After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature

Every student at College of the Atlantic earns a degree in human ecology. The following piece is my final human ecology essay, a place where each College of the Atlantic senior reflects on what they learned during their schooling and presents a snapshot of their view of “human ecology.”

As long as I can remember I have loved nature. My mother recalls three-year-old Austin rescuing earthworms from puddles after rainstorms and running around the house turning off lights to “save the penguins.” Before I entered elementary school, television shows featuring lion prides and herds of giraffe made me dream of becoming a world-traveling wildlife photographer. As a teenager, I led my parents on a grand summer vacation visiting national parks in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California, and Oregon. I’ll always remember how I felt exploring Yellowstone National Park for the first time—like every footstep deserved to be placed with a gentleness and respect for hallowed ground.

While visiting Yellowstone, I was entranced with the natural and human history of the region. Firsthand experience watching bison swim with their heads barely bobbing above rushing rivers, seeing coyote puppies play with their mother in a sheltered glade, and observing wolves’ tracking a scent and howling through the twilight inspired a sense of natural wonder. The park, steeped in the legacy of American conservation, served as an ideal place to spark my imagination.

At Yellowstone, I felt the environmental vigor of my childhood again. I felt sensations that spurred the first champions of the conservation movement. This is a movement that has made great strides since the creation of Yellowstone, but given the current climate—one where humankind’s impact on Earth’s environment is more pronounced than at any previous time—there has never been a more opportune time to take bearings and consider if conservation requires a new direction forward. I wonder if Americans struggle to separate modern conservation from the preservation values of the 19th and early 20th century, a period when many beloved parks were protected. In an era of climate change, we need a new wave of environmental thinking because our environmental dilemmas require national leadership and international cooperation—not national isolation and international division. To reach a new plateau in conservation, we need a national effort to assess how our current relationship with nature falls short and what new routes we need to take.

Rising And Falling
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Continue reading “After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature”

Leaves: A Fall Project

red maple
Red maple (Acer rubrum).

Of the many enchanting parts of plants, leaves may be the most wonderful. They add color, form, and oxygen to our world. The sheer amount of variation in leaves is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that most true leaves have one basic function: photosynthesis. This is a function so critical to life on this planet that you would assume plants would not want to mess around. But they do. The result is an almost incomprehensibly wide variety of shapes, sizes, arrangements, margins, venation patterns, pubescence, and almost any other characteristic you could imagine.

red oak
Red oak (Quercus rubra).

This fall I undertook a project to highlight my favorite part of autumn: the amazing variation in leaves. This was my final project for a class at College of the Atlantic that focused on the taxonomy and identification of woody plants.

Pressed leaves in Lightroom
After photographing 250 individual leaves, I had a plethora to choose from for the final video. Shown here: Quercus rubra (red oak, top), Fagus grandifolia (American beech, middle right), Acer pensylvanicum (stripped maple, bottom).

When I began this project I did not have a great idea of how the final product would look. While I had a stop-motion style video in mind after only a few weeks into the term, how I would carry out this video remained unknown. So during the fall I gathered and pressed any leaf that caught my fancy. This lead to a shortage of some types of leaves and an abundance of others, but overall I was happy with my collection through late October, when I individually photographed over 200 pressed leaves.

Using a light board to photograph leaves.
Using a light board to photograph leaves (not the final setup).

The final video I made is not a complete collection of these photographs, but merely a short clip meant to feature some of the diversity in leaf form. If you enjoyed the video, which draws from only six taxonomic families (Acer, Betula, Fagus, Populus, Quercus), I made a special gallery to showcase the most interesting leaves of all kinds that I photographed this fall, including the purple compound leaves of Fraxinus americana, white ash.

Video