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Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)

People who love the outdoors and the prospect of being close to nature often have a strained relationship with polite society and cities.  The modern patron saint of that feeling might well be Edward Abbey, a writer and anarchist who loved the desert and hated what the modern world was doing to it. He described himself this way:

“I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as a ‘surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow’. Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon.”

 Edward Abbey was born in Indian, Pennsylvania, on January 29, 1927.  He was raised to think for himself—and he took to that education fully.  “Freedom,” he said, “begins between the ears.” He left home at the age of 17, hitchhiking across the country to the desert Southwest, which would be his love and home for most of his life.  Before then, however, he was drafted into the Army and spent two years in Italy as a military policeman—an experience that turned him into an anarchist.  He returned to the U.S. and received two degrees from the University of New Mexico.

He then embarked on a 15-year career as a part-time employee in various national parks and monuments, immersing himself in the desert environment that obsessed him.  He began writing, first novels, but then, in 1968, the book that first made him famous, Desert SolitaireDesert Solitaire is a rambling defense of the qualities of the desert, set in what is now Arches National Park, and the need to let it be what it is—just desert, not developed into cities, not irrigated into farmland, but just desert.  He wrote, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”

But it was another book, published in 1975, that earned him a place as a hero to some and a menace to others. His novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, described the fictional exploits of environmental extremists who used disruptive strategies to stop development—the idea of tossing a wrench into the gears.  I doubt that Abbey himself ever engaged in direct sabotage of any development—he was too focused on his own life and experiences—but the idea of guerilla warfare in support of the environment was adopted by some groups, with Edward Abbey as their spiritual guide.

Abbey was the true anti-hero.  He was married and divorced four times, a known philanderer.  He drank excessively and threw his beer cans out the truck window because the highway had already destroyed the lands through which it passed.  He took his television outside and shot it.  Trying to pin down his philosophy was as difficult as finding standing water in the desert, a purposeful complexity.  “What do I believe in?” he wrote.  “I believe in sun.  In rock.  In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock.  I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses….”

And when the end came, on March 14, 1989, he finished things the way he wanted.  As agreed earlier, friends wrapped him in a sleeping bag and drove him out into the desert, iced down for the journey.  They buried him, un-embalmed, at an unknown and unmarked site in the desert—an illegal act—completing his desire to become fertilizer for whatever the desert wished to grow from his remains.

References:

Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Edward Abbey, American Author.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-Abbey.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

Harden, Blaine.  2002.  A Friend, Not a Role Model; Remembering Edward Abbey, Who Loved Words, Women, Beer and the Desert.  The New York Times, April 29, 2002.  Available at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/29/books/friend-not-role-model-remembering-edward-abbey-who-loved-words-women-beer-desert.html.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

Leonard, Brendan.  2016.  The 23 Best Ed Abbey Quotes.  Adventure Journal, November 1, 2016.  Available at:  https://www.adventure-journal.com/2016/11/23-best-ed-abbey-quotes/.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

Wilderness Connect.  Edward Abbey:  Freedom Begins Between the Ears.  Available at:  http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/Abbey.  Accessed January 29, 2018.

Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)

Today millions of young boys and girls are members of scouting organizations.  It all began with the publication of the book, Scouting for Boys, by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, on January 24, 1908.

The cover of the first edition of Scouting for Boys, with illustration drawn by the author

Baden-Powell was born in London on February 22, 1857.  He spent much of his early life playing in the woods around his home, learning about nature and what was then called wood-craft—how to make-do with the materials that nature provided and how to sustain life away from industrialized society. He wrote that “… in my spare time as a schoolboy I did a good lot of scouting in the woods in the way of snaring rabbits and cooking them, observing birds and tracking animals, and so on.”

Baden-Powell left school and joined the British army, serving in India and South Africa for 34 years.  His time in South Africa added to his understanding of nature and survival in the wilderness, while actually performing duties as a military scout. He became famous for his defense of his garrison and the town of Mafeking in the Second Boer War during a 217-day siege over 1899-1900.  He returned to England and retired as a Major-General in 1910,a much decorated and renowned war hero.

