July 14, 2017

Summer Reading List 2017 - Trees

There's a particular friend who always introduces me as holding a PhD in trees which is incorrect but it's accurate to say that I am passionate about trees and nature especially in and of cities. Since folks in this particular circle consider me a tree doctor and know that I also love books, I'm often asked for tree book recommendations. Here are my current five favorite tree books listed in no particular order.

1. URBAN FOREST by Jill Jonnes

2. THE NATURE FIX by Florence Williams

Read my reviews of Urban Forests and The Nature Fix on this blog.

3. TREE: A LIFE STORY by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady

In a nutshell or in a cone since the tree is a Doug-fir, this book read likes a poetic biography of one BC based Douglas-fir. It's possible that I will review the book here.

4. THE SONGS OF TREES by David George Haskell

I've only read the second half of this book. I was drawn to the trees with a more urban connection: the cottonwood in Denver, the Callery pear in Manhattan, the olive tree in Jerusalem, and the Japanese white pine in Washington, DC though its story began on Miyajima Island, Japan. The writing is phenomenal so I don't doubt I will read the first two chapters. Another reason I enjoyed the portion of the book I read, and it's clear that this thread is woven throughout the entire book, is Haskell's exploration of relationships between people and non-human animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi as well as the relationships among these non-human beings. He writes,
Bonsai does not escape life's network. Instead, like olive groves, bonsai trees bring to the surface what is harder to discern elsewhere: that human lives and tree lives are. made, always, from relationship. For many trees it is nonhuman species--bacteria, fungi, insects, birds--that are the primary constituents of the network. Olive and bonsai trees bring humans to the center, giving us direct experience of the importance of sustained connection.

Not a traditional summer read, Dr. Leslie Day's field guide to NYC street trees is a must have for New Yorkers. I think most city folks in the U.S., at least, would find this a useful book to own as many of the species discussed in the book populate many North American cities. I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Day several times and attended her nature walks in Washington Square Park. She is a lovely person and very knowledgeable not only about trees but about birds and bees, too.

June 17, 2017

Walk and Draw Tour of Greenwich Village

Despite my best intentions, I did not participate in Tidewater Gardener's Winter Walk-Off 2017, an annual call to photojournal what's within walking distance of home. Fortunately for me, I was given a redeeming opportunity by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in the form of its Draw and Walk event with artist Nick Golebiewski. If you don't already follow Nick on Instagram (and Twitter), check out his Nick's Lunchbox Service daily drawing series on Instagram.

We convened under the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park. Each participant was given a sketchbook and pen courtesy of Jerry's Palette Shop on 4th Avenue. This was a very nice touch, I thought. Nick spoke briefly about his background, outlined the program which included drawing at four locations in the neighborhood (the Arch, the Washington Square North townhouses, Jefferson Market Library, and Patchin Place), and offered drawing tips. I made several sketches of the Arch but only took a photograph of one drawing which is shown above. We spent a long time at the arch so skipped the townhouses.

I had not fully read the tour description I received by email so did not know that the library stop included climbing the clocktower. The tower's historic function was a fire lookout. Learn more about the library. When we arrived at the library and were led to the clocktower door, I might have squealed. Touring the clocktower felt like I had won a golden ticket. The tight, spiral staircase could be a challenge for those with weak knees and those who suffer from claustrophobia (ahem). There is a break in the tower where a landing marks the transition from stone steps to metal ones. At the end of the metal steps is an attic area where the Halloween spider(s) and an octopus are stored. Beyond the door is the balcony and a 360 degree view of Manhattan.

I made many sketches at the library balcony, of the grillwork, the lower roof line, the skyline, and of Patchin Place which was our next and final stop on the tour. When we first moved to Manhattan I explored some of the mews and alleys in the Village and in Lower Manhattan but I did not know until this GVSHP tour that Patchin Place is a public street. It was one I had walked by many times but never attempted to walk through the gate. It's a lovely reminder of old Greenwich Village, and it's shaded nicely by Ailanthus altissima. Looking down on this street from the library balcony reminded me of the book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn!

P.S. For more photographs of this tour, visit the GVSHP Walk and Draw album on Flickr.

June 7, 2017

20 Minute Nature Tour of Washington Square Park

For the second time in two years, Washington Square Park (WSP) Eco Projects participated in the World Science Festival. This year the collaborative offered a Guided Nature Bingo through the park - a 5-stop tour in 20 minutes. The tour was offered three times (the fourth time slot was cancelled due to rain) on June 4th, Ultimate Science Sunday. We did not use the bingo card (and it is not included in this post). The participants were mostly adults and the only child opted of playing the game. One participant said, "I learned so much in 20 minutes!" You can use the map and notes below for a self guided experience.

