Back to a familier spot

I almost didn’t recognize my reflection spot as I approached it. The vibrant colors of fall that I had left behind during my last visit had all but faded to a monochrome of white to black.

I try to remember how to do this and find my self lost in the cold beauty of the space around me. Winter lets you see so much more of the world around you by getting rid of the visual noise of leaves hanging from trees. I can see all the way to the top of Westhampton Forest. The lake is mostly frozen, save for a few rings around the bubblers, and fogs the reflection of the world forcing  you to look up and around. No longer is there the crunch of leaves, the gossipings of people, or the lapping of water. Instead, a long silence, broken intermittently with soft bird sounds and rushed steps.

What is this trying to tell me? That’s the question I struggle with. Every time I’ve come here I’ve walked away with an understanding of something about myself and nature, but today the cold seems to have stopped the cogs of my mind from finding anything in this beautiful landscape. It’s simple, pure, raw, and harsh. This is what nature is. It doesn’t have to tell you something, it just shows you who it is. It lets you in and lets you live. The cold is a time of reflection. It’s where we all struggle to remember what warmth felt like, what green is, and how we ever survived with insects everywhere. But it is in that reflection that the cold natural world lets you see the beauty in all that you wish was there.

The cold is beautiful because it is clear. There is no noise, no reflections to get lost in, it forcefully makes you focus on the world around you and not at the spot of ground below you. It lets you remember, to wish, to want, to desire. That’s what the cold is for.

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Jewel on a Chain

Home is a rather small place. Wherever we settle, we tend to carve out our own small plot that we become familiar with above all else and somehow manage to forget the rest. Even at Folly, my family’s 50 acre property in Madison County, VA, I have my comfortable space, and the farther reaches are left largely terra incognita for all intents and purposes. Such has proven to be the case in my recent thoughts on the James and my interactions with other rivers. With a few small snapshots of the most picturesque memories, I’ve cut my images of my favorite rivers into a perfect collage. It acts as a wonderful hideaway in my mind, a de-stressor and reminder of what is truly important. But when I remember to peek behind the curtain, I am suddenly confronted by the facts of the entirety of the rivers. The James is not just Westhampton Lake at sunset, nor is the Rapidan just a canoe ride on a hazy summer day. They stretch for miles beyond where I have seen them, and they are affected by more than I can fully comprehend. Although the James is the jewel of Richmond, it is far bigger and stranger than that.

In “Urban Myths”, Jonah Lehrer makes the case that bigger cities have faster “metabolisms” than smaller cities. If one draws the same conclusion with rivers, then the James has one of the best metabolisms in the state. Meanwhile, most efforts to protect it are focused securely on the abs (aka Richmond). Through the years this area of the James’s body has gone through many punishing diets of pollution, quite a few canal tummy tucks, and, most recently, a regime of healthy awareness and activism crunches that are doing a good job, but haven’t quite reached the goal. Meanwhile, the rest of the body lacks the focus and dedication of Richmond. The ‘head’ of the river is hidden on a private farm in the Blue Ridge and the overall James report card still comes in at a mere C. According to the report card, important species such as the striped bass are declining, and sediment pollution continues to drag in excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Richmond may be highly aware of the river due to its overwhelming pride in it, but the rest of the region seems stubbornly unaware. Without so much culture and pride tied up in the James, the rest of the watershed leaves it by the wayside.

I recently looked at a Virginia map and came to the horrifying realization that, without labels, I was unable to identify my Rapidan. If you handed me a picture of the Spicer’s Mill, where we put in our canoes for a longer cruise, I would recognize it in an instant. But find it on a map? Recognize even the basic shape of the whole river? I was lost. My perspective of the Rapidan was limited to a few miles. And I soon realized that it was the same for the James. Richmond encompasses all of my experiences in connection to the watershed, so I have no real idea of the river beyond the city limits. And this, I think is where the quickly growing awareness of the James in Richmond both hurts and helps. One of the (very) few things that has stuck with me from microeconomics, and was echoed in our “Urban Myths” reading, is the idea of economies of scale. Basically, a large business will do better than a small business because its very bigness gives it an efficiency advantage. The James River Association is based in Richmond, as are most of the parks, and so most efforts are logically located in that area. This means that the people of Richmond are consistently made aware of the problems and wonders of the James, and that this doesn’t extend much past the Greater Richmond area. However, as more and more people are exposed to the beauty and activities on the James, awareness of its problems will also spread, giving the JRA and other activist groups a greater economy of scale to spread up and down river from the city. People are constantly moving through Richmond, and one can hardly move in Richmond without getting a dose of the James and its affect on the city. This means that, hopefully, the number of people who care about the river will grow exponentially, especially as the JRA opens new parks and initiates new projects.

As I continue on with the James and the Rapidan and the many rivers to come, I hope that I can remember this lesson. Scale of perspective has a huge impact on what we know (or think we know) about a place. To me, the James will always be first and foremost the beautiful oasis in a bustling city, but I still have to remember that there are many problems and adventures lurking just beyond where my collection of memories ends. But I can take my new-found awareness with me, and spread it to the people I will meet. And if ideas work like cities or businesses, it will grow stronger and faster the more I talk. And maybe one day I won’t have to shush a passing cellphone user as I watch a blue heron hunt on Westhampton Lake. Maybe soon they’ll simply join me, and we’ll add a new snapshot to our collages; a new jewel on our personal chain of the river.

