Note: This post originally appeared in the Bridgton News, July 2014.

It was about four years ago that I wrote an Earth Notes column from our new home in Bangor. We had just moved to a house on Brewer Lake and I described living on a lake for the first time. Even though I spent many hours on lakes conducting water quality monitoring with Lakes Environmental Association (LEA), there was something different about experiencing the daily rhythms of a lake.

Over the years, there were special moments that stand out: an otter hauled up on the ice; a garter snake tucked under a gnarled shoreline tree root; a funny-looking dandelion growing in historic lake-bottom clay; a sunrise over the water where I lost myself in the color orange. Sunrise on Brewer LakeBut the lake really took hold of me in the every day.  As I was writing my dissertation, with long, long hours spent at the computer, I would occasionally look up and out at the water to find a different landscape than the one I observed 3 pages before. The change could be subtle, produced by the sun moving across the sky or by a loon who floated into view. Sometimes the change was dramatic, especially during freeze and thaw, the liminal times of year when every moment offers the promise of a radical difference. Over time, Brewer Lake taught me about change, how to stay present in a moment when the whole world shifts.

Time for change. Last weekend, Brian and I moved out of our home on the lake. After 4 years of commuting, we decided it was time to live within biking distance to Orono. I feel the place where Brewer Lake took hold as a slight tightness in the space between my lungs above my heart. I notice this place, this bodily affect, when I remember that I no longer live there. It is becoming a more familiar feeling in this life of permanent change.

More change. Lakes are sometimes described as jewels on our landscape. I used to think of them this way too, because they are so precious and so shining. Having lived on one, this metaphor no longer fits my experience. Jewels are too solid, too stable, too resistant to change. As Nietzsche once said, all language is inescapable metaphor for how we create our experience of the world. So what is a lake if not a jewel? For me, a lake is a gathering place, a dynamic coming-together where the world is made in a bodily ecology, one that includes humans but does not put us at the center. A lake is not a jewel in our landscape but a material participant in the collective gathering.

When a lake changes, everything changes. John Muir was right to notice the interconnected threads of our universe. We notice these threads more in times of dramatic change. The ice must freeze before we can skate, ski, or ride our favorite snowmobile routes. The lake freezing is a change that allows these other materials to gather together, like skates on ice. One needs the other to become itself. If you have tried to skate on grass, you know this is true.Kayak

These daily, seasonal, yearly variations are so expected that we don’t always appreciate the dramatic ways our lives shift in response. We go from skaters to swimmers in the course of a few short months. We are so drawn together in this ever-shifting ecology that the difference becomes routine. But what of a change we might not expect? What happens when we cross a so-called tipping point where new materials, like phosphorus or milfoil, enter the scene causing irreversible change? How does the lake, as gathering place, draw us into new arrangements as the world makes itself different? What new threads ravel together and which begin to fray?

In the Lakes Region, we don’t know the answer to these questions. Staff at LEA are trying to figure this out and, more importantly, trying to find ways to work with lakes and with many others, to prevent this kind of material change from happening. But much like we could never hold a lake in our hand like we can with a jewel, we’ll never be able to control change. The world just doesn’t work that way. Allowing ourselves to be gathered by lakes, with lakes, in our mutual becoming, we might find ways to change together sustainably.

Collaboration for Conservation: A model from the Maine coast

Note: This post originally appeared in the Bridgton News, February 2014.


The Frenchman Bay Partners is a group on the coast of Maine that has adopted a collaborative approach to conservation action planning (CAP). The Partners consist of scientists, business owners, representatives from municipal and state governments, clam and mussel harvesters, aquaculturalists, fishermen, university professors, and citizens. A full list of Partners and their affiliations is available on the website.

I have been a Partner for the last three years and my role has been to study and help to strengthen their collaborative conservation efforts. During this time, I have come to recognize the value of CAP and its potential utility for organizations in the greater Lakes Region area. The planning process follows stages in which participants prioritize focal areas for conservation, identify threats to these areas, develop strategies to address threats, and set goals that allow groups to measure their progress against defined benchmarks. CAP was originally developed by organizations including the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and others associated with the Conservation Measures Partnership. While this process has been around for more than a decade, few groups are approaching it as a strategic collaboration and even fewer are studying the impacts of the collaboration on changes in communities and environments.

