Perspectives Journal


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Tuesday, September 09, 2003

A new semester of Perspectives on Agriculture and the Environment starts tomorrow. And I still have not updated the class website!

Yikes! But it should be done in an hour or two.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Since I started the journal, I guess I may as well keep it....

Last class we went to the Rutgers Gardens. As it turned out, only one student actually walked there -- a brave soul -- and no one had to walk home. Our class is small enough to fit into just four vehicles, and so we were all able to drive there.

I always love going to the Gardens, and especially to Helyar Woods. But I'm often a bit disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of many students for exploring the natural world. If it is a choice between being in the classroom and walking through the woods, it seems most would prefer the woods -- but not always by a wide margin. Several, though, seemed to enjoy the adventure and pursued some interesting discoveries -- breaking up rotting logs to see beetles within or walking through the white pines again to see if there is any life there. I think that to be a naturalist requires a certain level of curiosity about the world. And I'm not sure if curiosity can be taught, though I hope to encourage it.

I actually went back to the Rutgers Gardens today with my wife. We have been trying to get out and exercise more, and it was such a beautiful day to enjoy. We usually go to the Raritan-Delaware Canal, which is nearby, or even to the Ecological Preserve on Kilmer Campus, which is even nearer our apartment. But I wanted to go back to the Gardens.

We spent some time looking at the vegetable and display gardens, especially since we were away too much this summer to grow one of our own. Usually we fill our balcony with herbs and tomatoes, but this year it just wasn't possible. Seeing the ripe tomatoes on the vine made me wish we had tried.... And it made me think of growing flowers next year also, which I hadn't much considered before. There were a few New England Asters -- large bushes of them, really -- all full of bees and butterflies. We saw several monarchs, which must be starting their migrations to Mexico about now. And we were curious about the variety of bees -- we identified at least four unique species on one Aster group, from small honey bees to large Bumblers. I wonder if they keep hives at the Gardens somewhere? I wouldn't be surprised if they did. We were tempted to try to follow one and find out -- or at least get a sense of the direction he would head -- but they seemed too absorbed by the flowers to think about heading home and we soon grew bored with the idea. Next time maybe.

On my previous trip I noticed a dirt road that seemed to go along the outside of the gardens to the Helyar woods, and we took that as our path, discovering several interesting shade trees. We were especially taken by the Chinese dogwoods and the European beeches, which not only offer great shade but have lots of interesting twisty branches. The beeches, especially, seem to welcome climbing. The path also brought us through a whole village of chipmunks, which practically infest the gardens. We wondered a bit about what they are eating. In the Disney cartoons they always eat nuts, but there did not seem to be much in the way of nuts here. Certainly there were acorns, and there are likely a large number of oaks in the forest. But the squirrels seemed to control that resource. I think someone must have written a natural history of the chipmunk, and I made a mental note to look that up. I'd like to know what they eat and how they make it through the winter. There are a lot of them on Cook Campus, and I see them outside my office window on occasion even. I saw one being attacked by crows once and another caught by a cat. I've seen them get eaten, in other words, but I never see them eat.

The road took us around through the woods, and we ventured a little down a path along the creek to see if the fabled miners cave really existed. Someone told me once it was along the main stream running through the woods, but if it is we didn't see it. I was also looking for mushrooms, especially since we had just had some rain after a long dry spell. But no luck there either. A few years back I ran into the president of the NJ Micological (sp?) Association hunting in Helyar in preparation for a club meeting there. I had seen him walking around in curious ways and had to ask him what he was up to. He told me he was mushrooming, and he showed me some he had found. I should have asked him if there really were a lot to be found there. At the time I just assumed there must be -- aren't there mushrooms in every forest? -- but since then I've had trouble finding even a toadstool. So I'm very curious if it really is such a good place to find anything. My wife is an expert mushroomer in fact, and I've seen her sniff out some of the best little yellow things buried in the moss in the forests of her native Poland -- where we went several years back. But in the Helyar Woods we were both blind to whatever fungal wealth was spread at our feet. Likely it is still too dry for there to be much of anything sprouting out there.

We spent some time in the former Christmas Tree farm, which is now a field in the process of succession and full of goldenrod and thistle. We saw some birds far off, but they were too careful of us to get a good look. We did see some Goldfinch, which I had seen there before, but not nearly so many as there generally are around thistle this time of year. And some woodpeckers, sparrows, and mockingbirds. And almost certainly a flycatcher of some sort -- you could recognize him by his straight posture in the tree -- but he was too small and distant to identify conclusively. I think a good naturalist could spend hours in that field identifying the variety of weeds and animals there. It seemed such a rich habitat.

Anyway, I hope my students begin to appreciate what little wilderness we have left in New Jersey.