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Can you feel it? Can you feel the Earth Lodge Love? ♫

Before I begin describing any of the amazing experiences I have had or the abundance of knowledge I have gained from being part of the Earth Lodge, I must say it has both exceeded my expectations and turned out to be very different from my expectations.

 

About this time last year, Garrett, Sam, and I began talking about how much we wanted to be in Earth Lodge after reading about it online, going to an information fair, and hearing stories from past lodgers. We hoped we would all be accepted and talked about who else we thought would be part of the program. A large part of the adventure of Earth Lodge has been getting to know people I never would have spoken more than a few words to and even a few people who I may never have even seen on campus. These people have become some of my closest comrades these past few months because we share a special bond in having some sort of passion for the environment.

 

What a bunch of goons

I am not sure what my expectations for class were for this semester, but I can definitely say I have learned a LOT. While I thought I knew a lot about environmental science before the class, I should have known that there is always something new to learn. And there is definitely always a new watershed to study. I had no idea the James River watershed encompassed so much nor did I expect there to be so much history and modern cultural ties to the river. There are books written about just the river! Books – that’s plural! And we have read at least one of these books along with many articles, magazines, news stories, case studies, and reports. Throughout all of these readings, I have gained more insight into the health, history, and culture of the James River. I never expected there to be a “culture” of the James River where people spend so much time on the river, work with the government to protect, and pass on stories of the river.

 

One of the coolest field trips we took was meeting Ralph White, a key player in preserving this river culture. Ralph is a local legend and has worked for over thirty years to shape the river’s park system into what it is. He is an example of the fact that it is undoubtedly the passion of the locals that drives the protection of an area like the James River because they are the ones who use it the most and use it all year round. I feel like all the Earth Lodge members have become part of this group of dedicated river lovers who work to maintain the river, and I am definitely included in that.

 

Earth Lodge getting weird during Fall Break

Another one of my favorite topics we have covered in the Geography of the James River Watershed class, trailing right behind tree identification, is how much potential the river has to create more connectedness and improve the water quality. There are many plans in place to improve trails, access points, and awareness of the river that could push the James to a whole new level in terms of being a part of the Fall Line city. It is exciting to read about how much we can do as local citizens and how much the city has planned for the James’ future. As a Richmond citizen, I cannot wait to see Richmond and the interaction with the James grow.

 

By far my favorite part of being part of the Earth Lodge community is that it is just that: a community. I have gotten to know my classmates more through late night studying in the lounge, bonding during the Fall Break trip, and singing together during Tuesday Tea times than at any other point in the class. It is true that those who struggle together, stay together. While we have “struggled” together in terms of studying together and being supportive during rough moments in the semester, we have all grown very close and formed a bond that will last at least for the rest of college, even if we do not all live together again. That bond itself has made the entire experience worthwhile.

 

Reflecting on the semester as it comes to a close, I could not have asked for better classmates or a better professor. While some Living-Learning Communities or SSIRs have great trips or dorms, we have by far had the best experiences (which makes up for the not-so-great dorm location). Our professor is definitely one of the most dedicated in terms of striving to help his students and being like another member in the community. And I am not just saying that for a better grade. All of my classmates and both my professor and TAs have contributed to this amazing experience. It is definitely a testament to the power of learning in an intimate, hands-on setting with a group of supportive, equally passionate individuals. And I am so glad that I still have another semester to spend with these people, even without a weekly class.

Can you feel the Earth Lodge Love?

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You Can’t Help.. Yet

Disturbed is the closest word I can use to describe how I felt as I more deeply analyzed the implications of an Environmental Leadership article the Earth Lodgers were assigned a few weeks ago. It identifies the three characteristics an Environmental Leader should exhibit: power, knowledge, and passion. I feel like this entire semester, we have been the privileged, unique individuals who were able to get the immersion experience required to kick-start environmental leadership. However when I looked at one specific diagram from the article (below) it shows politicians as high in power and scientists high in knowledge. Why are politicians and scientists the only ones with power and knowledge? Why are politicians themselves not high in both categories according to the diagram? Also, the diagram shows that passionate politicians and scientists lead to an informed and empowered public. Can we not have an informed and empowered public without scientists and politicians? How can we improve the ways things work so that the public can find independence and become environmental leaders? How can we free individuals from dependence on the few people in privileged positions of knowledge and power? Upon first glance, the environmental leader reading was inspiring to me. However, upon further examination, I’m not so sure.

Power is for politicians. Knowledge is for nerds.

The first issue the article raised was separating scientists from power and politicians from knowledge. This is a problem I have seen in society for my entire life. At one science lecture I asked how much the President is advised by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under George W. Bush, allegedly 0 minutes of his entire term were spent discussing things with this knowledgeable, “powerful” environmental leader. However, Barack Obama at least nominated someone (from my hometown no less) to be the assistant administrator for the scientific research arm for the EPA, a position that left vacant for 9 months. The fact that we barely know the names of scientists and environmental scientists at that provides evidence that the most knowledgeable people in terms of the science behind environmental issues have limited power without politicians and/or the President himself. This issue with science/knowledge lacking power and influence has plagued me to the point that I have considered running for office someday. I think there needs to be a revolution in politics where people from various backgrounds have political power. If some scientists could be involved in the conversation, politicians would have immediate access to new knowledge rather than having to consult scientists later. Setting up a system of direct, diversified collaboration would be a huge improvement over the current system.

