Review of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

Reviewed by Sarah Glassco

Lab Girl (2016, 512 pp) recounts the life and career of a research scientist in the field of  geobiology. Because her roots are relevant to her present, Jahren writes about  her childhood in Minnesota, where she was raised in an unemotional, uncommunicative family. She spent her days with her mother, who gardened to put food on the table and studied literature to earn a college degree by correspondence course. In the evenings, Jahren played in her father’s laboratory. (He taught college physics and earth science.) Here she felt she “transformed from a girl into a scientist,” so she took the necessary steps to become a plant scientist with a gift for writing. Her anecdotes are as compelling as her insights. Clear-sighted, funny, and unromantic, she describes the professional challenges for a female scientist.

A failed experiment early in her career caused her to shift her approach to botanical research. “I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.” Much of what we study in our master naturalist training backs up this sensibility. The whole field of ecology is based on understanding the complex interrelationships of unique organisms. In our naturalist training lecture on botany, we learned about the importance of fungal mychorrizae to the growth of plants. We also learned that the invasive garlic mustard is particularly destructive because it poisons the arbuscular fungal mychorrizae on which many native plants rely.

Science is complex, but good storytellers like Jahren make it as simple as possible. To this end, she structured the book in layers, with essays about plant lives that parallel phases in her life and career. She recounts the latest research into plants, and gives us glimpses of discoveries that are changing scientific ideas about their natures.

Her observation that “perhaps I was destined to study plants for decades only in order to more fully appreciate that they are beings we can never truly understand” is relevant to all of us, no matter where we are in our own quests to be worthy, engaged participants in the natural world. Now, when I see a maple tree, I remember that the saplings beneath it rely on water drawn up and shared from the mature tree’s roots for their survival. When I see a willow tree, I remember that its annual growth rate is nearly twice that of its closest competitor, and that it stores nutrient reserves in older branches and sheds them to send colonists out into the world.

You too will be amazed by the stories this masterful naturalist tells, and inspired to share her appreciation of plants as complex beings with lives of their own.

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College Scholarships for Natural Resource/Conservation Students

The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annually offers several $1,000 scholarships to graduating high school seniors for college study. The scholarships support studies related to natural resource conservation. Fairfax County students must submit their applications to the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, which will select one student for consideration by the state committee. Applications can be found online and are due by March 12, 2018.

Get ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count!

Enjoy observing local birds? You can make your observations count. The Great Backyard Bird Count, running from February 16-19 is a fun, free, family-friendly event that asks us to observe and count the birds in our backyards, building balconies, parks, schools–anywhere we may find them. Learn how to sign up and get started counting here.

Help spread the word with pre-made resources here.

In support of the bird count, DC Audubon is organizing a bird walk on Saturday, February 17 at 10:00 am at the U.S. Arboretum. For details and other updates, sign up here.

Join citizen scientists around the world for this annual tradition!

See the Tundra Swans at Mason Neck

 Saturday, February 10, 2018, 2:00 PM

Woodmarsh Trail, Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge

 

Join the Friends of Mason Neck State Park on Saturday, February 10 on a walk to see the Tundra Swans! Each year, the Mason Neck area is host to one of Northern Virginia’s largest concentrations of Tundra Swans. Depending on the day, you may see between 200 and 400 swans and hear their haunting calls. You will also see other waterfowl, including Northern Pintails, American Coots, Ruddy Ducks, Black Ducks and Mallards — and who knows what else? Bring your binoculars if you have them. If not, there will be binoculars and telescopes for people to share. The tide will be high when the group gets there, which will maximize the likelihood that the birds will be close.

The group will gather at the Woodmarsh parking lot at 2:00 PM. It is on the left of High Point Road about a quarter mile BEFORE the Mason Neck State Park Contact Station. It is about a 1-mile walk on level ground to the bird blind at the marsh.

There is no charge for the hike, and there is no need to pay the State Park entrance fee since the group will be outside the park.

Review of Act on Climate, by Michaela Zint, on Coursera

Reviewed by Tami Sheiffer

I’d taken a lot of Coursera classes for fun and personal edification before I was a Fairfax Master Naturalist and could get continuing education credit for them. Act on Climate, taught by Michaela Zint of the University of Michigan, is the Coursera class I would recommend to the broadest audience because it encourages students to put what they learn from the class into practice. I’ve found that it has had more impact on my daily life than other classes have—by encouraging lifestyle changes like eating less meat, and introducing me to new groups and volunteer opportunities in my community. I would recommend this class to family or friends who may be interested in living in a more environmentally friendly way, without getting bogged down in heavy climate science.

