Biophilia via Oliver Sacks

Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. CreditKaren Massier/E+, via Getty Images

Being a daily reader of the NYTimes it’s surprising that I missed the publication of this posthumous essay by neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015. This is especially notable related to biophilia, a subject that means a great deal to all of us on this site, in fact, as Dr. Sacks states, it is an essential part of the human condition.

Oliver Sacks: The Healing Power of Gardens

Even for people who are deeply disabled neurologically, nature can be more powerful than any medication.

This is an excerpt from “Everything in Its Place,” a posthumous collection of writings by Dr. Sacks.

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

The wonder of gardens was introduced to me very early, before the war, when my mother or Auntie Len would take me to the great botanical garden at Kew. We had common ferns in our garden, but not the gold and silver ferns, the water ferns, the filmy ferns, the tree ferns I first saw at Kew. It was at Kew that I saw the gigantic leaf of the great Amazon water lily, Victoria regia, and like many children of my era, I was sat upon one of these giant lily pads as a baby.

As a student at Oxford, I discovered with delight a very different garden — the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe. It pleased me to think that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.

I try to visit botanical gardens wherever I travel, seeing them as reflections of their times and cultures, no less than living museums or libraries of plants.

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Traditional Life Intersecting With Modern Sensibilities

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Ms. Fesseau keeps all the eggs from her chicken coop. Kasia Strek for The New York Times

It may be the Francophile in me that appreciates this story. Or maybe living surrounded by the sounds described in the story below helps me to take a position on roosters like the petition-signers all over France. Modern sensibilities include expectations to be shielded from such sounds, but equally modern sensibilities are emerging that remind us where food comes from, and ways in which we should respect the traditional life of rural areas.

‘The Rooster Must Be Defended’: France’s Culture Clash Reaches a Coop

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Corinne Fesseau with her rooster, Maurice, in the garden of her house in Saint-Pierre d’Oléron, France. Kasia Strek for The New York Times

SAINT-PIERRE-D’OLÉRON, France — The rooster was annoyed and off his game. He shuffled, clucked and puffed out his russet plumage. But he didn’t crow. Not in front of all these strangers.

“You see, he’s very stressed out,” said his owner, Corinne Fesseau. “I’m stressed, so he’s stressed out. He’s not even singing any more.” She picked up Maurice the rooster and hugged him. “He’s just a baby,” she said.

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Ms. Fesseau, a retired waitress, has defended Maurice vehemently. “A rooster needs to express himself,” she said. Kasia Strek for The New York Times

Maurice has become the most famous chicken in France, but as always in a country where hidden significance is never far from the surface, he is much more than just a chicken.

He has become a symbol of a perennial French conflict — between those for whom France’s countryside is merely a backdrop for pleasant vacations, and the people who actually inhabit it.

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Sebastien Orsero, a fisherman on the island, said he was asked to replace a hedge separating his house from his neighbors’ property with a concrete wall because birds living in the hedge disturbed his neighbors. Kasia Strek for The New York Times

Maurice and his owner are being sued by a couple of neighbors. They are summer vacationers who, like thousands of others, come for a few weeks a year to Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron, the main town on an island off France’s western coast full of marshes and “simple villages all whitewashed like Arab villages, dazzling and tidy,” as the novelist Pierre Loti wrote in the 1880s.

These neighbors, a retired couple from near the central French city of Limoges, say the rooster makes too much noise and wakes them up. They want a judge to remove him. Continue reading

Wildlife Conservation Society and Nyungwe

A view from inside Nyungwe National Park

When I came into the master of environmental management program at Yale FES, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) wasn’t really on my radar as a big international conservation NGO — other names like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, or Flora and Fauna International came to mind first. As I started to learn about the biodiversity hotspot of East Africa’s Albertine Rift, however, WCS programs and technical reports started to come up more and more, and the professional experience shared by my professors Amy and Bill in their class (Building a Conservation Toolkit: From Project Design to Evaluation) led to many discussions about their work with WCS.

As part of the Rwanda Study Tour, we met with WCS employees in Kigali and two towns neighboring Nyungwe National Park called Gisakura and Kitabi. These Rwandans, some of whom had been with the NGO for over fifteen years, told us about the conservation efforts carried out by WCS in the region, much of which revolves around capacity building, scientific monitoring, and community education and engagement. For example, since the nineties WCS has been recording phenological data from native trees and vegetation in Nyungwe, which can be a valuable reference for seasonal variations in plants affected by climate change. WCS has also trained park rangers on different data collection methods that have improved monitoring systems in the park to document cases of poaching efforts such as wire snares, which are still a major threat to the small forest antelopes that live in Nyungwe.