Robert Baden-Powell in South Africa in 1896 (photo by Francis Henry Hart, from National Portrait Gallery)

As his career progressed, he put his extensive knowledge of wood-craft and scouting to work in a series of books.  In 1884, he published his first book, called Reconnaissance and Scouting, intended to instruct soldiers and other adults in essential military skills. He published 32 books in all, but the one that started a worldwide phenomenon was Scouting  for Boys, that appeared on January 24, 1908.

Scouting for Boys translated Baden-Powell’s knowledge into lessons designed to give boys a taste of adventure and lots of advice for living honorable and satisfying lives.  He wrote:  “I knew that every true red-blooded boy is keen for adventure and open-air life, and so I wrote this book to show you how it could be done even in a civilized country like England.”  The book was an instant success.  It taught boys how to interact with nature:

“I have said the ‘hunting’ or ‘going after big game is one of the best things in scouting’. I did not say shooting or killing the game was the best part; for as you get to study animals you get to like them more and more, and you will soon find that you don’t want to kill them for the mere sake of killing.”

It also taught lessons for self-improvement:

“A boy who is accustomed to sleep with his window shut will probably suffer, like many a tenderfoot has done, by catching cold and rheumatism when he first tries sleeping out. The thing is always to sleep with your windows open, summer and winter, and you will never catch cold… A soft bed and too many blankets make a boy dream bad dreams, which weakens him.”

“No boy ever began smoking because he liked it but because he thought it made him look like a grown-up man. As a matter of fact it generally makes him look a little ass.”

            Baden-Powell ran an experimental adventure camp for boys in 1907, and the idea caught on.  Only two years later, in 1909, he held the first National Scout Rally drawing 11,000 boys.  Along with his sister, Agnes, he started a similar group for girls, known in England as Girl Guides.  Since then, of course, the organization has gone world-wide.  In the U.S. alone, about 2.4 million boys and 1.8 million girls participate in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, respectively.  Although participation has fallen over the past decade, scouting remains a dominant youth activity in American culture.

And why not?  As Robert Baden-Powell said, “Life without adventure would be deadly dull.”

References:

Biography online.  Lord Baden-Powell Biography.  Available at:  https://www.biographyonline.net/humanitarian/baden-powell.html.  Accessed January 24, 2018.

Rohrer, Finlo.  2007.  What would Baden-Powell do?  BBC News, 27July 2007.  Available at:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6918066.stm.  Accessed January 24, 2018.

Scouts.  Lord Baden-Powell.  Available at:  http://scouts.org.uk/about-us/heritage/lord-baden-powell/.  Accessed January 24, 2018.

The Guardian.  2013.  Baden-Powell’s introduction to Scouting for Boys.  Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/31/baden-powell-scouts-for-boys.  Accessed January 24, 2018.

Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)

Sweden became the first country to regulate the use of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) when it banned their use in aerosols on January 23, 1978.  Other countries followed, including the U.S., leading to the eventual worldwide ban known as the Montreal Protocol.

Aerosol spray cans used CFCs as propellants (photo by T3rminatr)

Like so many chemicals produced after World War II, , CFCs seemed like miracle compounds.  They were cheap and easy to make, and were inert, non-toxic and non-flammable.  They were widely used as propellants in aerosol spray cans, as plastic foams sprayed for insulation, as solvents for cleaning electrical components, and as refrigerants in air conditioning units for buildings and vehicles.  Their use grew rapidly throughout the post-war era of booming prosperity.

But another outcome of post-war technology proved their undoing.  By the 1970s, scientists developed remote sensing tools that could detect chemicals in the stratosphere. Scientists discovered that various forms of CFCs were present at high altitudes and that the compound’s presence reduced ozone concentrations.  Lower ozone concentrations increased UV radiation reaching the earth, resulting in increased incidence of skin cancer and cataracts in humans.  Even more important, CFCs remained in the atmosphere for up to a century before degrading.

The ozone hole in 2013; it is now shrinking (illustration by NASA Goddard Space Center)

These worrying findings began a series of decisions by nations around the world, starting with Sweden in January, 1978.  Canada, Norway and Denmark quickly enacted their own bans. The U.S. acted to regulate “non-essential” uses of CFCs in March, 1978, to be implemented that December.  Other European nations followed suit, and in 1980, the European Economic Community (now the EU) placed limits of CFC production and use.