The Partners got started in 2010 with a series of meetings in which they invited people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to become involved. They defined their mission to promote the ecological and economic resilience of the Bay. In the first phase of their planning, they held focus groups and planning sessions in which they identified their primary social and ecological focal areas, including intertidal mudflats, ocean bottom habitat, eel grass, migratory fishes, and working waterfront. For each of these areas, the group sought input from people with local and expert knowledge to understand current and historic status and threats like sources of water pollution, unsustainable but legal fishing practices, and invasive species.

In light of these threats, the group prioritized key conservation objectives. I have been most directly involved in efforts to open 610 acres of closed clam flats in the Bay.  These are potentially productive clam flats that have been closed due to pollution sources like failing septic systems, agricultural run-off, and regulated overboard discharges (which are small-scale wastewater treatment structures for individual landowners and a lower cost option than full septic replacement). The Partners are working with the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Committee to find ways to open closed clam flats. We received a grant from the Maine Community Foundation to support this work and are in the process of scoping out the status of known pollution sources and the abundance of clams in the closed areas so we can prioritize where we focus our efforts. This is one of several examples of how the CAP process is helping this group make measurable progress towards accomplishing their mission.DSC_0005

CAP may use a conceptual modeling software called Miradi that is available for free online. This software has a steep learning curve and requires a lot of information at each stage, from focal area identification to threat assessment to goal setting in the creation of “results chains”. But in our experience, the opportunities in using it far outweigh these few challenges. The software can help groups strategically identify conservation priorities. It provides a focal point around which people can organize and grow their collaborations. The software also promotes learning, as people with different types of expertise can combine their knowledge about the ecology and community of a region.

My research with this group has shown that through the CAP process the Partners have improved their social networks, created shared identities in the Bay, promoted ecological learning, and found ways to resolve conflict among people who work the tides in different ways. All of these changes are helping the Partners achieve their resilience mission and promoting their ability to respond to future changes in climate and species composition. The Frenchman Bay Partners provide a model for how other groups might adopt this approach for strategic improvements to communities, economies, and ecologies.


Resilience Thinking in the Lakes Region

This post originally appeared in the Earth Notes column of the Bridgton News, June 27, 2013.

Resilience is a concept that is emerging as a way to think about protecting ecosystems and human well-being. In my resilience research at UMaine, I have come to see resilience as a useful lens to think about how to make the abstract idea of sustainability tangible and accessible. Sustainability, as I understand it, is not an endpoint but a process:  always relational, sometimes contested, and in a perpetual mode of becoming real. Resilience, in partnership with sustainability, helps organize relationships to work across difference and guide the emergence of sustainability. One of the most important parts of resilience thinking is a commitment to building adaptive capacities. We improve adaptive capacities by strengthening social networks; promoting learning among individuals and organizations; and building flexible and collaborative institutions, among other strategies. Social networks, social learning, and flexible institutions enhance our abilities to respond in the face of uncertainty and change, such as changes brought on by a destabilized climate, degradation of water quality, or opportunities for innovation like developing and installing alternative energy technologies. We need each other in times of change.Bog in spring

From a resilience thinking perspective, the greater Lakes Region is well on its way to growing the kinds of adaptive capacities necessary for sustainability. This progress is based, in large part, on the non-profit organizations in the area who bring people together for community development projects; provide education programs on topics of interest and concern; and who work as collaborative capacity builders among education, civic, business, and other institutions.  I selected five non-profit organizations (listed in alphabetical order) who are improving our ecosystems, human well-being, and collective resilience. For each, I highlight one event that exemplifies their resilience-thinking approach and also provides a unique opportunity to become involved this summer.

Through the evening natural history programs and the volunteer docent-led guided walks, the Greater Lovell Land Trust (GLLT) exemplifies what a group can do when many people volunteer their time and expertise. Nature in 3-D with Roger Richmond at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine on Friday, July 12th at 6 pm offers a view of nature impossible with the naked eye and a glimpse into the everyday wonder of ecosystems. This program will leave you with a renewed sense of why attention to sustainability and resilience is critically important in this complex and beautiful world we inhabit.