If you'd like WSP Eco Projects to host a free Guided Nature Bingo tour, or if you'd like this 20 Minute Nature Tour document as a PDF, send an email to hello@wspecoprojects.org.

June 4, 2017

The Villager Published Washington Square Park State of Nature Report

A version of the 2016 State of Nature Report for Washington Square Park written by me for WSP Eco Projects was published by The Villager on May 18, 2017. Read PROGRESS REPORT: Sparrows, pigeons lead pack in park ‘bird census’.

May 14, 2017

Washington Square Park - State of Nature Report

Male Kentucky Warbler, Washington Square Park, 12 May 2017, photograph used with permission of Dennis Edge

A Kentucky Warbler stopped over in Washington Square Park for two days last week. The sighting of this rare bird caused a flash flock of humans to gather at the site of its layer, just northwest of the arch. I wrote the First Annual State of Nature Report for Washington Square Park on behalf of WSP Eco Projects in April and given the buzz around the park's bird life, I thought I'd share it here.

History of Washington Square Park Eco Projects

As I write this report about Washington Square Park, this treasured greenspace is blooming with cherries, crabapples, and magnolias. Year-round and migrating birds are foraging, nesting, and resting in the park. Smaller animals are also present; we are seeing butterflies and flies in greater numbers in the park. The idea for Washington Square Park Eco Projects (WSP Eco Projects) germinated more than four years ago with a mission to showcase and celebrate the nature of the park. WSP Eco Projects formally launched in 2014 after a successful fundraising campaign on ioby.org. Our first goal was to map all the trees in the park and the historic and modern routes of Minetta Brook, a stream that used to run aboveground from its confluence at 11th and 12th Streets between 5th and 6th Avenues through the park and then southwest to empty into the Hudson River at present day Charlton Street. There are more than 300 trees in the park. [Note: a count of 338 trees have been made in the park but this does not represent the total number of trees in the park. At 9.75 acres, there are approximately 34.6 trees per acre.] The WSP Eco Map does not show the locations of shrubs or herbaceous perennials though recently some of this data was captured via iNaturalist during the City Nature Challenge 2017.

Since the map’s launch we have expanded the scope of our work. We offer park-based educational programming, which has included the 2014 Family Nature Scavenger Hunt and seasonal tree walks in 2014 and 2015. We partner with local nonprofits and large institutions on programming, too. Last fall, we co-sponsored an oak planting workshop and a winter tree walk with the park’s conservancy. We curated a cube of nature picture books and field guides for the Uni Project, which set up a reading room in the park in September. Authors and publishers donated most of the books in our collection. We also contributed an ecology game to the reading cart, a Nature Bingo Card designed for us by The Bird Feed NYC. It is a great game and we will bring it back to the park this year. We also engage in research. With a permit granted by NYC Parks Natural Resources Group, we are in year two of a wildlife survey.

Observing Wildlife Longitudinally in Washington Square Park

NYC Parks permitted Observing Wildlife Longitudinally in Washington Square Park in April 2016. WSPEco Projects surveyed wildlife in the park between August and December of 2016. Wildlife seen within the park’s boundaries were formally recorded. Birds that were heard, flew overhead, or were observed outside the park and wildlife that were neither bird, nor squirrel, nor rodent (ex: butterfly) were not recorded officially. Also not counted were birds or squirrels that had flocked around a human providing food. The Eco Projects surveyors walked the same continuous loop through the park a total of seven times in 2016 and recorded 33 different bird species totaling 1,157 individuals. The most number of individuals (350) was recorded on August 31. The most number of species recorded on a single checklist was 15 on October 13. The species observed most often was the House Sparrow (403 across 7 checklists) followed by the Rock Pigeon (383 across 7 checklists). The least observed species, 1 individual in each instance, were the American Kestrel, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Swainson's Thrush, Magnolia Warbler, and Swamp Sparrow. House Finches were only observed on one date, December 31st, when 9 were spotted. A single Hermit Thrush was spotted on two separate dates.