Ongoing studies showed that ozone losses in the stratosphere were worse than thought and that an “ozone hole” had developed over the Antarctic.  As worldwide concern over ozone depletion grew, the world agreed to a strategy for controlling what are now called ODS—ozone-depleting substances.  The Montreal Protocol, as it is known, came into force on January 1, 1989.

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, said, “Perhaps the single most successful international environmental agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol.”  As evidence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited in 2017 that 45 million cases of cataracts and 280 million cases of skin cancer have been avoided—and that 1.6 million American lives have been saved because of the regulation of ODS.  In total, the regulation of these chemical compounds has produced $4.2 trillion in societal health benefits in the United States.  The ozone hole is declining regularly, and EPA estimates that ozone levels in the atmosphere will return to pre-1980 levels by 2050.

References:

Byrd, Deborah.  2015.  This date in science:  Sweden goes first to ban aerosol sprays.  EarthSky, January 23, 2015.  Available at:  http://earthsky.org/earth/this-date-in-science-sweden-goes-first-to-ban-aerosol-sprays.  Accessed January 23, 2018.

Morrisette, Peter M.  1989.  The Evolution of Policy Responses to Stratospheric Ozone Depletion.  Natural Resources Journal 29:793-820.  Available at: http://www.ciesin.org/docs/003-006/003-006.html.  Accessed January 23, 2018.

US Environmental Protection Agency.  2017.  Stratospheric Ozone Protection—30 Years of Progress and Achievements.  Available at:  https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-11/documents/mp30_report_final_12.pdf.  Accessed January 23, 2018.

Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)

The first Gulf War lasted for just a few weeks in early 1991, as American military forces overwhelmed Iraqi troops that had invaded Kuwait.  But, as the Iraq army was driven out of Kuwait, they committed unforgivable large-scale environmental sabotage—they set the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire.

Beginning on January 22, 1991, retreating Iraqi forces set oil wells on fire in Kuwait.  By the time they were done, more than 700 oil wells were ablaze, burning an estimated 6 million barrels (250 million gallons) of oil per day—more than 40 billion gallons of oil were released in total.  A few days later, on January 25, Iraqi forces also sabotaged Kuwait’s coastal oil facilities, causing the release of 8 million barrels (336 million gallons) into the Persian Gulf.

US Air Force fighters fly over the Kuwaiti oil fires (photo by US Air Force)

Stopping the fire was a Herculean effort.  Not only did the retreating army start the fires, they also placed land mines around many wells, assuring long delays before firefighters could approach the fires.  Most of the fires were put out in an ingenious way—repairing the oil pipelines that went from the wells to the sea and then pumping water in reverse to the wells so that it could be used to douse the fires.  Other fires were put out by regular oil firefighting companies, like that of the famous Red Adair.The last fires were extinguished in November, 1991, ten months after the conflagration began.

And a conflagration it was.  The entire region was engulfed in black smoke.  Average temperatures fell by 10 degrees Centigrade because sunlight could not penetrate the smoke cloud.  “Black rain” fell for months, as far away as Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan. An estimated 5% of the land surface of Kuwait was covered by thick deposits of oil and soot, forming an asphalt-like layer (termed “tarcrete”) which remains today.  More than 200 oil lakes accumulated spilled oil, some as deep as six feet.  In the Persian Gulf itself, sea birds perished in the thousands, oil coated miles of seashore, and oil slicks developed that were many miles in area.  Humans immediately experienced respiratory distress, and cases of oil-related cancer continued to develop in succeeding years.

Remains of a bird encased in “tarcrete” on the Kuwaiti landscape, 2009 (photo by Aljawad)

A U.S. diplomatic staff member described flying over the site:

“As we approached the fields, even through the thick smoke, you could see the huge tongues of fires burning out of the wells. The starkness of that image became even clearer as we flew between clouds and could see the ground clearly. It looked like the earth had opened up and volcanoes had sprung up everywhere. It was incredible; I have never seen nor hope to see again such horror.”

