Thursday, November 13, 2014

Everything is Good in Moderation

Growing up in a rural area I am used to being surrounded by farming and agriculture. I live in what is pretty much the middle of nowhere in Boyle County, Kentucky and so my family's property is surrounded by horse and cattle farms as well as corn and tobacco fields, despite the fact that we know nothing about farming and would consider ourselves "city people" (who just so happen to live in the country). Nevertheless, because I have grown so accustomed to seeing agriculture everywhere I turn, I have never really taken the time to consider the effects that it is having on the environment that I live in.

Before taking Biology and Human Concerns it never occurred to me how much damage farming can do to an ecosystem. I guess I always assumed that, because concrete wasn't being poured over the land in order to "urbanize," no real, permanent harm was being done to the environment. Compared to where I live now, in the middle of very urban downtown lexington, my home on the outskirts on Danville seems incredibly green and natural. However, I now know that just because there is more vegetation and green space does not necessarily mean that it is more natural. In fact, in order to create the farms that surround my home, natural environments had to be destroyed so that the soil could be turned over and crops could be planted. Not only that, but in order for my neighbors to raise their horses and cows they probably had to replace the natural grasses that grew in their fields with foreign ones so that their animals could feed outside for a longer amount of time.

Obviously there are benefits to agriculture and our society probably couldn't survive without some form of it, and the same goes for urbanization and city life as well. But I think it is important, in whatever modifications we (humans) make to the environment, that we practice moderation. Agriculture and urbanization are not intrinsically bad, but they start to become dangerous when we let them completely overtake the beauty of the natural world. I may be biased, but I think that the land that my home sits on in rural central Kentucky is beautiful, and the thought of it being covered in concrete or ripped up and replaced with a corn field makes me very sad (also my cat would no longer have a place to roam, explore and hunt and we can't have that!). If people begin to think of themselves as a part of nature rather than a competitor of it, then the strides that we can make towards preserving the natural world will be amazing!

Here are some pictures that I have taken over the years around my home:


Taken in May of 2011

Taken in October of 2014

Taken in October of 2014 (His name is Nacho)

Taken in October of 2014

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Legend of Constantin Rafinesque

In my last blog post I discussed the importance of storytelling's role in our lives and in biology. However, sometimes the ways that stories are changed and exaggerated overtime can have a negative impact on the accuracy of our understanding of natural history. For example, Transylvania University has a myriad of tales and legends surrounding one very eccentric naturalist, Constantin Rafinesque (from here on referred to as Raf). The legend has it that during his time as a professor at Transy he had an affair with the university president's wife. This angered the president and so he kicked Raf out of the university. In his anger over being terminated, Raf supposedly placed a curse on the university that would stay in place as long as he wasn't at Transy. After many years (and after Raf's death) bad things started to happen at Transylvania. In order to break the curse members of the university found what they thought was Raf's grave (it wasn't) and brought his remains (actually some other person's remains) back to Transy in order to break the curse.

As a student at Transy this story has played a significant role in shaping my experience at this university. This is because several aspects of campus life here are shaped around the legend of Constantin Rafinesque. However, details about Raf's many important biological contributions have been lost in the passing down of stories. If I hadn't taken Biology and Human Concerns I never would have known about the hundreds of species that Raf identified and named. I also would not have known that he had around 1000 publications in his lifetime. Raf was an important figure in the history of Transylvania University, but unfortunately much of the Transy community knows very little about what actually made Raf so significant. I think that it is a shame that Raf is being remember more for the crazy curse that he placed on the school than for the real contributions that he made to science. I am also kind of embarrassed that I went around for the past year and a half telling people this cool story about a botany professor that did a bunch of weird stuff while he was at Transy, when what I really should have been emphasizing was the fact that Transy was once the home of a historically significant and famous botanist. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Storytelling and Human Anatomy

Several weeks ago I made a blogpost about how natural history and biology are connected to the arts, specifically the theatrical arts. I explained how, in many ways, theatre is about interactions that humans have with one another, but it is also about interactions that people have with their environment. However, this is only one way that biology and theatre are connected.

Currently, I am in a play called Shakespeare in Mind. This play is a compilation of several separate short plays that are linked by a common goal of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century. But modernized Shakespeare is not the only thing that these scenes have in common. As described in the first scene of the play "Shakespeare's Brainscan,"these individual stories are all connected by the fact that the human brain is naturally drawn to stories.

