What’s in Your Backpack?

Rattling My Bones


Dripping with cultural history and utterly unique, the objects cradled in Connor Stedman’s excited hands burned with sentimental value. Their glow reflected in Connor’s eyes and didn’t flicker for an instant upon the delivery of my first question.

“So, what are they?”

To the untrained eye, they were two pieces of wood roughly the size and shape of tongue depressors, but slightly heftier and square at the ends. Connor explained it was a set of bones: A historically Irish one-handed musical instrument that is played by holding one bone stationary while rattling the other bone against it.

While the traditional instrument was made from sheep’s bones, Connor’s version originated as the South American tree palo santo, or “holy wood” in Spanish. Palo santo’s use as a good luck charm and a cleanser of bad energy dates back to the Inca era. Connor says that he’s never heard of another pair of bones made from palo santo.

Connor carved his bones in anticipation of a local visit by Irish bard Gerry Brady, who described bones as “the only instrument you can play with a pint in the other hand”. Gerry blessed this set of bones himself. Continue reading

Young Scientists Plot for Smart Urban Forestry

by Liz Brownlee

“Wait until you see the accuracy of our plot,” calls the lab team.

The four undergraduates burst with pride, oblivious to the prickling raspberries and thick brush that edge the Intervale forest.

They stop me midstride.  As their lab teacher, I’m fully equipped with aerial maps, GPS, first aid kit, phone, and extra rain gear.  I’m planning to cruise through this pasture towards the soybeans and into the swampy forest.  My goal is to check in with teams at twelve more study plots, spread over the 350 acres of forest and fields.

This lab project is a real, on-the-ground application of their natural resource training.  Most weeks these first-year students learn the basics of field work in big, broad fields (fisheries, stream ecology, forestry, etc.). The field data they record in their weekly labs is important: they use it to learn how to create papers, reports, and essays.

This week, though, the data is headed to city hall.  We’re studying the Burlington urban forest to help the city make informed decisions about valuing and managing the forest.

I need to check in with the next group. It’s incredibly important that the teams describe each plot with accuracy and efficiency.  I know that all the teams are anxious to prove their worth, to share their budding knowledge and field skills.  But this team’s stories cannot wait.

Elliot, a bright-eyed skier from Utah starts first.

The maple we used to mark our plot was so big, our measuring tape couldn’t reach around it, he says.

Aptly named and observant, Hunter chimes in.

There was a deer trail, but that’s it – otherwise it’s untouched.

Eric, a tattooed, intelligent former Marine, knows this isn’t entirely true.

How should we record the land use on this plot, Liz? This isn’t a park, and it’s on the farm but not cultivated land.

We brainstorm the forest’s values: recreation and flood control top the list.

I change my route, unable to leave the pull of their enthusiasm.  Elliot fires questions as we walk the farm’s puddle-filled gravel road.

We didn’t see any sign of invasive species like emerald ash borer – that’s good, right?  And the ground was covered in mud from the hurricane and the flood – do you think the forest will rebound before teams come next year?

The team answers most of their questions before I can chime in, and I know that I’m no longer needed.  I head for the next site when Carly, another lab teacher with twenty more students, calls from the Old North End of Burlington.  We check in, cars honking in the background on her end.

Over two hundred UVM students are taking the pulse of the forest, from tree height and canopy dieback to ground cover and plant-able space. They’re studying over one hundred plots throughout the city, and all in just two weeks.  We’ll crunch the numbers with a program called iTree that’s being used worldwide.  The city will use the results to decide where and what to plant next, and how to properly value a forest that cools homes, mitigates pollution, and absorbs storm water runoff.

They’ve tracked changes in the forest’s health.  They’ve built confidence as budding natural resource scientists.  And next year, two hundred new students will do it all again.

New Life Storms into the Forest

by Liz Brownlee

The roots stretch high into the sky – ten feet, maybe fifteen.  Soil hangs midair, clinging to the roots. A tiny white pine sits in the depression, reaches for the warm, gaping hole in the forest canopy.

The red maple once towered ninety feet tall, spreading its arms wide into the canopy.  Screech owls made their home in the tree.  Woodpeckers searched for dinner.  Black Rat Snakes lounged in its branches.

Its leaves were the first to turn each Fall, and their brilliant red told of cool nights to come. Its seeds – little helicopters – spun down on the Spring breeze.

Now that giant lies on the ground, another victim of Hurricane Irene’s powerful winds. This forest, at Mud Pond Conservation Area in Williston, is littered with downed trees, thrown on top of each other like so many pick-up sticks.

Downed trees could seem like a tragedy to a passerby.  But the white pine seedling, small as it may be, knows a more complete story:  falling trees create new life in Vermont’s mature forests.

Forests of tall, old trees are cool, dark, moist places.  The leaves from full-grown trees absorb almost every bit of sunlight before it can reach the ground.  Seedlings starve for warmth and light.  They cannot grow, and they can wait years – even decades – for a tree to fall.

