Happy Birthday Hog Island, from a Grateful Family

Hog Island

This past weekend, Audubon Hog Island Camp, on Muscongus Bay in Maine – one of the most wonderful, successful, and, to our family, personally enriching and warmly memorable, environmental education facilities in America – celebrated its 75th anniversary.   In  the summer of 2007, my middle daughter, then 17, was awarded an Audubon Society Scholarship to a Hog Island residential camp.  Always an outdoorsy child but only cautiously adventurous, Hog Island was her first – and only – “sleep away” camp.  For ten days, she would bunk with other high schoolers from around the country and learn about birds, and local ecology.

Maine woods

For those ten days, the rest of us journeyed around coastal Maine, touring lighthouses, geocaching in fragrant balsam forests,

exploring Acadia National Park,  and a variety of scenic and historical areas.  We fell in love with Maine. Our daughter fell in love with birds. We all fell in love with Hog Island.

Our daughter came back confident, excited, and an avid birder. She started a blog – Earthbird: Diary of a Teenage Birder- which

eventually became the diary of a college birder.  She wrote an article for the Audubon Society about her experience at Hog Island: Summer Camp Salute , and wrote her college essay about how Hog Island set her on the path to both environmental and self-discovery.  She headed to college with fresh focus, new ideas, and a yen for travel that has since taken her to London, Wales and Ireland for a semester, and to Puerto Rico for service learning projects.

The Teenage Birder

The College Birder

This summer, her final summer before she starts her senior year at Eckerd College, where she’s an Environmental Studies and Anthropology major, she interned at Shaver’s Creek , the nature center of Penn State.  Among other things, she worked with the Raptor Center there , coming full circle on her journey from fledgling birder to bird of prey handler.  Midway through the summer, she journeyed to Tuscson, AZ to join 79 other students from around the nation as a Udall Scholar, which recognizes young leaders in environmental fields.

As much as all of this is a tribute to my daughter’s own drive, curiosity and interest in the world around her, it is equally a tribute to the place that set her mind afire in first place.   On Hog Island, my daughter walked in the footsteps of some of the nation’s leading environmentalists, scientists and naturalists, including Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson and Dr. Stephen Kress. Since 1936, campers have experienced the transformative beauty, abundant wildlife and deep serenity of Muscongus Bay under the studied guidance of teachers like Peterson and renowned birder Kenn Kaufman, who turned my daughter’s eyes heavenward.

Environmental education in the classroom is one thing.  Experiencing the living wonders of a place as rich in beauty and biodiversity as Hog Island, and rich, as well,  in the people who understand it and eagerly share its wonders with others, is something else entirely.

Author Scott Weidensau said of Hog Island, “Hog Island takes hold of you. There are many beautiful places, but this one will change your life.

Our daughter would probably agree.  I know we certainly do!  Happy Birthday, Hog Island!

I Believe in Nature

A friend shared with me at church yesterday, the affirmation below.   Titled “I believe in Nature” , it was written by Florence Emmons, in the 1970s .

I found it a love note of stunningly beautiful and universal proportions.


I believe in the orderly processes of the universe, which hold the planets in their orbits and control the activities of microscopic cells;

I believe in the pervading, impartial forces of nature through which destruction is made constructive;

I believe in the ever-changing beauty of the natural world, which brings joy and inspiration to many people;

I believe in the healing and restorative power of nature without which all living things would be in great jeopardy;

I believe in the profound lessons which nature teaches: lessons of struggle and adaptability, tenacity and purpose, endurance and growth, patience, balance, and the inevitability of cause and effect;

I believe in the hope and faith which nature gives to the observant through predictable, compensatory certainties: light after dark, warmth after cold, peaceful calm after lashing storm, and always the miracle of the sun, the rain, and the seed.


Some might more comfortably replace the word nature with God, and that stirring sense of the greatness of the world in which we lives takes on somewhat different, but equally integral connotations.

We cannot elevate nature above people,”  Edna Mattos, leader of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots said recently in an interview regarding efforts to expand protection of manatees in Kings Bay in Citrus County, FL. “That’s against the Bible and the Bill of Rights.

Among the many things Ms. Mattos overlooks or misunderstands, is the fact that “people” and “nature” are inextricably connected. We are nature,  the Bible and the Bill of Rights notwithstanding .  Where go the manatees goes us.

I love Ms. Emmons affirmation, particularly the nuanced last stanza: I believe in the hope and faith which nature gives to the observant… Not just to anyone, but to “the observant”.

Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find. Care and you shall be cared for, and find  joy and inspiration, healing and restoration, life lessons, hope and faith in the world around us.  Neither the Bible nor the Bill of Rights can promise us more than that!

Love Notes from a Suburban Yard

Okay, well, technically, it’s my neighbor’s yard, and specifically, it involves someone else’s home – but this story plays out in National Geographic quality in view of my front yard.   It all started about three weeks ago, when I heard what sounded like a bunch of crickets in or near an oak tree by our driveway.  I heard it when I took the dog out in  the morning, and again when I got the mail in the afternoon, and as I hauled the trash cans back around the house later in the day.  It was a continuous cacophony of frenetic chirping.

