The great naturalist, biologist and writer Bernd Heinrich made a startling discovery this week while walking in the woods near his cabin in western Maine. Here's a Naturalist's Notebook video explaining the mystery in Bernd's words:
It can be scary to launch a new event. Will anyone come? Will the weather hold up? Will participants enjoy it? The Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park took that toboggan ride into the unknown with its 2015 Winter Festival, held from Feb. 19 to 22 at the institute’s 80-acre oceanside campus in Winter Harbor, Maine. I hopped on board for what turned out to be a bracing and memorable run down the hill.
The experience was best summed up by one of the more than 100 people who came from as far away as Boston and New York to attend some portion of the festival, be it a talk by the great naturalist and writer Bernd Heinrich or a birding hike or a paper-snowflake workshop. “This is so much fun,” she told me in the cold morning sunshine as she and others built a multi-piece, illuminated ice sculpture atop a snowbank. “It has changed my whole relationship with winter.”
For those of you who didn’t make it to the event, here is a glimpse of 10 things you missed:
1) A new way of enjoying Maine’s awesome, historic, bring-on-the-blizzards winter
The secret to surviving a season of sub-zero cold and 100 inches of snow is to embrace the experience. I put on my warmest snow boots (which I bought before covering the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway back when I was the editor of Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine) and headed out for a variety of activities, among them an animal-tracking hike with outdoor educator Chuck Whitney, the birding expedition (also led by Chuck) and a peaceful walk through the forest to visit the winter camping site set up by wilderness guide Garrett Conover. Other festival participants cross-country skied, built a quinzhee snow hut (more on that below), tried open-fire cooking (more on that too) and found other ways to explore and engage with the winter world. They loved it.
2) Frozen Water Balloons. The illuminated-ice-scupture workshop, taught by sculptor and art educator Blake Hendrickson, brought out the creative inner kid in participants of all ages. Blake brought vessels in which to freeze ice pieces of many shapes and sizes.
Blake also provided white and colored lights to weave through the outdoor installation of those pieces. Some of the lights changed color in response to sounds—clapping, talking, even the strong wind that gusted one night.
3) Nature. This is the essence of Schoodic at any time of year. Hearing Bernd Heinrich describe how animals survive here in the harsh winter conditions changed how many of us looked at the landscape we were exploring. We envisioned the tree holes, dens, snow nooks and other homes keeping animals alive. Bernd told of grouse diving into the snow and making temporary tunnels in which to hide from both cold and predators. The next morning, as I walked through the woods, a grouse exploded from the snow and flew past me. An electrifying winter moment.
4) Outdoor beauty. This too is a Schoodic hallmark, and the snow only enhanced it.
5) Great indoor food. We fueled up in Schoodic’s cafeteria-style dining hall, which has the warmth of a woodsy lodge. Home-baked lasagna, seafood chowder, chicken-salad wraps, Caesar salad, pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies, blueberry pancakes, vegetarian options—the food was all delicious, and we shared it at communal tables where new friends were made at each meal.
6) Great outdoor food. Naturalist and outdoors educator Alexandra Conover Bennett taught the workshop on baking bannock bread, a camping favorite cooked on a stick over an open fire.
7) Snowflake-making. Instructor Breanna Pinkham Bebb was adamant: Snowflakes are hexagonal (six-sided), not octagonal (eight-sided), and to cut eight-sided snowflakes—as some crafty types apparently do—is inauthentic. I’m science-based all the way, so I was on board to learn the correct, if more challenging, technique of folding and cutting a piece of copier paper to resemble real snow crystals.
8) A different view of Cadillac Mountain. Schoodic Peninsula is a bit more than an hour’s drive up the coast from Mount Desert Island, where the larger portion of Acadia National Park is located, but by water the two bodies of land aren’t far apart. Time and again during the festival I looked up and saw Cadillac—the tallest mountain on MDI—rising in the distance.