Besides the issue of scientific experts and politicians establishing a more effective system for change, there is the issue of developing citizens into informed and empowered beings with or without the political system and/or full expertise. I believe online tools such as the runoff calculator help people manage their personal environment at home. It gives suggestions such as rain gardens and barrels in addition to reducing impervious surface area to reduce the runoff a certain property generates. Another online tool that develops individuals into environmental leaders themselves is the Chesapeake Conservancy Prioritization Tool. It allows people to rate areas based on historical and cultural resources, habitat, and ecology and how important these categories are to them. This teaches people which parts of an ecosystem most provide what they are interested and also shows that each individual’s opinion can make an impact. However it requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape from the outset. Also, these tools are not things the average citizen would search for on their Internet escapades.

Getting outside consistently throughout a lifetime is the first step in maintaining environmental autonomy. Experiencing the outdoors allows people to view and interact with the environment in several meaningful ways. Over this semester alone I have viewed watersheds from planes and from a bird’s eye window view on my way to Boston, from my reflection spot, and most importantly from volunteering. Environmental leaders can help facilitate these community interactions with the environment. For example, Ralph White mobilizes volunteers, which my classmate, Garrett, mentions in his blog “Building an Empire.” Garrett mentions White’s quote that, “Volunteers made this park,” in reference to the James River Park System. Not only do these activities and experiences increase knowledge of the environment, but they cultivate passion as well. In this way, the existing environmental leaders do have some small power by others to become educated and passionate about their environments, thereby cultivating future environmental leaders.

Education on the environment throughout a person’s life must follow or the knowledge is not cultivated in a way that can be seriously applied to make change and become a leadership on one’s own terms. As I mentioned in my article “Trip to Maymont”  education about the environment is stopped too early. Developing knowledge in not only the science behind environmental issues, but also explaining the politics involved will allow for people to find out how to make changes themselves. I was lucky enough to have a father in County Recycling as a child, so I was able to ask him for the right contacts to enact a change in my community. I talked to local politicians and the local Chamber of Commerce in order to get one street in the center of my community lined with recycling bins (bottom of the hyperlinked page).http://www.towsonchamber.com/documents/JulyNewsletter.pdf If every student were required to speak to local politicians and organizations from an early age, they would learn to understand the processes currently involved in making changes on a local level to their environment. However, they would still have to go through the typical political system to legally get these changes made. Hopefully with knowledge/experience and passion developed on their own, the public can learn to navigate the power system of our government.

Overall, the Environmental Leadership article led me to question the ways we can develop and envision future environmental leadership. In my opinion, science and politics should directly overlap to improve policy decisions especially as they relate to the environment. In addition, I believe early and continued education is necessary in order to provide the public with knowledge and passion for the environment. In addition, if people are equipped with the knowledge of how to navigate politics and gain access to politicians, they can direct their knowledge and passion towards environmentally positive outcomes. Earth Lodgers and others who have had access to this amazing, and unfortunately rare training need to step up. We are ready to be and need to lead the next generation!

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It all Began with a Tour and Some Outdoors Love…

University of Richmond’s accepted students’ day, circa March 2012: I came to visit the university and the city of Richmond for the very first time.  I was insanely nervous, and the more I began to talk to other accepted students, the more I felt completely out of my element.  Most of the students I talked to on that day were high school seniors who had applied here as their first-choice school, early decision, and they could think of no better place to spend their next four years.  I applied to Richmond as a safety school; I had never even visited before accepted students’ day, and I thought it was going to take a lot to prove to me that this school was worth considering.

That was until I decided to take one of the optional tours of the school with my sister.  My mother dragged my unfortunate youngest sister into one financial college planning seminar or another, and my sister Alyssa and I went on a campus tour by ourselves.  I listened to the tour guide’s spiel and waited until the end before asking him what I considered to be one of the most important questions during my college search: what kind of outdoor recreational opportunities were there in the area?  I am sure that there are many tour guides on this campus who may have balked at such a question.  They may have mentioned the possibility of going to Belle Isle or Pony Pasture, but beyond that, they probably would not have known too much about the area.  I just so happened to luck into having an outdoor enthusiast as a tour guide, and so needless to say, I got an earful.  He told me all about the class IV rapids on the James River through the city of Richmond.  He told me about Belle Isle and the number of little parks that I am now able to identify as being part of the James River Park System.  He told me stories about camping trips he and his friends and fellow U of R students had taken over holiday breaks, and he stressed how close all of these options were to the university.

My lovely fellow Earth Lodgers (and TLB) bonding and flashing our sign

I was sold.  It is certainly funny to see how things fall into place, and I can confidently say that tour alone greatly influenced my decision to enroll in the university that same day.  It encouraged me to apply for the Westhampton College Outdoor Adventure living-learning community, and ultimately led to me choosing to apply to Earth Lodge for my sophomore year living-learning experience.  I am obviously biased (as I am sure everyone else in Earth Lodge would also admit), but I think it is very important to be aware of your surrounding environment.  However, this course has taught me the importance of not only being, but also understanding your place in that environment.

The implications of knowing the value of your place go so much further than just knowing off the top of your head how many minutes it takes to get to the nearest James River access point or the nearest public park.  Comprehending place leads to a lot more in-depth, critical thinking and requires the utilization of parts of the brain that I certainly did not expect to be using in a geography class.  I will be honest, I have not taken a geography class since middle school when the hardest thing we had to do was memorize states and countries and be able to fill them in on a map.  However, I realized quickly that geography and place were about a lot more than locations within county, state, or even country boundary lines.  Because the environmental impacts of our actions do not magically stop at these imaginary boundaries that exist only on maps, these places are all connected, and our daily actions many have ripple affects on all of these places that could last several years into the future.

