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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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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Review of The Humane Gardener, by Nancy Lawson

Reviewed by Ann Di Fiore

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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Review of Nature is One of the Most Under-appreciated Tools for Reigning in Carbon, by Emma Bryce

Reviewed by Tami Sheiffer

I’ve always been a big-picture person more than a details-person. in Virginia Master Naturalist basic training, I appreciated learning about the geology, flora, and fauna specific to Virginia and Fairfax County, and I value the focus on native plants and animals in our service projects. But my mind always wants to zoom out to the global scale and to my primary concern, which is human-induced climate change. I wonder, does our volunteer work as master naturalists have a significant effect on mitigating climate change, even when our service projects are not directly related to the issue? Encouragingly, the answer seems to be yes.

In Nature is One of the Most Under-appreciated Tools for Reigning in Carbon (20 October 2017) in the magazine Anthropocene, Emma Bryce summarizes Justin Adams’ (2017)  study, Natural Climate Solutions, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America . The study found that natural climate solutions–reforestation, conserving wetlands, sustainable fertilizer use, and other land management strategies–have a great effect on removing carbon or keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Even with constraints added to the model, to ensure that land requirements for food production are met, and costs are kept down, a conservative model estimates that natural climate solutions can save 11 billion tons of annual emissions, providing 37% of the mitigation needed to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goal of 2℃ of warming.

The study’s findings are encouraging, and Bryce sums up the key takeaways so that they are easy to remember. The article gives readers information about which land management strategies have the largest impact on carbon mitigation, and assures us that we have enough knowledge about their effectiveness to act on these solutions now.

It turns out that when we plant trees and other native plants, or engage in park restoration, or educate a landowner or farmer to use less fertilizer and disturb the soil less, collectively we are not just improving the local environment but the global one as well.

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Review of Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change (2nd ed.), by Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump

Reviewed by Jim Wilcox

The facts about global warming and climate change are indisputable at this point, but all good naturalists still do their own research. To this end, for the past five years, I’ve completed more than 20 online courses and read about 30 well-researched books (references coming in a related post). If you have time to read only one book now, though, consider Dire Predictions (2015, 224 pp).

Mann and Kump, both professors at Pennsylvania State University, cover the science behind global warming and climate change; Earth’s climate history; how the water cycle and carbon cycle affect climate change; projections for future changes and what impact those changes will have on our environment, ecology, and sociology; possible mitigating actions; adaptive responses; and much more.

As scientists, the authors don’t shy away from data or math, nor are they dogmatic. Instead they speak in terms of probabilities and write for a general reader in easily understandable terms. Photographs and effective graphics document and illustrate complex concepts. A comprehensive glossary serves as a ready reference as do the frequent embedded bookmarks to other sections within the book.

Dire Predictions draws its information primarily from the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (hence the book’s second subtitle: The Visual Guide to the Findings of the IPCC).

Dr. Mann is probably best known for his work showing the rise of Earth’s average temperature graphically, the graph for which became known as the hockey stick.

You can preview the contents and layout of Dire Predictions at no charge and with no effort by clicking on this link to the abridged pdf. The Fairfax County Public Library system has 13 copies of the complete book. Borrow one. Read it. You will walk away better able to have an informed discussion.

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Review of Crash Course, by Hank Green and John Green

Reviewed by Marilyn Kupetz

Let’s suppose that you are a master naturalist charged with setting up classes in ecology, biology, evolution, and genetics. A clever person, you are opting for flipped classes so that participants can do the fact-based parts of the learning beforehand, while you use class time for hands-on collaboration.

Where do you go for high-quality content?

Crash Course at your service.

The Green brothers, both polymaths, have built a repository of user-friendly lessons on YouTube. Their hilarious 10- to 15-minute bursts are scientifically sound, relevant to what naturalists do, and lots easier to absorb than a long book or classroom lecture.

The Ecology playlist, for example, features Hank’s 12 lessons on the history of life, population ecology, human population growth, predators, succession, ecosystem ecology, hydrologic and carbon cycles, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, pollution, conservation and restoration—solid stuff, but designed for easy digestion.

Biology offers 40 lessons. Among them, “That’s Why Carbon is a Tramp,” “Animal Development: We’re Just Tubes,” and “Fungi: Death Becomes Them” remind you that humor is an awesome learning lubricant when what needs to go down are bits of covalent bonds and mycorrhizae.

Are these snacks the same as a full-length college course? Of course not, but for concepts, conversation, and test prep, they are delicious and filling.

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Review a resource for the FMN site

Share a review of something that nourishes naturalists and that you love (nonfiction, novel, children’s book, magazine article, podcast, website, tool, TED Talk, Coursera class, puzzle, game…), and get service hours at the same time (if you are a master naturalist).

Aim for about 300 words in a friendly first- and second-person voice; please don’t lift from Amazon—must be your words and ideas for reasons of copyright

Basic structure

  • Title of the item, the author or maker, date of release, length in pages or minutes
  • Your name and high-res mage (cover or other identifying graphic)
  • Story: What is it about or for? What makes it worth the time of a Fairfax Master Naturalist? How does it compare to other resources like it? What does it mean to you—why did you choose to share it with us?
  • Reference info: a URL if possible; a citation if not

Send your review to Marilyn Kupetz at vmnfairfax@gmail.com

Review of Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould

Reviewed by Marilyn Kupetz

There’s an element of determinism in our master naturalist studies: if we are good stewards of the land and water, if we respect our fellow creatures and organisms, we all stand a better chance of surviving. It’s true, of course, but in Wonderful Life (1989, 323 pp) Stephen Jay Gould guides us through the murkier parts of the algorithm: sometimes it’s not entirely up to us, even in an Anthropocene era. Sometimes, natural contingencies determine what survives and what doesn’t.

The wonderful life of the title refers to the 500-million-year-old fossilized creatures of the Burgess Shale marine ecosystem in British Columbia. Unearthed in the early 19th century, the remains of some truly unusual creatures (look at opabinia, for example, or hallucigenia) still fascinate scientists, paleobiologists, naturalists, and other folks curious about evolution. Why didn’t these creatures make it? According to Gould, it may have less to do with fitness than with fate: the area appears to have been buried by mudslides during the advent of the Rocky Mountains. No, Gould is not anti-Darwin; he’s added a corollary, which is as fascinating as it is contested.

Why is the book worth your time? He’s a superb storyteller, able to discuss the facts of life with lucid grace. You will neither suffer nor fall asleep, and the line drawings are worthy of emulation as we head into the field ourselves. Gould is one of a small group of scientists who’ve chosen to make complex material accessible to the public, with a generous lack of ego. I also recommend his The Lying Stones of Marrakech and Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet, equally wonderful collections. As you choose your own life’s work as a naturalist and begin to share your stories, staring at one of the forks in life’s path is not a bad place to start.

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Call for content!

The FMN Strategic Communications and Marketing committee members welcome your news and event notices, learning and service opportunities, stories, resource reviews, (and other ideas–we are open to creative thinking). We curate our content, so, yes, you’ll work with an editor, but the exchange will simply polish your pearl.

Send your content or requests to Marilyn Kupetz: vmnfairfax@gmail.com, with the header: FMN website content