Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Maple Syrup: Virtual Field Trip

Jars of homemade maple syrup. Photo Credit: Chiot’s Run.

If I had to choose a favorite day of the week, it would be Sunday. I roll out of bed in my homemade pajamas with breakfast on my mind. I have more time to make breakfast, so I make French toast, waffles, or blueberry pancakes. It’s hard to pick my favorite. But the same thing always goes on top: maple syrup. 

Sticky and sweet, maple syrup adds a soft golden flavor to any food. You can buy it in glass bottles or plastic jugs to deck out your Sunday breakfasts. But before it reaches the store, maple syrup starts in forests like ours in southeast Ohio. Maple syrup and honey are the only local ways to sweeten your food!

On this week’s virtual field trip, educator Joe will show us how to get the sweet liquid goodness out of maple trees and into your belly.

Here are some options for getting to know nature’s sweetener:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, March 5th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

On your own, inside: Read an indigenous story about the origins of maple syrup.

On your own, outside: Practice identifying sugar maple trees and watch for sap.

Virtual Field Trip, March 5th at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:15 AM, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, Joe will show us how he makes syrup and how to identify maple trees.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

What is maple sap?

A maple is a kind of tree. Syrup is made from the sap that flows in a maple tree.

Sap is a liquid that moves up and down inside a tree, just behind the bark. Sap moves water and nutrients to parts of the tree that need it. It makes trees strong and healthy. If you’ve ever seen sticky, clear globs on the outside of tree bark, you were likely looking at that tree’s sap.

Sap that has hardened dripping from a tree. Photo credit: Pfly

When leaves photosynthesize, they turn sunlight into sugar. That sugar is in the sap. The tree uses the sugar for energy–unless we tap it for our own energy!

All maple trees have sap inside them. The best sap for making maple syrup, though, comes from sugar maple trees. The name doesn’t lie: a sugar maple has more sugar in its sap than any other species of maple tree.

Sugar Maples

Good news for us: sugar maple trees call southeastern Ohio home. Sugar maples lose their leaves year after year, making them a deciduous tree. Most trees in southeast Ohio forests are deciduous, so sugar maples fit in.

Many other states in the eastern United States are lucky to have sugar maples, too. The green parts of this map show places with the right climate and habitat for sugar maples to grow. Notice that the green extends into Canada, too.

Sugar maple distribution map. Photo credit: USGS.

Your turn: Find Sugar Maples

Take a walk to see if you can find any sugar maples! They are common even in parks and neighborhoods. Joe likes to find them in the spring and summer, so he’s ready to tap them when February comes.

Sugar maples often grow on the middle or low part of hills, or near old farms (where people planted them). They do better in backyards than near the street, where cars and salt bother them.

Here are some ways to recognize a sugar maple:

  • Look for opposite branching. The twigs on any maple always grow directly across from each other. The leaves do this too. Only a few trees in Ohio do this.
Maple trees will look like the twig on the left.
  • Look at the buds on the end of the twig. There’s one long bud in the middle, and two short ones on either side. You can identify a maple even when there are no leaves with this trick!
Count the three buds on the tip of a sugar maple twig: the long one in the middle, and the short ones on the side. Photo: Tgalos90 

Sugar maple buds are brown (like the picture above). If the buds are red, you have a red maple instead (like the picture below)

What are some differences between this red maple bud and the sugar maple bud above? Photo: jon.hayes
  • The leaf looks like the flag of Canada. A sugar maple leaf has 5 lobes (or sections). Red maples have only 3. Another way to think about it is that sugar maple leaves are pointed, not round at the bottom. What differences do you see between the red and sugar maple leaves in this picture?
The sugar maple leaf is on the right. The red maple leaf is on the left. Photo: BlueRidgeKitties

Maybe picturing the Canadian flag will help you remember!

The Canadian flag shows the sugar maple leaf. Gotta love that tree pride!

From sap to syrup

Sap dripping from a tap in a maple tree. Photo credit: Hamilton Conservancy

Maple syrup can’t be made year round. Sap only starts flowing when the weather is just right. The best time for tapping trees for sap is right now! Cold nights below freezing and warmer days create a freeze/thaw cycle that pushes the sap through the tree. But how do you get to the sap?

Watch this video from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to see how to “tap” a sugar maple tree to collect the sap.

Sap isn’t the same thing as syrup, though. Buckets of sap have to be boiled for a long time. Boiling evaporates the water and leaves behind the sugar. It takes 30-40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of syrup!

Below is a photo of Joe’s sap boiling station. He has a thermometer to measure the temperature of the sap.

Voila! Boiled sugar maple sap makes maple syrup.

Who first made maple syrup?

It certainly wasn’t Joe! Indigenous folks have been making maple syrup to flavor their food long before Europeans colonized this land. The first Europeans to make maple syrup in the 1500s learned from the Native Americans.

Here are some early ways Indigenous people used to make maple syrup:

  • Repeatedly freezing the sap and getting rid of the ice. The water in the sap will freeze, but the sugar won’t!
  • Boiling the sap on hot rocks to evaporate the water out.

The Anishinaabe have a story about why it takes so much sap to make just a little syrup! Listen to an educator at Cumming Nature Center tell it:

This educator’s story comes from Keepers of the Earth by Joseph Bruchac and Michael Caduto.

Other Indigenous groups in the Great Lakes region, like the Chippewa and Ojibwe, have similar sap stories. If you are interested in reading more Indigenous lore about maple syrup, this page has two other short stories to share.