9) The quinzhee snow hut. Unlike an igloo, which is made from piled blocks of snow, a quinzhee is hollowed out from a mound of snow. It’s a survival cave, but a cozy one. The group had a blast building one near the Schoodic Institute’s baseball field.
Side note because I’m a word nerd: The term quinzhee was coined by a Native American tribe in Canada, and last summer it was one of about 25 Canadian-originated words added to the official Scrabble dictionary. Quinzhee was the most exciting addition for Scrabble players because it includes a q and a z (each worth a lot of points) and, if played on the top row of the board, ending on the top right square, can supposedly score 401 points for a player. That’s an almost unbelievable total for a single play.
10) The people. Shared experiences build unique camaraderie, and the pioneering group that attended the winter festival bonded with each other as well as with the place.
Yesterday wildlife biologist Linda Welch told the stunning story of seabird decline in the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod and is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water on Earth.
In an informal lunch talk at Acadia National Park HQ, Linda laid out facts that should jolt anyone who cares about birds, fish, oceans, lobsters, Maine or the potentially devastating effects of climate change on the global web of life and the ecosystem of which humans are part. She and her researchers have tracked a 57% drop in the Gulf over the last 10 years in the number of Arctic terns, a 27% decline in roseate terns, a 47% reduction in cormorants in 15 years, a 31% decline of great black-backed gulls, a fall of 22% in herring gulls, a drop of 30% in eiders, and so on. These birds are struggling to find adequate food in the Gulf, whose temperature began dramatically spiking upward in 2004, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Linda knows her stuff; she has done seabird research at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge since 1998. When she says that birds like terns, razorbills and puffins could be gone from the Gulf of Maine within a decade and notes how desperately the changes in the Gulf ecosystem need to be further studied—right now—we need to listen. Please spread the word. The Naturalist’s Notebook will be telling and showing you a lot more about this subject in the months and years ahead.
Thank you, Linda and Acadia and also Schoodic Institute, where Seth Benz, director of the bird ecology program, is doing vitally important work.
It seems unreal at the moment that in a few days Pamelia and I will be in Russia's Caucasus Mountains, looking out over the Black Sea and staying at a hotel compound next door to Vladimir Putin's high-security vacation retreat. That potentially fascinating Sports Illustrated Sochi Winter Olympic scouting/planning trip is looming, but we are caught up in the news of Hurricane Sandy and its devastating impact. (Maine has gotten off easy; the winds here on the coast are roaring, but damage and flooding have been minimal.) We're also in the thick of another stretch of non-stop Naturalist's Notebook activity, one that has included a TEDx conference, a fantastic meeting with nine naturalists from across the country, a talk to 100 top staffers of a major company, a visit to naturalist/writer Bernd Heinrich's cabin in western Maine, a meeting with two artists about 2013 collaborations, and more.
You might want to climb aboard our Red Panda-mobile for this blog ride.
The TEDx Trip
"From now on, I am SO for U-Haul," said Pamelia. She had just seen what we would soon dub the Red Panda-mobile: a 10-foot truck—decorated, to our delight, with the image of a threatened, tree-dwelling Asian mammal—that we had rented for our much-anticipated journey to Bates College. We were making the three-hour-drive south from The Naturalist's Notebook to attend the TEDxDirigo conference, a state-level version of the global TED-talk events ("ideas worth sharing") that have become an international phenomenon through TED.com.
Several weeks earlier, Pamelia and I had received an exciting invitation from TEDxDirigo. (Dirigo is the Maine state motto, meaning I lead and originating in part from the state's former tradition of holding its elections in September, ahead of the rest of the country.) TEDxDirigo executive director Adam Burk, who had enjoyed a visit to the Notebook this summer along with organization co-founder Michael (Gil) Gilroy, had asked if we would create an outdoor, pop-up, interactive version of some portion of the Notebook to accompany the Bates conference. The TEDx gathering would feature 16 speakers from Maine, ranging from College of the Atlantic senior Anjali Appadurai, an extraordinary young woman and youth delegate to world climate change conferences, to EepyBird, the two viral-video geniuses behind creations such as the now-famous exploding-Diet-Coke-and-Mentos YouTube clip (see below). The speakers and the 300 attendees would spend the day sharing ideas about the world and the future.
