’s probably a subject for another discussion.

Frappuccino? Didn’t try that one yet. Once a week or so, when I have a moment, I treat myself to a tall latte at the coffee shop on the campus. I work at a state college, so the Ivy League we are not. And, I’m not a professor. Never found the time in my busy life nor the conviction and determination to pursue a doctorate. I don’t regret it any bit, I love working in the lab, hands-on daily experience of transforming theoretical ideas into concise scientific protocols and implementing them into a tangible results. I guess I’m more of a doer than a thinker. As far as writing goobly-gook articles, I suppose I’m partially guilty on that charge, although my articles are about molecular biology and genetics; sludge — not so much.

My involvement in the anti-sludge activism is not a part of my job. I do that in my spare time and it’s the result of my deep concern about what this disastrous practice is doing to our countryside.

How can I tell this farmer that I’m not his enemy? Come to think of it, anti-sludge folks are just as close to his allies as it gets. We are perhaps a different breed, but we surely share love and reverence for the land and do our best to truly be its stewards. How can I tell him that in my humble opinion, who he really needs to be furious at is the Big Sludge industry? And the people that approach farmers about the “nutrient-rich natural fertilizer” they will deliver for free to his farm.

And the industry paid for and bought so-called “scientists” that receive “research grants” from the Big Sludge to write enthusiastic publications on benefits of the sludge. They assure farmers with all the authority and seriousness of an accomplished professional that biosolids are a wonderful option for the natural composting. It’s such a wholesome practice, they say - just like grandpa used to do when he butchered some chicken and buried guts and feathers by the vegetable garden. I don’t know the exact numbers, but chicken guts and feathers (laden with arsenic) are a rather small percentage of the sludge coming from CAFO animal processing plants… Just because the corn grows tall, it doesn’t mean the sludge applied to your land is good for you and your family’s health.

I know of a farmer that has been using biosolids on his land for some 20 years and is an outspoken advocate for this “natural fertilizer”. Yet he simply refuses to consider the possibility that his young son’s untimely death due to cancer could be related to what he puts in his soil and what is in the dust the wind carries from his fields…. I met a couple with two teenage sons, both boys suffer from asthma and allergies. The neighbor, the father’s brother, uses biosolids on his farm and will tell you that this is one crazy idea that his two nephews’ health issues are in any way related to the sludge. Those farmers and their families are the first line of victims this environmental disaster claims.

How can I tell them to step away for a moment from a dollar and cents point of view and look around; is there maybe an autistic child in your family that was born since you’ve been using biosolids on your farm? Did your mom come down with Alzheimer’s even though there is no family history of that disease? Or maybe your older brother developed Parkinson’s at the age of 50? Is your wife perhaps suffering from constant rashes and eczema? Do you happen to have COPD or chronic cough? Are your grandkids allergic to just about every food item, cats, dogs, pollen, dust and things you didn’t know anybody can be allergic to?
It’s time to wake up and smell the biosolids. And when you do, please join us — we will fight this battle together.

Photos by Thomas Miller and Lidia Epp

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use. Read all of Lidia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


I have spent the majority of my working life with children outdoors. I was an environmental educator for a number of years, tasked with the multi-faceted job of engaging young people with nature through any means possible. I went camping, hiking, and tramping through creeks with a string of teens in tow.

I also did stream surveys with 6th graders, identifying benthic macroinvertebrates and testing water for contaminants. I taught watershed stewardship programs in urban schools, toting dioramas and animal skins around to different classrooms. I paid special visits to preschools with snakes and turtles, gleefully watching as the kids came up and gently touched the creatures.

teaching first grade

In all of these circumstances, the inevitable moral conclusion for us educators was to make sure we addressed environmental concerns with these kids and challenged them to make better decisions in the future. When I was teaching along the history-beleaguered Cuyahoga River, for example, I often found fantastic, relevant opportunities to talk about the environmental movement and the impact that humans have on water health. Even the most uninterested students ears perked up when I told them that the river they were looking at had caught on fire because of pollution.

Avoiding 'Eco-Guilt' in Environmental Education

However, a common side effect to talking to children (and adults) about the environment is something I often hear called “Eco-Guilt.” As a child of the 1990s, I knew this feeling well. My 10-year old self believed that I, personally, was to blame for the destruction of rainforests (even though I’d never seen one), and that the demise of endangered species was being wrought by my own hands. I tried to send my birthday money in to save a whale after watching “Free Willy,” and I threw rocks at the earthmovers that were cutting down the forest at the end of my road.

