Thursday, July 31, 2014

Students in U of I summer program engage "wicked" problem of sustainability

Students in U of I summer program engage "wicked" problem of sustainability

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Can you save money for yourself and save the earth at the same time? That was the vexing challenge a group of high school students and incoming U of I freshman faced earlier this summer as they participated in a classroom exercise conducted by Jonathan Tomkin, a colleague of mine in the U of I School of Earth, Society, and Environment. Those who met the challenge got a chocolate bar; those who did not got nothing, so the game had a real consequence.

The point of the exercise, and an overall point of the course in which the students were participating, was to help them comprehend why sustainability is such a difficult goal for humanity. According to Tomkin, who also teaches college courses on the topic, “Sustainability is a ‘wicked problem, because cooperation doesn’t arise naturally in our efforts to address it, and it’s often not economically rational for individuals—or nations—to work to resolve it on their own.”

The students who took part in Tomkin’s game were on campus for a weeklong course called “Sustainable Futures” that was organized by the U of I Center for Global Studies. Building a course around the subject of environmental sustainability was natural for us,” said Elly Hanauer, associate director for the Center. “It’s an issue that affects all of humanity and it’s also one our staff recognized would be interesting to motivated teens.”

To their credit, students remained engaged even though things got no easier in other classroom sessions. There, U of I faculty members introduced them to challenges ranging from national environmental policy and international negotiations on climate change, to the extinction crisis and ecosystem collapse.

Of course, some parts of the week were also devoted to showing participants the inventive ways faculty and others on the U of I campus are working to meet the sustainability challenges of the twenty-first century.

[Photo by author: "Sustainable Futures" participants listen as Don Gardner describes his prairie project.]

On the South Farms, we visited the field plots of the Energy Biosciences Institute, where research is conducted on second-generation biofuels. In addition, we made stops at the Student Sustainable Farm and the Woody Perennial Polyculture site, both of which seek to become economically viable, environmentally positive alternatives to conventional row-crop agriculture.

On an indoor trip, we got a behind-the-scenes-tour of the Business Instructional Facility with Guy Grant, an engineer who is part of the Retrocommissioning Team with UI Facilities & Services. That building, which opened in 2008, earned platinum status from the LEED certification program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. Touring it with Grant enabled students to see for themselves the features that earned it that status, from the vegetation and solar panels on the roof to the sophisticated heating, cooling and ventilation equipment in the basement.

Because yours truly orchestrated the field trips for “Sustainable Futures,” the course had to include a trip to experience tallgrass prairie, the incredibly diverse ecosystem that once dominated the landscape of central Illinois. For this, we visited the prairie reconstruction Don Gardner established near Kempton, Illinois, in the mid-1970s and which he continues to improve and expand today.

What students retain from such a busy week varies enormously from one to the next. Some, I hope, will remember the beauties of prairie and why people like Gardner work so hard to protect and restore it. Others, I suspect, will recall only how hot the day was or how long it took for us to drive there.

In any case, participants in the “Sustainable Futures” course earned and hour of college credit and almost all of them expressed interest an attending other such events, “wicked problems” like sustainability notwithstanding.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A love of life--even snakes

A love of life--even snakes

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Thanks to a friend who’s more observant than me, I recently discovered a new species of reptile in my own backyard, a plains garter snake. Maybe I should clarify by saying I mean the plains garter snake was “new” to me, not new to science or the wider world.

I should also add that it’s not the case I had never seen a plains garter snake before, or even picked one up--just that I had never recognized one as something other than a common garter snake, which is the kind of garter snake I was familiar with where I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio.

Most people wouldn’t notice the difference between a plains garter snake and a common garter snake at first glance, but with a decent photograph, the field marks that distinguish them are easy enough to pick out. The plains garter usually has wider black bars on the margins of the scales around its mouth, and the yellowish stripe down the middle of its back has a tinge of orange. An even more certain difference between them is the position of a light-colored stripe on the side, which is exactly one row of scales higher up on a plains garter.

Understanding that I had not properly identified the snakes in my backyard at home prompted me to look back at photos I’ve taken of the garter snakes that inhabit my other backyard, the landscaping along the Boneyard Creek on the U of I campus.

Sure enough, they’re plains garter snakes too.

To most of the world, I suppose distinguishing between plains and common garter snakes is about as important as distinguishing between different sorts of bats or spiders—as long as they can be avoided, who cares?

As for the other animals with which they share habitat, there’s not much difference between plains and common garters either. Like all other snakes, both are carnivores and eat just about any creature they can catch and swallow. Depending on their size and where they live this may include earthworms, slugs and other invertebrates, as well as small amphibians, birds or fish. Both also serve as a source of food for the same variety of predators—birds of prey, midsize mammals and other snakes.

My interest in knowing the difference between various species of garter snakes is rooted partly in my habit of  “collecting” animals and plants by photographing them; being able to identify more species means being able to collect more.

Of course this raises the question of why I collect plants and animals in the first place. The un-fancy answer to that is “because.” To me, there’s nothing more interesting.

The fancier way to characterize this impulse would be to call it an expression of “biophilia,” defined by the great scientist and naturalist E. O. Wilson as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” For Wilson and others who have pursued the implications of the “biophilia hypothesis,” our “love of life” (biophilia translated literally) is key to our survival as a species and our healthy development as individuals.