The maple syrup economy

Humans have long depended upon the natural world for food and trade. Maple syrup is no exception. Not only do we use maple syrup as a sweetener on our pancakes and in our teas, many people make their living from processing sap into maple syrup.

Sticky Pete’s Maple Syrup is an example of a producer in Athens County

Twelve states in the US produce maple syrup to sell. In Ohio, 900 people boil sap into maple sugar to sell in stores and at farmers’ markets. Those 900 producers make 100,000 gallons of maple syrup each year. Maple syrup contributes $5 million to Ohio’s economy each year. Sugar maple trees provide us with a natural sweetener, but it also provides many folks with an income to house and feed their families. Where would we be without sugar maple trees?

Next time you jump out of bed for a Sunday breakfast, thank sugar maple trees and Indigenous people who inhabited this land before us for maple syrup. And maybe after this week’s Virtual Field Trip, you can make your own like Joe.

Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Winter Wetlands: Virtual Field Trip

The Rutherford Wetland near Carbon Hill this winter. Photo: Emily Walter

A frozen lake, pond, or wetland might be a tempting ice-skating rink. But a thick layer of ice on top doesn’t stop aquatic life from calling these places home. This week, we explore how animals survive when their home freezes into ice. You can:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 19th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

Find a winter nature spot to make observations. The more you visit, the more you’ll notice!

Virtual Field Trip, Feb. 12 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be investigating frozen ponds and those who live in them.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

The birth of a wetland

By Emily

Last week, Sarah and I visited the Rutherford Wetland at the Ora Anderson Nature Trail outside Carbon Hill. I have visited countless wetlands in my life, both near my home in Athens County and far. I am always struck by how beautiful and calm these places can be. I love to see waterfowl like ducks and blue herons. But, this wetland is especially interesting to me.

The Rutherford Wetland hasn’t always been water. It used to be woods along Monday Creek, and sometimes the woods flooded. Then, all the trees were cut down to make farms. And a railroad was built right through these low-lying farm fields.

In the 1990s, the Wayne National Forest took over the land, and it began to change again. Beavers moved in. The beavers dammed up the farm fields, flooding them. That created the diverse wetland I saw last week.

Beaver Dams

A beaver dam blocks a stream, creating a wetland on the right. Photo: Fred Dunn.

Beavers create or change wetlands with their dams. The dams are walls of sticks and mud. These walls block streams from flowing freely. The water usually gets deeper and spreads out into a pond or wetland. Plants change, and animals are drawn to the habitat. This is how a bunch of fields turned into the Rutherford wetland!

I find the Rutherford Wetland so interesting because its story shows how wetlands can adjust to new conditions. This land was stripped of all its trees, heavily farmed, and had an industrial railroad running through it. But now it’s a healthy ecosystem for beavers, fish, ducks, and songbirds.

Wetlands get to work

All wetlands have ways to deal with flooding and pollution. Wetlands soak up extra water that human concrete keeps from soaking into the soil. They absorb lots of rainwater, too.

Wetlands hold onto that water and release it more slowly. This prevents floods when it’s too rainy. And when the weather is too dry, wetlands keep streams flowing with all the water they saved up.

The quality of our water is improved when it goes through a wetland. Wetlands filter out pollutants from our lawns, cars and factories. This makes our drinking water safer and better for animals to live in. This isn’t an excuse to dump our waste in wetlands, but they do a good job cleaning up what mess we do make.

A wetland comeback story

Madison shared with me a great story about a wetland in New Jersey that was mistreated. But like the Rutherford wetland, it bounced back with human help. Now it provides habitat to fish, crabs, and seabirds. Listen to me read it, if you’d like:

A picture book about why we should protect wetlands.

Wetlands, and the critters inside them, also adapt to winter. When Sarah and I were at Rutherford last week, the whole wetland was frozen. The best way to start understanding these changes? Make your own observations!

Outdoor activity: Watching the seasons change

A beautiful winter pond Sarah observed. Photo: Sarah Haney

You will need:

  • Paper or a notebook
  • Something to write or draw with

Now is a great time to observe winter changes—Athens County is currently in a level 2 snow emergency. This is some pretty beautiful winter weather, but it’s also recommended you don’t drive. So pick an outdoor area near your home to make your winter observations.

Your nature spot doesn’t have to be big. A pond, little stream, or small garden is nice. But even a patch of grass or bushes is fine.

At your spot, observe nature and take detailed notes or drawings. Do it over and over and over and over and over again! Why? If you watch day after day, you’ll be an eyewitness to the wonders of the changing seasons. Winter into spring is a magical time when little details change each day. Some things you can only see at this time of year.

You might write or draw:

  • What you see
  • What you hear
  • What the weather feels like
  • What stands out to you about the area
  • How has snow, ice or cold changed the area?
  • What are plants and animals doing during this cold time? Do you see any evidence of them?

Here is an example from my time by a pond:

Feel free to add drawings or pictures to your observations!

It’s okay if you can’t identify all the plants or animals you see. Describe them the best you. If you want to, you can look for them in field guides later.

Now that we know more about wetlands, let’s look at the animals who live in them in winter.

Animal adaptations: Tools for Survival!

By Sarah

How do humans adapt to winter? You may think of putting on coats, mittens and hats to stay warm.