In "Shakespeare's Brainscan," written by Elizabeth Wong, Shakespeare #3 (played by me!) says, "Only 12 cranial nerves but a story lights them all. Olfactory nerve, bipolar and myelinated. Auditory nerve, bi polar and myelinated. Motor nerves multi-polar and myelinated. Optic nerve. Facial nerve. The trigeminal. The abducent. The glossompharyngeal. The hypoglossal. Nothing, gets your brain all hyped up, like a good story." In other words, human anatomy and storytelling are the opposite of mutually exclusive because one cannot exist without the other. Without the vast and diverse functions that the human brain has developed through adaptation, stories and theatre would not exist. Likewise, if humans were incapable of telling stories then they would lose an important part of what distinguishes them from other animals. Earlier in the scene Shakespeare #3 explained that "Even in a story. Your brain fires up. You FEEL increased strength, you feel power surging, senses heightening, intuition vibrating off the charts. You are alive! Oh yes! YES! YES!" Obviously everyone wouldn't just drop dead if they stopped telling stories. But I think that the human race would lose something incredibly significant. Of course biology and natural selection play a vital role in distinguishing humans from other organisms, but without the culture that people develop and maintain through the telling of stories, the human race would not be what it is. Therefor, I would say that theatre and storytelling play an equally important role in defining the homo sapien species as biological makeup.

At the end of "Shakespeare's Brainscan" all of the characters die
because the story was such an integral part of who they were.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Fate of Squirrels

Earlier this week I was walking around on campus with my friend Josiah when our stride was halted by a squirrel sitting on the sidewalk a few feet ahead of us, nibbling on an acorn. We paused for a few moments to marvel at the squirrel (and to snap a few pictures) before it darted up a nearby tree. As we walked on Josiah turned to me and said, "It's so interesting how squirrels eat a whole bunch of food to fatten up before winter so that they don't die. How impressive is it that they instinctively know to do that??" But then he went on to remark about how terrifying it probably is to be a squirrel, because if they don't get enough food before winter hits then they will inevitably die. The topic of mine and Josiah's conversation didn't stay on the fate of the squirrel for munch longer, but nonetheless this cute, furry little creature stayed on my mind for days after our brief encounter. I don't know very much about the size of the squirrel population on Transylvania University's campus, nor do I know how great the competition is for acorns, but this situation prompted me to do a little bit of research about how squirrels survive during the winter.

According to pawnation.com, squirrels do not hibernate during the winter. Because they remain active, the competition for food increases greatly because it is so much more difficult to find. Therefor, many squirrels will not survive their first year of life. Knowing this information I realize that mine and Josiah's concerns for our squirrel friend are not completely unwarranted. Unfortunately their is no real way to know if he/she will make it through the winter, but I guess we can always hope for the best.

The very squirrel that Josiah and I befriended.
This picture was taken on October 19, 2014
Source:
http://animals.pawnation.com/squirrels-cold-4390.html

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Weather Effects Our Moods

Fall is coming!! For many of us this means that it is time to break out the sweaters, boots, and warm beverages. However, in addition to all of the fun perks that accompany colder weather and shorter days, I have started to notice that the weight of the world (and all of my difficult classes) seems to be pressing down on me a little more than it was at the beginning of the semester. Initially I just wrote this off as being a part of the natural progression of the semester. But upon further reflection, and with the inspiration provided to me by my biology class, I realized that my external environment might be contributing to my fatigued, "over-it" attitude. So... I decided to look into this a little further to see if my mood these past couple of weeks has actually been effected by the weather or if it is all purely psychological.

According to a 2008 study conducted by Jaap Denissen, when people are exposed to less sunlight they are more likely to experience depression-like symptoms. In his study Denissen found that, "Vitamin D, which is produced in skin exposed to the hormone of sunlight, has been found to change serotonin levels in the brain, which could account for changes in mood" (p. 666). Therefore, I can conclude that I am not crazy, but that the recent shift in weather is in fact effecting the way that I have been feeling and it has also probably had an effect on all of the other students and professors around me.