A storm, then, allows new life.  Wind is the most common way Vermont trees come toppling to the forest floor. The downed red maple is a “wind-throw,” because it fell in a powerful storm.

The suddenly sunny forest floor is a very happening place.  White pine and birch seedlings shoot up practically overnight.  Deer munch on young plants. Fungi break down the tree’s trunk, and worms, beetles, and salamanders move in.

The forest could not grow anew without downed trees.  Just ask the white pine seedling.


For hiking in Mud Pond, and other locations in the Town of Williston:  http://town.williston.vt.us/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7BE8A7EC77-4332-4BA8-BBEF-6B1AB2B4F06C%7D&DE=%7BCF447A7E-7514-4078-9910-933255CB6967%7D


A Conversation with Norman Myers

by Liz Brownlee

UVM Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning (FNEP) students sat down with Dr. Norman Myers this week for a casual conversation.  He is on campus this week for multiple talks, including a “Gund Institute Tea” this Friday. 

 We bantered back and forth about biodiversity, social engagement, and the future of the planet.  Dr. Myers is quite the personality – his answers are full of stories and anecdotes, and he loves challenging the audience with some questions of his own.  Below are some of the questions from our conversation.

 Dr. Myers revolutionized conservation some thirty years ago when he introduced the idea of “biological hotspots,” which concentrates efforts on small areas of the planet that host a huge array of native species. Dr. Myers is also a UVM Marsh Professor-at-large.  Meet this environmental mover and shaker this Friday and ask questions of your own this Friday, Oct. 7, at the Gund Institute’s weekly “Gund Tea” in Room 133 of the GreenHouse Residential Learning Community.


FNEP: Why do we care about the diversity of life on earth (biodiversity)?

Myers: The one most important thing in the world is biodiversity and mass extinction.  How do I demonstrate that?  In 1958 I went to Kenya (as a photographer).  Within minutes of stepping off the plane I was in a preserve, staring at a lion’s tonsils, looking a giraffe in the eye.  There was the giraffe, doing its own thing in its own world.  I say to hell with everything else.  There was a rightness about it.  I’m shocked and appalled that we’re still letting these species disappear.

In the 1980’s science thought we were losing one species per year.  I found that we’re actually losing one species per day. The worse news is that the rate of extinction is to increase soon. It’s because we are not only destroying species’ habitats, but also evolution’s ability to create and adapt.

If I had a million dollars to devote to research, I wouldn’t put it to counting daisies. I’d put it to figuring out why we’re letting this holocaust continue.


FNEP: Where are the leverage points?  Where are the places we can put a concentrated effort and make large amounts of progress?

Myers: It’s biodiversity hot spots.  These are the best places for our funds. Some conservationists say it’s performing triage, but the reality is we’ve been performing triage for fifty years.  In the 1980’s we spent $17 million to save the California condor – it’s great that we saved the bird – but at that same time we could have addressed mollusks in the Mississippi River and saved 200 species.  Investing funds in one species automatically keeps money from other ecosystems and species [in other places].  So we need to address priorities for ecosystems and for evolution.


FNEP: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Myers: Your question is, “Why do I stick with this game?” I could have made more money selling used cars. But isn’t it exciting to be the generation that faces this thing and wins? It’s exciting to be alive for such a cataclysmic problem, and know that I’m trying to stop it. It’s empowering to know I can [help stop it].

Listen, I have an advantage over you lot.  When I was a little boy and the War was on, I used to listen to Churchill every night. The US and England were hiding, and Hitler was winning at every turn.  Churchill came on the air and said, “No! We can do it.  We can change this. We can win.” And he knew he was speaking rubbish.  But he kept talking and we did win.


FNEP: The difference between the War and mass extinction is that we had a common evil to oppose.  Today, not everyone agrees it’s a priority: we want to save a bird but we also don’t want to see kids starve.

Myers: But sometimes one problem’s solution can solve others, too.

And who would have thought that in 1950 that Americans would stop smoking, that the Berlin Wall would fall, that Apartheid would end?


FNEP: Those efforts are characterized by social pressure, good leadership, and subsets of people who cared deeply.  They knew what the world looked like without their problem, they could aim towards it. How do we do that with biodiversity and conservation?

Myers: Do you know the story of Henry V from Shakespeare?  The English are backed into a corner by the French, they are outnumbered ten to one.  Henry spoke to the troops: “If you don’t want to stand together, shoulder to shoulder and fight them, here’s money – leave.”  By the next morning, there were twice as many fighters.


FNEP: One major issue with saving biodiversity is the shear number of people on the planet.  But how do you begin a conversation about fewer people and less consumption when it’s every species’ imperative to reproduce and prosper?

Myers: I’m encouraged by a conversation I heard about (because it means the conversation is happening). It happed at the Vatican.  Someone pointed out that the edict of “Go forth and multiply” was issued when the Earth’s population was two.  He pointed out that the smallest families on Earth are in Italy.  And the smallest family size in Italy occurs in Rome.  And the smallest family size in Rome is…well, you get the idea.

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