Calculating Risk and Reward

Last week the Nature Museum’s Young Naturalist (YN) Director Kerrilee Hunter posted an interesting note to the families of the lucky children who attend our YN preschool.  It was a very thoughtful essay and rumination on what could be perceived as the “dangerous” activities our Young Naturalists engage in from time-to-time.  The essay uses a naturalistic see-saw our YN teachers have “constructed” as the jumping off point for a discussion of risk, danger and reward in childhood free play.  Here is how Kerrilee describes the setup.

“We have a piece of driftwood behind the Learning Center classroom that is basically an entire tree. We also have a long plank of wood. The children drag that plank across the driftwood tree, and use it as a see-saw. The thing about that, though - this is not some manmade see-saw, that has handles and a standard seating area and goes up and down predictably at the same angle. Since the plank is not secured to anything, the fulcrum can shift depending on the relative position of the plank to the tree, and the positions of the children themselves as they are using it.”

And while I am not an expert in early childhood development and education (that is why we have great educators on staff), I do have a strong preference for early childhood development that includes pushing up against physical, cognitive and emotional boundaries and comforts.  I hold these ideas based on my own parenting experience and on the long history of human development when humans lived in extremely challenging circumstances nowhere near the top of the food chain.  During this time we did not control our environment, and were frequently forced to adapt and overcome a wide array of dangerous predators, fearsome prey and life threatening conditions.  Imagine what it might be like to come face-to-face with a cave bear, a dire wolf, a wooly mammoth or a saber-tooth tiger!!!

Only since the advent of agriculture, and more recently with the development of advanced technologies and medicines, have humans lived relatively safe and settled lives.  Prior to these developments, and for most of our history, homo sapiens scratched out a tenuous existence as resourceful hunter-gathers.  Just one of many species across the animal kingdom struggling to make it through another day.

But I digress.

Our Young Naturalists, and to a lesser extent the children who participate in other Nature Museum programming, are exposed to the beauty and minor risks of the natural world in carefully considered ways.  I call it the Goldilocks Risk Zone.  Not too much risk to be overly dangerous, but enough risk to learn reasonable limits, exercise bodies and minds, test the world for danger, build strong personal judgement frameworks, and develop the internal tools needed to live and experience life in all its wonderful complexity.  Additionally, exposure to appropriate levels of risk in group settings can strengthen socialization skills and support greater cooperation in pursuit of common goals.

To further quote from Kerrilee’s essay,

“In climbing up, and falling down, and helping each other on this little hill, they’re giving their bodies a sense of their physical world. Those quick, subconscious calculations that the 4’s make on the see-saw are honed by sliding down both on purpose and by accident in smaller ways like this. Could they get hurt doing it? Possibly. Pretty sure I hear some “Ows!” throughout this scene. Then again, those 5 falling-downs were immediately followed by 5 getting-ups. The kids who wanted to challenge themselves by climbing tried the mossy rocks, and part of challenging yourself is the possibility of getting hurt. That’s true all the time in life, physically and otherwise. And the kids who didn’t feel like challenging themselves in that particular way that day found other things to do - finding small treasures, for instance, or discovering how different the leaves move when they’re wet vs when they’re dry.”

These “dangerous things we don’t discourage your children from doing” is how Nature Museum educators teach our students about risks that are a natural part of life and living.  We are helping them to develop a set of skills and experiences that will make them more able to navigate the challenges, risks and yes dangers they will face in their lives.  I think of it as a form of insurance for their future well-being, and as a set of tools to help them lead a more meaningful and satisfying life.

See you on the trail (and see-saw).

By Tom Bregman

Nature Museum Honors Rising Environmental Leaders of the Hudson Valley

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On November 11th the Nature Museum will honor a very special group of ten young environmental professionals currently working in the Hudson Valley.  They include two farmers, a field biologist, an education director, a trail crew leader, a conservation stewardship manager, an outreach coordinator, a conservation and stewardship director, a director of environmental advocacy and a research manager.

Our Rising Environmental Leaders represent a broad cross section of organizations and programs whose intersecting missions are the long term protection and ecological sustainability of the Hudson Valley region.  The ten honorees were selected by their respective organization’s leadership for their impressive early career accomplishments, strong work ethic and future potential as leaders.

The Nature Museum’s terrific group of educators teach respect for, and an understanding of, the natural world and people by integrating outdoor activities and play with age appropriate scientific principles.  Our educational philosophy is based on a growing body of research showing that exposure to the outdoors and nature at an early age supports a child’s cognitive, physical, emotional and social development.