Now imagine that you live in a frozen wetland. How could you keep yourself warm while being wet? This might be difficult for us people, but animals have many adaptations to handle it.

What are adaptations? Think of adaptations as tools that animals are born with that help them survive in their environment. Living in the wild is a rough life. You are exposed to wind, storms, and heat. So animals have adaptations to help them live in harsh weather conditions. The wild also has predators and no grocery stores, so animals also have adaptations to help them hide, fight, and get food.

Temperature difference in frozen ponds. Graphic: Emily Walter

How might an animal adapt to a pond freezing? The water is chilly, there’s less food, and ice keeps you from the surface. Yet the layer of ice on top actually helps keep the water below warmer.

  • Fish survive the winter by hanging out near the bottom of the lake, where the warmest water is. They enter a winter rest state, when their heartbeat slows down. They need less food and oxygen.
  • Turtles burrow into the mud at the bottom of the pond, where it’s even warmer. Like fish, their bodies slow down, and they switch to breathing out their butt!
  • Wood frogs leave the pond, and bury themselves in the ground in the woods nearby. They have a special chemical in their body that lets them freeze solid, like a popsicle! They thaw out in sprin and hop off.

Let’s look more closely at how one species in particular is adapted to life in the winter wetland. It’s the species that built the Rutherford Wetland: the beaver.

How Beavers Have Adapted

The American beaver, sitting right up! Photo: Wikipedia

The arrows point at unique features the beaver has to live in wetlands! Such wild wetland areas are vast and you need to be able to swim well throughout the water. How does the beaver do this? How do you make a house on the water? You need to have some good tools to start. All these adaptations the beaver needs to live in a wetland!

The green arrow: two big teeth for chewing wood. The two square teeth at the front of beavers’ mouths are called incisors. This adaption is a tool for cutting! Remember this by thinking…

“I use scissors to cut paper and beavers use incisors to cut trees down!”

Beavers need these incisor teeth to cut down trees. They use these to build lodges, their homes. The beavers need lodges to stay warm during the winter. Lodges also are a safe place to be, because their entrance is underwater. There aren’t many other animals who can swim underwater, then crawl up into a dry lodge.

Beavers also use the incisors to gnaw on the outer layer of sticks. Beavers eat the just the bark of sticks and vegetation in the water. They don’t eat the full-sized trees they bite down. Before winter, they store lots of these sticks in the water. The cold water acts like a refrigerator, keeping their food fresh all winter.

Beaver chew marks eat away at a standing tree. Photo credit: Sarah Haney

The red arrow: feet for swimming. Beavers feet remind me of a scuba diver’s flippers. While a beaver is quite slow on land, they move quickly through the water. Did you know beavers can hold their breath and swim underwater for up to fifteen minutes? That’s pretty impressive!

The blue arrow: a wide tail. A beaver’s tail has many uses! Like their feet, their tail makes them good swimmers. Beavers also use their tails for communicating. If they think a predator is nearby, they will slap their tail against the water. The slap warns each other of danger, and hopefully scares off any predator, before they dive into the water.

Beavers wouldn’t survive winter if it wasn’t for their tails. In the summer, beavers stock up on snacks to build extra fat to keep them warm and well fed in the scarce, winter months. This fat is stored in their tails. When winter rolls around, the fat will trickle out of their tails into the rest of their body. Beaver’s tails are almost like their pantry and coat closet in one, stocking up on food and warmth.

Look at the shape of a beaver’s tail. How do you think that shape help the tail work well? Photo: Tobyotter 

Of course, fur also keeps beavers cozy, even when there’s ice on the pond. Beavers have two layers of fur. The inner layer keeps their body heat in and the cold out, like a parka. The outer layer of fur makes water roll off, like a raincoat. The drier you are, the warmer you are.

Indoor activity: Design like a beaver!

Beaver Lodge covered with snow. Photo: Sarah Haney

Beavers build lodges similarly to how pioneers built log homes: by cutting down the trees around them. Pioneers used axes to cut down a tree. The beaver use their own tool, their large incisor teeth, to cut down the tree. Beaver lodges are also made with grasses, mosses and mud!

Beaver lodges come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the key elements of the beaver lodge include…

  • An entry point (You can see how beavers enter and leave their lodge in this picture )
  • A place to store food, sticks and twigs, for the winter
  • A dry spot to sleep

Get a piece of paper and start drawing! Imagine you are a beaver living in a wetland: what does your lodge look like? Where is the dam? Do you live with a family of beavers? Where do you keep your beaver snacks? What other animals and plants live there?

We’d love to see your drawings in the comments or at the virtual field trip this week!

Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Virginia Opossum: Virtual Field Trip

A Virginia opossum, commonly known as a possum. Photo credit: Paul Hurtado.

With its beady eyes, hand-like paws, and taste for trash, some people think opossums (commonly spelled “possum”) are giant rats. Maybe you’ve seen a possum lurking in your backyard at night and thought something similar. I thought raccoons and possums were the same animal for a while.

But possums aren’t rats or raccoons. They are a special type of mammal called a marsupial. And they are the only marsupial in all of North America! If that isn’t enough to make them special, possums also:

  • eat ticks. Ticks latch onto our skin to suck our blood, and can give us Lyme disease.
  • are highly resistant to rabies.
  • are immune to certain types of snake venom.

Pretty cool for such a common critter, huh? Want to learn more about the Virginia opossum? Here are some options for exploring our backyard buddy.

