The ArbLog Archives

Right after college, I spent a year working at Saint John’s Arboretum and kept a blog.  It has since disappeared from the Arb website, but I kind of liked it, so here’s my copy with a bunch of broken links.

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See ya.
May 30, 2008

I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write one more ArbLog, but all the pressure from my fan club (my mom and Sarah Gainey) has made it necessary.  So here I sit, only one hour remaining of my ArbLife in its current form, reflecting on a year of strange and glorious achievements.

This year I took long, explorative walks in the middle of the day and called it “work.”  I also wrote and edited four Sagatagan Seasons and three Avon Hills Initiative Updates (and one ArbLog) and called it “fun.”  Just as “coordinating the office” is secretly “going on a daily adventure,” it’s all in how you look at it.

When I interviewed, I looked at that giant mountain goat not as a bad omen (as others might in a job interview) but rather a sign that this place might just be weird enough to work for me.  When I realized the Arboretum’s idea of decorating is an antique fish head that looks like something out ofTremors, I knew that I was correct.  Today, Cassie and I went for a drive in the woods (mainly she just wanted to drive the Suburban) and reminisced about our early days.  They don’t seem that much different than these days – enjoying the land, learning something new, and laughing a lot.  Today I learned how to taste the nectar of the Columbine, how to wrangle a newsletter from nothing to something in three hours (actually, this is my specialty), and how to scream in terror when Cassie almost hits a tree with the ‘burb.

For one last time, I can say it was “just another day.”

I think this is the part where I exit slowly, trying not to cry (to the tunes of Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous” played on my own tape player, a la Michael Scott in The Office).  If it’s okay with you, I’ll skip that part and go straight to being a happy, frequently-visiting member.  See ya.

Choose Your Own Adventure
May 22, 2008

A good friend of the Arboretum recently told me, “You never really leave the Arboretum.  You just take a break until you need a “peace and quiet” fix and then you return to visit your old haunts.  So don’t say goodbye, just ‘see you later!’”  It is just about time for me to say “see you later, alligator in the Natural History Museum that Theo used to scare the daylights out of me on his last day, thereby destroying all fond memories I had of my student employees.  It has been real.”  I know in my heart that the Rachel/Arboretum relationship will continue to grow and blossom, just like the seven wildflowers I can identify (and the millions I cannot); yet I can’t help but feel that every moment here is now part of a sad countdown.

For a year, I have been the voice on the other end of the line whenever you have called the Arboretum.  Whenever you have radioed for “Arboretum base,” I have answered.  So while I know that I will still be connected to the Arboretum – as a member, a future volunteer (if only so I can look this awesome again), and a more-than-occasional visitor – and I know that the only thing that’s really changing is my tether to this desk, I still feel like I’m losing my connection.  I am no longer Arboretum based.

That’s it; two paragraphs is my wallowing limit.  The Arboretum friend also asked me, “What’s your next adventure?”  Although the answer to that still eludes me, the question itself is pretty telling.  This whole year has been an adventure of blockbuster proportions, with epic battles versus beast (thanks again for the alligator-related heart attack, Theo), versus nature (may I once again point out how sweet this picture is.  Another friend pointed out it’s like I’ve just gone for a walk in the wilderness and don’t realize the can I’m holding is leaking a trail of fire), versus machine (Tom v. computer, Laura v. suburban, Rachel v. minibus-in-the-woods), and versus self (my own ignorance anyway – I may only know seven wildflowers, but that’s seven more than I knew last year at this time).

Alright, so this story probably won’t make it to the big screen, and I shouldn’t change my title to “Office Coordinator/Action Hero” anytime soon.  Still, it’s been a great, adventure-filled year for me.  I might not know what my next step will be – in the words of my favorite adventurer, Indiana Jones, “I’m making this up as I go” – but I do know that if you’re looking to choose your own adventure, the Arboretum is a great place to start.

Not Good
May 6, 2008

There are many things I’m just not good at.  Singing opera.  Sports requiring any sort of hand/eye coordination.  Getting out of bed on time to start the day.   While being at the Arboretum has taught me all sorts of new skills, it’s also brought to my attention even more that I do not have.  Somewhere at the top of that list are the entries “identifying birds,” and “taking care of plants.”

