Crossing the Border

Amid alarming and exaggerated reports of a ¨Civil War¨ between the drug cartels and the Mexican government, I finally crossed the border today. After our trip to Biosphere 2, Levi dropped me off at a Mexican bus station in Tucson, and we joked that we were speaking the ¨last unaccented English¨ I would hear for a while.

I walked into the bus station, surprised people by speaking fluent Spanish, and felt like I was already home. It says a lot about the sorry state of mass transport in the US that the Mexican bus lines are now expanding northward, some reaching as far as Vegas or LA. Rather than driving everywhere (or flying) like we do in the US, in Mexico the normal way of traveling from one city to the next is by bus. This is mostly out of necessity of course, but the effect is that you can simply show up at the bus station whenever you please (within reason) and probably be on your way in less than an hour and at a decent price.

I hopped on the bus and headed South. Almost immediately, I struck up a conversation (in Spanish) with the girl in front of me, who I quickly discovered spoke perfect, unaccented English. So much for that!

We crossed the border and cheered when the random search button said we could go through with no hassle. Within a few hours I was in Hermosillo, where I went kindergarten, greeting my cousin Milly and her family. I was home.


Biosphere 2! The Tour

So after making the random snap decision to visit Biosphere 2, Levi and I really had no idea how to go about doing that. We followed the signs out to the middle of nowhere ranch, awkwardly waved at the guard (apparently parking was free) parked where it seemed we should park, and walked into what looked like a reception area. Levi had heard a little about the place, but just like people who live in DC but have never been to the museums, or live in VA Beach but don´t swim, he had never popped his head in. Its strange how sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to make one appreciate their hometown.

As we were making our way to the reception area, I was talking to Levi about what makes Biosphere 2 so special, and the receptionist overheard us and said that she was so fascinated by the place that she relocated across the state just to work there. We asked about tours and balked at the entrance fee of $20 each, with Levi trying to convince me that he would wait for me while I went in, me trying to convince him that since I hadn´t paid him for gas, it would be alright if I paid for both of us, him saying no way, me saying "dude you have to see this place." The receptionist agreed with my sentiment and told Levi he had to see this place, and finally ended the cycle by cutting the price in half! Probably the most passionate receptionist I´ve ever seen.

We walked over towards the introducctory video, talking about how its only when you "demonstrate some real miserlyness," as Levi put it, that people will cut you deals like that. If we had come in just whining about the high price, it would have never been dropped. It was the very fact that Levi was so willing to sit the tour out that made us good hagglers.

The main point of the video was to reiterate that Biosphere 2 was not a scientific failure, which made it especially funny when the first question asked of our tour guide was "Why did the experiment fail?" Accustomed to this reaction, the tour guide unblinkingly went on to talk about the difficulties of living in a closed system. He talked about "Too much work and not enough food." Not only were the eight people in the Biosphere expected to grow all of their own food, they also had to tend 5 wild biomes, maintain tons of complex machinery, and conduct scientific experiments! The intensive agricultural biome provided all of the nutrients the Biospherians needed, but fell short when it came to straight calories, leading to near starvation. This is a worthy lesson to learn, because it is totally understandable that one would focus on nutrition when designing an agricultural system for space, since a deficiency in any one nutrient can lead to serious diseases. So remember, when farming in space, don´t forget your potatoes!

I´d heard about some other problems as well, and decided to ask the guide to confrim or deny the rumors I´d heard that "The concrete sucked up a lot of the oxygen as it cured" and "The ants went crazy." On the first part it turns out I was part wrong, conctete actually sucks up CO2 as it cures, which you would think would be a good thing until you realize that plants need CO2 in order to grow and produce oxygen. There was a dissaperaring oxygen problem though. The Biospherians spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the missing oxygen was going, and finally found it was being sucked up by the rich, organic soil they were using to grow their crops. As the organic matter in the soil decomposed, the bacteria and fungi used up a lot of oxygen, leaving the Biospherians not only hungry but oxygen deprived. Another lesson on taking everything into account when trying to live in a bubble for two years.

The second rumor, on the ants, was pretty much confirmed. Our tour guide (I wish I´d gotten his name, but check out the picture of him pointing above) said that one particular species of ant took over the whole biosphere, an interesting example of an "invasive species" problem in miniature. We finally walked into the biosphere and started seeing stuff, walking into the Savannah Biome, which overlooks the Ocean and Mangrove Biomes.