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 12th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

Experience what it’s like to be a possum mother by doing this activity.

Read about possum in the rest of this post, or skip ahead to a puppet video summary!

Virtual Field Trip, Feb. 12 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be investigating Appalachia’s favorite backyard critter.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

What’s a marsupial?

A marsupial is a category of mammals that carry their young in a pouch on the mother’s belly. It’s like having a built-in sweatshirt pocket on your tummy, made just for carrying your babies around.

The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial on this continent. Other continents have marsupials that look very different from a possum. Kangaroos, wombats, and koalas are marsupials that live in Australia.

A young kangaroo peeking out of their mother’s pouch. Photo Credit: Tatters

Welcome, baby possums!

A female possum will give birth to up to 25 babies, but not all of them will survive. That’s because the babies aren’t ready to enter the world as possums right after they are born. When a mama possum gives birth, her babies are the size of honeybees! They need to grow bigger to survive.

These tiny babies have to crawl inside their mother’s pouch to one of her thirteen nipples. Twelve of them are arranged in a circle, with the thirteenth in the middle. If a baby possum doesn’t make it to one of the nipples, it won’t get enough food to grow big and strong. When a baby starts suckling on a nipple, the nipple will swell in its mouth. This pins the young possum in place until it grows large enough to let go!

Our friend and educator Sarah rescued some baby possums whose mother had died while they were still in her pouch. She shared this photo. It shows what a young possum looks like before it’s ready to leave the pouch.

A baby possum sleeping. Notice how much paws look like our hands? Photo Credit: Sarah Haney.

Think about how you came into this world. Did someone give birth to you and 20 siblings and hope that half of you survived? Possum mamas spread out care and resources between many offspring, knowing that only a handful will survive. Humans put all of our attention, care, and milk into usually one baby. Sometimes we have twins, or triplets, or even quadruplets! But we take care of smaller numbers of babies, working harder on each one. This makes our reproduction different from possums.

Life as a young possum

Once the baby possums grow big enough to let go of their mother’s nipples, they can crawl out of the pouch. Young possums still need their mother, but they’re ready to see the world. To do so safely, they climb up on their mother’s back and take a ride.

Young possums attached to their mother’s back. Photo Credit: Anne Davis.

Eventually, this litter of possums will get too big to cling to their mother for a free trip across town. When her back gets crowded and the young possums fall off, they will start their own lives as adult possums. It only takes ten months for possums to reach an age where they can have babies. Quick turn around time, huh?

Your turn: Pouch pretending!

If you want to know what it’s like to be North America’s only marsupial, this activity is for you. Only a few steps stand between you and being a possum:

  • Step 1: Put on a hoodie or shirt with a pocket on your stomach. If you don’t have one of these, make sure you have pants on with pockets.
  • Step 2: Find out how much you weighed when you were born. You can ask your grown-ups if they know what you weighed. (If you can’t find our how much you weighed, you can use 7.5 pounds, which is the average weight of babies born.)
  • Step 3: Multiply how much you weighed by 13. You can do this by hand for a math challenge, or use a calculator. A grown-up can also help you with this. Multiplying your weight by 13 will represent how much a mama possum would have to carry if she had babies your size.
  • Step 4: Now you have a number. This is how much weight you have to carry as a mama possum with 13 babies. Find items around the house to carry in your hoodie or pants pocket. How much do they weigh?

Can you carry the weight of 13 babies in your tummy pocket? I doubt it. But it’s fun to pretend we are possums, isn’t it? They must have strong bodies to carry that many little ones around.

Possum preferences

Possums are nocturnal critters, sleeping during the day and moving about at night (the opposite of most humans). They choose secluded, dark places to sleep.

Opossums are scavengers, like turkey vultures, so they’ll eat roadkill and other decomposing animals. They’ll also visit our houses to check out trash cans for treats. Last year, I found three possums in my trash can next to my porch at once!

A possum looking for goodies at night. Photo Credit: Urban Woodswalker.

Possums don’t only eat our trash and dead animals. They will also eat grass, nuts, and fruit, and they hunt insects, mice, snakes, and birds. Some people have reported possums eating their chickens.

When possums are awake, they like to spend most of their time high in the sky in trees. Possums are fantastic tree climbers. Their sharp claws dig into bark. And their tail can wrap around branches to hold them, like an extra arm or leg.

A possum making good use of its gripping tail. Photo Credit: California DFW.

But they also like to spend their time asleep in trees. Possums can nest in hollow parts of a tree. They can also sleep in dens in the ground made by other creatures. As long as it’s dark and safe, they’re home.

Possum defense

Have you ever heard the saying “playing possum?” If you haven’t, it means you’re pretending to be dead! Which is exactly what possums do when they’re really scared. The hope is that whatever is trying to hunt it will lose interest if it thinks the possum is already dead. The possum will flop in its side and stick out its tongue. They’ll stay this way for an hour or so.

In this video, a man and his dog come across a possum pretending to be dead:

Did you hear the man say the possum could get up and hiss at him? Well, it could! Hissing and showing off their sharp teeth is another way possums defend themselves from threats. They’ll hold their mouth open to hiss and snarl at predators. This is called alligator mouth.

Another way possums can deter predators is through drooling. Possums can drip spit and blow bubbles out their nose to appear sick and unappetizing. This past summer, I was asleep in my hammock under a cherry tree and woke up because liquid kept hitting my face. I turned on my headlamp to see a scared possum drooling all over me! The next day, I drew this.