Of course we said yes to the invitation. We are huge fans of TED talks and TED's mission of creating "a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other."
Keep in mind that we launched The Naturalist's Notebook shop and exploratorium in 2009 in an effort to merge nature, science, art and the frontier of knowledge in fun, creative ways. We wanted to engage people's minds and attention by combining not only content with commerce (in what we call shop-and-think installations), but also intelligence with imagination, ideas with interactivity, and the skills of an artist (Pamelia) and a writer/editor (me) with the challenge of explaining and illuminating the amazing world in which we all live. We wanted to fill the Notebook with the voices of the planet's greatest scientists and naturalists and artists. From Day One our catchline—a reference to the scientifically accepted age of the universe—has been, "A place for everyone who's even a little curious about the last 13.7 billion years (give or take)."
Thus, for the Bates event, we decided to create a simple, traveling version of the 24-color, 13.7-billion-year, spectrum-linked, big-history-of-the-universe staircase installation at The Naturalist's Notebook. That beautiful staircase—which was painted last spring and Pamelia began to sketch in with a temporary, paper-cutout timeline this summer—is just an early stage of one small piece of a work in progress. Over the next several years Pamelia, who is a painter and photographer, and I will continue to develop the many components and expressions of that project, which we call the 13.7-Billion-Year Hue-Story of Our Life. It will merge art, science and education (for different age groups) in unique, engaging, mind-opening ways.
But one step at a time. First we had a traveling timeline to build for TEDx.
With help from our friends John Clark and Leanne Nickon, we created 24 wooden stations, each painted a different color and each representing one period in the universe's history, as in the Notebook staircase. Eli Mellen and Virginia Brooks came up with fun activities linked to each time period, and then painted homemade chalkboards (using old wooden shingles) to present the activities to the TEDx attendees who would be walking through—and interacting with, we hoped—the 24-station timeline.
You can't fit 13.7 billion years in the back of a car, of course, which is why we had to rent the truck. It was an unexpected delight. On the sides of more than 1,900 of its vehicles, it turns out, U-Haul is celebrating the discovery in Tennessee of the world's most complete fossil of an ancient red panda. The almost five-million-year-old relic was found—along with fossils of rhinos, elephants, alligators, camels and other animals that lived in the future Volunteer State during the Miocene epoch—at the Gray Fossil Site, a prehistoric sinkhole that was itself discovered several years ago, when the Tennessee Highway Department was widening state Route 25. Let's hear it for public works.
It may be startling to read that red pandas once lived in the southeastern U.S. (today they reside only in the Himalayas and China, where they are in peril because of habitat loss and poaching), but such intriguing discoveries are commonplace if you look at the full scope of history covering those 13.7 billion years. The changes the Earth has undergone in its mere four-and-a-half billion years of existence are astounding, yet understandable if you grasp how the forces of physics, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, biology, climate change, natural selection and plate tectonics (among many others) can alter planets and life forms over such a vast a period. Looking at the full sweep of history is like like seeing an aerial view for the first time—wow! It's fascinating, and whets your appetite to see and learn more.
Unfortunately, to most people the prospect of studying the last 13.7 billion years can seem overwhelming—a journey back into the high-school science classes they dreaded. The terminology alone is daunting. If phases such as Miocene epoch make your eyes glaze over, well, you're pretty normal.
That's why we—especially Pamelia—began work on the 13.7-Billion-Year Hue-Story of Our Life. Through the project, we hope to bring more clarity, simplicity, visual impact and mass appeal to the narrative of our scientifically documented long-term past. It's not about memorizing the names of geological eras. It's about opening an astounding door of discovery and making it easier to learn about our planetary home and who we are as humans.
