Archive for December, 2012

December 28, 2012

Encountering the Divine in Nature

by Melissa Harding


“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” – L.M. Montgomery,  Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables, one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters, had much to say about everything. Independent Anne was highly creative, believed strongly in allowing “scope for imagination,” and had a full heart for others; and she also had an unwavering faith in the spirit of the natural world around her. In one scene in the book, when asked to say her prayers, Anne responds,, “If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” 

Many people in fact describe experiences such as walking in the woods as “feeling a prayer”. This idea, that the natural world is a spiritual source of solace, wonder and beauty is nothing new. Countless authors over the years have written that being in nature awakens a spiritual hunger in their souls. That nature stirs our hearts is clearly true; the involuntary reverence that we have for baby birds in a nest or dappled sunlight shining through the trees shows us that. Human beings crave the peace that nature gives our souls.   Many times I have been moved to gratitude by the beauty that I have found sitting under a tree or walking along a wooded trail. Nature is the perfect place to encounter the divine, whatever divinity you believe in, or even if your divinity is nature itself.

This is important because most of the moments in our lives are very un-amazing. Paying bills, pumping gas, buying groceries, and checking air filters are not particularly riveting or inspirational chores. We need moments of inspiration to help us through the rest of life. No matter what your sense of spirituality is, every person can relate to feeling a sense of the sacred in nature. Just as being in nature helps calm and focus children, it does the same for adults. We may have different worries and tasks than our children do, but being outside and experiencing the sensory pleasures of nature refocuses and refreshes us all. Teaching your children that being outside can make them feel light and transcendent is just as important as teaching them the names of trees or their multiplication tables; giving them the ability to take a time out to rest their spirits is essential.

For some people, organized religion provides a path to follow and a way to see the world. Others find a sense of purpose in the natural world, science, art, computers or more. Whatever category you belong in, we all aspire to know that we are here for a reason. We all strive to see a little of the divine – to see behind the curtain. As Anne says, “It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”

Go outside today and give your soul a rest; maybe you too will get a glimpse of enchanting realms beyond.

The above picture was taken by Christie Lawry.

December 26, 2012

Follow the Fellows: Preserving Traditional Plant Knowledge in Thailand

by Melissa Harding


The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed both to excellent research and educational outreach. Open to PhD students enrolled at US graduate institutions and conducting plant-based scientific field research, the BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research with a broad range of public audiences.

Current BIA Fellows are engaged in local research in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland and research abroad in Nepal, Thailand, India, and Brazil. Their work covers topics ranging from the role of green roof plants in urban storm water management to the effects of plant invasion on a rare woodland butterfly.

December’s Featured Fellow is Lisa Offringa. Lisa is a PhD student in a joint program between The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and The New York Botanical Garden. Her research focuses on finding plants to prevent the progression memory disorders of the elderly, such as dementia. Lisa studies plants in Northern Thailand, working with traditional healers to try to identify plants that can help fight these disorders. She recently completed the development of a community medical garden to be used by traditional village healers as a way to keep traditional plant knowledge alive in the community.

Read an update on Lisa’s research and life as a scientist at the Botany In Action website!

You can follow Lisa and all of the BIA fellows as they study plants across the US and across the world at the Follow the Fellows section of our Botany In Action website.

The following Botany In Action update was written by Amanda Joy, Botany in Action Fellowship coordinator.

The above image was provided by Lisa Offringa.

December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays!

by Melissa Harding


A Holiday wish from all of us:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy,
while cares drop off like autumn leaves.
– John Muir

Happy Holidays from Phipps Science Education and Research Department!

The above photo was taken by Jeff Harding.

December 21, 2012

Environmental Journalism: Challenge #3 in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps

by Melissa Harding


During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, 292 high school students researched environmental scientists throughout history and their efforts to solve particular environmental or sustainability issues. Each participating student wrote a “magazine style” profile on the scientist of their choice regarding how that scientist’s work impacted the natural world and why it is important. As with any feature article, each profile was supported with original photographs that reflected the subject matter. The resulting projects were great; students wrote about both famous scientists from history and modern-day researchers in the field. One group of students even wrote an article on Botany in Action fellow George Meindl!