Unfortunately, for most people, these affects only become obvious when the results are newsworthy.  More often than not, this only happens when the results likewise disastrous.  A prime example of this was the unfortunate situation of Kepone being directly discharged into the James River by the company Life Sciences in Hopewell, Virginia.  It was not until deleterious results became prominent in the environment, health of the river’s inhabitants and physical health of the company’s workers that the production of Kepone was questioned and the company was ultimately shut down.  What is more is that while this was a very prominent issue of point-source pollution, a lot of the severe environmental issues we face today are due to non-point source pollution and runoff that is a clear result of our society’s lifestyle choices.

Not many people stop to think beyond the practicality of driving their cars every day to get to work or fertilizing their lawns in the spring so they will be nice and green for the summer months.  Some more environmentally inclined individuals may consider the runoff these activities will contribute to the environment in terms of their own local rivers and creeks, but many do not think much beyond local implications. Before this class, I fell into this category.  I certainly never would have pulled up the run-off calculator on the James River Association’s website, nor would I have known that such a thing actually existed.  I did not have a comprehensive understanding of the difference between my narrow, self-centered view of the environment and the much wider implications my daily actions cause.  This course taught me that, and it has completely changed my way of thinking.  As if the readings were not driving home this point enough, the trips that we took as a class to places like the Wetlands, Pony Pasture, Belle Isle, the Canal Walk, and our fall break trip to the Potomac River could not have opened my eyes any more to the wide breadth of what actually encompasses place.  These trips made the concept of interconnectivity that we have discussed in class countless times, undeniable.

Earth Lodgers identifying a tree on one of our many class trips.

I will certainly never be able to look at the bank of a body of water again and not think about the value or condition of the riparian buffer along the water’s edge.  I will think twice before I fertilize my lawn or decide to pave my driveway and further increase the impervious surfaces in the world.  I will be aware of the watershed I reside in and my affects on that watershed, but I am one person.  Strong environmental leaders possess knowledge, power, and passion, but they are ultimately nothing without the backing of the public.  The environment needs a support group.  It needs more aware individuals such as myself and the other Earth Lodgers, and it all starts with having a conversation.  It starts with informing people about their surrounding environment, getting them excited about their place, and making them feel like they can make a difference.  Whether professors, neighbors, friends, or perhaps a friendly college campus tour guide informs them, the resulting enthusiasm for the environment has the potential to be great.

William Cronon says it beautifully in his article “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” when discussing the difference between two trees, one in the wilderness and one in a garden. His discussion on the topic goes as follows:

“Both trees in some ultimate sense are wild; both in a practical sense now depend on our management and care. We are responsible for both, even though we can claim credit for neither. Our challenge is to stop thinking of such things according to set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and the nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, the fallen and the unfallen, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world. Instead, we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral, and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others.”

We, as a society, need to have a better understanding of our place, the connectivity between our daily actions in our immediate environment and the affects on all of the surrounding areas, whether we find them particularly “natural” and worth protecting or not, because at the end of the day, it is all connected.


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The Importance of Education

In my last synthesis blog, I discussed how joining Earth Lodge brought me back to my “Nature Girl” roots. Now I’m the lady in a ditch, but I am noticing the little things of the natural world around me that I didn’t before. As I dug into my previous blogs looking for the underlying concepts or themes, this whole idea of noticing thing that I hadn’t before kept popping up in all of my other blogs. In “Two Rivers” I explain how I’ve lived all my life near the Potomac yet never realized just how far gone it was from healthy. My two reflection spot blogs, “Another Look” and “Little Things” probably say enough in just their titles; they are both about finding the hard-to find. While we want to link our blogs together for a synthesis entry, at this point I was starting to worry. How did I manage to write all of my journal entries with a basic theme of the same subject? How did I not notice before? Sure there were other concepts present in my writings, but I really hope my mind isn’t quite that unimaginative. I didn’t want to write another blog entry on this topic, because it seemed to me like I wasn’t synthesizing at this point, but just repeating myself.

Now that I’ve gotten back to being Nature Girl, I can’t stop taking picture of the water.