I had a huge load of self-imposed responsibility to “fix” what I saw as problems, but I only had a child’s understanding of the real issues. They were big, abstract, monsterish — but completely forgettable in my daily life. I had rocks to flip, holes to dig, and trees to climb.

But once I was able to really start understanding as an adult, my love of the environment and my desire for stewardship returned and I became an Environmental Educator. I remembered my childhood guilt, and wondered about the well meaning, but somewhat misguiding things taught to me by teachers and environmentally conscious adults.

I started wondering how fair it was to tell young children to take responsibility for worldwide pollution, endangered species, and toxic waterways. Honestly, when they are so young that can’t drive, vote, or make the majority of decisions for their own lives — what can they really do about it except feel guilt?

This thought crystallized in my mind when, while reading through an environmental education newsletter, I saw a 1st grader write in about how the thing that scared her the most was not monsters under the bed, barking dogs, or the dark — but global warming. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I think we can all agree that a 6 year old should not lie in terror at night because of the threat of carbon emissions. She can’t even spell the phrase, much less understand the complicated political, environmental, and industrial factors involved in the continuing discussion.

So, the more I taught about the environment, the less I wanted to impress the peril of dying polar bears on first graders. Sure, it is a really important issue, but for a child, I noticed that it a distant, far-away concept that really has no bearing on their immediate lives.  Even if they do sense the peril, it is completely unfair to throw it upon their tiny shoulders, however well meaning.  It’s easy to tell kids that they need to be “eco-conscious” and recycle because “it’s good for the planet.”  But after being in this business for a while, I contend that it is far more important to cultivate an appreciation and love of nature in especially young kids, far before they are saddled with the feeling that they are culpable for the sickness of the earth that they have inherited.

The reason I, personally, started to care about the environment as an adult was because I got to play in nature as a kid.  Being allowed to flip those rocks, dig those holes, and climb those trees made me care about animals, soil, and plants in a developmentally-appropriate way.  It laid the foundation for me to cultivate a real desire for change, and now as an adult, the decisions I make to care for my environment are made from deep, tangible convictions, not disconnected duty.

5 Ideas for Nature-Based Education

So how do you encourage kids to love nature and start that good foundation without weighting them down with abstract guilt? I offer these five tried-and-true ways to consider.

1.  Let children go outside and keep play unstructured

During my educational hikes with young visitors to the Nature Center, I always built in a “free time” for my students.  I would set boundaries (usually telling them they had to keep me in sight) and let the kids run wild through the forest or through the field.  They would play tag, flip logs and poke at worms, and roll down hills.  For many of our students, it was these moments that were remembered and treasured better than my well structured lesson plan and carefully-worded exhortations.

With my own kids (once they’re old enough!) I will make sure that they have space to go outside and just explore.  Sure, they’ll come back muddy, and there might be as creature in their hands (I horrified my mother by routinely bringing garter snakes in the house), but I know no better way to get kids eco-minded than letting them forge those connections in their own experiences.  If we expect kids to grow up to be stewards of the environment someday, it’s got to start with love.  And you can only really love something when the relationship isn’t forced.

2. Connect Them Locally

When I was a kid, I felt really bad about the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest, but there was little I could do about it at that point aside from learn as much as I could.  I didn’t know that my own state of Ohio also had environmental problems, and these were ones where I actually do something to help!

 Being given an opportunity to make an observable, tangible difference is a great way to kindle concern into action, and information into comprehension. I saw this after doing invasive weed removal with some Girl Scouts along a trail. They gazed over their piles of glossy buckthorn and garlic mustard, dirt on their knees, and there was both satisfaction and understanding in their faces. I don’t think a “talk” about the problem of invasive weeds would have made as real a connection as that moment of accomplishment.

There are plenty of chances for kids to start caring for their environment right where they are. Every Earth Day, there are often multiple opportunities to volunteer and help around you — many communities offer trash and stream clean ups. While this is a good place to get connected, there are plenty of things to help out throughout the year.

If you’re interested, look in the spring for invasive weed removal opportunities, bird counts, or research if there’s a Volunteer Naturalist program that you could learn from. And if you can’t find something and are feeling proactive…start something!

