David Beach | 08/10/15 @ 1:00pm
Want to become more aware of your surroundings and more connected to nature in Northeast Ohio? Want to develop a deeper appreciation for the amazing diversity of life all around you? Then attempt these 10 items on my eco-bucket list. It might make you a better person!
During 30 years of writing about environmental issues I have been fortunate to have many opportunities to explore the varied landscapes of Northeast Ohio. I’ve had some incredible guides -- geologists, archaeologists, botanists, birders, water quality experts, farmers, urban planners, and more.
I’m still no expert, but I have learned a lot about my bioregion -- my home territory. I have a deeper understanding of the uniqueness of this place and how to live here sustainably. I’m more sensitive about what’s important and what’s right.
After looking back on my experiences, I’ve attempted to identify 10 of the most important things to do to become rooted in this place. It’s a list that can be accomplished over a year of exploring and paying attention.
Watch the sun: First, you need to get oriented. One of the best ways to do this is to observe the path of the sun throughout the year where you live. Learn where the sun rises and sets on the summer solstice, fall equinox, winter solstice, and spring equinox (see dates). Remember how high in the sky the sun is in the summer and how low it gets in the winter. Get to the point where you can tell direction, time of day, and time of year just by looking at the sun.
See the geology: Geology is the foundation of our lives. If you know the bedrock geology, you also know a lot about the deep history of your home territory, the reasons the terrain is flat or sloped, the reasons why certain plants will grow or not grow, or why buildings were built of certain stones. Perhaps the best way to see the bedrock layers beneath us is to hike through the gorges of local streams. Two of the best stream cuts are along Euclid Creek and Doan Brook, where layers of Devonian sandstone and shale are exposed over a short distance. A later set of rock layers is accessible in Gorge Metro Park of Metro Parks Serving Summit County.
Experience the natural communities: Places have different soils, moisture levels, temperature, elevation, and other ecological parameters. Plants sort themselves according to these parameters into ecological niches. Insects, birds, and other animals follow the plants. And so places develop distinctive communities of living things. It’s truly enlightening to experience these natural communities. There are 14 basic ones in Northeast Ohio, and you can read about them here (along with suggestions for where to go). Then go out and get a feel for these natural building blocks of our region.
Identify some plants: Once you have developed a deeper appreciation for the diversity of natural communities in Northeast Ohio, it’s important to look more closely at individual species. I recommend using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to identify some plants. This guide has a simple yet ingenious classification system that allows you to key out a plant according to the structure of its flowers and leaves. Try to use it to identify a few plants. It doesn’t matter which ones. The important thing is to go through the process and be sensitized to the variety plants and structures. There’s no better way to go from seeing a vague green blur in nature to seeing -- really seeing -- a diversity of species.
Go birding: If you have never gone birdwatching during the spring migration you have missed out on one of the most amazing and beautiful natural phenomena of Northeast Ohio. To start, I recommend going on one of the many spring bird walks led by local birding organizations and park districts. It can be a thrilling introduction to the diversity of life in our region -- and an introduction to the ways our region is connected to other places around the world by the migratory journeys of birds.
Sample a stream: It’s a revelation to see how much life there is in a creek or river. You can find out by participating in a stream sampling workshop offered by local stream organizations or the Watershed Stewardship Center at West Creek. Once you know how many macroinvertebrates, fish, and other critters live in a stream, you will have a better appreciation for water quality and what you can do to improve it.
Go swimming in Lake Erie: Lake Erie is the region’s dominant natural resource, and you simply must experience it. Go to a beach, get in the water, feel the lake flow around you, and ponder how much you depend on the freshwater of this Great Lake. You need such an immersion-type experience to turn the lake from an abstraction to a profound part of your life.
Visit an organic farm: A big part of understanding Northeast Ohio is understanding farmland. While much farmland is planted in corn, soybeans and other commodity crops using industrial, chemical-intensive farming practices, an increasing number of farmers are adopting more sustainable practices. You can see this sustainable future in action by going on tours offered by organic farm groups, such as the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association and the Cuyahoga Countryside Conservancy. The important thing is to get out on the land and understand your vital relationship to soil and the people who produce your food.
Tour a wastewater treatment plant: In many ways, our connection to the environment is through infrastructure. It’s important, therefore, to understand how that infrastructure works, how society is investing in it, and whether it is doing a good job. An impressive introduction is a tour of one of the big wastewater treatment plants of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. The District’s Southerly plant is offering public tours on September 19, 2015.
Ride the Towpath Trail: The Towpath Trail, which follows the old Ohio & Erie Canal, is one of the great recreational trails in the country. And it’s one of the best ways to experience the history of the region and the varied landscapes of city, town, industry, woods, floodplains, river valley, wetlands, and fields. It takes you through the heart of things.
These 10 experiences have been especially meaningful in my bioregional education. And I would add one more: Take action for the environment. That can mean changing personal behaviors, attending a meeting, writing a letter, supporting an environmental organization, working for policy change, voting, or many other actions. It’s important to do something, for our actions are what change us the most.
What would you add to this bucket list? Please add your comments below.