Nests

It was the first day of Sunday school, and our middle school ecojustice class took a tour of the various projects the class works on — small-plot gardens, rain barrels, composters, and so on. It is well past the end of nesting season for birds, so one of the things we were able to do is check on the nesting boxes the class built a couple of years ago.

Both the nesting boxes in the front yard of the church campus had been occupied. One of the nesting boxes did not have a great deal of nesting material in it, and if there was an active nest, the eggs wound up sitting on wooden floor of the box:

The other nesting, box, however, had clearly been occupied — probably for more than one year, as there appeared to be at least two layers of nesting material. Evidence of occupation included fecal matter, and one of my co-teachers, Francesca, found an infertile egg, with some black mold on it, buried in the nesting material:

I had seen Western Bluebirds active around the nesting boxes during nesting season, though I never saw any nestlings. The appearance of the nests and egg corresponds well with the description given of Western Bluebird nests and eggs in Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (Baicich and Harrison, 2nd ed., Princeton Univ. Press, 1997): “Nest: A slight cup in a cavity. Of dry grasses and a few feathers. … Eggs:… Subelliptical to short subelliptical….Blue and unmarked. 21 x 16 mm.” I would characterize the blue as light blue, or sky blue.

The nesting boxes are showing signs of wear; the front of one split in two while we were opening it for inspection. So one project for the class this winter will be to make new nesting boxes.

Fanzines

From 1995 to 1998, I published a science fiction fanzine. This was before people published their fanzines on the Web, so it was photocopied, stapled, and mailed out. What eventually killed it off was the cost of printing and mailing two or three dozen copies; I didn’t have much money in those days.

It’s hard to explain the whole subculture which surrounded science fiction fanzines in the days before the Web. It’s important to know that there were several different types of fanzines: genzines, with multiple authors writing on topics of general interest to all science fiction fans; personalzines, written by a single person who wrote about whatever interested them; newszines, with news of science fiction fandom. Most fanzines were personalzines; genzines and newszines required a higher level of skill. Fanzines were distributed in several different ways: apazines were distributed through an APA, or Amateur Press Association, where fanzines of APA members were collated and distributed to all the members; a clubzine was distributed to the members of a science fiction club; but most fanzines were made available for the “The Usual,” which meant there were three ways to get a copy: send a letter of comment (LoC), send some modest sum plus a self-addressed stamped envelope; or send your own fanzine in trade. I started a fanzine primarily because I needed something to trade for other fanzines. Other science fiction fans, called “letterhacks,” fed their fanzine habit by writing innumerable letters of comment. And many fanzines carried reviews of fanzines they had received, along with the editor’s address. Fanzine subculture was really a social network organized around the written word; in a very real sense it can be seen as a precursor to today’s online social networks, because a significant proportion of the users of the earliest social networks — BBSs, Usenet, etc. — were science fiction fans, and those early users shaped later social networks. It is not a coincidence that one of the very first web logs, or blogs, was written and hand-coded by Poul Anderson, a science fiction author.

The other part of science fiction fandom’s social network was, and still is, conventions. A science fiction convention was where you met face-to-face the people that you had come to know through reading fanzines and writing letters of comment. Or maybe you didn’t meet those other people: many science fiction fans were (and are) strongly introverted, and a feature of some of the science fiction conventions I attended were sessions in which a whole bunch of people sat in a room together and read books; no one talked. To those of you who are extroverted, this will sound crazy, but for those of us who are strong introverts, this sounds like the perfect way to be social, and even though I never attended one of those sessions it was comforting to know they were an option. Science fiction conventions also attracted a fair percentage of people whom we would now call neuroatypical; it was normal to be neuroatypical at a science fiction fan, just as it was normal to be socially awkward, or to be socially adept, or to be neurotypical. Science fiction fans, in my experience, could be a very tolerant group of people; though at the same time, science fiction fandom has always been subject to intense feuds and violent arguments (to read about a recent science fiction kerfluffle, do a Web search for “rabid puppies hugo”). These conflicts, of course, made wonderful material for several months’ worth of fanzines and letters of comment, and a regular feature of most fanzines was “convention reports,” where someone would tell in excruciating detail all about their experience at some science fiction convention; and the next issue there would be letters commenting on the convention report, and later more letters commenting on the comments, and so it could go on for months. And of course the WordCon — the annual world science fiction convention — was the biggest convention of all, the one which generated more fanzine column inches than any other.