The winning essay, from Shaler High School, featured 17th century German artist-naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian. Merian, a talented and passionate painter of butterflies and flowers, studied indigenous plants and their interactions with local fauna. In 1705, she wrote and illustrated the book Metamorphosis, which reported her findings and discoveries about indigenous plants. Complete with a thorough explanation of the importance of indigenous plants and their role in the ecosystem, this winning profile brought home the message that every person can use their plant purchasing choices to protect biodiversity. To quote the author, “How would you feel if your home was being taken over by alien life forms? What if they ate all of your food, slept in your bed and tried to kick you out? That is how indigenous plants feel when invasive species enter their habitats.” The author’s ability to tie a scientist in history to a current environmental issue made her a clear winner!

Several other great essays featured naturalist writer and environmental crusader, Rachel Carson. Carson, most famous for her book Silent Spring, used her literary platform to educate the public on the dangers of the pesticide DDT. Though she suffered criticism from the chemical industry, public and political opinion was on her side, eventually resulting in a 1963 ban on DDT. To quote one author, “Ms. Carson was ahead of her time; her writing was revolutionary for its time. In her writing, we can see that she had the right idea all along. In order to take care of ourselves as a human population, we must care for the earth.”

Other notable essays focused on both local and internationally known scientists such as tiger conservation biologist John Seidensticker, current Carnegie Mellon University professor of green chemistry Terry Collins, Sierra Club founder John Muir, primatologist Jane Goodall, Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens horticulturist John Warrick, climatologist James Hansen, retired PA Game Commission executive director Gary Alt, and many more.

Finally, students were asked to submit an original song about their subject for extra credit points. Seven student groups submitted songs, ranging from rap songs to beautiful melodies. Several of these groups will be invited to perform their songs at the awards banquet in May!

The above image is a photo of Rachel Carson, courtesy of USA Today.

December 18, 2012

School Program Spotlight: Dynamic Deserts

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Sci Ed Desert Class (3)-001

In our new segment, School Program Spotlight, we will be exploring the content of some of our most popular school programs.

The desert can seem like a harsh and forbidding landscape, filled with burning sand and a hot, relentless sun; when you think of the desert, images from Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones many come to mind. In reality, the desert is an amazing biome that is teeming with life! Deserts are filled with incredible plants and animals that are adapted to their hot and dry home: cacti with spikes that protect them from predators; jade plants with juicy leaves; mesquite plants with their deep tap-roots like giant carrots; striking flowers that bloom after a rainstorm and then quickly fade away.

Our Dynamic Deserts program teaches students why the desert is such a difficult place to live and how plants are able to survive there; the program focuses on general plant adaptations like succulence, leaf modification, specialized root systems, and mutualistic relationships between plants and animals. This two-hour field trip is broken down into a classroom portion and a tour.

In the classroom portion, students learn where deserts are located throughout the world and what characterizes a region as desert. They create their own adapted fantasy plants that can withstand desert conditions and share them with the class. Using these drawings as a starting point, students learn how their ideas are very similar to real plant adaptations. They crush succulent leaves, observe aloe vera and handle the ribs from a saguaro cactus.

Phipps Sci Ed Desert Class (4)

The tour portion of the program consists of a self-guided or docent-lead tour of the Conservatory. Those who would prefer a self-guided experience may request a PDF of our self-guided tour or explore on their own. Those who choose the docent-lead tour will go on a guided exploration of our desert room, concentrating heavily on the plants discussed in the classroom portion. This allows students to see many of the plants that we are not able to bring into the classroom and learn more about them from our knowledgable docents.

If you are a teacher and would like more information on how to sign up for this or any other school program, please use the “Registering for Programs” link in the menu above. Please note that scout groups, home school groups and other groups of 10 or more may sign up for any of our school programs as well!

The above pictures were taken by Amanda Joy.

December 17, 2012

Inspire Speaker Series: David Orr on Interdisciplinary Sustainability Learning

by Melissa Harding

d orr 9 (2)

Last Thursday night, as part of the Inspire Speaker Series, a crowd of educators, administrators, and sustainability professionals came together for an evening of food, fellowship and inspiration. Inspire Speaker David Orr spoke to a riveted audience on the topic of integrating sustainability into everyday life.  Orr, a prolific author, educator, speaker, and environmental philosopher, touched upon the importance of education reform, the green campus movement, creating an ecoliterate public, and how to create a culture of learning in and out of schools.