Once I read my Community-Based-Learning Entry, though, did I figure out the real concept that linked together all of my entries. Learning. This blog talked about the links between our out-of-class service and our in-class curriculum. Cleaning up Huguenot Flatwater, I kept seeing debris and thinking of how they got there due to an increased number of impervious surfaces. Working at William Byrd Community house, I pondered the farm-to-table connection that the owners are fostering in these children. While my other blogs to talk about noticing the previously unnoticed within nature, this one made it clear to me why the concept kept coming up, and what was significant about it. But let me keep you in suspense for just a little longer.
If I accidentally wrote about the same concept of ‘noticing small things’ multiple times, I think that it is same for us to assume it’s a pretty important idea. Well, at least it is to me. But why is it important? I didn’t keep writing about it for no reason. You probably know, but I’ll give you a hint; it’s the same reason everyone only used Forsyth’s Awareness-Appraisal Model in their project proposals. This is the most important concept; awareness. Because in the end, awareness of something leads to caring about that thing. You know what they say; the first step is admitting you have a problem. If I notice the little things about the environment around me, that means I’m going to start caring about these little things. Eventually, these little thing stack up, cause it’s only when all the smaller portions come together can the big picture be made. Only when the debris is out of the water can the sturgeon population be back. When we start seeing water that can really support sturgeon, then we’ll see water that can hold oysters. When the oysters come back, maybe the James and the environment will really have a chance to succeed.
Now this is all inspiring and lovely, but we’re missing something important. So let me get back to our topic from before: education. The reason why noticing small things is important is because it gets you to care. Then caring about small things becomes caring about the big things. But you can never really notice or care unless you’re educated on these things.
I never would have noticed the debris on the water if I hadn’t learned to look for it. Nor would I have realized that the debris was a problem if I hadn’t been taught all about impervious surfaces. When I wrote in my community-based learning blog about the farm-to-table connection, the education really is the critical aspect. We heard all about how that area is a “food desert,” with no real access to groceries for many residents with limited money and transportation options. Additionally, it provides fruits and vegetables and other healthy options which are normally more expensive and harder to access. If the children were not taught about the food they were growing, they would never know why growing that food was important, and never value it or try to protect it. With this added educational aspect, both the volunteers at William Byrd and the former students of William Byrd are informed enough to work to protect this ability to grow food. Volunteering at William Byrd I thought about how many people have never seen where their food comes from before, so this link is so important.

You want to know why this guy is happy? He knows where his food is coming from!

In my blog entries, I wouldn’t have noticed the small details of my little ditch without learning about them first. It would have never occurred to me to note the little insects around, or the tiny fish in the water. Now, I look because I know they are a sign of the health of the water.
The one example that I find most powerful is part of my “Two Rivers” blog entry. I wrote about how we measured the turbidity of the Potomac, which gave us very poor results. I talked about how I had never in my life seen water as clear as the target amounts we were given. I, as well as many others, probably just assume that things are mostly how they are supposed to be. Without knowing any better, you’d never imagine how wrong your perceptions can be.
Without being a member of Earth Lodge, I don’t think I would have ever really gone to the James River much. Before taking this class I didn’t know about all the great things that the James River has to offer, and how varied and interesting the units of the James River Parks System are. Now, I have a running list of all the things I want to do in the City of Richmond, and I plan on going to the river as much as possible. I know so much about this environment, the city, the parks, and the James. Now I want to enjoy it, and hand in hand with that comes my desire to protect it. Hey, I guess knowledge really is power.

Like really, how could you not want to go snorkeling one you knew you could (right in your backyard)?

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Final Synthesis

I knew this class would be different than anything I had experienced before. I remember sitting in the first class, completely fresh and with no prior experience involving Environmental Science but I was anxious for more than a new palette of knowledge. I was excited to learn first-hand by exploring the University of Richmond campus and experiencing the James River Watershed. A new perspective on issues involving the James River Watershed and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay Watershed was waiting for me. I wanted to be able to look at the world around me and understand what the water, plants, and animals were doing.

Throughout the semester I have pondered the goal of the Geography of the James River class. I was interested in analyzing all the culminating knowledge every freshly budding environmentalist should know and asking myself how I could apply what I had learned to other situations. I have decided that the goal is to stop and take time to connect. The action of individual analysis results in different branches of understanding but each branch reaches the same conclusion about the value that only natural experience can create.

I wonder about the various interpretations of nature and now have an interest in human interactions with nature and the overall results. I think Cronon’s article provides three great interpretations of how humans have interacted with nature and I begin to ponder my own experiences throughout the semester. He focuses a part of his article on areas that “remind us of the wildness in our own backyards, of the nature that is all around us if only we have eyes to see it.” The best places to go to experience the wilderness in our own backyards is by using the James River Park System.

The James River Park system provides an easy way to experience wilderness within the comfort of civilization paralleling Cronon’s ‘backyard’ understanding of nature. I have commented on the James River Park system and the Maymont Nature Center before, they are reminders that humans have an important role in nature. Notably, each park does an excellent job blurring the lines between nature and human activity. Based on the processes I have learned about throughout the class, it is no small feat to create a genuine outdoors experience. The effort is definitely worth it because the problems and issues effecting James River ecosystems gain tangibility. Every time I take time to connect with an area I feel more invested in its sustainability. The reality of pollution and general negligence of nature leads to action, which hopefully leads to volunteering.

After compiling all my experiences with the class I feel a sense of value for each moment I spent. One key to getting people to take time and care about their area is to create value for fleeting moments that can only be generated by nature. Beyond the educational significance of nature there is an underlying value for powerful hands on experience, for example, I’ll never forget the first time I experienced a Blue Catfish. The parks provide a tangible value with their trails, beaches, and boat launches but just as important is the intangible value. Personal preference can dictate the levels on individual exploration within each area but I used it as time to find friendship or to experience an opportune moment and unveil the secrets of nature. I remember going to the Wetlands with the class and while we were exploring I saw a spider sitting inside a funnel shaped web. I had never experienced a funnel shaped web before but I had seen them on television documentaries. It is much more extraordinary to see a spider and feel genuine fear rather than experience it in any other form.

I feel that Earth Lodge is all about the experience. Prior to this I had no idea how to go out and find something to do in nature. I come from an area where people and nature live symbiotically and the shift to the city approach to nature was largely unfamiliar to me. I now know that I have to go out and find trees and creeks and animals. I now know how much time and effort it takes to create an aesthetically pleasing environment that blends nature and civilization. More importantly, I have learned where to use caution when it comes to development and the effort it takes to undo past efforts toward progress or even sometimes effort towards sustainability.