Our tour guide told us a little about what happened to Biosphere 2 after the sealed experiments, and what the place does now. Its basically become a giant test tube, a bridge between what scientists can figure out in the lab and what they have to study in the field. This is a big gap to fill, since most lab biology is done at the cellular or organismal scale while field science is unavoidably and often unknowingly done at the landscape scale. The idea of bottling up a mini ecosystem that you can modify, then, is kind of unresistible to scientists. In that spirit, Biosphere 2 was first picked up by Columbia University for a few years, and used to simulate rising CO2 levels in the rainforest and coral reef biomes.

As CO2 in the atmosphere rises, plants tend to grow faster since they use the C in CO2 to make trunk, root, and leaf tissues. This effect is a huge potential carbon sink, but at some point, the plants will run into some other limiting factor such as water, a nutrient like Nitrogen or Potassium, or even competition from other supercharged plants. The point of the first Columbia experiment was to figure out where that point is. So they sealed off the rainforest, cranked the CO2 higher and higher, and tried to see where the forest stopped responding with increased growth. I asked our tour guide when they stopped growing, and although he seemed surprised at the specificity of the question he did have the answer, 1,200 parts per million CO2. We´re at about 380 ppm now, we need to be at 350 to be safe from catastrophic climate change, and lets just say if we ever get to 1,200 ppm we´ll have a lot more problems than a lack of increased growth in our trees.

The other experiment was slightly more depressing, both for what it entails and what it means for the oceans. When you open a soda bottle, all the bubbles that rise up out of the water are CO2, which is stored in water as carbonic acid (which happens to be why canned/bottled soda can taste really acidic sometimes). As CO2 levels in the atmosphere rise, so does the amount of carbonic acid stored in the ocean, which is great as a carbon sink but really bad when you realize that carbonic acid dissolves coral reefs, shellfish, and pretty much anything made of calcium carbonate (including your teeth when you drink too much soda). Follow this logic to its depressing end, and you get most of our coral reefs dying off by mid-century. At least in theory.

To test this theory and provide a powerful illustration, Columbia increased CO2 levels in the Ocean Biome until the coral reefs bleached out and died. Hearing this, Levi and I looked at each other and imagined the journey this reef had taken, from being carved out of the Caribbean and shipped in a giant box to Arizona, installed in a big swimming pool, and nourished by a wave machine, only to be killed off to prove a chemically obvious point. And yet this reef´s death seemed worthwhile somehow, like a martyrdom, or at least a canary´s warning. Mostly what it showed was that this place was truly run by scientists, not by caretakers, curators, or entertainers.

We continued the tour, which at this point really felt like taking a tour of the Earth, passing through Savannah and Thornscrub over Mangrove and Ocean, to arrive at the Desert. Bottling up a desert in the middle of the desert may seem like a strange idea, but this was no Arizona Desert. The plants and animals in it were taken from the Baja California desert in Mexico, which apparently is a ¨winter-active¨ desert, meaning that it shuts down in the summer and does most of its growth in the winter. This was important to the Biospherians because it meant that while most of the other biomes were slowing down for the winter, the Desert was speeding up its growth and more importantly, its oxygen production, helping to stabilize the oxygen levels throughout the year.

We descended into the ¨Technosphere,¨ the mass of water collectors, heaters, coolers, and other assorted machines that made Biosphere 2 work. Where else could you find a room called the ¨Desert Basement¨? As our guide explained, many of the machines in the Technosphere were designed to simulate natural processes. He pointed at a water tank and declared, ¨this is a cloud.¨ The tank was labeled ¨rainwater storage,¨ an engineer´s description of the function of a raincloud.
Passing through room after room full of these industrial versions of nature, we came through a tunnel and emerged in the rainforest. If felt just very real and took me back to Costa Rica, and I asked where the plants came from, while someone else asked how they were chosen. Turns out a botanical garden was about to throw their whole Venezuelan collection out, so it was really more serendipity than science. There was an argument in the design process between scientists who wanted to pick and choose species for particular functions and those that wanted to just ¨Species Load¨ and let the system self assemble. The latter won, and of the 4000 species that went into Biosphere 2, 30% have ¨gone extinct¨ as or guide put it.