How do you protect yourself when you’re scared? Hopefully you don’t drool on people!

Let’s review!

Watch this possum puppet show for a speedy review of all things opossum!

This was a lot of possum content! But if you’re hungry for more like a possum digging in trash cans for a snack, come to the virtual field trip this Friday, 2/12 at 10:30 AM.

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Distance Learning

Less Waste at the Holidays

Reusing paper bags as wrapping paper is one alternative to buying new gift wrap.

What we throw away is important to consider at all points of the year. It becomes a little more relevant at winter holiday time, though.

Some people celebrate December holidays with gift-giving and big meals. We love food and gifts, but sometimes they make a lot of trash. To celebrate without trash, we can try to use what we already have.

If we do make trash, where does it go? To find out, read about my trip to the landfill. It really motivated me to make less waste!

Here are some suggestions for celebrating a zero-waste winter holiday!

Gift-giving:

A friend made Darcy this tree ornament by hand. She loves it!
  1. Make presents for your people with materials you have at home: this can be hand sewing scraps of fabric to make a handkerchief, baking some yummy treats, or drawing or painting a present! Handmade presents are affordable, meaningful, and not wasteful!
    Here are some ideas.
  2. Wrap presents in recycled materials: I like to wrap presents for my loved ones in paper bags from the store. You can also buy wrapping paper at the store that is made from 100% recycled paper, but try to use paper you have on hand first if you can.
  3. Carefully unwrap presents without tearing the paper so you can reuse the wrapping next year!
  4. Give people items you already have that are meaningful to you: Give your friends a book you loved to read, a sweater you’ve cherished, anything you don’t have to go out and buy!

Holiday food:

What are some ways you can cut down on food waste? Image: pch.vector – www.freepik.com
  1. Your holiday gatherings might be smaller this year because of the pandemic. Think ahead about how much food you want to make. Scale your meal down from what you normally make if there are fewer people this year. That way, there will be less leftover food that could go bad sitting in the refrigerator.
  2. Package up whatever food isn’t eaten on the holiday in reusable containers and put it in the fridge for later. You can eat those tasty leftovers for a while without having to cook more food. If you don’t think you can eat the leftovers in a few days, you can put food in the freezer to save for later. If your holiday meal does go bad, try composting it instead of throwing it in the trash.
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Distance Learning Uncategorized Young Naturalists Club

A Look at Landfills

Looking down on the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center.

In October, Sophie (another educator with Rural Action) and I went on a “World of Waste Tour” across southeast Ohio. We saw where our waste goes after leaving our bins: a landfill, recycling center, and compost facility. The landfill made a big impression!

Where our waste goes is often a mystery to the average person. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” really applies to what we throw away! Learning about how our waste is handled and how much waste we create helps us reduce our environmental impact.

In this blog post, we share what we learned about landfills: what they are, how they work, and what a landfill looks like here in southeast Ohio. 

What is a landfill?

A landfill is a place where we put solid waste. If we can’t turn it something new through recycling or composting, it goes to the landfill. When we throw something in the trash can, it goes to the landfill. It will never be seen or used again. (So think about if something has more uses before you put it in the trash can!)

Today, landfills keep trash separate from the environment around it. However, landfills didn’t always have environmental safeguards in place. Landfills used to just be big holes in the ground full of trash, called open dumps. No one watched out for how that trash might affect water or air.

Certain types of waste are more harmful to the earth and its people than others. Waste that is considered dangerous to human and environmental health is known as hazardous waste. Plenty of hazardous waste ended up in old school landfills.

An open dump. Photo credit: Julian Belli

An old landfill near Nelsonville on 691 used to take hazardous waste. It was not well managed for our protection. The 691 Landfill was open from 1969 to 1984. It covered 30 acres and mainly took trash from households, but a lot of hazardous waste found its way in. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled the area a Superfund Site because of all the dangerous waste in it. This fancy name just means the area needed cleaned up as soon as possible.

The EPA and its partners cleaned up the 691 Landfill from 1995-1998. Now, the hazardous waste inside shouldn’t harm us or the natural world. The 691 Landfill looks like this now, with dirt and grass on top of the trash.

The 691 Landfill outside of Nelsonville today.

Modern landfills

The 691 landfill, like most landfills of the mid-20th century, didn’t have infrastructure in place to lessen the environmental impact of trash rotting in the ground. Today, our waste goes to sanitary landfills. 

Sanitary landfills are sites where waste is isolated, or kept separate, from the environment. Professionals in fields like geology, engineering, and environmental science run sanitary landfills. The site supervisor at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center, the place our trash goes in southeast Ohio, has a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in geological engineering. You have to really know your stuff to have a job like this! Supervisors are in charge of making sure their landfills are following federal regulations. The EPA sets these intensive regulations to protect the environment around landfills.

Landfill regulation

According to the EPA, landfills have to be located away from fault lines (cracks in the earth), wetlands, and floodplains.

Paying attention to fault lines when choosing a spot for a landfill will keep us from stirring up trouble with the rock layers that make up the earth when digging out the landfill.

We choose locations away from wet areas to ensure leachate stays far away from our drinking water. Leachate is the liquid trash goop that leaks out of a landfill. Does your trash bag drip when you take it to the curb? Leachate is that same liquid, but on a larger, more toxic scale.

