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Michelle Nijhuis' Posts

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“My Dirty Stream”: Pete Seeger’s anti-pollution legacy

clearwater sloop (crop)
Sea of Legs

You’ve probably heard a lot of Pete Seeger songs in the last couple of days. And no wonder: When Seeger died on Monday, he left behind a very long lifetime’s worth of beautiful, cheeky, unforgettable songs. But what he left me -- and the millions of other kids who grew up along the Hudson River during his tenure there -- is not a song but a story. And the story is as good a cure for cynicism as any I know.

It goes like this.

When Pete and his wife Toshi bought land in Beacon, N.Y., in the 1940s, moving upstate to Beacon was not a hip thing to do. The Hudson’s riverfront towns had busted decades earlier, and they were tough little places -- still are, in many respects. Many obituaries have mentioned that at the time the Seegers arrived, the Hudson River was dirty. Well, it was filthy. Almost anyone could dump almost anything into the river, no permit required: sewage, garbage, industrial waste in all its awful variety. Bacteria consumed so much oxygen that fish sometimes suffocated in the water. Near Tarrytown, about 25 miles north of Manhattan, the color of the river changed to match the color of the paint applied to cars at the local General Motors plant. You didn’t fish in the Hudson if you valued your health, and you didn’t swim in it if you valued your life.

Read more: Living

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To the bat cave: Desperate measures in a time of ‘peak conservation’

Tom Marshall

So the election’s over, the days are getting shorter, and it’s about time for a nice long nap. May I suggest an 80-foot-long concrete chamber, tucked neatly into a hillside in Tennessee? Clean, cool, and cozy, it’s the perfect winter hideaway … if you’re a bat, that is. Yes, The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee has opened the world’s first artificial cave for hibernating bats. Now they just need some bats to move in.

The cave is intended as a refuge from white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s devastated bat populations in the northeastern U.S. and beyond. Since the first diseased bats were found in an upstate New York cave six years ago, white-nose syndrome is thought to have killed more than 5 million bats from seven species, and it spreads especially quickly when bats gather in caves to hibernate. TNC hopes that some Tennessee bats will spend the coming winter in the new, fungus-free artificial cave. When the bats leave in the spring, the cave can be disinfected and safely used again.

Stephen Ornes
Approaching the bat cave.

That’s the idea, anyway. But there’s no blueprint for an artificial bat cave, and though TNC consulted with climate engineers and bat experts to make the cave as bat-friendly as possible, the $300,000 project is a gamble: No one’s sure if nearby bats will find the cave, or if they’ll like it enough to stay.

Read more: Living

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Save the median strip! Or, how to annoy E.O. Wilson

Photo by Lauri Kolehmainen.

My friend Emma Marris wrestles with giant Burmese pythons. Well, OK, not literally. But in her book Rambunctious Garden (which you should all read this very minute), she takes on the long-held idea of nature as a pristine, unspoiled, and distant place.

She asks if we can learn to see nature almost everywhere -- in highway medians, urban parks, even an Everglades infested with exotic, predatory snakes. She argues that while we can and should continue to push for the protection of large, relatively unaltered landscapes, we shouldn’t necessarily try to restore them to pre-Columbian conditions -- and we definitely shouldn’t allow the fight for big parks and wildernesses to limit our notion of nature. For if we see nature only as a place apart from us, she says, we’ve already lost it to climate change and any number of other forces. And who wants to join a lost cause?

This summer, Emma had another public wrestling match, not with a Burmese python but with the preeminent biologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Kids’ books that take the SCARY out of science

A version of this story first appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.

As the parent of a 3-year-old, I spend a lot of time reading kids’ books. Some are wonderful, a lot are so-so, and a few are so frigging annoying that -- I confess -- I hide them. As a science writer, I always expect to like science-themed books -- this is my kind of brainwashing, I think -- but lately, I’ve even packed a few of them off to the thrift store.

In uncharitable moments, I might gripe about these books’ bad artwork or mixed meters. But my real problem is with the way they present science. According to them, science is not, as my colleagues and I humbly remind you, The Last Word on Nothing. It’s an intimidating institution filled with intimidating grownups, all of whom have The Last Word on Pretty Much Everything. “Putting a dinosaur skeleton together takes hard work -- and lots of special knowledge and skill,” one book intones.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up living in a world that looks like this -- and that is a truly scary prospect.