3.  Go on An Adventure

Not every excursion outdoors has to be “educational” (even if it secretly is!). I loved getting to lead multi-day hiking trips and camping trips with young people. The novelty of being outside for more than a few hours, often led to fantastic conversations, beautifully quiet moments, and truly exciting adventures. A break from the concrete, asphalt and roofs of normal life often gave my students and campers a different perspective on nature and their place in it. Often times, they reached personal conclusions on their own, without my guidance or suggestions.

So, if you don’t mind spending the money, there are countless trips you could sign up for. Summer camps, white water rafting, zip line tours, and guided backpacking trips are often led by people who are very knowledgeable about the environment they’re working in, and often willing to answer children’s questions.  But if you are willing to do a little planning, you can find many adventures for little or no cost.

Take an entire day and conquer a huge trail, being sure to pack enough water and food to keep you and the little ones energized. Try using a shallow creek as a path, and see how far you can get before it’s too deep. If you feel confident, go on your own backpacking trip, making sure to use Leave-No-Trace practices (and what a natural opportunity to explain the reasons behind it!).

kayaking with campers 

4.  Go To a Park and Meet a Ranger

I helped Cuyahoga Valley National Park visitors earn their Junior Ranger badges, and as a part of this fun process, children receive a little badge and get to be sworn in by a real National Park Service ranger. There’s no doubt about this—rangers in uniform are really cool to little people. Their eyes would shine as they saw these adults emerge from the forest, all official-looking, and then pepper them with questions about bears and trees and how their radio worked.

Every Interpretive Ranger I worked with was personable, kind, knowledgeable and very child-friendly (these are the ones that run programs and teach, as opposed to the law-enforcement Rangers who are armed and keep the park safe and the maintenance Rangers who care for trails, among other duties).

At the point I’m writing this, there are 410 national park sites in the United States. Many of them have the free Junior Ranger program available, as well as a whole host of ranger-led activities for any age group. In addition, your state may have nearby state parks or metro parks to explore.  Our county has two annual hiking sprees, and we look forward to participating in this free event every year.

5. Do It Yourself

 Children constantly copy what the older people around them do. My son, only 3 months old as I write this, is already starting to make sounds back at me when I talk to him. They watch and learn and do likewise. It’s sobering to realize how much of an impact we make when we’re not even aware that we’re being observed.  For example — if I talked to a student all day about how important spiders are for the forest ecosystem, but, during a hike, complained about their webs and smashed them every chance I got, what is the lesson that would really be learned?

Recycling, reducing, and reusing in your own home, making a garden with your kids, caring for a fish tank, or playing outside together creates real connections and real opportunities to have natural conversations about the environment.  Plant flowers to help bees, and watch them together! Try keeping a pheonological record of your backyard observations, and make it a game to see who can find the first tree bud, the first spring ephemeral flower, or the first returning great blue heron.

Make mud pies in your backyard, or dig a “hole to China,” just to do it. Keep a tally of how many bird species you can identify in the course of a year, and see if you can beat last year’s record. Catch fireflies, if they live in your area, and let them go at the end of the night. Build a campfire. Make rubbings of leaves and bark on paper with the side of a crayon and create art for your house. Watch for a clear, warm night in the summer and see if you can find shooting stars.

You don’t need some huge endeavor to make these connections with the environment — they can be simple, free, and fun. And the impacts can be life-long. The options are endless, and you can definitely benefit from it yourself! I hope that these suggestions can help continue the conversation between our kids and the nature they live in. Most of all, try to keep it positive with the little ones.

The message I received as a child was that “humans were bad, nature was good.” I think this is an incomplete statement.  As a teacher, I found that how I used my words to teach children was just as important as what words I used to teach children. The words I eventually settled on using for all age groups was that people make change, wherever they go. They could be helpful or harmful, and it is up to them to learn how to make changes that allow life to thrive.

Further Reading

Consider books like Last Child in the Woods and In Defense of Childhood. There are tons of resources online for easy, no-cost ideas of how to play with kids outside and get them caring about the health of the environment, and I’ll wager there are free nature programs available in a park near to you.

Andrew and Michelle Shall run The Redeemed Workshop, a handcrafted soap, art, and recycled good business out of their home in Akron, Ohio. Find them online at Simple Life Homestead, and read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Timbergreen Farm in Wisconsin

The well-known Wisconsin forest owner, Jim Birkemeier, established the Spring Green based Timbergreen Farm shortly after purchasing his first portable sawmill in the late 1980s. Since then, the business has become a model of sustainable forestry and local economic growth with their unique forest to finished flooring system being taught and implemented all over the world.

