Monday, January 26, 2009

Birding and Ecological Learning

On returning from a short jaunt on snowshoes in the Unity woodlot, I spotted some Snow Buntings. It took me some field guide work (and consultation with Professor Dave Potter) to confirm what I saw. Ever since I got out the field guides, they've stayed out. I've tried to find a little bit of time every day to study a small section of a different field guide. I realize that I do this annually, usually in the dead of winter. I get an uplifting feeling as I flip through these magnificently illustrated books. It's a reminder that Spring will be here.

As a young boy, I would practice a similar ritual with my baseball cards. In the late 1950's the new series of Topps cards usually wouldn't be in the stores until March. So I would retrieve the previous year's cards and sort them out on the floor of my room. By late January, the sun is higher in the sky and you know that Spring lies out there somewhere. Probably if I had spent as much time then studying birds as I did baseball cards I would be a much more skilled birder than I am. But instead I remember that Duke Snider hit 42 home runs in 1955 and I can call up other such useless trivia.

No matter. I didn't really take notice of birds (the way birders do) until I was in my late twenties. And I remain a casual birder. During spring migration, or when I travel to distant places, or when I have spring fever, I get out the bird guides, carry my binoculars with me, and do the best I can to observe and pay attention, hoping that with each new excursion, my atrophied skills will somehow be resurrected.

Truth be told, I'm not a very skilled birder. I find it difficult to move from a pure viewing field to the binoculars and back again.
I don't attend to or notice detail particularly well as I have always been more of an observer of patterns and systems. And I'm impatient in the field. I'm easily distracted and ready to move on to the next new thing. These are all reasons why the patient perseverance of birding is so crucial for my ecological awareness.

Here are some reasons why I enjoy birding when I have an opportunity to do it.

(1) Birding slows down my hyper-reflective always thinking/moving mind, and helps me achieve a more refined state of pure observational awareness. Birding forces me to focus on the observational moment.

(2) It teaches me about the remarkable variety, mystery, and wonder of life on earth. Each species has a unique life story, an adaptive radiation, an ecological strategy, a biogeographical space, a behavioral response, and a perceptual accommodation. I respond to this diversity with unbridled enthusiasm.

(3) While observing birds in their habitats I am inevitably drawn to other aspects of the landscape which I now see through the movement of the birds.

(4) I enjoy looking up birds in field guides. I find these guides reassuring in that they can pack so much information and diversity into a book that you can carry in your pocket. Yet they tell only a sliver of the story. Indeed, the drawing, the text, the photo, and the map are all approximations. There is a compelling narrative that lies within, between, and beyond the page. I take pleasure in perusing multiple field guides, each reflecting a different descriptive strategy, all somehow comprehensive yet incomplete. Perhaps these field guides reassure me that despite anthropogenic planetary changes, these birds (for now) are still here!

(5) I enjoy the gaming and sporting aspect of birding. I take pleasure in seeing a "new" bird and adding it to my list, not in an obsessive way, but more in the sense of finding a jewel or uncovering treasure. How appealing it is when a bird I've never seen before reveals itself to me!

(6) I revel in the hide and seek element. Sure there is a stalking, prey/predator Pleistiocene origin to this. But I think of it more as a subtle game of search and discover. Still, the bird plays by its own rules.

(7) I adore the improvisational aspect—how you take a walk, or sit in a spot, and sometimes without warning, a mixed flock of birds appears, often at various layers of the landscape, and you have to figure out where they are, where they are moving, and how you can blend into the landscape well enough to observe them.

(8) Birding teaches me to come out of myself and into the natural world.

(9) Birding teaches patience.

(10) Birding teaches me to listen to the sounds of nature, paying attention to the basic elements of musical sound—call and response, mating and attraction, notification and warning, or as David Rothenberg points out in his lovely book Why Birds Sing, singing for the sheer heck of it.

(11) I enjoy the collecting aspect of making a list, with the impermanence attached to collecting something that you can't own or put on a shelf.

There's much more to reflect on here. If you're interested in the deeper meaning of birding, I strongly encourage you to read Jonathan Rosen's absolutely brilliant and evocative book, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Rosen's learned and passionate account moves from spirituality to the history of human/nature relationships, through Louisiana, Israel, and Central Park. His work embodies so much of how we think about our relationship to nature. And he's a terrific storyteller.

But for now, and for the purposes of this blog (Environmental Studies for the Real World) and in service of ecological learning, I wish to say that through the crises of climate change and biodiversity and our urgent rush to promote sustainable alternatives, birding ought to be at the heart of environmental studies. I can think of no better way to learn to observe nature and I can think of no more virtuous and vital learning opportunity than observing birds.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Inspiration and Emotion

I watched the inauguration at the Unity College Student Center. The room was absolutely packed. Students, staff, and faculty were riveted to the screen. When Chief Justice Roberts asked everyone to rise, we all rose too. We all sang the Star Spangled Banner. We wanted to share this extraordinary moment.

I was in Washington on Monday (the day before the inauguration) to attend an event featuring the Maine Senatorial and House Delegation. I went down just for the day. I rode the train from BWI to Union Station. It was utterly stuffed as the aisles were filled with standing passengers. Of course, it was a train to the Inauguration. I flashed back to 1968 when I took a bus to Washington for an anti-war demonstration. Forty years later I was witnessing a similar gathering. Yet it was much different this time. There was much less anger and much more love. There was less frivolity and more determination. There was much more diversity. It was as if forty years of activism had come of age. I felt an incredible sense of admiration for all the people on that train.