With most of my questions answered, I got a chance to take a couple of videos. There´s a bit of background noise, but if you turn the volume up you´ll hear a some great stories and see why I liked our guide so much.

Biosphere 2! A bit of background

Before I get into Levi and I's trip to Biosphere 2, lets go over a bit of background, from a 10 year old's perspective. As a child growing up in the 1990's, I kept hearing about this magical place called Biosphere 2, where a team of scientists and at least one very rich person had built a complex ecosystem that was closed to the outside world and sent a few people to live there for two years.

Facsinated by this idea, I tried to build my own closed systems, usually without much success, although I once got a small plant and some ants to live together for almost a week. Usually, my attempts at building closed systems consisted of an insect, a plant or a few plants, and one of those little clear balls with toys in them (minus the toy), sealed with a bit of chewing gum. They tended to die in the space of a few hours, but as I got better at picking species, adding the right amount of water, pulling plants by the root, etc, I got these little systems to survive longer and longer. Needless to say, these were never really closed systems, but I learned a lot of early lessons in ecology by playing with them.

Later, when I told people about Biosphere 2, I realized that the public largely thought of it as a failed project. Not only that, but the project had become a sort of flagship for closed systems, on earth but more importantly in space. When the project "failed," it took with it the reputation of and funding for the whole field, setting this incredibly important area of study back about 20 years. This is especially unfortunate because the failure was really more one of public relations than of science. Biosphere 2 set records for the longest running closed system, and taught us valuable scientific lessons about running a closed system, lessons which might have been more disasterous had they been learnt on, say, the moon. Now that people think "failed" when you say Biosphere 2, any other project like it can be dismissed with a snooty, "oh, we tried that already and it didn't work." Imagine if we had given up after the first crashed airplane prototype, or the first dead computer bank, or even the first exploded space shuttle!

Right about here is where my ideas diverge from traditional environmentalism. In the long term, and I mean the extreme long term, it is very important that we bring the life that has evolved here on Earth to other planets, just in case something happens to ours. Biosphere 2 was an important step in that direction, an attempt to create a really big bottle, seal some plants and animals (including people) in it, and see how long we can get them to last, with the express purpose of learning lessons for future space colonies. Other projects like it need to be funded, and some are progressing, but the field as a whole still suffers from a public that thinks the grand project is either unimportant or imposible.

Like most grand projects related to space, creating a closed ecological system that can support humans will (and has) taught us lessons that we can apply here at home. Just like the first space age brought us tang, dry freezing, and communications sattelites, Biosphere 2 and other projects can teach us us important lessons about the carbon cycle, about sustainable intensive agriculture, and about recreating and managing ecosystems. Restoration ecology has a lot to gain in this endeavor, and a lot to teach as well. I see the two fields as sisters, essentially the same project with slightly different goals. One field tries to re-assemble functioning ecosystems in places where they've been obliterated, the other tries to assemble functioning ecosystems in closed jars that can be transported into space. Both are in the business of assembling functioning ecosystems, and both benefit when one succeeds. My only hope is that both carry out their missions as far and as fast as possible, because if one of them fails, we're all dead.

Here's to the year 5000!


*Image credits: Toy capsule image was taken by Charles Nguyen and found on the wikimedia page

Restoration Hitchhiking

After (and during) my trip to the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix, Arizona, I borrowed cell phones wherever I could to get in touch with my ride to Tucson, Levi from the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). The group is headquartered in Tucson, but Levi was at a conference in Phoenix and offered me a ride to the gateway to Sonora. SER is an interesting group in an emerging field, part scientific publisher, part trade guild, with ambitions to become a central communications hub. The last part started with the RESTORE email newsletter, to which members can post news and opportunities in ecological restoration. SER also operates the fledgling Global Restoration Network (GRN), which they are trying to build into a much-needed social network for restoration practicioners and other restoration-minded people.

Levi's job as Case Studies Coordinator for the GRN is to find, catalogue and document examples of restoration projects, which would make him extremely relevant to someone who is trying to visit and document examples of restoration projects. If I could ever get a hold of him. After leaving messages from multiple borrowed phones, I left him one final message from Annie´s phone while eating at a delicious vegan restaurant with her unexpectedly vegetarian housemate (note: if a vegetarian male doesn't look or dress at all like a hippie, he might be from Austin). We went on with the night, and I pretty much expected that I would have to find some alternate, and decidedly less awesome, way to get myself to Tucson.