By managing his family’s forestland with natural and environmentally friendly practices, Jim has created a profitable plan for the private forest owner, turning Timbergreen Farm into a successful and growing business that is green in more ways than one.

In 1997, Jim established The Sustainable Woods Cooperative Movement on the hillside across from his log home, focusing on methods of utilizing dead, dying, and downed trees for usable lumber and high value furnishings. Throughout the years, Timbergreen Farm’s business model has been taught in more than 20 different countries! Jim has found that speaking with other forest owners allows them to learn from each other and create a collaborative education of sustainable forestry practices in the process.

“By controlling the entire forest to finished product business system, we all understand trees, forestry, woodworking, and marketing finished products,” said Jim. “We get to hear directly from our happy customers how much they love their wood flooring and finished products, which is really rewarding!”

Jim' Portable Sawmill

A large part of Timbergreen Farm’s business policy is sawing a large variety of logs that the industry would say was firewood or waste. “I feel great satisfaction in putting local people to work using logs the ‘experts’ say are worthless,” Jim adds. “This allows us to let our forest grow naturally, letting all the good trees thrive as long as they are healthy and vigorous.”

Timbergreen doesn’t just utilize trees from their own forestland, but they are also very active in urban forestry as well, salvaging unhealthy, fallen, or hazardous trees from nearby metropolitan areas. The ability to turn a dying tree into something of high value, instead of it being chipped, split, or scrapped, is a main focus of the Timbergreen Farm philosophy. “I teach others to earn a good income from their forest and trees and have spoken about our business at four international UN Forestry conferences.”

Today, Jim operates with a Wood-Mizer sawmill and says about 10% of his time is spent each on harvesting, sawmilling, stacking, manufacturing, installing, marketing, teaching, traveling, and “goofing off” at his dead end road family farm. Jim says that because of their unique business model, Timbergreen Farm doesn’t focus on sawing for volume, but rather making the highest value products possible out of each log they salvage from their land.

“To manage our forest in a profitable manner, we have learned to saw small diameter logs, curved/crooked/cull trees, and all species left by high-grading loggers,” said Jim. “We have 200 acres of timber and we use some urban trees in the region as well. Flooring, doors, cabinets, gifts, housewares, jewelry, frames, cheese boards, and ornaments are just a few of things we make and sell from our forest.”

Although Timbergreen makes a wide variety of high quality products, Jim specializes in making custom blended species flooring that he also installs in customers’ homes. Timbergreen also makes use of a "Simple Solar Cycle Kiln" for drying their lumber on the farm. "This kiln idea could revolutionize the timber industry by empowering the rural farmers of the world to dry lumber at home — using the power of the sun," said Jim.

Jim's Simple Solar Kiln

“100 dead and dying trees were salvaged by Timbergreen Farm in 2013,” said Jim. “The potential income from our 200 acre forest is over $1,000,000 per year – if only people would buy more local wood!” Jim touched on what the future holds for Timbergreen Farm.

“I just want to share with other business owners the success we have with marketing our products. Our system can put one person to work with a rewarding job for every 10 acres of forest growth. We hope to share with others so they gain the confidence that what we do is not all that hard, and they can do it too.”

Connect with Timbergreen Farm at Timbergreen Farm and Timber Growers.

The Wood-Mizer Team includes a diverse group of woodworkers, farmers, homesteaders, arborists, entrepreneurs, and more who are excited to share their knowledge and experiences of working with wood from forest to final form. Since 1982, the team has brought portable, personal sawmills to people all over the world who want the freedom of sawing their own lumber. Find Wood-Mizer on their website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter. Read all of the team’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


When I was a child, I marked the year by things that I observed outside far more regularly than the dates on the calendar. Fireflies meant that school would be over soon. Daylily buds meant my birthday was right around the corner.  And when the redwing blackbirds massed in the wetland behind my neighbor’s house, filling the air with a cacophony of clattering calls, I knew that snow would be flying shortly.

Early Spring Bluebells

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was becoming a budding phenologist. Though my parents’ backyard was a suburban corner lot that didn’t top out half an acre, I knew it well. I could tell you exactly where to hunt salamanders in the spring, when the different colored wildflowers would bloom (even if I didn’t know their name) and the changes the trees went through during the year (the Cottonwood was my favorite). This deep land-knowledge was embedded in my young mind, and now as an adult looking for her homestead, I know I’ll cultivate that same awareness and love for my acreage, wherever it is.