The Kezar Lake Watershed Association (KLWA) is working at the front edge of several pressing water-related issues in the region, including serving as a watchdog for forestry projects around streams which serve as salmon spawning areas; raising awareness and actively preventing the spread of invasive aquatic plants; and, new this summer, promoting boating safety in response to recent accidents on local Maine lakes. Join them for a boating safety, fishing clinic and family fun day on Saturday, July 27th from 9 am to 3 pm at the Lovell VFW Hall.

Bridgton readers are no doubt familiar with Lakes Environmental Association (LEA), who for more than 40 years has taken a resilience thinking approach to lake protection. LEA is a forward-looking group with a vision for a Lake Science Center which will grow its education and research capacity for improved decision making in the face of potentially dramatic landscape change in the coming decades. To learn more about this vision, join LEA for its annual meeting at on Thursday, August 15th from 5 to 8 pm (location TBD). LEA’s annual meetings are like a family reunion with good food and friends and usually in a lakeside setting where it is easy to remember why creative visioning is essential to the process of sustainability.

The Loon Echo Land Trust’s (LELT) Hike and Bike trek on Saturday, September 21st is an important fundraiser for this group’s extensive land protection work, but it is more than that too. By drawing attention to the restorative and environmental benefits of human-powered motion, the Hike and Bike trek promotes a culture in which of multiple forms of alternative transportation is a more accessible option. When we ask the question: what do we want to sustain and how do we get there, finding safer, healthier, and less fossil-fuel reliant modes of transportation needs to be part of our answer and LELT is helping mark that path.

DSC_0081-001Finally, Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, NH is a leader in environmental education in New England. Their nature camp programs offer age-appropriate earth-based explorations for kids throughout their childhood. Through these enriching programs, Tin Mountain grows generations who understand the interconnections of all Earth systems and the human responsibility to steward them. Check out the Summer 2013 nature camp programs on their website and while you’re there, look for the many adult education programs they offer as well.

“Saving the planet” and “Making the world sustainable” are lofty ideals that leave me a little bewildered. These goals are set at a scale that is too high to comprehend and they also promote a sense that someday, we’ll get there and be done with it. Instead, sustainability continually emerges from communities where individuals are connected to one other and to the ecosystem that sustains them. Resilience begins when we show up with an open mind and a readiness to listen; a willingness to learn from difference; and a commitment to create a desired future together. These organizations are showing us what sustainability and resilience mean in practice and they invite you to join them to become part of this good work too.

Crab spider summer

This was a crab spider summer, thanks in part to my  yard that has finally come into its own after a five year experiment to let it wild itself, with a little help from seed collecting friends. This crab spider was busy eating a horsefly when I found it and then moved on to a Japanese beetle. Beauty not in manicured lawns but in complexity.

Watch and Receive

“Let Nature Be Your Teacher” is a much-loved refrain in the field of environmental education. The line comes from a William Wordsworth poem in which he directs readers to “Come forth into the light of things” by letting nature teach us. What does it mean to let nature be a teacher? In my search to answer this question, I uncovered at least two ways of thinking about this, both of which connect with another line in the Wordsworth poem in which he says, “Bring with you a heart, that watches and receives.”

I walk every day, partly for exercise but mainly because I love to walk. But my walks are actually more about sitting and I measure the distance not in miles but in sit spots. I either walk to my first sit spot (on an easy day) or my second sit spot (on an average day) or my third, fourth or fifth sit spots (on days when I could go forever).  One day this spring, I was sitting in one of my several spots in the woods on a sandy beach at Fields Pond in the late afternoon watching the pond grasses extend as reflection into the water when I became aware that I was not alone. I turned my head and met the gaze of a garter snake curled under the root of a tree staring at me as we both soaked up the sun. The snake was almost perfectly camouflaged with its brown and gray mottled bark scaly skin. In this one encounter, nature taught me that snakes (or at least one) bask there to carry body warmth through the night; that the root space was the perfect size for a large snake or other similarly sized creature; and that no matter where I am, I am never alone. From sitting in nature, I have learned the common fragility of dragonfly metamorphosis, the contrasting blue of hermit thrush eggs, the coordinated yips of coyotes calling across an open wetland at full moon rise and many more richly textured experiences. In this first thread, nature is teacher, literally. By cultivating a practice of sitting, we create a space for our heart to watch and receive and we allow nature to show up and teach us things.