If you’ve checked out the Events page lately, you know where I’m going with this.

Spring birding day and the spring plant sale are both taking place this Saturday, May 10.  I’m told that in previous years, people with much greener thumbs than mine packed the New Science Center, while birders gladly show up at the Peter Engel Science Center at 5:30 a.m. for a hike.  Since “being a happy person at 5:30 in the morning” is not even a physical possibility for me and my favorite indoor plants are plastic, I will be missing both events.  If you are coming, do not be distressed: chances are good the events will run smoothly without me.

The entire Arboretum will have to run smoothly without me in just under a month.  I imagine this will be much easier on the Arboretum than it will be on me.  A year ago, I wasn’t even aware of some of the hidden goodies of Saint John’s Arboretum.  A year of asking – what’s the kiosk?  Where’s the butterfly bench? Why do we call this the cow tree? – and learning, and now I find my heart has made a home for each of these places.

I’m not good at goodbyes.  I’m better at playing games with my soon-to-be-gone student employees (“Rachel, come play with us, then write about it in your blog!”), and going for walks among birds and plants I cannot identify, and procrastinating the unpleasant.  If you need me anytime in the next month, I’ll be here (or here…or maybe here…but definitely not here or here, even though these events are great fun and you should go anyway).  Feel free to stop by and say hello, just don’t you dare try to say goodbye.

Just Another Day
April 22, 2008

Cassie and I have a motto: “Just another day at the Arboretum.”  There is no such thing as an “average” day here – every day, and every task, becomes more interesting here.  For example, last week the mail carrier came to pick things up in our office.  She picked up a box that happened to be on the same table as the out box, and asked, “Should I take this, too?”  I glanced at the box and said, unfazed, “Oh, no, that’s a beaver skull.  You can leave that here with me.”  She ran away before I had time to explain the beaver skull was from Beaver Tales, an Earth Week event.

Scaring the mail carriers: just another day.

Actually, it’s not often that I get to be the one scaring people with dead animals.  Usually it happens to me.  Just a few hours after the beaver skull incident, Sarah and the gang of naturalists came in from a class and brought in an owl pellet.  “Here’s a vertebra of a squirrel,” Sarah said, and held some bones in front of my face.  Some days, the thought of leaving the Arboretum does not scare me nearly as much as the thought of staying.

The rest of that day progressed like an average Arboretum day should: I handed out hundreds of free tree seedlings courtesy of the Arboretum and the Environmental Studies Department (Whenever people hear where I work, they immediately ask if I take care of trees.  This week, I can actually answer, “Yes.”).  I took pictures of students and friends playing with trash (actually, they were making Biology in a Bottle, another Earth Week event).  I went to a planetarium show at SCSU and wondered how the ancient astronomers decided two stars resembled a small dog.  And then I helped the student naturalists pick up bongos.

Trees and trash, bongos and beaver skulls, stars and squirrel bones: Just another day at the Arboretum.

Today, however, is not just another day.  Today is Earth Day!  We have been celebrating for a little over a week — pictures from some of our events are available on our Facebook account, and will be on this website soon.  Hopefully, you have taken some time to thank the planet today.  You can go the service route – a few groups of kindergarteners came out to the Arboretum to plant tree seedlings this week (although one of the students called them “treelings”) – or you can just go for a walk.  Whatever you do, enjoy this lovely spring weather: I, for one, have made the transition from snow boots to sandals in less than a week.  Just another spring in Minnesota.

Summer Dreams
April 15, 2008

I spend a lot of my day staring at the Arboretum website.  More than is healthy, maybe; more than anyone else on the planet, definitely.  I made two small changes to the front page of the site last week which I doubt anyone else noticed: the picture of the kiosk is now snow-free, and the Arboretum Highlights picture is now of beautiful summer prairie flowers.  It gives me something to look forward to as I pull on my snow boots in April.

Cassie and I started our fellowships at the Arboretum last May.  Now that we’re just six weeks from the end of our Arb time, I can’t help but get nostalgic for those early months — and not just for the weather.  Every Wednesday morning throughout the summer, Sarah, Cassie, student naturalists Laura and Theo, and I took plant identification walks around the prairie.  Three months of dedicated studying and I can now identify bergamot beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Although almost all of the plant names eluded me, those mornings among the prairie flowers were the beginning of my relationship with the Arboretum.  With fewer events and classes over the summer, Cassie and I had time to just get to know the place.  We watched water lilies bloom on Lake Sagatagan and baby deer sleep in the woods, circled the boardwalk loop hundreds of times and spent not nearly enough time taking advantage of the tree swing in the oak savanna.  There are worse jobs in the world.