This year’s WorldCon is in San Jose, and it going on right now. I thought about going. I’ve only been to one WorldCon, in 1980, and it would be fun to go one more time. Then I thought of the crowds of science fiction fans mobbing the San Jose Convention Center. I don’t like crowds, even crowds of tolerant people who do things like sit in a room together reading books and not talking. And I remembered years ago, when I was still publishing my science fiction fanzine, I wrote a con report which said, in essence, “I didn’t go.” So this is my con report telling you why I didn’t go to the WorldCon that took place a short drive from where I live.

Poriferan

We like to go to the Foster City Laundromat, and while the laundry is in the machines, we walk across the street, over the levee, and walk along the edge of San Francisco Bay. There’s a great view of the San Mateo bridge to the north, and the Hayward hills on the eastern side of the Bay, but I usually wind up looking at the mudflats, and the long ridge of piled-up seashells making a sort of beach along the edge of the mud.

Usually there are some dead Poriferans, or sponges, washed up on the seashells. These Poriferans are about four to six inches long, and have many branches. Most of them are a dull brown color, but in some of them you’ll see a tinge of reddish-orange in the inner branches — like the one in the photo below:

I believe these are Red Beard Sponges, Clathria prolifera, an invasive exotic from the North Atlantic that was first reported in San Francisco Bay in the 1940s, according to the Marine Science Institute in Redwood City. Red Beard Sponges are the only red sponges in our area with finger-like branches, and “when Clathria prolifera dries out … it generally turns brown,” according to Andrew N. Cohen (The Exotics Guide: Non-native Marine Species of the North American Pacific Coast. Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions, Richmond, CA, and San Francisco Estuary Institute, Oakland, CA. Revised September 2011, online here).

Because these sponges are invasive exotics, and because the ones washed up on the shore are already dead, I felt it was fine to bring one sample home with me. There I was able to take a reasonably good close-up of the surface of the organism; the porous texture of the organism makes it obvious why this phylum of organisms is called Porifera.

I continue to be amazed at the wild diversity of life forms on this planet: Poriferans, animals which don’t have mouths and which remain rooted in place like plants for most of their lives — and Cnidarians like transparent Moon Jellyfish and bright blue Vellela vellela; arthropods from vicious predators like dragonflies to migratory pollinators like Monarch butterflies, crustaceans including large lobsters and tiny sand crabs — molluscs from Banana Slugs to octopuses, several different phyla of worms — and recently I’ve been reading about Bryozoans, or “moss animals,” colonial invertebrates which I’d never heard of before, yet which are apparently quite common and may be mistaken for seaweed.

Cnidarians

Carol and I went to Pescadero Natural Preserve today. It was delightfully cool (about 70 degrees) with high fog blocking much of the sun. The tide was quite low when we arrived, so I wandered around looking at the variety of organisms in tide pools: sea anemones, crustaceans, molluscs, seaweeds, etc. Then we decided to walk to the mouth of Pescadero Creek and head up into the marsh.

As we followed the creek upstream under the Highway 1 overpass, Carol noticed that there were dozens of jellyfish washed up along the high tide line, translucent organisms looking a little like plastic bags filled with water. Most of the organisms were damaged; some had obviously been stepped on, some appeared to have broken in pieces, some no longer had a definable shape. I walked closer to the water, and began to find a few organisms that looked less damaged; one in particular, shown in the photograph below, retained a good deal of its structure:

When we got home, I did some online research to find out what kind of Cnidarian this was. I concluded it was a Moon Jellyfish, the common name of Aurelia species; most likely Aurelia labiata, which the authorities I consulted online agreed was the Aurelia species found along the San Mateo County coast. More specifically, what I saw was most likely the central morph of Aurelia labiata, the type specimen of which came from Monterey Bay (M. N. Dawson, Macro-morphological variation among cryptic species of the moon jellyfish, Aurelia [Cnidaria: Scyphozoa], Marine Biology [2003] 143:369-379).

Based on this tentative identification, I made two drawings of some of the structures that might be seen in the photograph. The first is based on Dawson (2003), and shows the organism from the underside; this approximates what you see when the jellyfish is lying flattened out on the sand, as in the photograph. The second drawing, based on a drawing by Richard Fox of Lander Univ., shows the organism as if it were alive and floating in the water.