The location of some landfills has sparked controversy, however. Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, did a study on the location of landfills in Texas. He noted that every landfill in the state is located in mostly black and brown, lower-middle income neighborhoods. Black and brown folks make up only 25% of the population of Texas, but 100% of landfill’s neighbors. Geology and hydrology are major players in the siting of landfills, but there might be political reasons a landfill is where it is. 

Regulations now say a landfill needs a geo-membrane to hold that leachate. This is often a two foot (or more) layer of clay on the edges of the landfill. Geo-membranes typically have a plastic liner outside the clay. Geo-membranes and plastic liners keep liquid and chemicals from leaking into the soil and groundwater. Complex leachate collection systems catch and direct leachate away from groundwater. One acre of a leachate collection system costs $250,000!

Watch this video about the layers of a landfill and how it protects the area around it.

How a modern landfill keeps the environment safe. Video Credit: Waterpedia

Another system in place to ensure the environmental safety of landfills is groundwater monitoring. Underneath the soil, there are holey rocks that hold water in the ground. This is called groundwater. The groundwater around landfills is tested often to see if the water is safe for humans and wildlife.

There are several daily practices used to control the yucky smell, keep trash from flying away, and keep insects and rats out. Every time a truck dumps trash in the landfill, this trash is rolled over multiple times with a compactor. A compactor weighs about 50 tons (that’s 100,000 pounds!) and has giant spiky wheels to grind up the waste. Dirt is placed on top of the trash after it is ground up and compacted to keep water out. 

A 50 ton machine grinds up our trash.

Saying goodbye to a landfill

When a landfill is as full of trash as it can legally be, it needs to be safely closed. A two foot layer of clay and a six inch layer of topsoil to grow native grasses are placed on top of all the trash to close the landfill.

A cross section of a safely closed landfill. Photo credit: EPA

Landfills need to make enough money to pay someone to monitor the landfill for at least 30 years after it stops taking trash! This person will look closely at the effectiveness of the liners and leachate collection systems over time. Is the landfill holding all the leachate? Is the environment around the landfill is contaminated? Continuous monitoring lets us know what methods we use work well and which ones need adjusting. Through ongoing observation of landfills, we can create sites that are more environmentally friendly in the future. 

Our local landfill

My view at the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center.

The Athens Hocking Reclamation Center in Nelsonville is the final destination for trash we put to the curb or in a dumpster. This landfill opened in 1983. Now that the EPA regulates landfills, the Athens Hocking Reclamation Center has to get a permit for the disposal of solid waste, their impact on water and air quality, and for the disposal of leachate that seeps from the landfill. If they aren’t doing enough to protect the air and water, these permits can be taken back and the landfill will be illegal to operate.

This landfill has 3 feet of clay beneath it, as well as a 60 millimeter polyethylene liner (the plastic liner made just for landfills). The clay and plastic together should stop trash from leaking into the soil below and contaminating it. This landfill does not have a collection system for the methane gas that is created by decomposing trash. The landfill releases methane into the air, but methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Landfills can have local impacts on air and water quality, but they also add to global climate change if the methane is not collected.

Our local landfill is 550 acres large. It’s estimated that this landfill has 50 years of trash disposal left in it. Then it will be full. According to the environmental director of the landfill, there are 11,000,000 yards of capacity left. Each day, the landfill sees about 50 to 75 trucks of household waste. Add all of those trucks up, and the landfill receives 70,000 tons of household waste a year. That’s on top of the waste they take from industry!

The trash that comes in on trucks each day is unloaded onto the daily face. This is the section of the landfill that they chose to put trash on that day. A worker runs over the daily face with a compactor at least 6 times to push the trash down as much as possible. At the end of the day, workers cover the new trash with six inches of dirt to prevent water from leaking into the trash and to keep the flies and rats down. You saw the compactor running over trash at our landfill earlier!

The daily face the day I was at the landfill.

It was sad to see so many usable items be smashed by a giant compactor. We saw plastic chairs, a dollhouse, a basketball, and many other items that looked like they were in good shape be run over and buried. Eugene and I even found a frisbee to play with! 

While landfills are designed to be the safest method for disposing of things that truly are trash, I don’t think most of the things I saw in the landfill deserved to be there. These items could have lived many more lives. Instead, they are now buried in a mound of dirt in an area that was once a stunningly pretty valley.

What can we do?

If you read this blog post and thought “Gee, landfills don’t sound all that great,” and would like to learn more about keeping your waste out of landfills, check out our previous blog posts about waste.

Seeing a landfill and feeling all the trash shake under my feet when a machine drove by was an upsetting experience, but it has opened my eyes to just how much unnecessary trash we make in this world.

Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Caterpillars Everywhere! Virtual Field Trip

Cecropia larvae

It’s September, and it seems like there are caterpillars on every tree and bush, gorging themselves on leaves before winter. These tiny creatures are a key piece of the food web: a meal for migrating birds, and consumers of plants.

Explore caterpillars with us on our virtual field trip, or with the activities below!

WAYS TO LEARN ABOUT CATERPILLARS:

Join the virtual field trip, Friday, September 25 at 10:30 am.

On your own, outside: conduct a caterpillar study with a stick and a sheet.

On your own, inside: learn the caterpillars of southeast Ohio.

Caterpillar Virtual Field Trip: Friday, Sept. 25, 2020

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:00am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods. This week, we’ll talk about caterpillars, and how to find them.