The cost of the environmental cleanup has been estimated at $40 billion. Time Magazine in 2010 rated the Kuwati oil fires as the third worst environmental disaster in history (exceeded only by Chernobyl and Bhopal).

References:

Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.  Towering Infernos – The Kuwait Oil Fires.  Available at:  http://adst.org/2016/04/towering-infernos-the-kuwait-oil-fires/#.WmZZtqinFRY.  Accessed January 22, 2018.

Chilcote, Ryan.  2003.  Kuwait still recovering from Gulf War fires.  CNN world.  Available at:  http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/01/03/sproject.irq.kuwait.oil.fires/.  Accessed January 22, 2018.

Counterspill.  Gulf War Oil Disaster.  Available at:  http://www.counterspill.org/disaster/gulf-war-oil-disaster.  Accessed January 23, 2018.

McLaren, Duncan, and Ian Willmore.  2003.  The environmental damage of war in Iraq.  The Guardian, 18 Jan 2003.  Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jan/19/iraq5.  Accessed January 22, 2018.

PBS.  Gulf War Curriculum Guide.  PBS, Beyond Broadcast Curriculum Guide.  Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/teach/gulfguide/gwtimeline.html.  Accessed January 22, 2018.

The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)

The Wilderness Society, America’s largest and foremost advocate for preserving wilderness, was founded on January 21, 1935.  Since then, The Wilderness Society has grown to being the voice for “1 million wilderness supporters.”

Bob Marshall in camping gear

The Wilderness Society was the dream of Bob Marshall (learn more), who was the head of recreation and lands for the U.S. Forest Service in the mid-1930s.  He had prepared a draft of his ideas for such an organization and had shared them with several colleagues.  In October, 1934, Marshall and three friends were driving to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Tennessee when the talk of the new society grew intense.  They pulled to the roadside and discussed Marshall’s draft in detail, vowing to make this new group happen.

They gathered four more supporters, including Aldo Leopold, and met at Washington’s famous Cosmos Club in January, 1935, to finalize their plans.  After two days of intense discussion, they all agreed, on January 21, to the structure and purpose of the new organization, to be called The Wilderness Society.  They declared:  “All we desire to save from invasion is that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smells.” Bob Marshall, the original champion of the group, died unexpectedly in 1938 at the young age of 38, but he had prepared well to keep his dream alive—Marshall was a wealthy bachelor, and he left a sizable portion of his estate to support the new society.

Since then, the impact of The Wilderness Society on American conservation has been extraordinary.  They fought continuously for new parks that would include “primitive areas,” long before the concept of wilderness had been codified.  The group’s first and most important victory was passage of The Wilderness Act in (read more), which established definitions of wilderness and a mechanism for declaring and  managing wilderness areas regardless of which federal agency had ownership of the lands and water. “A wilderness,” the Act states, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  As part of the act’s passage, 54 areas totaling 9.1 million acres were designated as wilderness

Since then, we have never stopped adding more areas.  The U.S. has protected 109 million acres of wilderness—5% of the U.S. land surface.  The total area is dispersed among 765 separate areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico.  The areas are managed by four U.S. land management agencies, including the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

The U.S. has the largest national wilderness program in the world, holding about one-third of the entire globe’s designated wilderness.  The top five countries in the world for wilderness area are, in order, the U.S., Canada, Botswana, Mongolia and Australia.

References:

Aplet, Greg, and Jerry Greenberg.  1996.  The Wilderness Society – Advocating for Wilderness in Changing Times.  International Journal of Wilderness 2(3):31-33.  Available at:  http://www.wilderness.net/library/documents/aplet.pdf.  Accessed January 18, 2018.

Environment & Society Portal.  The Wilderness Society founded.  Available at:  http://www.environmentandsociety.org/tools/keywords/wilderness-society-founded.  Accessed January 18, 2018.

The Wilderness Society,  2017.  For Our Wild, The Wilderness Society’s 2016 Annual Report.  Available at:  https://wilderness.org/sites/default/files/TWS_AR_2016_LowResSingles_0.pdf.  Accessed January 18, 2018.