We practice what we preach by turning the outdoors and nature into both classroom and playground because it fulfills our mission to develop future generations of environmental stewards, and helps foster healthy resilient children who can master the challenges of life in an increasingly complex world.  Also, by honoring this impressive group of Rising Environmental Leaders, we are connecting the dots between our nature based educational approach, and the future life choices our students make as they move into adulthood.

To tease out some of these connections we asked the Rising Environmental Leaders about the key experiences and people that influenced them early in life, and the things that moved them to pursue an environmental career.  In almost every case it was some combination of parents, mentors, teachers and direct exposure to nature that connected them to the natural world and fueled their interest in working to protect and sustain planet earth.  The following quotes are just a sample of what they told us.

“I had a mentor at a summer camp who shared his knowledge, and especially his love of learning about the natural world.  He was a botanist, and he always told us the name of the plant last, after teaching us something else that he thought was more important – why it was growing in that location or how it fits in with the surrounding plant community.”

“My days were spent enjoying a healthy ecosystem and observing the species living in the waters, along the shorelines, and in the nearby forests. This privilege inspired my interest in environmental law from elementary school until late high school.”

“I attribute [my love of the natural world] to the people in my life at an early age that guided my appreciation for the natural world.  My family laid the foundation for my initial interest and my mentors fostered that foundation to help shape it into what it is today.”

“The experiences that most piqued my interest in natural sciences took place in the wooded backyard of my childhood in North Carolina.  There, I took solo walks in the woods, scrambling on rocks, investigating mosses, and watching trees change each season.  Nature was my after-school classroom, and this small patch of woods filled me with curiosity and wonder.  Those experiences---both large and small-scale---remain with me today.”

“My parents also always made sure we spent our summers playing outside. I spent most of my summers riding around our neighborhood with my friends on my bike or exploring my grandmother’s farm in South Dakota. All of these rich experience in nature, be it developed land or pristine wilderness made me realize that I couldn't spend my working life bound to an office staring at a computer.”

“My formative experiences as a child consisted of unsupervised hours exploring the twists and turns of the muddy water way with my little brother. We caught tadpoles, frogs, bugs, and snakes together … the summers exploring the creek and winters enduring the beautiful harsh conditions lead me to find the natural work endlessly fascinating and laid the foundation for the work I [now] do in environmental education.”

“From a young age my parents would take me to Bear Mountain, which I quickly came to view as a paradise. My favorite activity was climbing on the boulders … my favorite story was having my mother tell me how all the boulders came to be there … [the] massive glaciers receding and dropping rocks for me to play on … I came to understand the value and beauty of the world around me from [these] immersive experiences.”

“I spent a lot of time playing in my grandmother’s yard in Germany as a child. She was a gardener and grew vegetables and flowers. We also lived on the edge of the agricultural fields so made igloos out of threshed grain and forts out of hay bales. Our family would vacation on dairy farms in the Swiss alps and this gave me some of my first love of nature and farming and the outdoors.”

“My strongest memories of time spent in nature came as a Boy Scout. Every summer I spent two weeks at a Scout camp in the Adirondacks. We slept in tents and had no power at the campsite (so no screens), and after a few days immersed in nature and away from technology I would feel a shift in consciousness - becoming more present and calm; less anxious and unsettled.”

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on their horse farm. My grandmother would take my brothers and I for long walks across the horse pastures and through the woods to mark trails … I can still hear her telling me how important it was to preserve our natural resources because we can never get them back once we have destroyed them. Her love for the outdoors and passion for conservation had a great influence on me.”

Parents, educators and research professionals know that the pre-adolescent years are especially critical in shaping who we are and what we do in later life.  And while non-stop technological innovation continues to shrink our world by virtually connecting us to more information and people, a growing body of evidence shows that too much screen time can be socially isolating and may lead to negative child development outcomes.  With a focus on the natural world, outdoor free play and basic science principles, Nature Museum educators build strong developmental foundations so our students can thrive now and as they mature into adulthood.

It is our hope that by honoring this extraordinary group of rising leaders we will set a high standard for our students to become responsible stewards of the environment, and that by extension they will influence their own communities to protect and sustain our one and only home.  Planet earth.

See you out on the trail.