The gonads are clearly visible in the photograph (note that the gonads and gastric pouch are right next to one another, so the gastric pouches are also visible). The manubrium and stomach in the center show fairly clearly. I did not see any tentacles when I looked at the organism, and none are visible in the photograph; this is not surprising as they would be quite small. Some of the radial canals are visible, enough to give the sense that the organism has radial symmetry. But the organism in the photo appears to have disintegrated somewhat.

The organism I photographed, and most of the Moon Jellyfish I saw stranded along the creek, were clear to translucent. One of them, though, was amber-colored; others had dark red or purple structures. The Encyclopedia of Life Web page on Moon Jellyfish, citing an article by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, states that Aurelia labiata are translucent when young, turning “milky white, sometimes with a pink, purple, peach, or blue tint” at maturity. So most of the individuals I saw were, apparently, young jellyfish.

Carol and I walked around the marsh for a couple of hours, and came back to the creek as the tide was beginning to flood again. I watched the tide pick up some of the stranded jellyfish, hoping to see some signs of life. One or two of the jellyfish floated away, looking intact, with their bells extended; perhaps they survived their exposure. But most of them sank beneath the water, or crumpled up, or seemed to be coming apart; it seems very unlikely these individuals survived.

Drawings revised, July 20.

More info: Article on Aurelia labiata on the Animal Diversity Web provides links to several academic references.

Note on my drawings: In making the drawings, I began with the cited sources, then consulted various online photos identified as Aurelia labiata. I saw significant variation in online photos, especially as regards tentacle length; since my drawings are not made from living specimens, they should be taken as schematic drawings, not accurate representations of live individuals.

Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice class

Here are some of the principles behind the Ecojustice class taught at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) for the past five years.

Ecojustice class is a Sunday school program for gr. 6-8. Ecojustice class is a learner-centered program, with a flexible curriculum that can follow the interests of the teens and the teachers. We have a firm commitment to making the class as hands-on as possible — an emphasis on doing, rather than discussion. Rather than just projects done by one individual and intended for themselves, our projects tend to be done as a group and intended for use by the class, congregation, or a wider community. Ecojustice class can best be described as a “emergent curriculum,” meaning we’re often making it up as we go along; nevertheless, we have evolved some pretty firm organizing principles which may be of use to others.

Our definition of “ecojustice”:
A sign is posted in the classroom which gives our definition of “ecojustice”:

Ecojustice =
— humans treating other humans with dignity & respect
AND
— humans treating other organisms & the whole ecosystem with dignity & respect

If teens ask: “Why can’t we just say ‘Ecojustice means humans treating each other and the rest of the ecosystem with respect’?” — we can explain that white environmentalists have been criticized because they worry more about non-human organisms than they worry about humans who have a different skin color. So we want to make sure we always remember that environmental action cannot be separated from human justice.

Basic class plan is the same every week:
I/ Attendance & chalice lighting (typically indoors)
II/ Check-in (typically indoors)
III/ Reading (typically indoors)
IV/ Project for the week (most often outdoors)
V/ Closing circle (often outdoors)

Reading: Each reading is related in some way to ecojustice. We adults can read the reading, or ask the teens if one of them would like to read it. Then maybe have a brief conversation about what the reading tells us about ecology, ecojustice, or the natural and human worlds.

Project for the week: Projects may last from 1-4 weeks. Teachers pick projects based on their interests and abilities. We try to include a conversation with each porject about why we are doing the project: “what does this project have to do with ecojustice?” This can take place while we’re working, or as part of the closing circle.

Closing circle: During closing circle, have the teens say one thing they learned, or one thing they’re taking away from this class. End with the UUCPA unison benediction (used in all classes); the unison benediction is posted in classrooms in 4 languages, reflecting languages spoken by people in our congregation (English, Spanish, German, Hindi; working on a Mandarin version).

Topic areas:
We relate any project that we develop to one of seven topic areas. Those topic areas are listed below, along with sample projects that we have either completed or plan to carry out (in parentheses).

1. Food
Tire Garden — based on the UUSC Haiti tire garden project
Ongoing Gardening — digging, planting, weeding, watering, etc.
Cooking projects — using, e.g., organic ingredients

2. Energy
Rocket Stoves — based on a design by Larry Winiarski
Solar Cooking — using various solar ovens (solar s’mores esp. popular)

3. Water
Rain Barrel — installed a rain barrel; use the water to irrigate the gardens
Clay Pot Irrigation — low-water use irrigation method
(Bucket Drip Irrigation — low-water method for irrigating garden)

4. Waste
Composting — assembled two composting bins; maintain them
(Build a composting toilet)

5. Habit and Shelter
Wildlife — “tracking pit”; invertebrate observation; building birdhouses
Native Plants — tour of church’s native plant garden
Habitat for native pollinators — making “bee houses”
Support local homeless shelter which stays at our church in Sept.
(Using Natural Herbs — planned visit from a local herbalist)
(Natural Dyes — tie-dye using redwood cones and fennel)

6. Earth and Air
Disaster Plans — making a personal “go-kit” in case of wildfire evacuation
(Global climate change project — but how to make it hands-on?)