Penguin Appreciation Day

Who are the comedic stars of the bird world?  Penguins, of course!  Stars of the big screens, they wear tuxedos, wobble when they walk, and their feathers stick out of their heads like clowns.  Today is a good day to think about penguins—Penguin Appreciation Day!

The origin of Penguin Appreciation Day is lost in history, but that hasn’t slowed down the message:  Penguins may be adorable but they are also fascinating examples of adaptation to harsh environments.  So, here’s some information to help you appreciate them more.

All penguins live in the southern hemisphere.  Galapagos Penguins push that definition, living basically on the Equator.  At the tip of the globe, Emperor Penguins live deep in Antarctica, braving temperatures that can fall as low as -40 degrees Centigrade.   Penguins live everywhere in between these extremes and on all the continents of the southern oceans, including South America, Africa and Australia.

Chinstrap Penguin (photo by Andrew Shiva)

The number of penguin species is up for debate among scientists, but 16-19 species is the usual range, distributed among 6 genera.  As more DNA evidence comes in, some species get combined, others get split apart.   At the moment, a big question is whether the Royal Penguin is just a differently colored Macaroni Penguin.  And perhaps the Rockhopper Penguin is actually two or more species.

The largest is the Emperor Penguin, checking in at more than 40 inches tall and weighing as much as 80 pounds.  At the opposite end is the Little Penguin (also known as the Fairy Penguin), weighing less than 3 pounds and standing a diminutive 13 inches tall.

The most common penguin is the Macaroni species, distributed on islands throughout the southern oceans.  More than 11 million Macaroni Penguins exist.  The least common is the Galapagos Penguin—only a few thousand exist, and they are endangered, just as most other species are that live in the Galapagos Archipelago.

Today, all penguins are protected by the Antarctic Treaty, first signed in 1959.   The treaty prohibits harming penguins in any way, including hunting or collecting eggs.  Collection for scientific or conservation purposes is allowed only by special permit.

Penguins are fundamentally aquatic animals.  They spend most of their time in the water, feeding on invertebrates and small fish.  They generally stay near the surface, where their food also lives.  Their dives are typically short, no more than a minute or two. Penguins come ashore to molt and to reproduce, nesting on land or ice, often in large colonies.

a group of Fairy Penguins make their way ashore on Phillips Island, Australia (photo by phillipsislandtourism)

They are expert swimmers, using their adapted wings as flippers to “fly” through the water. Adele Penguins are the sprinters of the clan, reaching speeds of 20 miles per hour.  Unlike most birds, which have hollow bones that make flying easier, penguins have solid bones, which reduce their buoyancy and make diving easier.

But most of all, they are just plain cute!

References:

Penguinworld (website).  Available at:  http://www.penguinworld.com/index.php.  Accessed January 19, 2017.

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.  Animal information:  Penguin.  Available at:  https://seaworld.org/en/animal-info/animal-infobooks/penguin.  Accessed January 19, 2017.

Acadia National Park Established (1929)

Acadia National Park, on the Maine coast, was established on January 19, 1929.  The park, which today covers more than 47,000 acres, covers a substantial portion of Mount Desert Island and a number of islands in the surrounding region.  The park hosted more than 3.3 million visitors in 2017, placing it in the top 10% of all National Park Service units.

Acadia began as Sieur de Monts National Monument, dedicated in 1916, becoming the first national park unit on the Atlantic seaboard.  Unlike many national parks that have always been property owned by the federal government, Acadia started out as private lands.  The park owes its existence to the persistent efforts of George B. Dorr, who fostered the creation, expansion and maintenance of the park for decades.