Pamelia chose to use the spectrum not only because she's an artist but also because it is the color order given to us in sunlight, and because it is fundamental to our visual perception of the world, and because even young children know and respond eagerly to color, and because scientists rely on the spectrum as an essential tool when analyzing everything from distant stars to tiny molecules (each chemical element has a unique color "fingerprint" when studied with spectroscopy).
"Our Sun gives us just one color order—the spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet,” says Pamelia in explaining why the spectrum so appealed to her as a coding method for a 13.7-billion-year timeline. "That fundamental, astonishingly beautiful, color code is embedded in our existence. It's in the foundations of the universe and in every atom. It's beautifully simple and familiar. It's everywhere. We see it in rainbows and on our artist canvases and in our crayon boxes. When I was working through all these fields of study, this color code kept coming to the surface in one way or another in each field—even at the atomic level of our own bodies. Having spent my life as an artist, the color code is my life, but little did I realize that it really IS my life!"
When she mentions "working through all these fields of study," Pamelia is describing her research for the 13.7-Billion-Year Hue-Story of Our Life. She has always spent a lot of time studying and thinking about our biological origins and how the Earth and the universe work. In developing this project and its color code, however, she has delved more deeply into the science of the electromagnetic spectrum (of which our visual spectrum is only a miniscule portion) and immersed herself in writings and lectures by men and women who are at the forefront of discovering and disseminating scientific knowledge of all types.
Among those whose work has been most helpful to her and us—and this is but a fraction of the list—have been paleontologist, anatomist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish); geologist and Earth scientist Robert Hazen (The Story of Earth); biologist E.O. Wilson (too many books to list); paleontologists Meave and Louise Leakey; history professor David Christian (inventor of the course of study known as Big History); geophysicist Michael Wysession (How the Earth Works); astrophysicists Alex Filippenko (Understanding the Universe) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (My Favorite Universe and many others); paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall (Extinct Humans and Bones, Brains and DNA); physicist Steven Pollock (Particle Physics for Non-Physicists); and writers Thom Holmes (Prehistoric Earth series) and Bill Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything). One skill the aforementioned share (and we hope to emulate) is an ability to make complex science accessible—and in Bryson's case, quite entertaining—to the average person.
Our research for The Naturalist's Notebook and the 13.7-Billion-Year Hue-Story of Our Life project has been exhilarating. Every day we have found new connections and ideas and quite often Pamelia is up reading about all this at 2 a.m., unable to put a book down. We wake up and immediately start weaving together strands of insight from different fields of study in sketches and notes. The history of the universe, the Earth and the development of life fit in remarkable yet logical ways into the color-coded system—artistically as well as scientifically. In the cold blue colors of the timeline, ocean life and cold-blooded creatures dominate; in the green range, plants proliferate; in the warmer reds, warm-blooded animals rise and rule. And so on. That's just how the colors fall when paired with geologic eras. It might be a new way for you to look at your crayon set.
The TEDx attendees seemed drawn to the colors and content of our traveling installation. They interacted with the stations and talked to me about the project as I worked at a book table outside the auditorium. Two of the Notebook's ambitions are to bring together people and insights from different fields (a concept E.O. Wilson calls "consilience"), and to bridge the chasm between scientific knowledge and public awareness of it. Our day at TEDxDirigo enabled us to do both. The conference itself was a huge success, and the conference-goers came out of each lecture session upbeat and energized. Funny how spending time sharing intelligent ideas can have that effect.