I woke up the next morning to a phone call on Annie's phone. It was Levi, who had gotten all my messages but had fallen victim to my knack for bad timing, getting every one of my calls during a meeting, speech or meal. An hour later, after a very grateful goodbye to Annie, we were on the road, and talking about all sorts of awesome restoration and permaculture projects. Levi orginally got into this stuff through anthropology, so he knows a lot about what restoration folks call "traditional ecological knowlege." Otherwise known as ecological common sense, its an element that is often missing in both Western culture and Western science.

I nerdily started writing stuff down, and as we drove through the Arizona desert we started talking about all the interesting stuff that goes on in Arizona, like ArcoSanti and Biosphere 2. When I mentioned the latter, Levi casually remarked that we would be passing by a few miles from the site where 8 people attempted to seal themselves in a closed ecosystem for two years. I couldn't control myself. I immediately turned to him and said, in the voice of a small child near disneyland, "Can we go see it?"


*Photo Credit: Taken by wikimedia user Santryl and used directly from this page on the wikimedia commons.

CouchSurfing in the Desert

After a weeklong pit stop with family and friends in Williamsburg, I flew into Phoenix and discovered an amazing new resource: Couch Surfing. The concept of couch surfing is not new to me, since I've been doing it for years as many of my friends may already know. What is new, however, is the website,, where people post available couches and invite strangers to crash at their pads. After browsing the Phoenix Couchsurfing pages, and there were many, I came upon Annie, who not only looked friendly and nice but offered to pick me up at the airport!

She did just that, and I ended up spending two nights with her, her roommates, and her adorable and crazy little dog. While everyone was at work during the day, I headed over to the Desert Botanical Garden, about 20 minutes from the house on foot. The Gardens were extremely busy because there was an exhibit of blown glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. The eye-patch wearing artist creates works that look like alien plants and are often integrated into the landscape. They've been touring botanical gardens across the US for a while now, but I never thought I'd get to see them in person.

I spent the day between sheer wonderment at the artwork and ingdignation because it was preventing me from seeing the plants (I'm not sure for how long this link will work, but see here for a gallery of glass at the garden). I did, however, learn a few cacti and other desert plants, among them the cholla, the organ pipe cactus, the senissa or old man cactus, palo verde and palo blanco. I learned about some of the native people of the sonoran desert, and noticed over and over again that their traditional dewllings offered little if any rain protection, which I guess makes sense if it hardly ever rains. Overall, I felt at home in the landscape and even more excited about crossing the border.

*Image credits: first two images are from Annie's couchsurfing profile and used with her permission. The last image is by Bernard Gagnon and comes directly from this page on the wikimedia commons.

Leaving Appalachia

The final days of my internship in the Virginian Appalachians have left me with a mix of pride, nostalgia, and excitement for what's to come. The pride comes from the work I've done and the knowledge and experience I've gained. In the four months I've been here, I've helped ASD go from hopeless about FSC certification to almost certified*, organized a workshop series on non-timber forest products, cleared up a lot of confusion about carbon credits, and and taken fieldtrips covering everything from woodworking to horselogging. At home on Anthony's farm, I learned to split a log without hurting myself, transfer plants in the greenhouse, and even drive a tractor!

The nostalgia comes from those things as well, but mostly from the people I've met and the friends I've made. My last day on the farm is a perfect example. Anthony and I worked all day, joking around as we went with much comradery as usual. A few days earlier, Anthony had hinted that he had something called a "flameweeder," essentially a flamethrower used to burn weeds, to which I replied with something to the effect of "Man, if I had a flameweeder, I would use that thing all the time. Even when it wasn't necessary."

So today Anthony turns to me and asks if if I want to use the flameweeder (do I ever) and we spend the next hour or so burning weeds and trying to keep the flames from burning down the high tunnel and/or the fencerow.

After work, we started getting ready for the goodbye party that Anthony's wife Laurel threw for me. Chad showed up first with most of his family, and by the time we had a full house we had everyone from Hannah, an anti-coal activist and Virginia celebrity, to Steve, a land procurer with The Nature Conservancy and a really funny guy. Tom and Deni from ASD came back early froma vacation with their hilarious thirteen year old twins. I was able to explain ASD's entire wood operation from beggining to end by pointing to Chad, who cuts the trees, to Nick, who sells the hardwood flooring.