George B. Dorr (courtesy of National Park Service archives)

George Dorr was born to a wealthy Boston family in 1853.  Like many northeasterners at the time, the family vacationed on Mount Desert Island.  The striking beauty of the area had been made famous by the most well-known landscape painters, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, attracting big-city residents seeking a peaceful refuge from their hectic lives.  The rounded mountains, carved by the last glaciation, are interspersed with bare rock surfaces and gnarled evergreens.  Native Abnaki Indians called the island “Pemetic,” meaning sloping land.  When French explorer Champlain ran aground in the area in the early 1600s, he called the island “Isles des Monts Desert,” or Island of Barren Mountains.  George Dorr appreciated its singular beauty, as he wrote in 1916:

“There is nothing like it elsewhere on the continent. A noble mass of ancient granite that once bore up a dominating Alpine height on its broad shoulders has been laid bare by time immeasurable and carved into forms of bold and striking beauty by recent ice-sheet grinding. This granite mass, surrounded broadly by the ocean as the coast has sunk, constitutes with its ice-worn peaks and gorges and intervening lakes the national monument.”

The glacier-made rocky landscape of Acadia National Park (photo by Larry Nielsen)

Dorr fell in love with the island on childhood vacations and moved there permanently as a young man.  Wealthy and a lover of nature, he never married—dedicating his life instead to the preservation of the land that obsessed him.  Fearing that the island would be overtaken by commercial lumbering and unbridled tourism, he formed a land conservancy in 1913 that bought 6,000 acres.  He donated the land to the federal government, and on July 8, 1916, Sieur de Monts National Monument was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.  A few years later—spurred by the incessant lobbying of George Dorr—Congress and President Wilson re-designated the monument as Lafayette National Park.  Then, on January 19, 1929, the park was renamed Acadia.  Dorr was made superintendent of the park and worked unceasingly for its benefit until his death in 1944.

Over time, the park has expanded from the original 6,000 acres to its current size of nearly 48,000 acres, all through donations and purchases of private lands.  The park makes extensive use of conservation easements, by which private landowners guarantee that their lands will remain wild and natural.  These easements cover dozens of islands, large and small in the surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and continue to increase the national treasure of the Acadia region.

The mystic beauty of Acadia (photo by Larry Nielsen)

References:

Dorr, George B.  1916.  The Sieur de Monts National Monument.  US Government Printing Office.  Available at:  http://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1089&context=mainehistory.  Accessed January 18, 2017.

Hartford, George A.  Mount Desert Island, Maine.  Available at:  http://www.acadiamagic.com/MountDesert.html.  Accessed January 18, 2017.

National Park Service.  George B. Dorr.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/people/george-b-dorr.htm.  Accessed January 18, 2017.

National Park Service.  History of Acadia.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/acad/learn/historyculture/history-of-acadia.htm.  Accessed January 18, 2017.

White Sands National Monument Created (1933)

My atlas shows a long narrow rectangle in purple, extending from the southern border of central New Mexico to the north for about 150 miles.  The purple rectangle is the White Sands Missile Range, and buried inside it is the White Sands National Monument, a place of natural beauty like none other in the world.

The white “sands” are gypsum crystals (photo by Larry Nielsen)

White Sands National Monument was established by President Herbert Hoover on January 18, 1933.  Hoover did so to protect “the white sands and additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest.”  He got that right.  The 142,987-acre national monument features a portion of the world’s largest gypsum crystal “sand dune.”  The white sand dune (not sand, but gypsum crystals—the stuff that dry-wall is made of) is 275 square miles in extent; the next largest is 3 square miles!  About half of the dune itself is in the national monument, the rest is in the missile range.

The region has seen waves of habitation for at least 10,000 years.  Nomadic peoples hunted the area when it was covered in grasslands.  When the post-ice-age climate changed, the land dried up, as did human use.  About 1800 years ago, Native American farmers came to the area, only to disappear as had previous inhabitants.  Starting about 700 years ago, Native American Apache groups colonized the arid, unforgiving environment; their descendants remain.

But it is hard to scrape a living from the dry, wind-blown landscape.  Repeated attempts to farm, ranch or mine by Spanish colonists and American pioneers have failed to stake a permanent claim at white sands.  The U.S. government has found a use, however—as a distant, isolated, barely inhabited place to develop and test long-range weapons.  The northern end of the White Sands Missile Range holds the “Trinity Site,” where the first atomic bomb was detonated in tests on July 16, 1945.  The Army tests rockets there to this day, with many successful spacecraft having flown first above these white dunes.