Supernova Night I know this blog post is long already, but I have to thank a top Maine company for inviting Pamelia and me to give a talk to a wonderful group of about 100 of its executives and managers from across the country about what the Notebook does and how she and I try to creativity to keep the shop and exploratorium vibrant. We all gathered at the coolest place in Brunswick, the Frontier cafe and theater, which is owned by previously mentioned TEDxDirigo co-founder Michael (Gil) Gilroy and overlooks the Androscoggin River from inside Fort Andross, a former cotton mill. Gil himself gave a memorable talk on how a harrowing yet poignant experience in Russia eventually led him to launch Frontier (and try to bring people together). Another of the speakers, Luke Livingston, founder of the fast-growing Baxter Brewing Company, merged comedy (the tale of turning his college dorm room into a personal brewery) and tragedy (the loss of his mother to breast cancer) to explain how he came to pursue his passion and found his innovative and environmentally progressive beer-making operation in his hometown of Auburn, Maine. (Did I mention how good his IPA is?)
One of the many other highlights of the evening was the first (unofficial) world record ever set under the aegis of The Naturalist's Notebook. We have a tradition, when celebrating a great idea or success, of gathering in a circle, putting both hands up, palms facing the outside, at about head level, saying, "One, two, three..." and then—at the instant when we all yell, "Supernova!"—high-fiving the people on both sides of us simultaneously. It takes a little practice to actually connect with both neighbors' hands and create the satisfying slap! but it's a fun, team-spirit activity that the audience in Brunswick adopted enthusiastically. All 100 of the company staffers formed a giant circle and performed what we think was the largest and loudest supernova cheer in history. Some were still doing high-fives and yelling, "Supernova!" on their way out of Frontier.
Just another crazy moment in our own supernova week.
Today's Puzzler We found this star-shaped leaf on the ground on the path around the lake at Bates. What kind of tree is it from?
a) sweetgum b) star anise c) golden maple
2) In the photo below, can you tell what was perched on a rock overlooking the Androscoggin on the morning of our TEDx talk?
a) a bald eagle b) a red fox c) a keg of Baxter Brewing Company beer
And In Case You Never Saw That Exploding-Diet-Coke-and-Mentos-Mints Video I Mentioned:
Our friends Lisa and Alex came in from the dark, electrified. They had just walked a bowl of post-dinner lobster shells down to the low-tide line to dump them into the water. With every step they had seen the rock weed beneath their feet flash as if filled with fireflies.
So began an amazing experience for Pamelia, me and three of our guests.
We stumbled through the darkness and down a short hill (some of us sliding down a slippery rock face on our butts) to the low-tide zone. And then: Wow. Imagine if every piece of seaweed were wired with dozens—or hundreds—of tiny white lights that popped on whenever you put your foot down. That was what we witnessed. Some of us walked out farther and saw the same spectacle when we stepped in the water. Sometimes the flashes looked like shooting stars or flying sparks. We wished every kid in the world could have been with us to experience this thrilling display of science and nature.
We were watching the phenomenon of bioluminiscence—a light-emitting chemical reaction produced by many forms of sea life for any number of purposes, from defense to communication to mate-attracting. In our case, we were seeing tiny marine plants called phytoplankton, which are an essential link in the ocean food chain. Their blinks of bioluminescence are thought to unsettle potential predators.
Pamelia and I had never before seen bioluminescence in our low-tide zone, but then again, we had rarely walked there in total darkness. Two of the College of the Atlantic graduates and Naturalist's Notebook team members who live with us said they had learned in their marine studies that the conditions at this time of year in this section of the Maine coast are conducive to bioluminescence displays. With that in mind, we'll have to return to the water's edge over the next few nights to see if the sparks are still flying.
Looked What Washed Ashore The Maine coastline has been filled with cool surprises lately. The other day a Notebook friend from Seal Harbor e-mailed us the photo below with a note: "Sarah and I came upon this ocean creature on the beach! About 2ft long! What do you suppose it is!!????"
I passed the query along to one of the sharpest naturalists we know, Lynn Havsall, who had just returned from giving a butterfly lecture in Vermont. Lynn (who loves solving mysteries like this) said it was a bit hard to tell from the small photo but that "I think what your friends found is a bouquet of squid eggs [http://njscuba.net/zzz_uw/mohawk_squid_eggs.jpg].