Friday, September 13, 2002

I decided that, since I'm asking my students to hike to the Rutgers Gardens the class after next (on September 25), I would hike it myself. I had hiked it a few years ago, too, but I only had a vague memory of what that was like. I brought along my digital camera so I could take pictures and create a "virtual tour" guide to the hike to prepare students for whatever hazards they'd encounter.

And there are definitely a couple of hazards.... So long as students take proper precautions, however, these should pose no real problem. And the walk should take only about 20 minutes from Loree. (It took me almost 30 minutes on the way there, but that was because I took over 20 pictures along the way. On the way back it was exactly 20 minutes at a slow pace).

Leaving from my office in the Loree Building and walking across the wide field in front of Woodlawn (home to the Eagleton Institute), past the Woodlawn Carriage House, past the Nielsen Dining Hall, and walking along Dudley Road in front of Lippincott Residence Hall (with its unused tennis courts), I came to Ryders Lane. There is a very safe pedestrian crossing there, at Dudley and Ryders, which I used to get across Ryders safely. I knew that the Henderson Apartments and Sears were straight ahead. I could see the PNC Bank building in the distance. Once across Ryders, I walked along that busy road South toward Route 1.

The way really was not too bad. The path there was a bit overgrown with weeds, but not hazardous. I tried to stomp some weeds down and clear the path a bit. But it was a bit of a mess, I had to admit. Most of the way, though, I felt quite safe. I passed by the Labor Education Center and the new Administrative Services Building. Across Ryders I could see the Newell Apartments, and it occured to me that anyone living there could probably shave at least 10 minutes off of the walk (though they would have to hazard running across four busy lanes of Ryders Lane -- not too difficult, given the divider in the middle).

The only time I felt a tad exposed was in crossing over the ramps that connect Ryders Lane with Route 1. The bridge over Route 1 itself has a very nice sidewalk on it and is very safe. But the ramps on either side of the bridge are a bit hazardous, and really, I think the only dangers on the trip. If you don't try to cross at the heads of the ramps, but instead walk a little ways into them (to give yourself some space to see any oncoming cars), you can really mitigate that hazard entirely. At the first ramp, in fact, you are encouraged by the way the guard-rail is set up to do exactly this. If you attempt to run across the off-ramp from Ryders North to Route 1 South you are putting yourself in grave danger, since you really cannot see the oncoming traffic at all from that spot. And just as you get across and have to leap over the guard-rail, you would be quite vulnerable to traffic. But if you walk to the spot across from where the guard-rail begins instead of trying to run and leap over the guard-rail, you are really quite safe. There is a lot of lead-way from Ryders along the ramp to that spot, and not only would a pedestrian be able to see any oncoming traffic but cars would have plenty of time to see pedestrians and slow down if necessary. The same goes for the ramp from Ryders to Route 1 North on the other side of the bridge. If students leave themselves enough room along the ramp to see oncoming cars, and if they watch carefully as they cross, there is really no danger there.

I took some pictures, including pictures of these critical junctures in the trip. Along the way it occured to me that the College really ought to do something to improve the pedestrian route between Nicholas, say, and the Gardens. In fact, there is one spot where you should really be able to walk straight down from the ramp connecting Ryders and Route 1 North to get to the Rutgers Gardens Office. But the way is blocked by a fence. An athletic person could easily leap that fence and walk down to the office, shaving about 5 minutes or more off of the walk. But the fence is quite discouraging, and it seems ridiculous not to build a simple path there. No doubt the College is trying to discourage pedestrian traffic to the park. But that is ridiculous also.

Anyway, I will put that virtual tour up on our web site this weekend and will bring printed directions to class next time. And I'll have to remember to encourage them to wear long pants (some of the weeds along the road would be annoying to someone in shorts), bring a bottle of water (I consumed a full 24 oz. of water there and back), and and wear comfortable shoes (I actually had on my dress shoes, but I would have preferred something more sturdy).

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Tomorrow is my first day teaching a new class of first year students in Perspectives on Agriculture and the Environment at Cook College. I hope to make it an interesting class. This year I thought I'd introduce a lot of interesting and (I hope) fun activities -- like keeping a "blog" for the class instead of a traditional journal.

Last year, students kept journals -- and that can be useful in its own way -- for instance, since they are basically writing for themselves and the teacher, students feel relatively safe to explore ideas they might not test in public. But one of the goals of college, I think, is to develop a public voice and to begin feeling comfortable talking outside of that traditional teacher - student dyad (which mirrors, in both good and bad ways, the parent - child dyad). I think if students begin to practice the arts of writin in public, they will begin to see the value of what they write and will begin to feel engaged with the world in meaningful ways.

There will be lots of other interesting class activities. If you are interested, you can visit our class web site at:

I'm still finishing the web site for the class, so there is lots to do....