Thanks to President Hoover, a significant portion of the white gypsum dunes are protected as a unique ecosystem and a recreational haven.  More than 800 animal species reside there, most of them nocturnal.  Sometimes called the “Desert Galapagos,” White Sands is home to a variety of white reptiles and insects that have adapted—and are adapting—to the hot, bright days and cold nights of the region.  One unique species is the White Sands pupfish, that survives in four isolated populations in spring fed ponds and streams.

Most recreation at White Sands is for day use only, as the environment is unrelentingly harsh.  Facilities in the park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, graceful stone picnic shelters that remind us of the great legacy of conservation that grew from the Great Depression.  A favorite outdoor activity is sand-dune sledding, with inexpensive saucer sleds for sale in the park gift shop—it is great fun (I’ve done it!).  From an initial annual visitation of 12,000 in 1933, now more than half a million visitors enjoy the park every year.

A sled run down a white sand dune is exhilarating–and allowed!

References:

Block, Melissa, and Elissa Nadworny.  2017.  Photos: The cream, Sculpted dunes Of White Sands National Monument.  NPR special series:  Our Land.  April 9, 2017.  Available at:  https://www.npr.org/2017/04/09/520874659/photos-the-creamy-sculpted-dunes-of-white-sands-national-monument.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

Conrod, William and Erica Bree Rosenblum.  2008.  A Desert Galapagos.  Natural History Magazine, May 2008, pages 16-18.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/nature/upload/Desert_Galapagos_-287KB_PDF.pdf.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

National Park Service.  White Sands National Monument.  Available at: https://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm.  Accessed January 17, 2018

Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)

Benjamin Franklin was a lot of things—inventor, publisher, scientist, diplomat, framer of the Declaration of Independence.  But, some argue, he was also America’s first environmentalist.  You be the judge.

Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 (died 1790).  He had little formal education, but learned wherever he went.  As an apprentice printer, he learned the business and became a successful publisher in Philadelphia.  He eventually published Poor Richard’s Almanack, filled with pithy quotes and also with astute observations about weather, forests, farms and oceans (Exhibit 1, a fundamental interest in his environment).

Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Duplessis, 1778.

As he prospered, he became a leading citizen of Philadelphia.  By the time he was 42, he was wealthy enough to retire and focus on civic matters, science and inventing.  Most famous for his experiments with electricity, he also studied meteorology and the ocean (Exhibit 2, a natural history interest).  His study of the Gulf Stream provided navigators a new strategy for crossing the Atlantic, cutting two weeks off the round-trip.

He is well known for his interest in energy conservation (Exhibit 3).  His invention of the Franklin stove provided more heat while using less fuel.  He also promoted improved chimneys to reduce exposure to smoke within homes.  He invented a four-sided street lamp to replace the spherical lamps that were common.  Spherical lamps had poor air circulation that caused inefficient burning of the oil fuel, leading to soot on the lamps that needed to be cleaned daily and excessive smoke emitted into the air—another contribution to energy conservation and air quality.

To be the nation’s first environmentalist, a person should have an interest in the most fundamental of natural resources—water.  One of his most famous aphorisms is “When the well is dry, we know the value of water.”  Franklin knew the value of clean water and the need for society to protect its purity.  In 1739, along with a group of fellow citizens, he petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop tanneries from dumping their wastes into public water supplies, asserting the rights of the public over excessive private actions (Exhibit 4, a commitment to public health).  They won their appeal, but, alas, a lack of enforcement allowed the pollution to continue.

The Franklin stove (actually a fireplace insert) that improved the heat and fuel efficiency (photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 1760s, he led a commission in Philadelphia to improve waste collection and reduce water pollution (Exhibit 5, a willingness to perform public service for environmental matters).  Even more generous, he left a substantial amount in his will to build a pipeline to bring clean water into central Philadelphia.  That project led to the creation of the Philadelphia Water Commission.

He didn’t get everything right, but he was sure trying.  For example, while living in England and representing the Philadelphia colony during 1757-1775, Franklin encouraged England to switch fuel to improve the environment.  Forests had largely disappeared in England, due to their overharvest for all manner of use, including burning as fuel.  Franklin promoted the use of coal as a substitute fuel, a dubious strategy today, but then one advanced to save the endangered forest (Exhibit 6, an understanding of biodiversity conservation).