Highlighting an example of successful hands-on learning, Orr also spoke about his work in pioneering the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. What started decades ago as a single environmental education center with a working farm has now become a non-profit that excels in radical resource efficiency through integrative design. Orr also talked about his work at Oberlin College, namely building the Adam Joseph Lewis Center and the Oberlin Project. The Adam Jospeh Lewis Center is a building described by the New York Times as “the most remarkable” of a new generation of sustainable college buildings and selected as one of 30 “milestone buildings” in the 20th century by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Oberlin Project, which formed out of Orr’s vision of full-spectrum sustainability, is an all-encompassing joint venture by the town and College to create a thriving, sustainable and environmentally friendly community in Oberlin.

Molly Steinwald, Phipps Director of Science Education and Research, also spoke about the value of “nearby nature”. Using her striking photographs as illustrations, Steinwald spoke about the need to attribute value to the nature that is right outside our doors. Just because an area is urban and doesn’t look like a national park does not make it any less wondrous, especially to children. To teach our children the value of their world, Steinwald says, we must allow them to show us the magic in our neighborhoods and backyards. We need to look closely at the nature we do have and see it for the beauty it possesses.

Join us at Phipps January 10, 5:30-8:30 p.m., when The Inspire Speaker series welcomes national guests from the Berschi School in Seattle to talk about how communities can come together to reduce their environmental impact. To learn more and register, visit the Green Building Alliance website.

Check out the slide show below for more images from the evening!

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The above photos are courtesy of the Green Building Alliance.

December 14, 2012

The Curious Case of the Giant Sequoia

by Melissa Harding

The above video is from the December 2012 National Geographic cover story written by David Quammen and photographed by Michael “Nick” Nichols.

Imagine that as you aged, instead of getting weaker, you got healthier; instead of becoming frailer, you became more vital. That may sound incredible, but there is at least one species that grows stronger and more productive as it ages: the giant sequoia. In its December 2012 issue, National Geographic sent scientist Steve Sillet and his crew and photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols to measure and photograph these enormous trees, inch by inch. What they found is amazing and may change how scientists think about the life of a forest.

The giant sequoia is a massive species of tree that dates back to the Jurassic period; these trees were the dominant tree species in the time of the dinosaurs, when the planet was warm and swampy. Eventually the dinosaurs disappeared, but sequoias lived on. At the end of the Cretaceous Period, the planet became cooler and drier; the sequoias were less able to maintain their wide range. Slowly, they have retreated to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, where even there only a few areas are suitable for the continued existence of these giant trees. Giant sequoias are sometimes considered to be living dinosaurs, but they are more than that; they have outlived the dinosaurs by 70 million years.

This brings us back to the Benjamin Button-like nature of these trees. Normally in a tree’s life, it grows vigorously in its youth to outcompete other trees and then slows down once it reaches a suitable size, living out its days in peaceful stagnation. Not so for the sequoia. The longer it lives, the more carbon dioxide it sequesters and the faster it grows. To put this into perspective, the article centers on the President, an aptly named sequoia living in Sequoia National Park. As the second-largest tree in the world, the President is massive; it is 247 feet tall and 27 feet wide at the bottom. At 3,200 years old (no, that is not a typo), this tree is growing inches a year more than its younger neighbors. In tree speak, that is pretty hard to be-leaf!

Sillett’s team discovered that even the growth rate of a big tree like the President, not just its height or total volume, can increase during old age. The President creates more new wood per year than a robust young tree. This finding contradicts the long-held premise in forest ecology that wood production decreases during the old age of a tree and may change how forests are studied and managed.

Giant sequoias are amazing trees for more than just their incredible growth patterns; they are also home to a diverse ecosystem of life . To learn more about The President and read the incredible story of how Sillet and his crew measured every inch it, check out this article in the December 2012 National Geographic.

And be sure to look at the Nichol’s project photo gallery too. Nichols (a member of the International League of Conservation Photograpers, along with our department director Molly Steinwald) has spent his professional life using his photographic talent for the environment and conservation; you can see more of his photos and learn about his extensive work at his  website.


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