Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How to Choose a Field Guide for a Young Child

A couple of days ago, I went to a nature store to purchase a field guide for my youngest, who is fascinated by butterflies. The store had a terrific selection, so I asked the clerk where I could find field guides for little kids.

"How old is the child?"


"Oh, we don't carry field guides for children that young."

I thought this was a bizarre response. At its most basic level, a field guide is a collection of pictures or drawings of a given set of plants, animals, or other natural features (rocks and clouds are among my favorites). Sure, you can buy guides with lots of text and exposition about various features, but you don't have to.

Here are some basic guidelines for buying a field guide for the very young child:

  • Choose a guide that is small enough for little hands to hold. Make sure the book isn't too heavy or too thick. I like Stokes Beginner's Guides
  •  Pick a guide where the specimens are arranged by color. This type of grouping is easy to explain and understand. Pictures will capture the attention of a little one better than drawings. My daughter, for example, loves the section of her new guide devoted to swallowtails. "We've seen that one, and that one, and that one!" she said.
  • Choose a book with common specimens over rare ones. Let's face it - little kids are noisy and boisterous and will scare away much of the wildlife you are trying to study. Pick a field guide that is heavy on natural things that are common for your area since you are far more likely to see them.
  • Less is more. Pick a guide with just a few features on a page. A large picture of the specimen coupled with a map showing its range is ideal. Symbols for common features are better than words. For example, it's better to show one star out of five to indicate a rare species than the word "rare."

Regardless of which guide you choose, make sure to have your child take ownership of the new book. Write his or her name on the cover - or let your child do it - and find a special place for it on the bookshelf. When you go outside for a nature walk, take your comprehensive guide along with your child's smaller one, and you can have fun discovering nature together.

Princess likes her new field guide.

Friday, October 18, 2013

#Ripplesofdoubt & #Ripplesofhope

Right now, there's a fascinating discussion on Twitter about the experiences of women in scientific disciplines. Search the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt and you'll read story after story of women who were harassed or devalued in their chosen careers due to their gender. Fortunately, #ripplesofhope is being used to discuss ways to improve the STEM fields for women - and to share stories of how things are improving.

I wrote about my experiences as a state environmental site assessor during the 1990's. As part of my job when I went to the field, I had to wear a hard hat (infrequently) and steel-toed boots (always). Well, guess what? The stores in my area didn't offer regular steel-toed boots in my size (remember, this was before ordering on the Internet). I had to buy blue boots with a tiny red and pink rose bud on each heel. It was so embarrassing. The stupid boots weren't even waterproof and every time they got wet, they stained my toes blue.

I felt the difference keenly because I already felt inadequate in the field.. I was in my early 20s, straight out of college, and frankly, I was a girly girl. The lab guys I worked with regularly were around my age and we got along well. But the representatives of the companies that I had to meet - companies that were liable for the cost of remediating whatever contamination we were sampling -  were another story. I always felt like these guys were trying to throw me off of my game. Over time, I learned to dress down in the field - no make-up, no jewelry, my hair in a ponytail - because it gained me credibility with the men I had to meet. (Also, because wearing jewelry on a potentially hazardous waste site is a really stupid idea because if it gets contaminated, you have to leave it there, but I digress.) Interestingly enough, by the time I left my job in 1999, roughly half of the new hires with jobs similar to mine were women. But when I started, the skew was largely toward men. By the time I left, I felt confident of myself in the field.

There was still gender bias in the office, though, and I never felt it more deeply than the time I overheard two of my older male co-workers insinuating that I was having a sexual encounter with a young male co-worker, simply because we were going out to lunch together. I was appalled on so many levels. How do you forgive a comment like that? My mouth dropped open and they caught me looking at them. And they laughed. They laughed, so I did too. But I never forgot. And I never forgave.

The man making the comments was a creepy, touchy-feely sort of guy. The girls on my floor used to joke about how he always leered at the new girls in their skirts and we couldn't wait until a new girl was hired so that he would stop looking at us. But no one ever thought to report him. It was sexual harassment, but it wasn't like it was rape or assault. Where do you draw the line? When do you report the behavior? I wonder now, since I didn't report it, was I complicit with the result? I'd like to think that today, I'd be able to stand up to such sexual bullying. But I wouldn't be a target now. I'm older, married with children, and simply not on anyone's radar. It's more important for me to look out for and protect younger women, especially those who might be as insecure as I was.