So, is the case convincing that Benjamin Franklin was America’s first environmentalist?  Perhaps not the first, but surely one of them.  More than anything, I believe Frnaklin’s interest in the environment shows that men and women of thought and conscience, today and yesterday, include a healthy environment among our most important and cherished priorities.

References:

Fabricius, Karl.  2008.  Environmentalism in 1739.  Scribol.com.  Available at:  http://scribol.com/anthropology-and-history/cultures/environmentalism-in-1739/.  Accessed January 17,2018.

History.com.  Benjamin Franklin.  Available at:  http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/benjamin-franklin.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

Simenauer, Lauren.  2011.  What Would Ben Franklin Do?  Influences of America’s First Environmentalist.  Science Progress, November 20, 2011.  Available at:  https://scienceprogress.org/2011/11/what-would-ben-franklin-do/.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

National Houseplant Appreciation Day

So, it’s a stretch.  National Houseplant Day may not be a biggee in the history of conservation.  But just think for a moment what good things houseplants do for us.

African violet (photo by Bff)

Houseplants actually improve your indoor environment, an example of how nature and humans work together.  They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, making it easier to breathe (but keep them out of the bedroom, because at night they do the opposite—suck up your oxygen and double down on carbon dioxide).  They are nature’s humidifiers, delivering moisture to the air—especially needed during these cold, dry days of confinement during the winter.  A NASA study has revealed that plants can strip up to 87% of noxious compounds out of the air in a day.

And we can eat them.  We have a large rosemary plant in our house; just break off a sprig and add it to whatever is cooking.  Add a little dill, sage and thyme—and you’ve got a spice cabinet growing in your kitchen (not to mention the stimulus for a Simon and Garfunkel earworm).

But let’s be serious for a moment.  According to the late Yale professor (and my long-time friend) Stephen Kellert, natural elements in the human environment are not only good for us, but essential for us.  We are inherently natural creatures, and our migration into the built environment of cities is too recent to have rinsed away our affiliation with nature.  Biophilia, he called it.  And when we don’t get enough exposure to nature, we suffer from NDD—Nature Deficit Disorder.

And there is lots of proof, summarized by Kellert and colleague Elizabeth F. Calabrese.  Hospital patients get better faster in hospital rooms with windows—or even murals of natural scenes.  Offices of cubicles in windowless rooms reduce productivity; add natural light, views to the outside, windows that open, and productivity soars.  Indoor plants, by themselves, can improve productivity by as much as 15%.   Kellert and Calabrese suggest adding these features to the human environment:  Images of nature, natural materials, natural colors, simulated natural light and air, naturalistic shapes and forms—and several others.  It’s just a more modern form of feng shui and vastu, the Chinese and Indian ideas of designing with nature.

A few years ago, I visited the home of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in Cambridge, England.  It is a collaborative of the famous university and several conservation groups, including IUCN.  The building itself is interesting, with a four-story green wall in its atrium, an astonishing bit of biophilic design.  What was more astonishing, at the opening of the building, named for renowned British conservationist, David Attenborough, the namesake himself entered the building by rappelling from the top to the bottom.

The green wall at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative building

So, on January 10, let’s give it up for the little green botanical pets that grace our homes and workplaces.  And don’t forget to water them!

References:

Calamia, Maureen K.  2011.  Why Plants Make Us Feel Good.  The Huffington Post, Oct 04, 2011.  Available at:  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/maureen-k-calamia/biophilia_b_917161.html.  Accessed January 15, 2018.

Kellert, Stephen.  2015.  Nature by Design:  the Practice of biophilic Design.  Human Spaces, June 2015.  Available at:  http://humanspaces.com/2015/06/01/nature-by-design-the-practice-of-biophilic-design/.  Accessed January 15, 2018.

National Today.  National Houseplant Appreciation Day – January 10.  Available at:  https://nationaltoday.com/national-houseplant-appreciation-day/.  Accessed January 15, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
January February March April May June July August September October November December