Something that I have observed in life, especially from my studies as a Theatre and Writing, Rhetoric and Communications double major, is that a person's mood or attitude towards a specific situation can greatly affect their level of productivity. Not only that, but a persons mood can also have an impact on the moods of those around them. So if one person is feeling down because of the bad weather the chances that those around them will be more grumpy or fatigued increases. Nevertheless, in spite of all of the negativity that Fall can bring into our lives, it remains one of my favorite times of year. Being surrounded by beautiful red, yellow and orange leaves falling all around me reminds me that the world is beautiful place, even if it can sometimes be dark and dreary. 



This beautiful tree on Transylvania University's campus was the true inspiration behind this blog post.
It's magnificent to look at even in the rain! (photo taken on October 15, 2014)

Campus may seem dead today because of the dreary weather, but if you ask me it is alive with the wonders of Fall! (feat. Transy's famous "Kissing Tree") (photo taken October 15, 2014)


Source:
http://plone.psychologie.hu-berlin.de/de/prof/perdev/pdf/2008/Denissen_Weather_Mood_2008.pdf

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Plants Move

Recently in Biology and Human Concerns we were learning about all of the different ways that plant species move. We talked about pollinators and insects that carry seeds from one place to another either because they ate them or because the seed attached themselves to their fur. The entire time that we were learning about this I could not stop thinking about an experience that I have had in the recent past that showed me another, perhaps slightly more unconventional method of plant movement.

This summer I took a vacation to California with my mom and my grandma, who I call Nannie. A little back story about my Nannie: she loves to garden, be it vegetables, flowers, ferns, whatever. So, when we spent a day in the San Diego zoo it was no surprise to me that Nannie was more excited about all of the plants in the zoo than the animals that we were actually there to see. Before long she was wondering around trying to find baby ferns and other plant seeds that she could take home with her. My mom and I got quite the laugh out of this at the time, but now I can't help but think that my Nannie was contributing to the movement of plants in a small way. Now there are ferns that once lived in California finding residence in my Nannie's Kentucky yard.

I realize that this is kind of a silly story, but it nonetheless caused me to ask a lot of questions about how my Nannie's actions might have affected or changed the ecosystems that those ferns and other plants were once and are now a part of. I don't know specifically what types of plants my Nannie took, but I can't help but wonder how they survived in their new environment. Kentucky and California have very different climates and so it is difficult for me to image how a plant that lived in the dry air of California could survive in Kentucky's humidity. And what if the plants were non-native? Could Nannie have introduced a new competitor for the other species residing in her garden? It is crazy for me to imagine how great of an impact humans can have on nature. I think that a lot of people assume that humans and nature are separate, that they coexist but that they don't really affect one another in any really significant way. But my Nannie's actions (be them somewhat unusual) have reminded me that people influence nature just as much if not more than anything else.

My mom snapped this hilarious picture of Nannie stealing a piece of the fern. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

PEOPLE ARE PART OF NATURE TOO.

This week in Biology class we read Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic. Essentially this reading talked about ecological ethics and the importance of conservation. This essay really hit home for me because I have experienced ecological destruction as the result of urbanization first hand. 

Growing up I loved being in nature. While I wasn't a particularly athletic child, I always looked forward to trips to Nannie and Papa's house because they meant that I would get to play in the creek. I learned to never turn down an opportunity to splash around in cool water, skip rocks or look for tadpoles and honeysuckle. Essentially, my childhood days spent in the creek taught me to appreciate nature for what it was. I could be a part of nature without affecting it in any significant way (and certainly not in any way that was negative). I loved the creek almost as much as the ecosystems that found home within its boundaries and I never imagined that such a wonderfully magical place would cease to exist. 

About two years ago the unimaginable happened. The city government of Liberty, Kentucky decided that building a road was more important than preserving the beauty of the creek. As bulldozers came through and turned the forest into rubble, I watched a large part of my life vanish before my eye. But not only that, I also witnessed the destruction of an ecosystem and all of the organisms that were a part of it. I feel sad knowing that urbanization has destroyed the lives of so many creatures. My most cherished outlet for connecting to nature was taken away and I am fearful for future generations. Will the children of the next several decades get to experience the same kind of closeness to nature that I felt or will all of that be replaced by layers of concrete? Only time will tell.

Little Mollie enjoying an afternoon in the creek.
(Im guessing that this picture was taken around 2001 or 2002)

The creek... or what is left of it. You can sort of see the new road in the background.
(This picture was taken in the winter of 2014)