By Tom Bregman

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Climate, Weather and Personal Resilience


While it is undoubtedly true that the industrial revolution provided great economic, commercial and social benefits to millions of people, some of that progress is now threatened by the unintended consequences of industrial activities.  From plastics in our oceans, to toxic chemicals in our drinking water, to logging tropical rain forests, none are of greater consequence to our long term well-being than the burning of fossil fuels and related industrial activities that increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and oceans.

Although scientists have recorded a doubling of atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) since the mid-nineteenth century, and now have overwhelming evidence on its impact to the climate system, a causal connection between increased greenhouse gases and daily weather (e.g. rain, snow, temperature, humidity, etc.) is only just emerging.  Recent studies demonstrate how a changing climate contributes to the variability and intensity of discrete weather events like droughts, rain, extended heat waves, warm winters, hot or cool summers and stronger storms.  And though not scientifically definitive, the news is filled with stories of regular extreme weather across the globe; multi-year droughts that result in massive wildfires and crop failures, intensifying hurricanes, thunderstorms and rain events that cause epic flooding, and extreme fluctuations between cold (polar vortex) and warm temperatures in winter that play havoc with travel and work.  Professor Michael Mann, Climate Scientist and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University says of recent extreme weather, “This is the face of climate change, we literally would not have seen these extremes in the absence of climate change.”

And the effects go well beyond simple inconvenience.  In a recently published edition of The Guardian newspaper Dr. Daniel Swain of the UCLA Center for Climate Science and his colleagues described how a changing climate can impact weather patterns, and how these changes promote an increase in the intensity and scale of wildfires in California.

“While record-breaking heatwaves grab headlines, some of the most consequential warming in California is more subtle. Nights have warmed nearly three times as fast as days during fire season – lowering night-time humidity and supporting unprecedented nocturnal fire behavior.  Declining spring snowpack and increased evaporation have reduced the moisture available to plants later in summer and autumn.  The fire season itself is lengthening: not only have autumn and spring temperatures risen, but there are signs that California’s already short rainy season is becoming further compressed into the winter months.  Despite this confluence of factors, the total number of fires in California has not increased in recent decades. Instead, climate change appears to be manifesting itself primarily through changes in the character (rather than frequency) of wildfire. Flames are spreading more rapidly and with greater intensity. Around half of the increase in area burned during western forest fires in recent decades can be attributed to the long-term warming trend.”

Of course none of this addresses the difficult issue of policy response, priority setting and the level of resources chosen to allocate to the problem.  The questions of long term impact to our economy and to the natural world, and how we address the effects of climate change have yet to be fully answered.  These are challenges that will confront our children as they move into adulthood and become the next generation of leaders and decision makers.

Because the Nature Museum’s teaching approach focuses on the natural world, environmental science and outdoor play, both climate and weather are important areas of learning and practical understanding for our students.  But rather than giving them a specific policy perspective, our educators focus on the fundamental principles of science and nature, and how they apply to everyday life.  For example, our Young Naturalist Director Kerrilee Hunter says to students and parents, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  This simple idea encapsulates a practical approach to understanding and solving problems, and fostering personal resiliency in our students.  We know it will serve them well as they make their way in the world and tackle the inevitable challenges of adulthood, come rain or shine.

See you on the trail (and don’t forget your raincoat)!!!

                       By Tom Bregman

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It's Complicated...

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Last week the Nature Museum completed a major lighting upgrade which will reduce our electricity bills and lower our carbon footprint significantly in the years to come. The project was spearheaded and primarily funded by a board member (with additional financial support from two of her colleagues) with a passion for clean energy projects. The Nature Museum’s operating expenses will be reduced and our planet will be better off with the upgrade, so big thanks to the three board members who made it happen. You rock!

But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. And in the case of our lighting upgrade our punishment came in the form of increased sky glow (a fancy way of saying light pollution) from the two outdoor lamps illuminating our parking area at the Outdoor Discovery Center.  A major reason homeowners, companies and municipalities are rapidly switching to LEDs is because they are highly energy efficient. LEDs produce more light (lumens) with less electricity (watts) than incandescent or sodium vapor lights.

And that’s good … mostly. But as with many things in life, it’s complicated.

The spectrum of visible light spans a range of wavelengths that, when separated into a single wavelength are seen by the human eye as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (think rainbows). Different types of lighting systems and bulbs emit light at different wavelengths. Some light bulbs are described as cold or cool, meaning they emit more blue-indigo-violet wavelengths, others are described as warm, meaning they emit more red-orange-yellow wavelengths. Additionally, light bulbs are rated for brightness or intensity which is reported as lumens. The combination of these features determines how we experience electrically generated light.