Male Kentucky Warbler, Washington Square Park, 12 May 2017, photograph used with permission of Steven Sonnenblick

Spring 2017 Wildlife Update

Our permit was renewed in time for the spring migratory season! So far we have completed two survey walks. In addition to common species such as American Robin, House Sparrows, and Rock Doves (pigeons), we spotted Dark-eyes Juncos and Song Sparrows. We have noticed more European Starlings in the park than we did during 2016 survey. A Red-tailed Hawk was spotted once on our first walk of the season though the nesting pair is active. There are two eyases (baby hawks) in the nest. Check out the live hawk cam at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/e3uYJSDgmbz. We expect and hope to see a variety of warblers, thrushes, wrens, woodpeckers, chickadees, etc. Please let us know what you are seeing in the park. You can log your animal and plant observations in several places such as on eBird or via iNaturalist where we have two project pages (WSP Wildlife Observations and WSP Plants & Fungi). If you use social media, tag us @wspecoprojects.

What’s Next for WSP Eco Projects?

Join WSP Eco Projects for two events this spring: a Natural & Social History Awareness Tour on May 5th May 7 with WSP Blog as part of Jane’s Walk 2017 and a Guided Nature Bingo on June 4th as part of the World Science Festival 2017. Look for our pop-up library; we’ll announce the hours and locations on social media. Also, we hope to roll out our urban wildlife education program soon.

Washington Square Park is a popular park; it is beloved by local residents and on the NYC to-do list of many tourists. It is also a bio-diverse greenspace that provides numerous environmental benefits, to non-human animals and people alike, and should be stewarded to improve its ecological performance.

May 11, 2017

City Nature Challenge 2017 - Washington Square Park

To the question, Which city can observe the most nature?, the answer is Dallas/Fort Worth. Sixteen cities participated in the second annual City Nature Challenge (CNC) and 510 citizen scientists made a whopping 24,170 observations of 2311 species. Texas had two other cities in the top 5: Austin and Houston in fourth and fifth places. The second and third spots were filled by San Francisco (23,193 obs) and Los Angeles (18,372). In the first annual CNC between Los Angeles and San Francisco, LA eked out a surprise win. New York City placed ninth with 3862 observations, 675 species, and 155 participants.

I participated as @wspecoprojects and logged 19 observations in Washington Square Park between April 14 and 18, the duration of the challenge. I made an additional 75 observations in the park and the surrounding neighborhood as @localecologist. Check out some of my observations below. You can use iNaturalist to log your wildlife, plants & fungi observations in Washington Square Park.

Two of my favorite things about participating in the City Nature Nature Challenge was meeting Kelly O'Donnell, an evolutionary ecologist at CUNY Macaulay Honors College and listening to my children say whenever I took out my phone that weekend, "you're taking nature pictures."

Was your city one of the CNC 2017 Cities? Share your story with us in the comments!

April 7, 2017

Book Review - The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams

With the arrival of spring though in fits and starts, it's more comfortable to spend more time, more frequently outside, in nature. This is ultimately the takeaway from Florence Williams' new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Florence Williams is a meticulous researcher and talented writer. Her personable storytelling made me want to read more about the science behind our biophilia, and I'm already a fan of this type of information. Williams is a journalist and used that toolkit to gather data for this book. She was also a research subject, donning a portable EEG device to record her brain waves in different natural settings.

Within the canon of research trying to definitively show that nature does make us happier, healthier, and more creative, Williams observes that Western researchers, generally speaking, tend towards determining how much and what types of nature exposure lead to preferred outcomes as well as developing technological substitutes for nature. In part one of the book, "Looking for Nature Neurons", Williams examines the motivations and goals of Western and Eastern scientists who study the "nature-creativity-productivity" axis. One of the unique aspects of The Nature Fix is Williams' consideration of more than the visual relationship humans have with nature. In the context of nature most proximate to us, she explores the information we receive in the first five minutes via smelling, hearing, and seeing. Williams' goes deeper into how much time we need to be exposed to nature to reap its benefits which begs the question about what types of nature can support extended exposure. These issues are explored in parts three and four of the book. Since much of humanity lives in urbanized areas, it's fitting that Williams addresses how humans can make the most of and expand upon existing nature in their cities.