7. Toxics in the Environment (new category added in 2018)
(E-waste)
(Phytoremediation — using plants to remove toxics from the soil)

More info about each of these topic areas is below. Continue reading “Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice class”

Beams, Concord, Mass.

Carol and I went to the Robbins House, an early nineteenth century historic house at the Minuteman National Historic Park in Concord, Mass. The house was originally occupied by Susan and Peter Robbins, two grown children of Caesar Robbins, and perhaps by Caesar Robbins himself; I say perhaps, because the history and chronology of the house, as set forth on the Robbins House Web site, is not entirely clear to me. This is not surprising, given how poorly documented African American lives of the early nineteenth century were. What’s important to know is that Caesar was an African American man who won his freedom from slavery by serving in the American Revolution, and the house was occupied by his descendants and extended family until about 1870.

We got an excellent tour from one of the interpreters, who told us a great deal about the people who lived there, and about the social history surrounding the house. But I have to admit what interested me was the construction of the house. I was particularly interested in the exposed roof beams in one room, which included both hand-hewn beams and sawn joists. The sawn lumber was manufactured using a vertical saw, not a rotary saw. Why the mix of hand-hewn and sawn lumber? The hand-hewn beams could have been salvaged from an older structure, something that was often done in the early nineteenth century, or they could have been made for that house; the sawn lumber could have replaced older joists, or they could have been original, though sawn lumber would have been more expensive than hewing one’s own beams. When the house was being restored, there were archaeology, dendrochronology, and other architectural studies were carried out; I hope the non-profit organization that operates the house publishes the tests and tells us why there are two kinds of beams.

Dusk

The past couple of evenings, the wildfires north of here have given us sunsets that are more colorful than usual. Tonight I went out and walked around the cemetery at dusk; the light was rosy with a yellowish tinge. I went up to where you can look out at San Francisco Airport, and watched a couple of jetliners land. A bank of fog was stretched from the Golden Gate across the Bay towards Oakland; an avalanche of fog curled over the top of San Bruno Mountain; here in San Mateo, the fog was several hundred feet above me, pushed upwards as it moved up the Crystal Springs Gap. Then I happened to look up, and there was a pair of White-tailed Kites hovering overhead, silhouetted against the bright low clouds; they worked their way down the hill, and for a few minutes I watched them come to a hover every minute or so, until they disappeared farther down the hill behind some trees. The rosy glow from the sunset really was lovely, even with the realization that a good bit of that lovely redness came from wildfire smoke.

Bay Area Sacred Harp

Some Stanford University undergraduates made a brief documentary on the Bay Area Sacred Harp singing community. The students were in an ethnomusicology class, and their goal was to document a local musical community. Given their time constraints, I think they give a pretty good sense of how music and community are woven together in Sacred Harp.

Notes: No one is identified in the video, but this is who you’ll hear from, in order of appearance: Pat Coghlan, Gridley, Calif.; Lena Strayhorn, San Francisco; Jeannette Ralston, Half Moon Bay; Terry Moore, Palo Alto. (Jeannette is the senior singer who was interviewed; she has been singing Sacred Harp in the Bay Area since the 1970s.) The local singings shown are Berkeley (in the church with pews); Palo Alto (in the children’s art room); and San Francisco (in the living room). You’ll hear the Palo Alto singers on Nehemiah Shumway’s Ballstown (begins 0:05; cont. 0:27 and William Billings’s Easter Anthem (begins 1:58).

Adventures in grilling

It was hot today, so we decided to grill our dinner. I hardly ever eat beef any more (can’t afford it, it’s bad for me), but Carol had gotten some local grass-fed beef from a nearby farm, so we grilled hamburgers and potatoes. That wasn’t quite enough for a dinner. Carol saw that we had a small mild white bitter melon in the refrigerator — what about grilling that? She basted it in olive oil and rosemary before she grilled it. It turned out well — slightly crispy, nicely bitter, very yummy.