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Native Prairie & Savanna In The USA

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Cherokee Prairie Natural Area near Fort Smith, Arkansas. WILLIAM DARK PHOTOGRAPHY

Janet Marinelli, according to her author’s bio, is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years; according to our read of her work over the last two years she is also a perfect fit with our mission to find at least one story every day that explains the natural world, illuminates the possibilities of entrepreneurial conservation or challenges us to be more careful with natural resources. She brightens our day:

Forgotten Landscapes: Bringing Back the Rich Grasslands of the Southeast

Native prairie and savanna once covered vast areas of the U.S. Southeast from Maryland to Texas, but agriculture and sprawl have left only small patches remaining. Now, a new initiative, driven by scientists and local communities, is pushing to restore these imperiled grassland habitats.

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Southeastern grasslands have some of the highest plant richness in the world, home to rare species such as American chaffseed. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

Dwayne Estes pulls over to the side of a rural road in Franklin County, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. He hops out of his truck and points out a small plant with dainty, trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple-streaked throats. “This is Penstemon kralii,” says Estes, a 40-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch-tall professor sporting a baseball cap and beard, the twin badges of honor for many field botanists. The plant is found almost exclusively at the base of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment, where it survives precariously in narrow, grassy roadside fringes with other rare and threatened species, including a sunflower and a blue-eyed grass yet to be named and described by scientists.

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Kral’s penstemon. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

We continue to the top of the steep, densely forested escarpment. Below, a checkerboard of croplands and pastures stretches as far as the eye can see. “Before 1840, those agricultural fields were prairies covering half a million, maybe 750,000 acres,” Estes says. “They were maintained by frequent fires and bison.” The wildfires probably swept up the base of the adjacent escarpment, he adds, keeping it open and sunny oak savanna where the penstemon and its companions could thrive. Like so many southern grassland denizens, they are vestiges of a lost botanical world that once covered as many as 120 million acres from Maryland to East Texas, caught in a vise between habitat loss to agriculture and urban sprawl on the one hand, and encroaching fire-suppressed forest on the other. Continue reading

Animal Migration In A New Light

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Craig K. Lorenz

It’s been a while, Carl Zimmer! Welcome back to our pages and thanks for this new consideration of what is included in the definition of animal migration, a pair of words normally associated with big mammals and birds:

These Animal Migrations Are Huge — and Invisible

Swarms of insects move across continents each year. Scientists used radar to track one species and discovered a vast ecological force.

Ladybugs briefly took over the news cycle.

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In this radar image, green indicates a swarm of ladybugs over Southern California. National Weather Service, via Associated Press

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service were looking over radar images in California on the night of June 4 when they spotted what looked like a wide swath of rain. But there were no clouds.

The meteorologists contacted an amateur weather-spotter directly under the mysterious disturbance. He wasn’t getting soaked by rain. Instead, he saw ladybugs. Everywhere.

Radar apparently had picked up a cloud of migrating ladybugs spread across 80 miles, with a dense core ten miles wide floating 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet in the air. As giant as the swarm was, the meteorologists lost track of it. The ladybugs disappeared into the night. Continue reading

Where Does Your Plastic Go?

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Plastic bottles bundled in a recycling facility. Bales such as these travel around the world on shipping containers. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Thanks to the Guardian for this series on plastic waste management. It is not pleasant reading, but it should motivate change:

What happens to your plastic after you drop it in a recycling bin?

According to promotional materials from America’s plastics industry, it is whisked off to a factory where it is seamlessly transformed into something new.

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Nguyễn Thị Hồng Thắm is paid $6.50 a day to sort recycling on the outskirts of Hanoi. Photograph: Bac Pham/The Guardian

This is not the experience of Nguyễn Thị Hồng Thắm, a 60-year-old Vietnamese mother of seven, living amid piles of grimy American plastic on the outskirts of Hanoi. Outside her home, the sun beats down on a Cheetos bag; aisle markers from a Walmart store; and a plastic bag from ShopRite, a chain of supermarkets in New Jersey, bearing a message urging people to recycle it.

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Migrant workers sort through plastic bottles at the Thaiplastic Recycle Group plant in Samut Sakhon, outside Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

Tham is paid the equivalent of $6.50 a day to strip off the non-recyclable elements and sort what remains: translucent plastic in one pile, opaque in another.

A Guardian investigation has found that hundreds of thousands of tons of US plastic are being shipped every year to poorly regulated developing countries around the globe for the dirty, labor-intensive process of recycling. The consequences for public health and the environment are grim.

A team of Guardian reporters in 11 countries has found: Continue reading

Racing to Save Earth’s Rarest Eagle

Our long history with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology keeps their initiatives on our radar, and their films hold a very special place.

Sales from this award-winning documentary will benefit bird conservation.

