The initial order of business for the Bowdoin Naturalists — who met for the first time at 7 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning — was to make sure everyone present had a guidebook.
To each person who had gotten up for the pre-breakfast walk in the Bowdoin Pines, Zoe Wood ’18 lent one of her guides to wildflowers, mushrooms, trees and shrubs, or insects. Assistant Professor of Biology Patty Jones brought her own Sibley Guide to Trees.
For the next hour, the group ambled along a forest path, stopping frequently to determine whether a tree was a sugar maple or a red maple, to check out the devastation wreaked upon a tall pine tree by a bark beetle, or to smell the crisp scent of wintergreen from a broken yellow birch twig. Evergreen wood ferns were identified, as was vinca and partridge berry. Upcoming events include a nighttime insect walk, where the naturalists will use a blue light on a white sheet to attract moths.
The Bowdoin Naturalists, a student-led group founded by Wood with Lillian Bailey ’18 and David Anderson ’19, is just one of three relatively recent groups to form at Bowdoin that are focused on natural history or environmental issues. The other two are Field Note Friday and Enviro Lunch.
“I think it is a confluence of two things: increasing concern for the environment as we see the effects of climate change occurring around us, and a general desire to take the time to slow down.”
—Assistant Professor of Biology Patty Jones
Jones said these groups have likely come from people’s growing environmental worries as well as their yearning to step away, at least for a short time, from hectic lives. “I think that in the constant news cycle, amid the very fast paced digital life that we are in, we are craving some time to carefully observe the natural world and find some sense of place here in Maine by learning who the plants and animals are that we live with,” she said.
Field walks, she added, involve being outside, walking slowly, talking to friends, observing nature, puzzling over identifications, and experiencing the joy of learning a new species.
Field Note Friday
Elizabeth Halliday Walker and Shana Stewart Deeds, two lab instructors in the biology department, have begun leading a program for anyone in the community, including students, staff, faculty, and locals, called Field Note Friday. It falls on the third Friday of each month. Each time the group meets, they embark on an exploration of some aspect of local ecology, from mushrooms and trees to wildlife tracks.
“We wanted to give an opportunity to anyone who wants to learn about the place around them, to give them a sense of place,” Deeds said. She added that as an environmentalist and educator she also has a second objective: “You don’t conserve the things you don’t know anything about.”The first Field Note Friday of this semester, on Sept. 15, began with a quick Latin lesson, provided by Classics lecturer Michael Nerdahl. Before he dove into Latin taxonomy, he handed out a pronunciation guide. At the top of the paper, Nerdahl had pasted a photo of a furry cat named “Ghlaghghee the Cat,” which he explained was pronounced “fluffy.”
“I think a lot of people shy away from Latin but you can get a lot of information [about an organism or species] from Latin names, which is important for naturalists,” Deeds said.
Following Nerdahl’s brief lesson, the group turned to the theme of the Friday program: “The science and art of sketching nature.” Deeds and Walker shared their tips and recommended books before asking artist Barbara Putnam to speak about her practice of journaling and sketching. Putnam, who said she uses journaling both “as a way of finding out and slowing down,” then led the group into the Bowdoin Pines to sketch.
Deeds said science and art mix well, because someone can learn a lot just by taking the time to look at something long and carefully enough to draw it accurately. (However, Deeds admitted to falling back on photos and copious notes when she decides she’s failed at achieving accuracy.) She stressed that you don’t have to be a topnotch artist to glean value from the practice of field sketching and keeping a field journal.
Claire Day ’18 launched Enviro Lunch last fall to provide a forum for “causal guided conversation.” Her intention for the series, which most recently hosted visiting speaker Sarah Elkind, is to stimulate interdisciplinary discussions among students, staff, and faculty about specific environmental issues. “I want it to be a space where we explore the true interdisciplinary diversity of thought that goes into environmental studies in a welcoming and engaged way,” she said, attracting people in different disciplines and with varying information levels.
In the past, Day and co-organizer Eleanor Paasche ’20 have hosted lunches examining food systems in Maine, the appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and the intersection of gender and women’s studies and the environmental movement. Going forward, Paasche said they’d like to possibly discuss green cities and the politics of race and the outdoors.
At a recent lunch with Sarah Elkind, an environmental historian from University of San Diego who was on campus to give a talk about the movement to preserve Los Angeles beaches, students and faculty asked questions about land conservation, the effectiveness of local environmentalism, and the growing trend of privatizing infrastructure.
“I think we have a major ideological differences about governance in the US,” Elkind said. “There is the New Deal, ‘We have a problem that we can’t fix, let’s get the government to fix it,’ which requires a large government paid for with taxes,” she said. “And then there is also the idea that the private sector does it better and is more efficient, and we should have a small government and low taxes and people will buy the services they want to buy.”
She added, however, that it’s not clear to her which method is actually more cost efficient. “I’ve never understood how the economics work out so it’s cheaper to have a company that is making a profit take over the service than when you pull the profit out, unless [the private company] is paying their employees a lot less,” she said.
Connie Chiang, a Bowdoin associate professor of history and environmental studies, later asked the question: “I’m wondering if local politics or localized mechanisms for conservation, like land trusts or governance, is an effective way to circumvent what is happening on the national stage?”
Yes and no, Elkind said. Land trusts might be able to protect “this stand of trees, or this view, or this salmon spawning stream,” but the protected area could be damaged by nearby activity and industry. “Without the regulatory state, you have no control over what is going on around it,” she said.