For these reasons changing out exterior incandescent or sodium vapor bulbs with LEDs can be problematic when the color (wavelengths) and brightness (lumens) cause substantially more sky glow.  Because white LEDs emit more short wavelength light than conventional bulbs, increased blue and green wavelengths cause substantially more light pollution when the wattage is not adequately stepped down and the lamps are not properly designed or positioned.  Nighttime light pollution can negatively impact insect and animal behavior, and may affect human health by disrupting circadian rhythms, messing with melatonin levels and creating other sleep disorders.

So, are we giving up on our lighting upgrade because of these problems? Not at all.

But we have begun an assessment and will quickly implement one or more of the following steps to address the light pollution issue head on; 1) install motion detectors to greatly reduce the amount of time the lights are illuminated, 2) swap out the new bulbs with lower wattage LEDs to reduce the intensity when they are on, and 3) install hoods on the lamps to direct the light downward and reduce omnidirectional light. These modest adjustments will allow us to save energy, lower our electrical costs, reduce our carbon footprint and preserve our dark skies too.

See you in the dark!!!

                              By Tom Bregman

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If a Tree Falls....

A week before I started as the new Executive Director of the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum our region was hit by a powerful and destructive wind storm.  Thousands of large trees were splintered, snapped or uprooted across the mid-Hudson Valley.  Homes, schools and businesses lost power for days.  The Outdoor Discovery Center took a big hit too.  I learned this hours after the storm blew through when a friend who walks the property most evenings called and left me an ominous message, “There are some very big trees down at the Nature Museum, I thought you should know.” 

He was right.  Next to Stillman Barn a towering ninety-foot pine had completely uprooted and toppled across the entrance to the lower parking lot.  Lucky for us the large pine did only minor damage to a small informational kiosk adjacent to a short path connecting to the upper lot.  On several forest trails we had large scale blowdowns which will require many weeks or months to clear.  And in Grasshopper Grove two majestic shagbark hickory trees, perhaps a century or more in age, uprooted, nearly bisecting the play area.  It was as if a skilled logger had precisely dropped both trees to avoid the benches and other constructed objects in the grove.

The trees had provided shade for children and parents enjoying Grasshopper Grove on scorching summer days, and on certain special evenings their highest branches would become illuminated by the light of a setting sun beaming through broken clouds from the western horizon.

This is nature.  Wild.  Frequently unpredictable.  Seemingly capricious.  Often staggeringly beautiful.  But forever challenging.  Try as we might to tame and control it, we are always humbled by its power and presence.  Taking that perspective as a guide and tapping into the creativity and resourcefulness of a highly motivated staff, we decided to turn these two giant lemons into a cool pitcher of lemonade.

First, we needed to understand if the trees were stable where they fell, or if they required major bracing or relocation.  At the edge of the grove between the exterior fence and a stone wall, the giant root systems were splayed into the air.  Near the heart of the play area their massive crowns pointed out in all directions with soaring limbs, broken branches and a mass of bright green leaves.  The tangled mess made it difficult to fully assess the situation, so in a series of improvised on-site meetings the ad hoc Grasshopper Grove Action Team (a small group of relevant Nature Museum staff) developed a rapid response plan.

Beckley Tree Service arrived the following day and chipped the branches, limbs and tangled leaves down to eye height.  The action team reassembled in the grove that evening and in a short meeting agreed on a final design and configuration.  Amazingly the trees did not have to be dragged, shifted, braced or re-positioned in any way.  They had fallen so as to be perfectly supported by several large boulders and the mixed grass and wood chip surface of Grasshopper Grove.   We positioned a few large diameter wheels (3 to 4 foot sections cut from other trees) to stiffen the bounciest limbs, and in several Zen-like sessions yours truly and four community volunteers stripped away the beautiful gray scaly bark.  Removing the bark helps to preserve the hardwood trunk and limbs while providing a more usable and safer climbing surface.  Days later Nannini & Callahan Excavating removed the massive stumps and roots, filled in the large holes created by the upended root systems, and shifted several sharp-edged boulders away from the fallen trunks.

In just three weeks, and with the indispensable help of super volunteers and local contractors, the Nature Museum has re-purposed the two fallen trees into a super cool climbing element that will open on Saturday (June 16).  We hope you will come and experience what we’ve done in partnership with mother nature.   See you in Grasshopper Grove!!!

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                               Tom Bregman