What is Phenology?

Phenology is “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.”  Not to be confused with the fringy study of Phrenology (the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities), phenology is a great way to track the patterns of your local area and give yourself a sort of “sixth sense” about what has and will happen throughout the year.

Bird migrations, insect emergences, and budding trees all fall within the phenologist’s purview. Additionally, when an appearance changes drastically, it is usually an indication of something gone awry with the land. My childhood self discovered as much when the salamanders disappeared from my yard. A development had just sprung up down our street that same year. The majority of the riparian forest around our creek was levelled, effectively killing off that little population (and effectively waking up my inner Rachel Carson).

How to Use Phenology to Study Your Land

So, what are some practical ways to collect and use this land knowledge? It can be as simple as jotting down your morning observations with your cup of coffee in the morning, or as scientific as using thermometers and rain gauges and graphing your monthly totals. Typically, the information I collect includes air temperature, soil temperature, weather conditions, and animal and plant observations (particularly first appearances!).

I like to take an artistic approach to this by illustrating what I see in a sketchbook I have dedicated to the purpose. For me, it’s less about having a “perfect” record, and more about taking the time to see, smell, hear, and learn outside.

Phenology Journal Example 1

And even though I’ve only kept a year’s worth of sparse records in my current house, I’ve noticed patterns. I was excited to see that the dark-eyed juncos appeared within a week of when I noticed them last year, and I am planning to set aside canning days when our mulberry trees should peak this summer.

It is a small, insignificant record, perhaps, but for me it generates a joy as I spend time outside, connecting with my land, keeping fresh air in my mind, and enjoying the surprises.

Phenology Journal Example 2

I have also found that phenology is a great way to get kids engaged with the outdoors. I taught environmental education in an inner-city school for two school years, and one way I tried to get the students interested in nature was by teaching them about their local watershed. Every day that we met, we took phenological measurements and observations of their schoolyard.

For these students — many of whom described going outside as “playing in their garage” — this was the first time they opened up their eyes to the diversity of their surroundings.  It was beautiful to behold their delight when they noticed sprouting acorns in the spring or found a new migratory bird in the fall. Nature was no longer just something they saw in a cage at the city zoo — it was accessible to them personally!

There’s quite a few resources available to the interested. Many nature centers keep their own phenology records, often supplemented by visitors’ observations. Most states also have websites where observations and past records can be read and submitted. And as far as books go, one of the classics is naturalist Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Don’t be put off by the rather reference-book-sounding title. This is the book that got me interested in the first place — Leopold’s rich, vivid essays about his Wisconsin homestead and the changes that pass through it are a fantastic read.

A life aware of the land you’re on offers many rich, quiet little treasures. I find that once I am aware of something, I notice it all the more, and value it all the more. Regardless of how you learn the patterns of your land, I hope that you can find many ways to value the beauty it offers, both in the huge watercolor wash of a late summer sunset, and the tiny sigh-sounds of the warming spring wind in early ephemeral flowers.  

Photos by Michelle Shall

Andrew and Michelle Shall run The Redeemed Workshop, a handcrafted soap, art, and recycled good business out of their home in Akron, Ohio. Find them online at Simple Life Homestead, and read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Cattle grazing on freshly applied biosolids in Florida
Cattle grazing on freshly applied biosolids in Florida.

This is Part 2 (read Part 1 here) of an interview with David Lewis, Ph.D., formerly a senior-level research microbiologist at EPA-ORD. He currently serves as director of research for the Focus for Health Foundation. Dr. Lewis was terminated by EPA for publishing two articles in Nature that raised concerns over the 503 sludge rule and is one of the most prominent scientific voices in the growing opposition to biosolids land application. Dr. Lewis’ publications are frequently cited as an example of solid, unbiased scientific evidence of the danger posed by this practice. Dr. Lewis kindly agreed to an interview for MOTHER EARTH NEWS addressing the issue of agricultural use of sewage and industrial sludge, aka biosolids.