Opportunities within nature arise every moment. There is a huge collection of experiences that can attract people to nature so long as there is awareness. Prior to this class I remember being fancy free about issues involving the environment surrounding me. I wonder if I would have ever been aware had I not taken this class. My ignorance of nature could have been easily remedied had I been able to stop and look around and understand what I was looking at. I am happy to have some fresh knowledge about nature and able to interpret my complex surroundings based on my compiled experiences through Earth Lodge. Committing to Earth Lodge was no small feat but I am happy for taking the opportunity, not only for the knowledge, but also for the unforgettable moments.

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A semester down, a lifetime to go

This semester has been something else. When I think back to how it all started with a shy group of younger years (we aren’t all sophomores) meeting in the lounge one cold evening I remember being unsure in my desire to commit to the community. What made me make the final leap was the hope that I would meet people with diverse views on the environment and be able to discuss the complicated nuances with them. I was accepted but still apprehensive about the whole experience, very very excited, but apprehensive.

Then came beach camping, and the community showed me what it could be and introduced me to a whole multitude of people who had gone through the program already. This was the first point I was truly excited to join earth lodge.

Fast forward though a summer and the first few weeks of school and you get to this day. The day we went canoeing at Huguenot Flatwater. I’m going to be honest here and say that we were super awkward. None of use knew each other that well and it was a learning experience for all. This was also the first of our many trips around the James River Park System and one of my first experiences with the river while in the mindset of learning.

Nature along the James is fascinating to me. At the point of canoeing I had 0 idea about what the river held and what its major roles were in the city. Despite having a general knowledge of what a river city meant (I hail from a house where I could walk to the Potomac River), I felt then as if I knew nothing and was very much overwhelmed by it all.

We took plenty more trips to and along the James River, learned more about it in class, and I gradually felt as if I had formed some comprehension of what it meant to be part of the watershed. This blog post I made was really my summary of this idea and how I was feeling at the time. Earth Lodge had also grown more as a community, we were more open and more interested in what each other had to say but we still held back a bit when it came to discussions, we were only a month in after all.

This picture I think does a beautiful job of summing up what we are all about now. The fall break trip was definitely the single most amazing trip for education and bonding we have ever been on. For the 9 current lodgers and 1 previous lodger who went on the trip the experience was amazing and one we will not soon forget.

Bonding from the trip opened us up to full and true debate. We knew who each other were and what each other were passionate about and this lead to great discussion. Nature was, of course, a hot topic and though each of the different expeditions we had the privilage of going on.

Stating first with the day in Harper’s Ferry I learned more about the connectivity between a region and its river along with how a community could grow up with a river. I had visited Harper’s Ferry before for a tubing trip one day the summer before freshman year but I didn’t really take the time to appreciate the river and the community on its banks. Having taken the time with other now I felt like we were able to see what the community there was about. It was simple, just an agrarian society trying to do better, but it had so much influence on the river and treated it with respect.

Moving further down river on the Potomac to the downtown DC harbor area I learned more about parts of the river I had visited before. The more and more places were visited I kept revisiting this idea that I didn’t really know anything about rivers I had visited many times before.

These same ideas are echoed in many of my classmates posts along with comments on their increased knowledge about both rivers but still they feel as if they have so much more to learn, even if they don’t say that phrase outright.

My last reflection spot blog is really a reflection on how I’ve changed though the semester along with my spot but not as much as I might have initially thought I would have. Though my blog posts I transition from a lack of knowledge and understanding to somewhat more knowledge and what I began to believe was understanding only to come back to this idea that I didn’t really understand everything because I had so much more to learn. Sure I had spent my time studying and learning so many things about this topic but I have so much more to learn and a lifetime ahead of me to get there.

I guess looking forward I need to look up. People grow and discussions become more open, knowledge is shared and it is all for the better but at no point should I ever feel safe in my quantity of knowledge because there is always more to learn and more to be passionate about. Earth Lodge is going to take a break here and while I’m sad to see it go the next SSIR to take its place with still hold true the values that Earth Lodge has taught me and my fellow lodgers.

Now without a class to guide us next semester I hope we continue to grow and develope around the ideas we ahve learned and become community leaders and visionaries for the current generation as well as the previous.

I guess there are only two things left to say:

ELL and…

allons y!

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Changed Perspective; Changed World.

Lodgers climb a tree at a morning class at the James River.

John Wesley Powell: A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

I used this quote in my first ever blog post, and the theme it highlights, community as dictated by watershed, has been the overarching theme coloring my perspective throughout this course. Where I come from educationally ensured that this would be a strongly held value of mine, that secured my understanding of new or novel concepts. I related everything back to how it affects community. But this course has grown past the University community, or the Earth Lodge community, that I have spoken so much of in my blogs. Within our watershed, we are a community. The community within the University, or the city of Richmond, is linked to its watershed, whether it be the Little Westham Creek or the James River Watershed. In the past weeks, my perception has changed. It’s not just our small little community that I need to pay attention to, or in which I can effect change. Breaking the world into bite-size chunks of townships and counties and 6 digit hydrologic unit codes is a tool we use to understand the world and affect change on what we can. It makes us feel big. If the surface of the world is 70% water, then all the land is its watershed. Meaning “all living things are inextricably linked.” The small scale is helpful and important. Volunteering at our local river, gaining field experience in the closest and most diverse watershed we can. But the world is larger than that, and so is the impact that we, as human, international community, have on it.