Do you take purposefully deep breaths when you enter nearby nature? I'll pause here and note that "nature" in The Nature Fix, and this is not unique to this book, seems to be implicitly defined as a geographic space with boundaries, such as a yard, an urban or national park, a garden, a nature trail or a woodland. Back to breaths. When we smell nature, there is an unconscious psychic response to the absence of, or in all likelihood reduction in, air pollution. The nose is the "thruway to the brain". We likely smell how good a place is for us before we register the visual or auditory cues. Now what about tuning in to the auditory signals emanating from nature? Because of our reliance on sight, sound is not "the secret weapon of the nature cure," writes Williams. Yet, one of the noticeable absences as you move along the urban to wild gradient is manmade sound. You can hear more of the natural soundscape. A common nature-making strategy in cities is to reduce human noise by adding in natural sounds such as falling water. (Falling water is also visually appealing and moderates microclimates.) Florence Williams writes about the waterfall in Cheonggyecheon Park in Seoul which dims the din of the adjacent roadway. There are many examples of waterfall bedecked parks in U.S. cities. The most famous one in New York is Paley Park on 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue. Even if sound is not a primary mode of experiencing the environment for humans, it is for other animals, for example, birds. Reading this section of the book, I recalled numerous articles* within the last decade about the changes in bird call and song volume and frequency in response to the noisy urban soundscape.

Seeing nature is the most significant exposure pathway to nature which makes me curious about how people who have sight disabilities compensate with their other senses. An influential study of hospital recovery times between patients with and without views unto nature was conducted by Robert Ulrich and published in Science in 1984. (By the way, Ulrich's work is one of the core pieces of literature read by students of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and allied fields.) Florence Williams also discusses another classic study of visual exposure to nature, this one by Frances Kuo and William Sullivan in 2001. Kuo and Sullivan show that views of trees and grass as well as time spent in landscapes vegetated with trees and grass led to more prosocial behaviors. Some scientists are exploring the benefits of viewing nature imagery versus real nature. This approach has shown "fast, positive responses," but the co-benefits of looking at real nature or spending less time looking at screens is significant. One is ocular health; less exposure to sunlight can increase the risk of myopia!

Spending time outside, in nature, is good for you. But how much time? Williams explores time prescriptions - what is the optimal amount of time one needs to spend in nature to achieve maximum happiness, health, and creativity benefits? What does the "dose curve" look like? Are five hours per month enough? Liisa Tyrvainen of the National Resources Institute of Finland argues yes. Tyrvainen and her team observed that more is more when it comes to nature exposure. But there are more questions. What role does frequency play? What about degree of natureness? (I made up this word.) What about the state of your mental health or cognitive ability? Williams dives into these issues with her participation in a weeklong, 81-mile rafting trip with the Higher Ground program for former and current military members suffering from PTSD. She also profiles Zack, a boy with ADHD who attends SOAR, an outdoor adventure boarding school for grades seven to twelve. I believe that on the whole nature is good for you. Williams' attention to the role that nature can play in improving health outcomes for people suffering from serious psychological trauma as well as improving cognitive and emotional outcomes for children is admirable. I found these two stories to be the most poignant in the book.

As a city/nature person, I appreciated that Williams ends her book talking about cities. She asked, "Is it even possible that megaurban habitats could provide [hits from a full spectrum of doses of nature]? and went to Singapore to find the answer. She was enthusiastic about the high percentage of real greenery but less so about the presence of technological forms of nature and the low amounts of wild nature. A critical observation she makes about Singapore is about the importance of "a strong governing vision." To weave quality nature throughout an entire city requires government commitment via policy, design, and financing. Thinking about the fake "Supertrees" in Singapore, Williams reflects on the value of real trees in cities, their myriad co-benefits such as carbon storage, urban cooling, and air pollution removal. As well, Williams talks about doctors prescribing time in city parks and organizations promoting the benefits of passive and active recreation for everyone and making nearby and distant greenspaces more accessible. Finally, sometimes nature helps you to notice and to appreciate the nature of the city. Imagine: a blizzard. Plane and vehicular traffic stops. You walk along the local canal You hear a natural quiet. Then you hear the songbirds.

The Nature Fix is a lively exploration of the science and intuition behind the myriad benefits of spending time in nature. Williams prose is both intelligent and approachable. You'll enjoy reading the book and broaden your understanding of how nature works makes us well beings.

A review copy of The Nature Fix was provided by W. W. Norton.

P.S. Watch this video: The Nature Fix - What Happens When You Spend Just 5 Minutes in Nature?

* Birds sing louder in cities
Why City Sparrows Are Singing A Very Different Tune [Audubon]
Traffic Is Changing How City Birds Sing [Next City]
Urbanisation is changing the way birds sing [Ecologica]
Sparrows Actually Change Their Tune To Sing Over the Noise Of the City [City Lab]
To Flirt In Cities, Birds Adjust Their Pitch [NPR]
City birds sing higher than country cousins, scientists find [The Guardian]