If you haven’t registered for our fall field trips yet, go here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUpcu6qqTsoHNKDfYwskjOqiSjAU_4HxFma. You’ll receive the link to the call in your email.

We welcome sharing your own caterpillar discoveries or stories on the call!

Watch the recording:

On your own: outside

Become a caterpillar scientist by doing your own caterpillar study in trees near you!

What you will need:

  1. A solid stick you can easily hold and swing (not a wet one that will break.)
  2. A white towel, pillowcase, or sheet to catch caterpillars and other critters.
  3. Optional: a camera to take photos of what you find to upload to iNaturalist.

Once you have all of your tools, find a patch of trees you can easily and safely get to, whether it is in the forest, in your backyard, or at a park. 

Your mission is to survey 10 different trees for caterpillars. It is easiest to survey young trees with leaves closer to the ground.

When you find the first tree you want to survey, choose an area of leaves you can reach with your stick. Try to pick spots with around 50 leaves. Place your white cloth underneath the area of leaves to catch whatever falls out of the tree when you hit it. Then, take your stick, and give the leaves 10 firm hits, not hitting so hard that you damage the tree. 

Watch Joe take a swing at this method of caterpillar collection:

After ten hits, look at your white cloth. What’s moving on it? Did any caterpillars fall on your cloth? Count the number of insects you see.

If you find a cool insect or caterpillar that you want to know more about, take a photo and upload the photo to iNaturalist. The app will tell you what species it guesses the caterpillar is and allow others to see your neat find!

(Learn more about using iNaturalist here).

Joe uploads a caterpillar we found to iNaturalist.

Repeat this process 10 times with 10 different trees. Did you find more caterpillars on one type of tree than another? Which tree had the most caterpillars on it? What was the most interesting thing you saw on your cloth? Share your stories and photos in the comments! 

On your own: inside

“Why is the Very Hungry Caterpillar So Dang Hungry” from Deep Look, PBS Digital Studios

Watch the video above to learn about the life cycle of a caterpillar (we learned a few new things ourselves, like, what happens to their faces?)

There are more insects than any other living thing on Earth. About 80% of all species are insects! And plenty of them are caterpillars.

So what kinds of caterpillars do we have here in southeast Ohio? Click through the presentation below to see their pictures and learn about their host plants.

Have you ever seen any of these caterpillars? If you can, go for a walk and see if you find any. Share your pictures!

Which is your favorite caterpillar?
Vote below:

One last challenge: Write a poem to your favorite caterpillar. Maybe you describe what it looks like.  Maybe you include what types of leaves it likes to eat?  Is it a moth or a butterfly in the future? What type of birds like to eat it? Share your poem by posting as a comment!

Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Virtual Field Trip: American Ginseng

American Ginseng. Photo credit: Larry Stritch
CHOICES FOR LEARNING ABOUT GINSENG:

Join our Friday zoom field trip! This Friday, Sept. 18 at 10:30am, we’ll be looking at ginseng.

Think you have plant ID skills? Play “Is it ginseng?” to practice!

Read about why this plant is so special in the rest of this blog post.

Make a mini ginseng habitat. Go outside and see if you can create a spot friendly for ginseng and its allies.


Virtual Field Trip on Zoom: Friday, Sept 18 at 10:30 am

We’ll be Zooming with you from a secret ginseng patch somewhere in Ohio. Learn how to recognize ginseng, why people want it so badly, and how to protect it. And share your own ginseng and plant stories!

Missed it? Watch the recording here:

Ginseng virtual field trip recording from Sept. 18, 2020

Register for more of our fall 2020 field trips here.

Read on to learn more about ginseng and try some activities!


American Ginseng

At first glance, this plant reminds me of holly and winter holidays. Despite its red berries, this plant is not a poky, festive bush. Above is a photograph of American Ginseng, a threatened plant species that thrives here in Appalachia. But lots of plants grow in our region, sometimes so many it is hard to tell them all apart! So what makes ginseng worth talking about?

In rural Appalachia (including southeast Ohio), people have a long tradition of digging ginseng roots in the forest. Folks keep good ginseng spots secret, and teach their children how to harvest it. The root is worth a lot of money, because it is thought to have amazing medicinal properties. Because it is valuable, ginseng is constantly at risk of being overharvested, or taken too often.

Fun fact: the name “ginseng” stands for two Chinese characters that mean “man root,” because the shape of a ginseng root can resemble a person with two legs! Do you see the “man?”

A brief history of ginseng

In 1716, a priest named Father Lafitau near Montreal, Canada found a patch of ginseng while he was out working. This is sometimes considered the first discovery of ginseng in North America. However, First Nations and Native Americans were harvesting and using ginseng for centuries before Father Lafitau ever knew it existed! It wasn’t long after the Father’s discovery that ginseng from North American began to be exported to Asia. 

People in China were eager to buy American ginseng. A different species of ginseng called Panax Ginseng used to grow wild in the mountains of northern China, over 5,000 years ago. But the Chinese ginseng is almost all gone because of overharvesting. So many people wanted (and still want) to buy American ginseng instead.

Ginseng grows in Appalachia and a region of China called Manchuria. Why do you think it grows in both places? How are the two environments similar? How are they different? 

Ginseng in China was first used as food, then as medicine. Asian ginseng is thought to cure depression, diabetes, fatigue, inflammation, nausea, tumors, and ulcers when eaten! Older and well-formed roots of the plant were thought to be spiritual and bring good luck.

Where can we find ginseng?