Marissa said in her service blog, “You must love nature before you want to protect it. You must be connected to an area before you’re willing to save it.” Between readings, service, and field work, Geography of the James River watershed, more informally known as Earth Lodge class, has connected me to nature and my watershed in a way I don’t think I ever would have otherwise been. My most successful service experience as the JRA Splash and Dash, and one of my best memories of the semester, really drove this point home for me. I had never seen that much of Belle Isle, which I think is probably the best recreational area along the James. There are so many things you can do there, and so much of the river and fall line to be seen. Our start of year kayaking trip and this volunteer experience are what first opened my eyes to everything the James has to offer in a recreational sense. I feel this aspect may be the most important of a watershed, because in reality, more people will appreciate a place for what it can give them than what they can give it. And making people aware of a place and what is has to offer is the first step to getting them to protect it. “Volunteering at the Splash and Dash made me realize how little people around here know about this great thing right in their midst.” That service opportunity was one that married civilization and nature. It was a 5k literally in the James, so there was no way it could avoid that marriage.

Garrett and Heather at the JRA Splash and Dash (Christopher and Myself present but not included in picture)

The reason I didn’t enjoy my second service project as much was because our task separated us, and the community, from nature. I understand the practicality of raking leaves—preventing kids from slipping on the wet leaves by the road, making the place look cleaner, safer and more approachable so its wonderful services could be better utilized. However, raking leaves by its very nature is separating humanity from the environment. We don’t want your mess, nature. We need our order and neatness so we can do our job. It wasn’t that bad, and I don’t mind raking or helping a place like the William Byrd Community House, but that’s the reason it was not a great service experience.

That was just about the only time anything connected to this class separated nature and humanity. Another marriage of the two was my reflection spot. A garden links nature and humanity so closely and so practically that neither can work without the other. There is more bounty when a gardener tends to the plants. You can just see that the two need each other by comparing the uncared for, weedy plots with the carefully tended ones.

Picture taken at the UR Garden, my reflection spot. The left plot was clearly neglected, while the right plot was cared for.

These experiences reiterated my, and our, connection to the James, but other aspects of the class brought to my attention our impact, and globalized what I learned locally from the James about humanity’s relationship to and impact on nature. The In River Time readings brought to my attention the rich history of and incredible impact humans have had on the James River. At one point it was called an “open sewer,” and we caused that. Furthermore, even though we did cause it, it wasn’t until we could no longer ignore the James’ problems , and the Clean Water Act was passed, that we really seriously understood our impact and started to clean up. I wish I could’ve gone on the Potomac Fall Break Trip, because I’m sure the fieldwork done there would’ve further reiterated how much of an impact we have on our watersheds. As it is, I now understand the significant impact a new 100-car parking lot, or impervious surface, has to a watershed. Or what an upstream farm can do to a population of sturgeon or oysters. The report cards of the James and the Potomac illustrate this beautifully. With the terrible grades both received on nitrate/phosphorous pollution, I for one am concerned. The problem is, I doubt an average citizen of those watersheds reads them. Only people who utilize those rivers will be concerned, whether they work with the rivers or they simply go tanning there. Outdoorsey-types—people who camp, hike, bike, or climb—those people might read that report card and change their behavior accordingly. But someone who simply lives near it, or walks their dog there occasionally, won’t really notice the state of the river unless it hits them between the eyes. Like at “open sewer” James did way back when. And I certainly don’t want it to get that bad.

Studying these two watersheds have made me more aware of my impact, but the GESS lecture by Jeffrey Kerby about how melting arctic sea ice affects local large mammal populations and discussion in class with Ikal Angelei about trying to save Lake Turkana in Ethiopia/Kenya, along with readings and class, globalized my understanding of my relationship to water, watersheds, and the natural world in general. Ikal Angelei gave me a sense of the politics of an ecological effort, and the importance of ecology to many communities. We don’t go to the James for drinking or cooking water, and most of us don’t/won’t make our living through fishing or other river-based trades. The USA has become so technologically dependent that we create our own jobs, stock brokers selling stock of companies inventing new applications for cell phones. None of those trades are particularly environmentally dependent. In Ikal Angelei’s community, many of the citizens are environmentally dependent. A dramatic change in the environment means the loss of incomes, even drinking water. It’s a big deal.

Kerby and the in-class video “Melting Arctic: Assessing the Global Impact,” spoke less towards the political end and more toward how humanity as a whole is impacting our entire planet. Climate change is more rapid in the arctic than the rest of the world because of how the snow reflects the sun. The greenhouse gases create a situation that melts the snow, which prevents reflection of suns’ rays, rays which instead warm the land and sea and melt more ice and snow, exacerbating the issue. Melting see ice means local mammals cannot reproduce efficiently, or feed efficiently, and may die out. Globally it means slower moving, stronger storms, droughts, and other big changes which will cause the same local changes as in the arctic: animals may not be able to feed/reproduce efficiently and may die out, among other implications. Change is happening too fast, as in dramatic sea ice decline in the last 15 years fast. Adaptation takes 1500 years. We’re causing this, and we won’t be able to adapt. That nitrate/phosphorous problem in the Potomac/James, or rather, pollution and negligence problem, exists on a global scale.