Watching the inauguration on television wasn't the same as being there, but watching it with the Unity Community was intensely intimate and we were all building community and solidarity, too. Obama's message is so clear—we all have a role to play in America's transformation. Everyone has something important to do.

Like millions of others, I was profoundly moved emotionally. I'd like to describe what it was that brought me to tears. I think that finding the core of an emotional moment is an opportunity for insight and wisdom. Aretha Franklin just about undid me. As she came to the stage, wrapped in her scarf and hat, I noticed a vague and palpable resemblance to my grandmother. Bessie Thomashow was a Russian/Jewish immigrant who believed passionately in worker's rights and bequeathed a progressive legacy to her grandchildren. I grew up in a home that believed deeply in civil rights, peace, and social justice. My parents met in 1948 working for Henry Wallace, the progressive third party candidate for president. My mother passed away a year and a half ago and my father died on election day this year. Neither had any awareness of Obama and they would have been so thrilled to witness these events. Aretha's face connected me to my roots, as different as they might be from hers.

And then she began to sing. She sang with extraordinary passion and power, unbridled but in control, as if her entire history as a musician prepared her for this moment. She sang for my family and for yours. She sang for the past and the future. Her voice reflected struggle and hope, suffering and elation. She filled us with faith and courage.

I am so grateful that I am living at a time in American history when Barack Obama is president. I am so grateful that we all have an opportunity to share in this collective vision and contribute with our voices to this exceptional opportunity. As an educator, my role is to help empower a new generation of leaders who can find their voices in this time of great hope. After all of these years, there is a context for the work we do, and we are nourished by the feeling that there is a meaning and purpose for our work. In my view, the election of Barack Obama is a gift, and we are living in a singular, defining moment of American history. It's our task to respond to that gift by honoring the challenge of learning and service, to make the most of our opportunity, to build enduring and resilient communities, and to empower clear and effective voices.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Culture

It's both rewarding and inspiring to observe all of the renewed interest in sustainability, especially in higher education. However, it's crucial that in uncertain economic times, we reiterate our commitment to sustainable approaches to all aspects of our lives.

Let's remember that sustainability is a response to three extraordinary and interconnected challenges—biodiversity loss, species extinction, and climate change. This response entails more than LEED buildings, innovative technologies, and cool new courses. It involves all aspects of organizational life, including values, governance, learning, and infrastructure.

For higher education, I propose nine integrated elements of what it means to have a sustainable culture. I don't imply that Unity College has achieved mastery in any of these areas. But we do use these as guidelines for our Master Plan, our mission, and all aspects of our future as a learning organization.

In this post, I'll briefly lay out these nine elements. In future installments, I'll deal with each of them in more detail, and describe some of the ways that Unity College is thinking about them. See Mick Womersley's blog for more details too.

Broadly conceived, a sustainable culture for a college or university involves infrastructure, community, and learning.

The infrastructure challenge involves (1) energy, (2) food, and (3) materials.

Energy encompasses the carbon budget, energy sources, conservation efforts—all aspects of the energy system for a campus. This awareness is crucial for achieving a zero-carbon initiative and meeting the goals of the President's Climate Commitment.

Food involves all aspects of the food production and consumption system, including the use of local and/or organic foods, whether food is grown on campus, and the extent to which the campus supports a sustainable food system.

Materials considers the raw matter of various construction processes, including the supply chain, recycling, reuse, and toxicity.

The community challenge involves (4) governance, (5) investment, and (6) wellness

Governance reflects decision-making processes, including budget preparation and approval, staff and faculty participation, the board of trustees, and all stakeholders. Are they involved in all aspects of moving a campus towards sustainability? Is there a clarity of purpose regarding accountability, responsibility, and agency?

Investment includes all aspects of a college's impact on the finances of the regional community. Does the college serve as a multiplier for regional sustainability efforts? Does it support sustainable business practices? Is its endowment invested in ecologically responsible businesses?

Wellness involves the stress level, general health, and attitude of the organization. Does the college promote healthy living? Does the community emphasize its own physical and mental well-being?

The learning challenge embodies (7) curriculum, (8) aesthetics, and (9) interpretation

Curriculum is the ground floor of any college's sustainability efforts. Are sustainability principles (from economics to ecology) thoroughly infused in all aspects of the curriculum, from freshman experiences through professional schools? Are there specific programs to train sustainability practitioners, tailored to the special strengths and qualities of the institution?

Aesthetics suggests that sustainability initiatives should be implemented with the arts in mind. Are there vivid, imaginative, and interesting exhibits/arts projects/installations that develop a metaphoric resonance with various sustainability initiatives?

Interpretation means that the campus should serve the broadest possible educational function in calling attention to its sustainability efforts. Here is the perfect place for the educators to use a campus as an opportunity for challenging instructional opportunities—the campus as a living laboratory for sustainability. How do we learn from each other, evoke thoughtful and interesting comments from our constituents, and galvanize all visitors to our campus?

The purpose of these guidelines is to open a discussion regarding the whole system of a sustainable culture. It's not enough just to build a few LEED certified buildings (as admirable as that is!). It's not enough just to have a great sustainability course for freshman. We need to empower and inspire entirely new ways of thinking. These nine elements imply the depth of our challenge. The college campus is the best place to exemplify these possibilities and to inspire a whole new culture of sustainable practice, living, and thinking.