Photo of desert landscape en route to Baja, Mexico

Gaining Perspective

This past January I made an impulse decision to apply to a graduate program I’d recently discovered. Although I regularly juggle multiple interests through work, volunteering, hobbies, and travel, I’ve often wished I could do more to make a difference in the world. One day, while cycling through Chanthaburi, Thailand as part of Bike for Elephants 2018, I learned about a program that suddenly made my aspirations seem possible.

Group photo
Earth Expedition Baja I – photo by Jessica Seevers

Fast forward to June, and I’m hiking through 107-degree heat with eighteen other eager minds studying ecological field methods in Baja, Mexico. We were all first-semester students in Miami University’s Global Field Program, an innovative graduate program that combines summer field coursework with online learning during the school year. 

One reason the GFP appealed to me is that I’ve always loved travel. My experiences abroad have introduced me to extraordinary people and practices, shown me new ways of appreciating the world. But because we would be studying desert ecology—sleeping outdoors, abandoning the comforts of home, and being the only people wherever we went—I didn’t expect those sorts of revelations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Photo of Rancho San Gregorio
Rancho San Gregorio

One of our first assignments required us to map our location, Rancho San Gregorio. My map resembles a pre-Renaissance doodle: there is no world beyond a few structures, everything is two dimensional, and each building is front-facing, albeit from multiple points of view.

In addition to lacking perspective, my map is also bizarrely scaled: the gardens and open spaces have been minimized, the central building (seen in the photo above) is oddly compressed, and the cacti are wildly misproportioned. I’m not really sure what drove me to make such odd choices, but I believe my college art professors would not be impressed.

photo of hand-drawn map
My map

The significance of scale is a theme to which we returned time and again. In one learning activity, we read about the relationships between the area of a habitat and the number of species inhabiting it (Gotelli, 2008). We then used this concept of species-area relationship (SAR) to estimate the minimal sample area needed to characterize the local ecosystem, a sort of scale model for biodiversity.

The process we used is called the relevé method. Four teams measured out initial 5×5 meter square areas (quadrat) and then expanded them to 10×10, 15×15, and so forth. Each team identified and counted species within their quadrats: cardon, boojum, ocotillo, creosote … the total number of species increased with the size of the quadrat … until it didn’t. Once each team expanded their squares past 25×25 we rarely found any new species. We had found our minimal sample size.

Photo of me with a giant cactus
Me, pointing to scarring on a cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) – photo by Samantha Lee Arner

Why is this important? Imagine looking at a small corner of a meadow. You might see a cluster of flowering clover. While this could make for a beautiful photo, it doesn’t capture the meadow as a vibrant community of plant life. In fact, that clover might be an island surrounded by a sea of wild grasses. Examining random plots of the right sample size would give you a much better sense of the meadow’s species richness.

Although I am back in Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about scale—especially in terms of time. This semester I’m studying our city’s green spaces and interviewing people involved in greening the city. One person enthusiastically listed many things street trees bring to a neighborhood: shade, beauty, habitat. But another person claimed, “Trees are easy.” He explained how street trees provide a form of immediate gratification. And while that isn’t a bad thing per se, street trees can give residents a false sense of how green our city really is, which might make us less willing to support efforts whose effects we might not see for decades.

Photo of neighborhood tree planting
Street tree planting in Philadelphia – click for source

Many early cultures used a technique called hieratic scale in their visual arts. With hieratic scale, the most important figures appear the largest. Looking back—my map of the ranch, a close up of a flower, and greening a sidewalk—all these employ a form of hieratic scale. My map, for instance, reveals both my awe of cacti and my inability to distinguish much beyond man-made structures. The sudden popularity of trees suggests that we urban dwellers have difficulty investing in things we cannot see or touch.

My GFP cohorts and I are hoping to join a network of individuals engaged in conservation efforts around the world. My wish, of course, is to help the elephants. But I suspect that I’ve been looking at elephants as if they were clover, and I were strolling past the edge of that meadow. While the clover might seem sparse and precious to me, the meadow is not my home. If it were, the clover might appear abundant, maybe even a nuisance. If I want to make a real difference someday, then I will have to learn to accept multiple truths, embrace multiple perspectives.

References

Gotelli, N. J. (2008) Island Biogeography. In A Primer of ecology (pp. 154-177). Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.

Handbook for collecting of vegetation plot data in Minnesota: The relevé method. (2013). Retrieved from https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/releve/releve_singlepage.pdf.

 

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Liebster Love!

liebster-award

Leaping Libesters, Batgirl! While I’ve been busy studying the ingredients lists on all my groceries and snapping photos at every Vegan Pledge meeting, blogger and almost-Philadelphian Vegan Rescue nominated me for a Liebster Award! Before I get to the details of that, I want to thank Jessica (a.k.a. Vegan Rescue) for such an honor. I recently discovered her blog and have been sharing her posts with friends because her recipes are just that amazing. Can you imagine anything more worthy of a summer supper outdoors than Corn Fritters with [vegan] Mayoketchup Sauce? And guess who ran to the nearest farmer’s market to pick up some fennel after eyeing her Raw Fennel & Grapefruit Almond Salad? So to have her include me in her company … two words: mind blown. Thank you Jessica!