It was Kirsty, though, who made the biggest entrance. She came in once the party had gotten going with her two kids, Maxine, and a newborn lamb that would have died if it was left alone for the party. We cycled through talking to each other and cooing over the baby lamb, and it felt like a great end to my four months in Appalachia.

I'm going to miss all my mountain friends, but I'm really excited for the next leg of my journey. The plan is a quick pit stop in Williamsburg to see the fam and tie up loose ends, and then a flight to Phoenix and a bus ride to Mexico. Stay tuned as I continue the journey and keep on RESTORING THE AMERICAS.

*I stress the word "helped" here. In no way did I do this on my own, and in the end it was Nick who made the final connection.

Strip Mine Reforestation Part 3

With my car still a bit iffy from getting stuck in the mud, I got a ride with Brad to the restoration site. On the way, I asked him to explain how the project got started:

Sorry about the terrible sound quality, but you're gonna have to suffer through it if you want to hear some great insights.

After we got to the site and Brad went on to his meeting, the day proceeded the way it should have before - sunny, beautiful, easy work. I brought my camera and was able to take some good shots. I found sweeping vistas of the surrounding mountains, a deer stand from which one could see almost the whole site, and a really cool blue/purple stemmed plant.

I also found that from one area to the next, there were trees that were doing much better than on the rest of the site, or much worse. I wondered if that was due to something that could be measured in the soil, like porosity, pH, carbon content, or nutrients. Of course its still too early to tell if the trees that are doing better are going to continue to do so.

I wondered out loud to Brad if planting slightly larger tree seedlings would have given them a head start, and I learned that the longer you let a tree grow in a nursery, the less adaptable it is when you put it in a new situation. Because this is an especially terrible situation for the trees, with a hard, rocky soil and a major weed problem, they needed to be young so they could grow to call it home.

For now, most of the tres continue to struggle to overtake the grasses around them, and herbicides are sprayed regularly around each tree to keep the grasses from subsuming the little trees. The good thing about the project is that they have about 60 years of lease to figure this stuff out.

But enough science, lets see some pictures!

Diagonally from bottom left: Me, restoration planting, native forest, pine plantation.

One of the larger planted areas, taken from a deer stand I found.

I couldn't get a good shot of the deerstand while I was on it, but I think the shadow captures the idea. The stand was really wobbly and I'm afraid of hights, so I'm really proud of this picture.

Sometimes, small rocks and gravel randomly give way to giant boulders. Try running a deep-rip tiller trough this cave, and your project is pretty much over.

As promised, a really sweet plant with a blue stem. If anyone knows what this is, I'd be interested to know.

Walking away from the site, I came upon this vista, which I think represents both what we need to preserve and what we have to restore.


Strip Mine Reforestation Part 2

On my second day GPSing the Flint Gap restoration site for the Nature Conservancy, the ominous clouds foreshadowed the day that was to come. Started out alright: I arrived at the site, parked my car, and began the easy work of walking around the boundary of each restoration site and pinging my location every few seconds. Assured by the easyness of the work, I decided to drive to the end of the property and work my way down, thinking I could probably finish in one day.

It had rained the night before, and the puddles that had formed in the many pot holes threatened to swallow my little Hyundai Accent whole. Then one of them did. I made the incredibly reckless decision to take a dirt side road off the gravel trail, and before I knew it, I was floor deep in water with no hope of getting out. After a few miserable attempts, such as putting rocks around the tires to give them grip, I was ready to give in and call a tow truck. Then my phone died. It tends to do that in rural areas where I guess it has to work harder to get a signal.

After a few minutes of mental anguish and some more failiure, I see a savior in the distance. The restoration site still has several active natural gas wells, and a gas company truck comes over the hill. I wave frantically and yell "HEY!"

The two middle aged workers come over t0 help, with a look on their faces that says "What are you doing here?" They pull me out easily, and chat with me about the work I'm doing (one of the guys has a daughter in Florida doing GPS research) and the pitfalls of having an Obama bumper sticker.
"Our boss is a big Republican. If he's have seen [your sticker] he'd have left you settin' there!"
Thankfully, these guys were a bit more tolerant.