Lidia: Dr. Lewis, thank you again for helping to address this issue. I would like to follow up on our previous conversation by asking about your research, and how EPA reacted when you published articles in Nature that raised concerns over the 503 sludge rule. First, what role did citizens impacted by land application of treated sewage sludges play in your research?
Dr Lewis: We studied 48 individuals at ten sludge application sites in the US and Canada, plus five additional cases where an outbreak of staphylococcal infections occurred. We reviewed county land application records and the residents’ medical records. We also collected environmental samples, and used an air dispersion model to potentially rule out exposure to sludge as the cause of adverse effects.

Lidia: Can you give us an example of what you discovered?
Dr Lewis: In a neighborhood in New Hampshire, for example, my coworkers and I found that most, but not all, residents reported burning eyes, burning throat, and severe difficulty breathing. Copious amounts of thick mucus collected in their airways whenever they inhaled dusts blowing from piles of biosolids. The proportions of residents reporting symptoms steadily increased with increasing amounts of time that they were exposed to biosolids; and the symptoms steadily decreased as they lived farther away from the biosolids.

One young man stopped breathing and died as he slept under an open window where biosolids dusts were blowing in and collecting on his bedsheets. We cultured bacteria from frozen samples of biosolids collected at the time of his death, and ran DNA analyses. We found an unusual pathogen was proliferating in the biosolids, which is known to cause sudden respiratory failure and death when inhaled with dust particles.

Lidia: How did EPA react?
Dr Lewis: The head of EPA's Office of Wastewater Management in Washington, DC, and one of his subordinates, met on two occasions with executives of Synagro Corporation. Synagro is the leading U.S. company in the biosolids business. The EPA subordinate requested Synagro’s help in discrediting our research. Synagro emailed him and his boss a white paper containing false allegations of research misconduct against me.

The EPA subordinate and Synagro then distributed the white paper, and Synagro and others published it on the Internet. I filed a whistleblower lawsuit. Then, as part of a settlement agreement, I agreed to transfer to the University of Georgia and await termination. I felt that I had no choice. My career was dead-ended.

EPA discharged me in 2003, and later cleared me of Synagro's allegations. My local EPA director issued a statement, saying: "Dr. Lewis’ involuntary termination over his research articles was not supported by the local lab management in Athens. He was an excellent researcher and an asset to EPA science."

UGA administrators also kicked me out. The Provost told my department head: "We’re dependent on this money…grant and contract money… money either from possible future EPA grants or [from] connections there might be between the waste-disposal community [and] members of faculty at the university."

Lidia: Since you left EPA, what are you doing to stop biosolids?
Dr Lewis: Currently, I chair the science advisory committee for the Autism Policy Reform Coalition (APRC), which is a coalition of advocacy groups. APRC helped raise $128 million in congressional appropriations for research on environmental risk factors that may play a role in the initiation or promotion of autism spectrum disorder. Studies, for example, link autism to pesticide residues on farms. But none of them consider biosolids, which contain far higher concentrations of all of the chemical groups linked to autism.

I’m also co-director of the TOXYSolutions Environmental Justice Project, which is gearing up to fund research on adverse effects of biosolids on human health and the environment. Part of this effort is aimed at developing ways to detoxify sewage sludge at the source. And, we’re working with economically and educationally disadvantaged communities impacted by biosolids to test children and adults for exposure to heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals.

Last, but not least, I’m the Research Director for the Focus for Health Foundation, which posts information about public health and environmental risks associated with biosolids.

Lidia: Finally, how can residents that are opposed to sludge get involved, what should they do to make a difference?
Dr Lewis: Two things: educate themselves, and get the word out. Congress passed Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but no Clean Soil Act. EPA, which gets its regulatory authority from those Acts, allows municipalities and industrial polluters to discharge pesticides, pharmaceuticals, PCBs and every other toxic chemical in the world into sewers. Then, under EPA’s 503 sludge rule, sewage treatment plants can just add lime and spread every chemical in the world known to cause cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders and a host of other adverse health effects on farms, forests, school playgrounds, golf courses, and any other available tract of land in “biosolids.”

The only thing EPA regulates in sewage sludge is nine metals, nitrogen and phosphorus. Everything else, which EPA strictly regulates in air and water because it’s known to cause illness and death, is spread all around us on land in unlimited amounts!

No wonder our children are developing autism at steadily increasing rates; teenagers are starting to get colon cancer; and more elderly people are getting Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. We must all spread the word, and tell our cities to stop spreading toxic biosolids. Hazardous chemical wastes must be contained and destroyed—not spread all around us. We have the technology, we just need to use it.