The first week’s introductory material briefly covers the science of climate change, and introduces the concepts of mitigation and adaptation. But it quickly turns to the focus of the course, which is not the science of climate change but steps to take action.

The next four weeks of the class are topical, covering food, energy, transportation, and the built environment. For each topic, material about climate impact is covered, as are steps to reduce the climate impact. The solutions suggested for each topic are divided into type of action: individual, community, political, and adaptation. The solutions are all ones that students can put into action themselves, individually or together with others in their community. So political action may be something like attending a town hall or writing a letter to a representative, not the larger political actions that a state or country should take.

For example, we learn that we can act individually to reduce our energy usage with energy efficient appliances or by minimizing drafts in our homes, and act in our community by seeking out community-supported agriculture and community gardens. We can take action politically by attending a transit authority meeting, and we can practice adaptation actions by planting trees.

Even if much of the information was not new to me, I appreciated that this class prompted me to look into resources and opportunities for action in my community, and to make a plan to act. Because of this class, I discovered resources and groups in this area that I was previously unaware of. I learned that Fairfax County Libraries have thermal cameras available for residents to borrow to check for drafts and hot spots in their homes. I discovered Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture near me–I had unknowingly driven past it many times because it is not visible from the road—and I began volunteering there. And I came across the Fairfax Master Naturalists website, which led me to fill out an application.

Act on Climate has short quizzes to check understanding, and at the end of each unit the student is asked “What Actions Did you Take?” The culmination of the class, during the sixth week, is the creation of a peer-graded “Personal Climate Action Plan.” The class wraps up with a conclusion in the 7th week. Discussion in the forums is encouraged but not required to pass the class. The Personal Climate Action Plan makes up 40% of the final grade, and quizzes compose the rest of the grade. As with other Coursera classes, you may take the class and receive a grade for free as long as you don’t need the Statement of Accomplishment.

This class counts toward Master Naturalist continuing education credits.

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Review of Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany, by Catherine Kleier

Reviewed by Becky Strode

Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany (The Great Courses, 2017) is an informative and engaging course that you can watch on DVD or via digital download. Best of all: no homework and no tests! Plant Science comprises 24 half-hour lessons, and a 214-pp. course guide. The instructorCatherine Kleier, Professor of Biology at Regis College in Denversurveys the plant world, using photos, videos, computer animation, and her own obvious delight in the subject to make her lectures come alive. The result is intellectually stimulating and entertaining. After watching this course, you will look at plants with a keener eye and a deeper sense of wonder.

The first unit, “The Joy of Botany,” discusses what makes a plant a plant, looking at the cellular level. Subsequent lessons describe differences in the reproductive cycle of mosses, ferns, conifers, and flowering plants. Photosynthesis is explained using computer graphics to illuminate the complex biochemical processes by which plants turn light into energy and energy into sugars. Kleier discusses pollination, seeds, and fruits as well, and you will learn why a tomato is a fruit, and a strawberry is not!

Kleier also looks at plants from an ecosystem perspective, from underwater environments to deserts. She discusses problems caused by invasive species, concluding with a discussion of the promise and the potential dangers posed by genetic modification of plants. The range of potential dangers from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that she identifies is wide and includes ecological, human-health, and economic risks. Kleier also describes new techniques on the biotechnology horizon that may enable scientists to make beneficial plants more resistant to disease without modifying their genes.

Plant Science can help a Master Naturalist contribute to our mission of environmental stewardship and education in several ways. The information you learn will help you better understand the plants you see around you every day. This will enhance your own enjoyment of nature and reinforce your desire to protect it. The course will also sharpen your observation skills, making you a more effective leader or participant during nature walks. You’ll know what to look for when you encounter plants, helping you identify them and place them in a broader ecological and evolutionary context. Finally, drawing from the course’s clear explanations and many examples of botanical concepts, you’ll be better able to share your knowledge and enthusiasm with others.

This class counts toward Master Naturalist continuing education credits.