"They are laid in clusters and look like white sausages filled with tiny eggs—baby squidlets! The Atlantic squid found around here is loligo pealei [http://www.freewebs.com/andrej_gajic/Marine%20Biology/Loligo%20Opalescens.jpg]. They recently have been seen in tide pools in Blue Hill and photographed by my friend Leslie Clapp.
"Here's some info: http://www.fao.org/fishery/species/2714/en. I love how this article calls the egg clusters 'sea mops,' for that is exactly what the photo you sent looks like!"
Squid are relatively plentiful in the Gulf of Maine, and I've read that they have been unusually abundant near the coast lately. There is a theory that the 50-ton male sperm whale found dead (of as yet undetermined causes) in the waters off Mount Desert Island a couple of weeks ago might have been following a large school of squid close to shore.
Many types of squid display bioluminescence, by the way.
The Banjo Player
A rainy Maine morning brought this two-inch-long amphibian onto our stone walkway. It's a species known as a green frog. Some green frogs have more green on them, I guess you could include Kermit in that group. If you live near wetlands you may have heard the song of this lovable leaper, which sounds like the plucking of a banjo string.
Click below to hear that familiar sound:
This Morning's Notebook To-Do List (Partial)
1. Finish (finally) unpacking from the London Olympics (currently down to just paperwork).
2. Pull out paintbrushes, primer, drills and screwdrivers and start creating a prototype for the 13.7-billion-year interactive outdoor installation we're making with Eli, Virginia and Julie for the TEDx conference at Bates College in October.
3. Try to minimize interruptions for Pamelia as she continues her tireless (and amazing) design work on some of our Big Plans for 2013 and beyond.
4. Make sure Eli and Virginia bring leftover varietal honeys from our Sweet 16 tournament to the Notebook for sampling by the Honey Man. This connoisseur visits us every year and is as passionate and knowledgeable about honey as a sommelier is about wine. He still speaks rapturously about the pumpkin-blossom honey he tasted at the Notebook last year.
5. Check for bear scat. Two nights ago Eli and Virginia were walking Bashi in the driveway at our house when they heard a crash in the woods and (with a flashlight) saw our newest outdoor regular, a small black bear, climbing down from a tree.
6. Prepare to (at last) get back to those of you who have inquired about purchasing signed, never-before-available prints of naturalist Bernd Heinrich's illustrations, which are on display through mid-October at the Notebook.
7. Print out the forms to apply for Russian visas for an early November SI trip to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympic world press briefing.
8. Continue planning a late September family getaway (a belated 60th-anniversary gift to my parents) to Britain. Our Notebook-related stops will include the Glasgow Science Centre, Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, the Natural History Museum in London and some good sites for watching birds. The blog will report on our discoveries.
9. Get outside.
Giving the Birds Their Due As past visitors to The Naturalist's Notebook know, we are home to the Natural League. We have a homemade, Green Monster-like standings board that shows the current standings of the nine major league baseball teams with names taken from the world of nature, such as Tigers and Marlins.
This summer, because we needed room for a display on Olympian naturalists, I benched the Natural League standings board. That move left a recent visitor highly disappointed. He is fan of the Baltimore Orioles, who have languished near the bottom of the Natural League since its inception in 2009. I feel it is only fair to share with you all today's standings in the Natural League, even if they aren't displayed on our board:
1-BALTIMORE ORIOLES (76-60)
2-Tampa Rays (75-62)
3-St. Louis Cardinals (74-63)
4-Detroit Tigers (73-63)
5-Arizona Diamondbacks (68-70)
6-Toronto Blue Jays (61-75)
7-Miami Marlins (60-77)
8-Colorado Rockies (56-79)
9-Chicago Cubs (51-85)
1) How much salt is in the average human body?
a) a pinch
b) a tablespoon
c) enough to fill two salt shakers
2) What is the name for that crown-like, five-pointed star on top of a blueberry?