I was well into an undergraduate biology major before I grasped that science is not a pile of interesting facts, but a process -- not the only way to learn about the world, but a very powerful one. I’d like my daughter to arrive at that realization a little sooner than I did. I’d also like her to know that she doesn’t need a Ph.D. to start thinking like a scientist.

Yes, in the official world of science, credentials do count, and in most cases they should. But kids should know that anyone can make observations, form hypotheses, and figure out how to test them. Anyone can have a eureka moment. Anyone can go on a voyage of discovery, even if it begins and ends in the town park.

I’ve started to think that the best books for budding scientists don’t lecture, teach, or even talk much about science. Instead, they find other ways to celebrate the crooked, fascinating path that is the scientific life. Below are a half dozen that get unanimous approval in my household.

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WWDSS? What would Dr. Seuss say about climate change?

Photo by Kate Mereand-Sinha.

A version of this post first appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.

Late last year, I wrote about the dominance of the tragic “Lorax narrative” in environmental reporting. It made me wonder: How would Dr. Seuss himself tackle climate change? After all, the story of climate change is muddy and complex, and its real drama is both geographically distant (if you’re lucky) and years in the future (ditto) -- in other words, it lacks most of the ingredients that make any narrative memorable.

My guess is that the good doctor wouldn’t try to hide these problems. He wrote for kids, but he wasn’t afraid of complexity. He might even put the scientific, political, and personal knottiness of climate change at the heart of his story.

With apologies to the master, it might sound something like this.

Read more: Climate Change

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Sinners, repent! How our natural self-bias got us into this mess

This interview originally appeared in the Last Word on Nothing. Dearest readers, we hope you had a gluttonous, slothful, greedy, and lustful holiday, with only the tiniest touches of wrath. My compatriots and I at the Last Word on Nothing are celebrating the season with a series of posts on the Seven Deadly Sins. I got things started with a conversation with conservation biologist Michael Soule, the founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and The Wildlands Network and a professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In recent years, in pursuit of an …

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Stop crying: Environmental tales don’t have to be ‘The Lorax’

Cross-posted from the Last Word on Nothing. I've spent a lot of time this past year thinking and writing about extinction, which means I've also spent a lot of time drinking thinking about the tragic narrative in environmental journalism. There's a lot of genuine tragedy on the environmental beat, and it doesn't take a partisan to see it. There's not a whole lot to like about water pollution, or crop failures, or mass extinction. A lot of these stories lend themselves to the Lorax narrative. You know how it goes: The Lorax speaks for the trees, the rest of us keep buying …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Not one more winter in the tipi, honey

Modern homesteading can be particularly maddening for the ladies. Cross-posted from The Last Word on Nothing. There are a lot of ways to shrink a carbon footprint. Bike instead of drive. Eat low on the food chain. You know the drill. Where I live, in the boondocks of Colorado, a lot of people -- myself included, but I'll get to that in a minute -- go on a carbon diet by purchasing some cheap land, rigging up a few solar panels, and getting off the grid. Most of these people are well-educated, well-meaning, and idealistic, determined to build and garden …

Read more: Green Home, Living

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Why Poughkeepsie is a great place to wait for the end of the world

Photo: duluoz cats Cross-posted from The Last Word on Nothing. A few years ago, I interviewed author and social critic James Kunstler about his novel World Made By Hand, his latest portrayal of a post-peak oil future. Kunstler, as one might expect, had plenty of complaints -- about suburbs, Cheez Doodles, Walmart, the American road trip. But when I mentioned that I'd grown up in the Hudson River town of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he perked up. "Oh!" he said, sounding as if he'd almost cracked a smile. People from Poughkeepsie are not, to say the least, used to this kind of …

Read more: Cities

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Do environmentalists need shrinks?

It's not easy being green.Let's face it: If you care about the environment, you've got a lot of reasons to be bummed out. Is the sorry state of the planet dragging you into the dumps? John Fraser, a psychologist, architect, and educator with the Institute for Learning Innovation, is one of a small group of psychologists interested in the mental health of conservationists themselves -- how professional activists, environmental educators, and conservation-oriented researchers handle the daily evidence of environmental destruction. Environmentalists, Fraser says, often aren't aware of the emotional toll of their work. "Talking to environmentalists can be like talking …

Read more: Living