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Winter Greens at Fred Crabtree Park

A Walk with Jan Meyer

Fred Crabtree Park, 2801 Fox Mill Road, Herndon VA 20171

Saturday, February 10, 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM

Come to Fred Crabtree Park, a lovely park in Herndon, Virginia, with Jan Meyer to find out what grows there and what is green in winter. Jan will point out a variety of green plant life, including a lichen, a few mosses, a couple of ferns, three clubmosses, a little seep plant, and some forbs, shrubs, and trees. Learn to distinguish between Pitch Pine and Virginia Pine, which are side by side at the park.

Jan Meyer is a Fairfax Master Naturalist, member of VNPS, and also the VNPS Grass Bunch. Over the years she has adopted Fred Crabtree Park and has led invasive species removal efforts there in addition to naturalist walks.

Sponsored by the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. Program is free and open to the public, but space on the walk is limited. Register here. To cancel your registration or ask a question, email vnps.pot@gmail.com.

Review of The Humane Gardener, by Nancy Lawson

Reviewed by Anne DeFiore

As a Fairfax Master Naturalist and Audubon at Home Ambassador, I am always on the lookout for books on native plant and wildlife gardening. The Humane Gardener (2017, 224 pp) offers insights on both topics, but what sets Lawson’s book apart from others is her emphasis on creating habitats that nurture all forms of wildlife. Interspersed with chapters on native plantings, creating habitat, and the benefits of decaying plant material are profiles of humane gardeners whose properties range from modest backyards to commercial farms.

Many of the principles Lawson lays out are well known to master naturalists: “Plant for all seasons and sizes” to address “diverse diners”; use “green mulch”—native grasses and groundcovers—rather than bark in between shrubs and trees to improve soil; choose straight species over cultivars; and don’t “love” –overwater and over fertilize—native plants.

Lawson urges us to be attentive to gardening activities that have tragic consequences for wildlife.  In a section entitled “Don’t Mow the Teenagers,”she warns us that mowing, pruning, and raking can cut short the life cycles of ground insects and other animals. Fritillary larvae, for example, crawl onto violet plants in early spring and, as Doug Tallamy puts it, “we murder them with our lawn mowers.”  Baby rabbits in hidden nests and other young animals are vulnerable as well.

When removing invasive plants from our properties, Lawson asks us to “triage” their removal to minimize adverse effects on wildlife that make use of these plants. Early blooming invasives may be the only available nectar sources to bees, fruiting shrubs like Amur honeysuckles may fill a significant part of a bird’s diet.

In The Humane Gardener, Lawson addresses an uncomfortable truth:  the wild creatures most gardeners want to support are songbirds and pollinators. Many other forms of wildlife we consider interlopers—enemies. She enumerates the cruelties inflicted by pest removal services, glue traps, even “humane” deterrents (predator urine, for instance, is captured from caged coyotes and other animals on fur farms). She advocates flexibility and a more generous perspective:  opossums and raccoons eat carrion, ticks, and slugs; rabbits devour dandelions; and moles and chipmunks till the soil, increasing its fertility.

In a world of shrinking natural spaces and biodiversity, Lawson asks us to reconsider our ideas of ownership and make room for all forms of wildlife.  Above all, she asks that we be conscious of the consequences of our routine gardening choices.  She promises that our gardens will be healthier—and more humane—as a result.

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Learning opportunity: Designing green roof habitats in cities

Join the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Biophilic DC as they explore emerging design practices and issues related to this new urban habitat. Both organizations will have information on hand to help you get involved. Weds, 7 February 2018 6:30–8:00 PM ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture 636 I Street Northwest Washington, DC 20001 […]

Register for Washington Area Citizen Science Regional Meeting, 9 February

Area-wide citizen scientists are meeting at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to discuss 2018 City Nature Challenge (CNC) and how you might get involved. Join them Friday, 9 February 2018, 9:00 am – 11:00 am.

AGENDA

Presentation by Chris Meyer, PI Moorea Biocode

2018 City Nature Challenge (CNC)

  • International and Regional Overview
  • CNC Basics: How to Get Started, Tools and Resources for participation
  • What We’re Up To – Local Projects Underway, Identification Parties, Q and A
  • Ideas and Pitches for collaboration, cool projects

Regional Network Updates

An optional 30-minute iNaturalist training will  following the meeting.

Please RSVP to: biophilicdc@gmail.com