After trying to zero in on the source of the noise for a couple of days, as I came and went in my driveway,  I finally went outside and stood alone under the oak tree, with the sole goal of trying to pinpoint the creatures making the sounds.   In the dance of the curious, I  craned my neck, cocked my head, cupped my ears, squinted and peered and finally detected a small hole high in a dead branch of my neighbor’s pine tree.

Aha! And just as I began to make the connection between the hole and the sound, a woodpecker lit in gravity-defying verticality along the branch with a grub in its bill, and poked its head inside the hole.  A woodpecker nest!

I’ve always been fascinated by the wealth of nature in my suburban Tampa yard. It’s your basic third of an acre St. Augustine spread, but with a healthy complement of oaks, elm, camphor and ligustrum trees, and lots of shrubs and bushes, as well as a lot of neighboring oaks and pines and other trees. I’m  saddened when I see those treeless, sterile looking communities that are all pavement and water-sucking sod.   Those  houses, however big they are, look hot and plain in the glaring sunlight without the framework of trees.

In older neighborhoods like this one, trees shade the streets and yards, and there are plenty of neighborhood bird feeders, in addition to my own.   There’s also a landscaped retention pond across the street, and bird baths in our yard, so all the basic Wildlife Habitat essentials are here: shelter, food and water.

Animals utilize these resources in great abundance here. We’ve got tons of insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and a decent complement of small mammals like racoons and opossums,  and my outdoorswoman daughter tells us she’s also found evidence of  coyotes and bobcats in our neighborhood, too.  All this within a couple of miles of busy urban roads and an expressway, providing ample evidence that our suburban communities,  while not ecologically ideal, can certainly be made into attractive and sustainable environments for wildlife, as well as for people.

The woodpeckers apparently agree.   And for the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched them engage in what would seem to be an absolutely exhausting feeding schedule.  I remember the wearying wee hours feedings of my own young, but am fully cognizant of the fact that I didn’t have to run around foraging all day to find food for my constantly squawking fledglings and bring it back one piece at a time.  I don’t know how they do it. I would watch for 3o minutes or so , and in that time, the parent woodpecker would fly back and forth to the nest at least a half dozen times, always with one insect in its bill.  I wished I could hand up a shopping bag to help!

After some debate, my birder daughter and I finally concluded that these are Hairy woodpeckers ( as opposed to the very similar looking Downy woodpeckers).  For the last couple of days, I’ve watched eagerly from the shade of the neighboring oak tree, to see if I could spot one of the babies.  The other day, I saw a large fuzzy looking head faintly outlined in the shadows of the nest entrance. And today, I was rewarded with the bold appearance of a nearly fledged young bird.  It’s amazing to think there are probably at least one or two more young birds in the nest.  How do they fit?!  I”m also gratified to see that both parents rear the young – although with feeding schedules like theirs, it would require teamwork.

But what a love note from nature!  There’s something deeply heartwarming and reassuring in watching birds nest and raise young, providing a basic affirmation of life in a world where death and sadness sometimes seem more the rule than the exception. And perhaps that may be the case – perhaps these birds are the exception to the rules of life.

But I don’t think so.  We won’t rule the planet forever – we can barely hang on to it now.  Wars and politics and the people behind them will come and go, but animals will carry on forever the instinctual and beautiful processes of their own lives, however they are able, without regard to us, in the universe of their own existence.  They find work-arounds to the inconvenience of our existence, using what they can, disregarding the rest,  unfettered by petty distractions and empty vanities, and attending to their own with unflinching devotion.

Maybe the lesson in the woodpeckers’ love note is that we should do the same.

One Year Ago Today…

One year ago today the Deepwater Horizon off shore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers, injuring scores more and hemorrhaging 5 million barrels of oil that contaminated nearly 700 miles of coastline. (Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill by the Numbers).

Lest we completely forget, and think something like this won’t happen again, know that 11 new deepwater and 49 shallow water drilling permits have been issued over the last year. (Offshore drilling: Slow comeback after BP ) . That’s less than before the Deepwater Horizon accident, but CNN reports that “Most Americans support increased offshore drilling. According to a recent CNN poll, 69% are in favor of expanding the practice, up from 49% right after the spill. “

As a species, humans tend to have a short memory – it’s what makes us take risks, try things, invent, create and procreate.  It’s also the reason we often make the same mistakes over and over again.   But we’re free to make choices, too, and we don’t have to make the same mistake here.    Oil is a finite resource.  Drilling won’t solve the problem of high gas prices or lessen the problems of climate change; only looking beyond oil to safe, clean, renewable energy resources will do that.

We don’t have to look back further than a year in our collective memory to see what can happen if we don’t exercise our innate inventiveness for better long term solutions to our energy needs.