In a second, and slightly more removed sense, nature like any good teacher helps us remember. Staying with the theme of garter snake, I recently found a dead one on the road. As far as I could tell, it had not been run over by a car and its body was still warm. I think a bird or cat may have killed and dropped it there. Because I use bones to teach the ecology of animals, I collected it, noticing as I lifted it off the pavement that its belly was swollen. From my previous research, I knew that some snakes bear live young and others lay eggs, but I could not remember which was true for garter snakes. The world is a complex place with lots of information to organize and remember. While I have read about garter snakes, this particular fact about their life history escaped me. That is, until I set the snake in a box to let it decompose so I could mount the skeleton. As flesh gave way to bone, multiple small spinal columns tumbled out and I knew then that garter snakes are viviparous, meaning they bear live young. Now that I have this embodied observation to attach to this fact, I will likely always remember this about garter snakes and carry a deeper awareness of who they are, what they do, and how they participate in the ecology of fields and forests. Nature provides a place to hang our memories, making things we read about real.

When we create a space in our lives for nature to teach, we learn more than we ever knew possible. If we are to preserve the stunning complexity in this assemblage of living and non-living parts through this era of human-induced global change, we must grow our understanding of how to achieve balance. Nature itself may bring the knowledge we need, if we learn to listen with our hearts.

Patches of Place

Early last spring, a curious yellow flower with a translucent stem popped up all over my yard in Orrington, which is just south of Bangor. They were everywhere, lining roadsides, covering ditches, and along the lakeshore. When I first noticed them, I gave them the very unscientific but fitting label “weird dandelions”. They looked just like dandelions, but not quite.

Within weeks, the yellow flowers produced fluffy white seeds, again like dandelions but fuzzier and not as fun to blow into the wind. The plant’s lily-pad shaped leaves emerged just as the flower stems folded and faded. It was about this time that I arrived at the April section of Mary Holland’s book Naturally Curious (by the way, when I was originally thinking about this Earth Notes column, I considered a book review of some of my favorite books and Holland’s was at the top of my list. Summary: one of the best natural history books ever written. If nature interests you, you’ll love this book). I turned to page 62 and there were my weird dandelions–yet Holland informed me that while these yellow flowers are similarly in the aster family, dandelions they are not. Their common name is coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, so-called because someone else likely looked at their lily-pad leaves during an era when colts’ feet were a more familiar object. I also learned from Holland, because this is the kind of interesting information she includes in her beautiful book, that coltsfoot is also known as clay flower. This proved to be a clue to a mystery I was about to unravel.

Coltsfoot leaves

What stumped me when I first saw this plant was that it was so common yet I had no idea what it was. I am by no means a botanist, but I have a pretty solid place-based knowledge of the plants in western Maine and I am relatively sure I have never seen coltsfoot in or around Bridgton (a letter to the editor would correct this perception if you happen to have it growing in your yard).

Why so common in one place and not another? Orrington is at roughly the same latitude as Bridgton. The climate is about the same and the forests are nearly identical. For an answer to this mystery, I turned my gaze dirt-ward. From the first days of our arrival in our new home, I noticed that the soils were decidedly different, with much more clay than the familiar sand and gravel till of inland Maine. Eleven thousand years ago, as the Laurentide ice sheet melted, my yard where the coltsfoot now grows was at the bottom of the ocean. The fine clay that gives coltsfoot its nickname settled out of the water during this time, while Bridgton stayed well above the tide.