World-renowned wildlife cinematographer, Neil Rettig, embarks on the most challenging assignment of his career: to find and film the rarest eagle on the planet.  An expertly woven tale with stunning cinematography, Bird of Prey journeys deep into the vanishing world of the Great Philippine Eagle and reveals an inspiring group of people that are determined to save the world’s most critically endangered eagle species from extinction.

Click here for more information on streaming options.

Underland, Reviewed

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Armando Veve

Robert Macfarlane first came to my attention in Ethiopia a few years ago. And then again the following year while in India. And now I see where it was all leading, in the form of a book, to see what is beneath our feet, reviewed here:

McfarlaneYou know a book has entered your bloodstream when the ground beneath your feet, once viewed as bedrock, suddenly becomes a roof to unknown worlds below. The British writer Robert Macfarlane has written such a book. “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” is an epic exploration and examination of darkness and the caverns underground that have captured our imaginations, pulled us downward, housed our dead and allowed us to bury our most violent secrets. It is also a descent into the beauty where dark wisdom is located.

Macfarlane divides his explorations into three sections, or “chambers,” devoted to “Seeing,” “Hiding” and “Haunting.” As he moves through them, he will take us to ancient barrows in Britain’s Mendip Hills, the understory of the Epping Forest and a physics lab investigating “dark matter” from deep within a coastal Yorkshire mine. He will guide us through underground rivers in Italy and show us the pictographs known as “the red dancers” found in Norwegian sea caves.

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London’s Epping Forest in the autumn.CreditDavid Levene/evevine, via Redux

Macfarlane homes in on “something seemingly paradoxical: that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement toward revelation rather than deprivation.” Night vision becomes an essential strategy for survival in the Anthropocene, the new epoch we find ourselves in, which registers the human press on the planet as a geologic force. “For more than 15 years now,” Macfarlane explains, “I have been writing about the relationships between landscape and the human heart. What began as a wish to solve a personal mystery — why I was so drawn to mountains as a young man that I was, at times, ready to die for love of them — has unfolded into a project of deep-mapping.” Continue reading

Primates of Nyungwe National Park

from the Uwinka Visitor Center of Nyungwe National Park

The first national park that the Yale FES Rwanda Study Tour visited was Nyungwe, in the south of the country bordering Burundi’s Kibera National Park. A montane tropical forest spanning over a thousand square kilometers, Nyungwe is quite biodiverse, and while it used to host elephants, water buffalo, and leopards, many other mammals are still present in the forest, including thirteen species of primate. Of these, we were able to see eight: vervet monkeys, l’Hoest’s mountain monkeys, blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys, mona monkeys, a single olive baboon, and eastern chimpanzees. This was fairly lucky, as the only primates we missed were the owl-faced monkeys, which are shy and restricted to the bamboo groves in a remote part of the park, red-tailed monkeys, which I know nothing about, and three species of galago, which are very small nocturnal primates sometimes called bushbabies, of controversial cuteness. I’ve included some of my photos below:

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Fresh Ideas

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This oasis of green in the hyper-developed city has an important job: it can contain one million gallons of water. Here’s how.

Thursday night in Costa Rica Amie and I attended an event at the oldest, yet freshest Marriott in this country. Fresh with actions around sustainability. Fresh with a renovation and landscape plan that enhances the property’s coffee hacienda origins. And fresh with ideas from other parts of the world in their ongoing series of TED events. The picture above was on the screen as the speaker explained one of her projects; she gave an extended version of the TED talk she first presented earlier this year. I found some additional information about it to share here:

When Bangkok floods (and it floods a lot), this park does something amazing

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Rainwater flows from the green roof through wetlands that frame two sides of the park into the retention pond; water can also collect in the detention lawn.

Bangkok is sinking. Spilling out across the delta of the Chao Phraya River, the Thai capital was once known as the Venice of the East for its network of canals.Today, thanks to explosive development, many of those waterways have been filled with cement. With nowhere for water to go, Bangkok has become notorious for frequent, destructive floods, sometimes after as little as 30 minutes of rain. The reality is that this city of 20 million people, built on shifting river mud, is sinking at the rate of more than one centimeter a year and could be below sea level as soon as 2030.

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Stationary bikes serve two purposes: to give people a workout and to keep the pond water from getting stagnant.

Thai landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, a TED Fellow, watched firsthand as her city became a dense concrete jungle. “When I was young, there were rice fields and canals in the city,” she remembers. “I could hear boats from my house in central Bangkok. Now, all those fields and canals have been stopped with concrete and covered by highrises. All of the buildings and concrete become obstacles for water to drain, so the city floods.”

At her Bangkok firm Landprocess, Voraakhom designs parks, gardens, green roofs and bridges that address the city’s flooding problem while also reconnecting residents to their natural environment. “We’re so much in the buildings,” she says. “I think it’s very necessary for us, as urbanists, to have places where we can reconnect to our nature, to Mother Earth. Just to see the sky.”