Does your love of life extend to snakes? When I told my spouse about the topic of this commentary, she suggested I also include tips for creating snake habitat in your yard. Maybe I’ll come back to that in the future, but for now let me just emphasize there’s no reason to fear—or  harm—any of the snakes commonly found in central Illinois. They pose no threat to people and often do us good by helping to control rodent populations.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Appreciating turkey vultures (from the archive)

Appreciating turkey vultures

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If you watch the sky as you travel by car in warm weather, you’re likely to see soaring birds from time to time, even if you don’t count yourself a birder.In our part of the country, most of the large soaring birds you’ll see are turkey vultures, which you can recognize from a long way off without binoculars or a field guide.

Turkey vultures in flight are identified by their large size—they have a six-foot wingspan—their blackish color above and below, and their manner of flight. Turkey vultures hold their wings in a shallow dihedral, or “v” shape, and constantly tilt back and forth. They are so skilled at using rising currents of warm air for lift that you’ll rarely see a turkey vulture flap its wings, even if you watch and wait for it to do so.

A group of turkey vultures circling together is called a kettle. A kettle may form as vultures come together to take advantage of an updraft for gaining altitude, or as they scan the countryside looking for food. It is not, by any means, a sure sign that something below has died.

Turkey vultures are very well equipped to search for food on the wing. They have excellent vision, which is not uncommon in birds, as well as an extraordinary sense of smell, which is. A turkey vulture’s sense of smell allows it to locate carrion even when it is concealed from above by a forest canopy.

Turkey vultures are not at all picky about which animals they eat, as long as they are dead. A turkey vulture’s diet may include anything from dead domestic livestock to roadkilled animals like skunks, raccoons and deer, or even turtles and snakes. This is not to say that turkey vultures have no preferences, as they have been shown to select recently dead animals over more decayed food when given a choice. Turkey vultures also eat varying amounts plant material, presumably more when carrion is scarce.

If you happen to see a turkey vulture close up, you’re likely to notice its red, featherless head. In this feature, as well as its bulky, brownish-black profile, the turkey vulture resembles the wild turkey, which is where it gets its name. Being bald allows the turkey vulture to poke its head right into a carcass and not wind up capturing little bits of its meal in hard-to-clean feathers.

Couple the turkey vulture’s bald head with its cast-iron digestive system, and you’ve got a very effective processor of carrion.

Now, I realize that you might be inclined to leave off contemplating turkey vultures as they soar in the sky, half a mile away. But I think looking at them more closely really can foster a deeper appreciation for the diversity and complexity of life. After all, without turkey vultures and other decomposers, life as we know it simply wouldn’t be possible.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Two U of I students champion "restoration agriculture" at South Farms site

Two U of I students champion "restoration agriculture" at South Farms site

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When people think about alternatives to the intensive industrial agriculture that dominates the Midwest, they generally think first about things like organic fertilizers and integrated pest management, a return to practices that have worked in the past.

Others are envisioning—and implementing—alternative forms of agriculture based on completely different principles, among them two energetic young people who are currently U of I graduate students.

Their names are Kevin Wolz and Ron Revord, and they are trying out this new form of agriculture on a five-acre plot at the U of I South Farms called the Woody Perennial Polyculture site.

The Woody Perennial Polyculture site employs principles of what is known more generally as permaculture, which favors systems to serve human needs that are based on natural systems rather than constant technological intervention. In agriculture, this means replacing the annual crops that now account for nearly all of what we eat in one way or another—corn, soybeans, wheat and rice—with perennial ones, and replacing the practice of growing only one crop on a site with cultivating a diverse, complementary suite of crops, a suite dominated by shrubs and trees.

The WPP was established in spring of 2012 and features four half-acre blocks of polyculture alternating with four blocks of the same size devoted to corn and soybeans, which are cultivated just as they would be on a typical Champaign County farm.

Within each polyculture block are six rows of two types. One type features apple trees spaced 24 feet apart as the tallest component. Between the apple trees grow two shorter layers, a hybrid variety of hazelnut that’s maintained as a multi-stemmed shrub and raspberries.

The other type of polyculture row features an overstory tree, a hybrid chestnut that will reach a height of 30 feet when mature. The chestnut trees will not produce a crop for some years, but growing between them are red and black currants. These will tolerate the shade of the chestnuts as they grow and they already produce a substantial crop.

A perennial pasture mix of grasses and clover, which is cut for hay, separates the various blocks. The preference would be to keep animals on the farm to graze between rows, but rules prohibit the integration of livestock and crops on campus property.

Wolz emphasizes that the aims of restoration agriculture—which is the phrase he prefers to describe what’s happening at the site—go beyond money. “Our goal is a system that simultaneously produces food for people and restores ecological integrity to the land.”

In order to compare the ecological functioning of the polyculture blocks with the conventional fields, researchers are studying a large set of interrelated topics. Among them are carbon sequestration, nitrogen leakage, water use efficiency and support for biodiversity.

When I visited the site, the polyculture blocks were alive with bees and other pollinators, as well as nesting grassland birds. In contrast, the corn plots seemed devoid of any life other than corn plants.

Revord noted that such a lack of diversity is widely recognized as a potential weakness in other aspects of our culture. He pointed out, “We learn early on not to put all our eggs in one basket, and yet that’s exactly what most modern farming does. What we’re working to develop is an alternative that’s more resilient.”