This concludes my interview with Dr David Lewis. I hope that readers found this information useful and will consider sharing it with others who are affected by the agricultural use of biosolids. I intend to focus on various aspects of this issue in my future blogs, the feedback with suggestions on a particular areas than should be covered will be most welcome. I will continue to seek contact with scientists, professionals, volunteers and activists asking them to help all of us to better understand the risks and dangers associated with this dangerous practice.

Photo courtesy of Craig Monk

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use. Read all of Lidia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


snow on ground.jpg

Climate change seems to impact many of us, but for those who live remotely at a higher altitude, it is very obvious. I feel certain that a climatologist could explain in detail what is happening in our area, but all I can determine is that this year we are a long way from experiencing a normal winter.

Our winter season started out normally with average temperatures and snowfall, but starting in February, everything changed dramatically. The 112 inches of snow that we had already received suddenly stopped and our temperatures rose to the point that we did not have to keep our wood stove going to stay warm. For three weeks, we did not receive any additional snow and it would only go down to the low 30s at night and warm up to the 50s during the day.

In the nineteen winters we have lived here, we have not had anything like this ever occur before.

Normally, we experience more snow than we have received this year. It is like we are in some winter weather time warp with nothing but pleasant weather occurring. Most people would like the type of weather we are currently having, but we need the moisture to supply us water for the rest of the year.

Last year, we had roughly 90 inches of snow in February, according to my rough calculations. This year, we have not had any snow during the month of February. The snow on our driveway has melted leaving our driveway dry and snow free. The snowpack that had  accumulated has compacted and melted down to less than two feet. Where it has melted in many places, it has become ice which makes walking hazardous.

The above photo reveals our outdoor cooking stove which is now above the snow and we usually don’t see it until spring unless we shovel it out to use for cooking a cowboy breakfast.

While this weather is delightful, it is also troublesome inasmuch as I’m used to being outside clearing snow, chopping ice and all the other aspects of winter we are faced with every year. Finding myself in a weather vacuum and not being able to do the chores I need to do because of either the snow remaining on the ground coupled with the nice weather is uncomfortable for me.

What snow that hasn’t melted has now become ice, crusted or is granular and footing is treacherous in those areas. Somehow, it seems ridiculous to put sealer on the woodshed wearing snow shoes plus shoveling it away is far too labor intensive. While the temperature would allow application of sealer the footing and remaining snow does not make it practical. It is easy to become bored with the inability to do needed tasks like gathering firewood, staining or sealing buildings or performing other repairs with the nice change of weather.

While this would not seem to be a problem for many, it is for us, because when living in a semi arid state where our moisture suddenly stops we become concerned. We need moisture for our streams, lakes, wells and reservoirs. We also need it for the necessary moisture to keep our wildfire hazard down.

Last year in February, we received according to my rough calculation 90 inches of snowfall during the month of February, and this year we have had zero inches. Being able to sit outside in our lawn chairs enjoying the warmer temperatures and sunshine just seems abnormal in February.

I hear some very intelligent people say that there is no climate change problem, and yet when I am sitting in the sun in my lawn chair in the middle of winter, I wonder how they can conclude that it does not exist. California is still in the middle of a drought and the East Coast and Midwest are experiencing radical and different weather patterns.

It seems to me that we only have to look around us to see that something is clearly happening. Every day when I turn on the weather news, it seems that we have set a new record for temperature. Here in the mountains, I notice that the songbirds are coming  back and some of our trees are starting to make leaves and it is only February. It has been so warm that I have observed some flies buzzing around outside.

It appears to me that there are some pretty obvious signs that something has or is changing and the normal is now different. I’m not able to predict how this will affect us in the future but clearly we are going to have to plan and change with the different weather pattern if we want to maintain our current lifestyle.

The National Weather Service is predicting snow for us tomorrow, and I can only hope they are right this time because we clearly need the moisture. From everything I have observed occurring around us it seems to me that to deny climate change is very much like sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich. If you don’t see it, then it is not there, but from our perspective this time it is there and it is troublesome and something to be concerned about.

Like most people, we will enjoy this weather while we can. But really, sitting out in our lawn chairs in shirt sleeves during February? This may be one of the strangest of winters we have yet to experience at our elevation. It seems to me that we need to pay very close attention to the scientific reports on climate change.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and living at high altitude go to their personal blog. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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