Reading #ripplesofdoubt was eye-opening for me because I never realized how many other women had experienced these same things. When we share our experiences, it can be very powerful. And when we turn our newfound knowledge toward action, we can create #ripplesofhope.

[Author's note:Twitter is a dynamic, ever changing online conversation, so I can't guarantee that these hashtags will still convey the same message if you search them now on Twitter.]

Sunday, October 13, 2013


[Update 10/14/13: Scientific American has finally reinstated Dr. Lee's original blog post on this topic, Biology-Online issued her an apology in which they claim to have fired the offensive editor, and Dr. Lee's story has hit national news. Behold the power of the pen! Or, as in this case, many collective virtual pens. Congrats, Dr. Lee! I hope this starts a dialogue on racism and sexism in the sciences, as well as discussion about payment for writers. - Mama Joules]

Yesterday, I jumped on Twitter to find an online acquaintance of mine, DNLee, at the center of a firestorm. Dr. Danielle N. Lee writes a blog called The Urban Scientist, a friendly, accessible voice from a minority woman in a global scientific community that is still largely dominated by white men. Dr. Lee was recently approached, via email, by an online publication to write for them for free. When she politely declined, they hit back with "Are you an urban scientist or an urban $&#%^?"

Now, I don't know about you, but when someone calls me a $&#%^, my blood starts boiling. My friend was no different, and she fired back on her blog with an appropriately measured response. However, her post was pulled by the host of her blog, Scientific American. Many have called this decision into question, particularly since it appears that this rude online publication has a financial relationship with Scientific American.

Sexism and racism - and I believe both were in play here - have no place in science or anywhere else. Deleting evidence of such transgressions doesn't erase the issue. Sweeping this ridiculous and insulting behavior under the rug only ensures that it will continue.

So, I am adding my voice to the growing online community of science blogging support for Dr. Lee. No one deserves to be cyber-bullied and then silenced and shamed as if they were at fault. 

You can read more about this issue, including a complete reprint of Dr. Lee's deleted rebuttal, from other similarly outraged bloggers: Sean Carroll, Dr. Isis, David Wescott, Dana Hunter and many, many others.

Dr. Danielle N. Lee
"A hip hop maven [who] blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences"

Monday, October 7, 2013

Consult Insects Before You Garden

I'm taking Master Naturalist training, and last week, one of the topics was botany. Let me just say that what I've learned about botany is that there's an awful lot I don't know about botany. But during the class, talk turned to native plants, which is a topic I've thought a lot about. In my very teeny tiny front yard, I've been trying to add native plants to the mix. This hasn't been easy, because where I live, native plants generally aren't found at the big box gardening stores - you have to go searching for them. And when you find them, they are quite pricey. However, native plants have their own merits, the most delightful one being that insects love them. Once you have native plants in your yard, you'll start to notice that fewer insects visit those exotic, colorful annuals. Insects have an entirely different way of seeing flowers, which includes detecting ultraviolet designs on the blooms. These UV markings act as a landing strip of sorts, helping pollinators find their way.

What I hadn't realized is that if you want to help the pollinators, you should consult them before purchasing your next plant. This was the advice given during my training, so I went to Home Depot for mulch this weekend and decided to test the theory. There were numerous plants offered for sale in the outdoor "fall color" section. Many were quite colorful, but I didn't see any that were attracting any insects. I started to wonder if the store somehow discourages insects from congregating in the plants when I spotted Joe Pye Weed.

Joe Pye Weed is native where I live and the name stuck in my head after that botany lesson. And I found the insects! All of the bees and flies and other unidentified flying critters that were ignoring the petunias and mums were partying in the flats of Joe Pye Weed. Each plant was literally crawling and buzzing with activity. So I brought a pot of Joe home and planted one in my yard. Hopefully, it will take off, the way the purple coneflowers did. Planting for pollinators may not lead to quite as exotic varieties of plants as you are used to, or give you exactly the color palette you were aiming for. But it is nice to know that you are making the insects happy, one bug at a time.

  Joe Pye Weed

Friday, October 4, 2013

Listen to the Landfill Harmonic

There's a video circulating on Facebook about the Landfill Harmonic, a tale about a group of kids from Paraguay who play instruments that have been refurbished using materials from the landfill their town is built upon. I am awed by the ingenuity of the people who have recreated these instruments, amazed that they sound so good, and touched by the talented young people who play them. This film about The Recycled Orchestra is in the works, having successfully been funded earlier this year on Kickstarter. Take a look for yourself. It truly goes to show that one man's trash is another man's treasure.