These things that I’ve learned are the new lenses to my thinking. My perspective is not just about our University or city community, but the global community. The Earth as our home, one that is seriously in need of spring cleaning and maybe even some construction work. When my econ major friends scoff at my rants for sustainability, I have resources and knowledge to back up my claims. I don’t always make them back down, but I’ve gained ground in raising awareness among my own social circle, and definitely in changing my own way as much as possible. Nothing I do alone can make a big impact, but encouraging others to, and educating others, could. My central point is this: If we all are ‘inextricably linked’ by our ‘common water course,’ then why is it that we never work together to preserve our home? The Earth is in trouble. That is clear. We need a better relationship with each other, and the earth, but instead we are constantly at war. Econ majors are constantly scoffing at humanities majors. Values are being sacrificed for practicality and individual profit. But the world is starting to hit people between the eyes and say, “Time to pay attention.” That’s what this class has done for me. And its what we should all now do for others. We do affect nature, both locally and globally. We do have access to an incredible resource, the James, or whatever is in your town or city. Just look at our access points map within the city of Richmond, and all the attributes each point has: biking, climbing, hiking, fishing. Every community has something similar. Back home, it could be the Delaware River, or the Brandywine. Maybe just Valley Forge Park. People can use and have fun in those places, if they are aware of them. The more people who start doing that, the more people will become aware of the problem facing their homes, and want to help. The more people who do that, the more people will become aware of the world as their home, and want to help. Slowly but surely the world can become a better place. They just need a change in perspective.

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Week 10: Synthesis #2 – We are Environmental Leaders!

As the year draws to a close, I look back at the “How well do you know your place?” test from The Axe Handle Academy that we took on the first day of class. I chuckle at the apparent ignorance scrawled on the paper. To think that the writing is mine boggles my mind. I…nay, we have come so far in the span of a semester.

In their article, William Dennison and Jane Thomas argue that environmental champions exhibit knowledge, power, and passion. I think that over the course of this semester we have acquired those characteristics and are well on our way to becoming environmental leaders of our own accord.

“Knowledge refers to the scientific understanding of the ecosystem that individuals can bring to bear in environmental assessment and management.” I think we can all agree that we have learned a lot over the past semester, especially for those of us that came into the class with little background about the James, environmental issues, etc. I can now identify 25 types of trees that are native to Virginia. I can define a watershed and explain how humans have altered these natural boundaries. I can identify sources of pollution and describe their effects on the ecosystem. I can describe how urbanization affects the environment. I can give an overview of the historic events that have made Richmond what it is today. Yes, we have read countless articles and papers, but more importantly we have participated in field-based and community-based learning in addition to classroom-based learning. From our trips to Brown’s Island, Pony Pasture, the Wetlands, and even our Fall Break trip up north to the Potomac, we got to visualize and experience what we were learning about. Hearing from experts like Ralph White and Ikal Angelei gave us information few have access to. These hands-on opportunities took us beyond the classroom, beyond the pages of a book, and have solidified our knowledge about the environment, specifically the James River.

Power refers to the ability of individuals to motivate change in human activities or behavior…manifested within government, non-government organizations, academia, or community groups.” While none of us are off changing governmental policies at the current moment, I think we have each acquired a form of power. In a paper by Don Forsyth, we read about the Awareness-Appraisal Behaviour model which suggests that individuals will be more likely to help preserve the environment if they are familiar with it and recognize that it is in need of help. In other words, motivation to act can be stimulated by mere distribution of information. And isn’t that the goal of our final projects? To create James River accessibility maps that in and of themselves are accessible to the public, in hopes of increasing awareness of the resources that the James River has to offer. Creating these accessibility maps is just the first step, albeit a significant one, in encouraging individuals to utilize the River more and to do so in an environmentally friendly way. And isn’t that a form of power? Additionally, I would like to argue that volunteering is a form of power too. As I mentioned in my blog on community-based service, seemingly insignificant tasks do their part to help build a better park. And as Hilary mentioned, the Splash N’ Dash was “an excellent way to raise awareness of environmental issues, raise funds to support the River, encourage health and wellness, and [promote] community.” Helping put on an event like the Splash N’ Dash, does in fact make a difference as it spreads the word and encourages utilization of the James River Park System in an environmentally-minded way. Isn’t that motivating change? Isn’t that also power?

Passion refers to the expression of caring about the environmental issue or ecosystem.” I think we can all agree that we all joined Earth Lodge, at some level or another, because we are all passionate about the environment. However, I know that this passion has changed and grown for each of us over the semester. Reading through everyone’s blogs over the weeks has revealed an emergent trend to each of us becoming more aware about the James River and what it has to offer. But at the same time, we are recognizing exactly how healthy/unhealthy the James is. By Forsyth’s Awareness-Appraisal model, this suggests an increase in passion for keeping the River, our River clean. This is evidenced by the amount of volunteer work that we have done and will continue to do. However, our passion goes beyond this. It extends to the passion for learning that we have when we pass a tree and ask each other “What tree is that?” It extends to the passion for environmental issues on campus that we always discuss as we walk along the Richmond side of Westhampton Lake as it is devoid of all riparian vegetation. It extends into the passion for being as environmentally friendly as possible as evidenced by the reusable water bottles and full recycling cans.

In the end, I think that the knowledge, power, and passion that we have acquired over the semester demonstrate that we make some pretty darn good environmental leaders.

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