So, how do you actually recognize this legendary plant? The first step in becoming a ginseng hunter is knowing where ginseng grows! 

A map of the the native range of American ginseng. Photo credit: NRCS

The green parts of this map show where ginseng has been found in the past. That doesn’t mean there is ginseng there right now. Sometimes ginseng disappears in places where humans have turned forests into buildings or roads, or harvested too much of it. But we know that it is possible for ginseng to grow in those places, if it has what it needs! 

Let’s zoom in on Ohio, where most of us are.

Map of places where ginseng has been recorded in Ohio. Photo credit: NRCS

At least half of Ohio is shaded in green, meaning we could find ginseng in the majority of counties in Ohio. Our home, Athens County, is ginseng territory. What about your county?

Of course, ginseng won’t grow just anywhere in our county. What types of habitat does ginseng like?

Ginseng habitat

You probably won’t find ginseng in the middle of a field or lawn. It is a secretive plant of shady forests. One Chinese legend says it jumps out of the ground and runs to a new place each night, making it harder to find!

Here is what ginseng looks for:

  • Cool, shady places: Ginseng needs to be in the shade at least 65% of the time. Too much sun can burn its leaves, though it needs some sun to grow well! Hills that face north and east are usually shadier.
  • Mountains and hills: Ginseng grows best on hills that are 600 to 3500 feet above sea level (about the height of the Appalachian mountains)
  • Deciduous forests: A deciduous forest is made of trees whose leaves change color and drop each autumn. You won’t find ginseng in evergreen forests or tropical forests.
  • Moist, well-drained soil: Ginseng does well in soil that is nice and damp, but not muddy or puddle-y. It doesn’t like dry places or clay.
  • Trees like sugar maples, tuliptrees, and black walnuts: Ginseng needs lots of calcium to grow. The leaves of these trees fall to the ground and release calcium! It’s like taking a vitamin for ginseng. Have you seen these trees before? 

Joe took a video of the area surrounding some ginseng he found. Take a look at the habitat. What do you notice?

What does ginseng look like?

For the first few years of its life, a ginseng plant will look different every year! This is actually a useful way to estimate how old a ginseng plant is. The number of leaves (called prongs) on a plant tells us its age, and how big its root is.

Photo credit: Rural Action

If a plant is only a year old, it will only have one prong (one leaf made of three smaller leaflet):

A ginseng seedling, only one year old. Photo credit: Rural Action

When it is two years old, it might have two prongs.

When it is four or five years old, the plant will make first berries! Berries are where ginseng seeds are. That means the plant has to grow many years before it can make any new ginseng.

When a ginseng plant has at least four prongs and a cluster of berries in the middle of the plant, it is a mature (adult) plant.

A mature ginseng plant with four prongs and fruit! Photo credit: Rural Action

Protecting Ginseng Today

Ginseng is the most heavily traded wild plant in the United States. The root of the ginseng plant can fetch around $800 per pound, so it’s no wonder people are interested in harvesting it!

Because ginseng grows so slowly, it is easy to dig up ginseng faster than new ginseng can grow. Today, ginseng is in danger of disappearing because people harvest too much.

To protect ginseng, some places have made rules about harvesting. In the Wayne National Forest, you must buy a permit for $20 to legally harvest ginseng. This permit will allow someone to dig ginseng between September 1st and December 1st. 

Rules help, but it is the people who hunt for ginseng who can do the most to take care of it. Experienced ginseng hunters will only dig plants that are at least seven to ten years old. At that age, a plant will have had a few years of making berries. Hopefully, some of these berries have sprouted into new plants to replace the old.

When responsible ginseng hunters come across a ginseng plant with berries, they plant the berries just under the leaves and top soil. They will take no more than 10% of the ginseng they find. By leaving 90% of the plants untouched, existing plants can produce more berries and increase the number of ginseng plants.

Watch this video about “wildcrafting” in Appalachia to learn more about how people here are connected to and protect ginseng:

If you come across a patch of ginseng, do a happy dance! You found a sensitive plant with cool history and value! We usually do not harvest any ginseng roots we find, because we do not need to, and we want the patch to grow stronger. Consider tasting the leaves instead of the root. If you do have a reason to dig up roots, make sure to take no more than 10% of the plants, only dig 7- to 10-year-old plants, and plant the berries.

Want to help ginseng return to the forests? Would you like to grow your own so you can easily harvest it ethically? You can buy ginseng seed from Rural Action each fall.

Have you ever harvested ginseng or know someone who has? Do you want to share a story about ginseng? Feel free to drop your story in the comments!

Fascinated by this magical plant? Here are three ways to become a ginseng genius!

  1. Play “Is it ginseng?” A game where we quiz you on which plants are and are not ginseng. Find it here: https://quizlet.com/525699626/learn. Click on the photos of the plants in the quiz to make them larger.
  2. Build your own mini ginseng habitat in your yard. Using what you learned about the shade, slope, and direction ginseng plants favor, can you create a mini environment with all the right conditions for ginseng? Use leaves, dirt, sticks, whatever you have! Show us your ginseng habitat in the comments. If you have access to a wooded area, go try to find the ideal habitat for ginseng!
  3. Attend the Virtual Field Trip this Friday at 10:30 AM to learn more about ginseng, share your stories and thoughts, and see some ginseng in action! Register for the meeting here:  https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUpcu6qqTsoHNKDfYwskjOqiSjAU_4HxFma.