On to the award! First things first, the rules (there seem to be multiple sets floating around):

  1. Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.
  2. Display the award on your blog.
  3. Answer 10 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.
  4. Nominate 5 – 11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have a fewer than 1000 followers (comment on one of their posts to let them know).

My Answers to Vegan Rescue’s Questions:

  1. What is your favorite comfort food? A big bowl of Asian noodles, preferably with lots of tender-crisp greens some heat, and maybe some pan-seared tofu.
  2. What is your dream job? I used to think that I already had the perfect mix of jobs because I am both a university professor and a fitness instructor, but maybe some day I will move far far away and teach yoga classes to visitors at an elephant sanctuary.
  3. What is your favorite way to unwind after a long week? I love sitting down to a really exquisite and interesting glass of wine and a light snack, and then maybe curling up with a novel or film later in the evening.
  4. What inspired you to become a blogger? I teach writing, and I wanted to see if I could maintain a steady stream of short writing, much like I ask of my students. I’ve also had people ask for recipes when I post photos of my cooking, so this seemed like a good way to combine my writing and my cooking.
  5. If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go? As with the “dream-job” question, I feel like I’ve been so lucky to have visited so many amazing places: Thailand, the Peruvian Amazon, Belize, Indonesia, but I’d really like to visit Myanmar – and, for something completely different from my usual tropical inclinations, I’d love to see the Northern Lights!
  6. Do you have any hobbies (other than blogging)? Travel, fitness, film, reading … I sometimes make jewelry, of course I enjoy cooking, wines, fashion, coffee …
  7. What is your biggest fear? Not doing enough, not making a positive impact, not leaving the world in a better place when I die.
  8. What is the best advice you would give yourself 10 years ago? Follow your instincts and regret nothing. Even if things don’t turn out the way you imagined, at least you will only have yourself to blame 😉
  9. How long have you been blogging? About 2 years, but I took a break for about 6 months.
  10. What is your favorite blog post? I’m not sure if this means mine or someone else’s, but if it’s mine it would have to be my Birthday for Giving. I wanted to do something meaningful for my birthday, so I set up an Indiegogo campaign to benefit the Friends of Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampung Thailand, the world’s first hospital for elephants. Even though many of the donors were friends and family, my post got a lot of traffic, and I did end up with some international donors.

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My Nominees (apologies if any of you have over 1000 followers):

  1. Love-Live-Run
  2. Jamie Samons
  3. The Vegan Lily
  4. Mountains to Mats
  5. Molli Sparkles

My Questions for My Nominees:

  1. Who is your ideal reader?
  2. How long does it take you to write a blog post?
  3. What is your most ridiculous pet peeve?
  4. What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?
  5. Who is your favorite writer?
  6. If you had to describe yourself as a food item, what would it be and why?
  7. What is one skill you would like to learn?
  8. How have you improved with age?
  9. If you could change the ending to one movie, what would it be?
  10. How do you think the public would react to your version of the movie in Question #9?

Valentine’s Day Shout Out

Jumbo Size Thanks!
Jumbo Size Thanks!

Wow! Has it really been over a month since my last blog post? In my defense, I’ve been busy. Busy with a new semester, busy with training … but I think that the surprising amount of snow that has fallen on Philadelphia has contributed greatly to my sluggishness. Whenever it snows and we get a day off, I hibernate, more or less. I don’t mean that I sleep all day (although I do try to maximize time spent in pajamas), but I end up reading novels, making soup etc.

I’d like to use Valentine’s Day to send my long-promised Shout Out to everyone who donated to my Birthday for Giving campaign! Jumbo size trumpet blast thanks to:

Angela Yecco * Diana Erbsen * Cris Hellerstein * Maryanne Desantis * Deirdre Woods

Alexander Marvel * Carly Bodner * Linda Johnson * Kim Corson * Susan Ingalls

Matthew Johnson * Christina Celentano * Kimberly Brickley * Danielle Thomson

Kristina Rozan * Ximena Lara Reyes * Caroline Stein * Kelly Britt * Carmen McLean

Thomas Anthony Dixon * Molly Campbell * my family

Indiegogo * and all my anonymous donors

Both the Asian and the African elephant face the threat of extinction from habitat loss and rampant poaching. You are all such angels – your generosity has given these amazing creatures hope.

In the past few months the United States has crushed six tons of seized ivory to send a message to poachers and traffickers that illegal trade will not be tolerated. See the Fish and Wildlife Services page for answers to common questions. Following the U.S. lead, several other nations have destroyed their stores including China and France, with the Philippines to follow later this year.

Meanwhile, the Elephant Parade finished its U.S. run in Dana Point with a fund-raising auction back in 2013. The latest U.K. Tour has begun and will feature the winner of a Robin Hood-design contest. Of course, I’m crossing my fingers that they will announce an East Coast U.S. location this year.

Thank you all once again, and don’t be a stranger to my blog – I’m determined to create a vegan black-eyed pea chili and baked pasta in the coming months, so stay tuned for the recipes!

Happy Valentine's Day to all Ele-Angels!
Happy Valentine’s Day to all Ele-Angels!