When I realized the relationship between weird dandelions and different dirt, I felt a familiar sense: a connection to the place in which I now live. My story here is how the patches of a place become knitted into an awareness of the broader patterns of a landscape. When we notice the subtleties, we become attuned to changes across space and time. We find a weird little yellow flower and dig into its roots and in turn, it digs into ours. These simple patches of yellow flower and clay soil when stitched together remind us that everything has a story and it is a story of complexity and connections. But for all the complexity, the story of a place starts with a simple observation: I wonder… and the roots grow from there.

Greater Lovell Land Trust, Summer 2011

This post originally appeared in the Greater Lovell Land Trust Newsletter.

It was about this time last year that I was touring all of the GLLT properties with Kevin Harding as he worked to pass on his deep, place-based knowledge to me. He showed me the smooth-barked beech trees with the five-toed claw marks from repeated bear climbs and taught me place names like Otter Rocks and Moose Pond Bog.  We toured familiar sites at the top of Whiting Hill and made new discoveries where a fisher clawed into the base of a stump at the Kezar River Reserve. And what he didn’t have time to share, he included in a GPS inventory of Heald and Bradley Pond, which summer intern Parker Veitch took on as a project to eventually upload it to the website. My main goal this year was to work with Tom and the docents to maintain the integrity of the program that Kevin built with such care and skill. After this first year, there are several metrics by which I measure our success in this endeavor.

To start, we offered a full schedule and attendance at all of our programs was high, with an average of 37 attendees at the evening presentations and 12 participants in our guided walks. David Brown drew a crowd, as always, and shared his stories about the Brownfield Bog. Bonny Boatman offered three of her very popular programs. Attendees at both of her talks on the ruby throated humming bird learned that this little animal doesn’t walk, can fly backwards, and is nick-named “the rain bird” (you’ll have to do some research to find out why). She also presented on the bald eagle in a second children’s program at the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library. Lynda Thayer and Nancy Hart shared moose stories and stunning photographs, especially of the moose named “Twigs” because he appeared to have deer antlers! I gave a presentation on Nature’s Numbers, and as promised we did not use any calculators. Instead, we learned about fractals, Fibonacci numbers and the golden mean and how these mathematical patterns and numbers help us understand nature. Finally, Susan Sidwell encouraged us all to turn our attention to the plants and pollinators, both for their beauty and importance to the planet. In sum, more than 500 people joined us this summer out on the trail, investigating natural history, and learning about land protection at the annual meeting.

Docents are the heart of the GLLT’s education program. This year, we welcomed two new docents: Carol Gestwicki and Paula Hughes. The docents led walks on Wednesdays and Thursdays at nearly all of the GLLT properties. We started the summer with a special training on natural history interpretation with Dr. Jessica Leahy from the University of Maine, which guided the development of themes and content for the weekly walks. We ended the summer with a docent dinner graciously hosted by Dennis and Ellen Smith where we talked about the program and made plans for next year.

Bob and Susan Winship, Moira Yip, Dennis and Ellen Smith and Mary Adams created and installed a self-guided plant walk at Heald-Bradley leaving from the Flat Hill parking area. Look for the self-guided plant walk at the Kezar River Reserve next year and the permanent self-guided trail at the Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Preserve.

I also offered the natural history course again this year. On a beautiful August day, eight of us took to the woods to read the forested landscape at Heald-Bradley Ponds Reserve and search for animal sign at the Kezar River Reserve. Along the way, we discovered stone walls and cellar holes; evidence of glaciers, wind and rain; moose scat and raccoon tracks and much in between.

As much as we tried to keep things the same, we also added a few things this year. The GLLT now has a growing e-mail list-serve where we post upcoming programs, including guided walks, evening presentations and other things we think you might want to know about. If you are interested in joining this list, please send me an e-mail at We videotaped the summer lecture series, and our programs will be airing on Lake Region Television this winter. We will have copies available to borrow at the office. Finally, next summer look for two additional programs in the evening natural history series which will be co-sponsored by the Kezar Lake Watershed Association (KLWA) and will focus on lake and watershed-related topics.

I learned this year that the educator position is not a job that one person does alone. The GLLT education program is a community in which docents and participants come together to explore the natural world as a means for encouraging its conservation. I am grateful to have stepped into this community and I look forward to helping it grow in the coming years.