My weather-prediction skills are only slightly better than those of the fabled groundhog (six more weeks of winter my foot.  Has that guy ever been right?), but I think we have finally reached spring.  The snow is melting, we’ve shed our wool coats, and my dad is talking about golfing: these are sure signs, and not a moment too soon.  Although this last-minute snowstorm has proved a boon for syruping, most of us are itching to rediscover the green world.  I’m even willing to deal with the inevitable return of my old adversaries, the wood ticks, if it means a few months of sun, warmth, and bloomin’ bergamot.

Check It Off The List
April 8, 2008

Something about the Maple Syrup Festivals brings out the kid in me.  Maybe it’s that I finally have a good excuse to wear my purple boots; maybe it’s all the sugar.  Whatever it is, I was the picture of excitement as Cassie took me out to tap my first tree on Saturday.  She was patient as she walked me through the process – luckily, she is used to teaching pre-schoolers – and she only had to remind me once that we were tree tapping, not tree pounding.  I can now cross “tap an acer saccharum” off my list of life goals.  It’s listed right after “never have a normal job.”

I hope you were among the 900 people who joined us at the 2008 Festivals!  They were a magnificent success, and we will try to have pictures online soon.  Even though we’re not sure where we’ll be, Cassie and I are already planning to come back to the Festivals in 2009, and we’ll be wearing our sweet (literally) hats and shirts.

The Festivals may be over, but life at the Arboretum keeps rolling on.  Next week is Earth Week — actually, it runs from April 14th – 22nd (Earth Day), but “Earth 9 Days” doesn’t have the same ring to it.  The Arboretum is working to bring students and friends a whole bunch of exciting and Earthy events.  There’s the Bongo for the Congo drum jam, a hog roast, Biology in a Bottle, a compostable cook out, and more.  There’s even a planetarium show at SCSU – which I guess has to do with everything but the Earth, but is a nice way to gain perspective.  We’ll also be showcasing another episode of Planet Earth, free and open to the public, on the 21st.

Some of these events are only for students, but non-students are still welcome to celebrate the Earth in their own way.  You can roast your own hog or bang your own bongo for the Congo – or you can simply pick up litter when you see it, or learn to identify and appreciate Minnesota’s native plants.  I’m looking forward to walk/roll/run to class/work day so I can finally cross another item off my life goal list.  Step one: learn to skateboard.  Step two: hitch a ride on the back of a passing truck while listening to Huey Lewis and the News.  Step three: Check “Re-enact scene from Back to the Future” off the list.

Sweet.  Literally.
April 1, 2008

I noticed a curious phenomenon as people called to RSVP for the Maple Syrup Festival last week. “Is it ever going to warm up?” they would ask me.  “Isn’t it supposed to be spring?”  Let me clear something up here: although my position at the Arboretum yields some power, control of the weather is just not one of them.  For that, you must call Tom Kroll (god of thunder).

Luckily, the weather was beautiful on Saturday.  Over 300 people showed up for the tree-tapping goodness of the first Maple Syrup Festival!  I spent the majority of the day putting my rusty math skills to the test at the registration table.  Apologies to all Festival guests who I peppered with registration-related questions (“Are you a member? Have you preregistered?  Do you have any children under three?  Are you a college student?”).  Getting into the Festival is slightly less complicated than doing your taxes, but is probably more worthwhile in the end.

As the day wore on and my enthusiasm waned (“Hello, welcome to the thing.  Do you like my hat?”), it became clear that a mid-day energy boost would be necessary.  I hopped aboard a horse-drawn carriage, wandered past the educational displays, took in the acoustic tunes of some CSB/SJU students, and finally made my way to the sugar shack for maple syrup candy, courtesy of student naturalist Theo.  If you were at the Festival and didn’t try this, you must come again this week.  You can see Theo’s candy-making hands, as well as other highlights from Saturday’s event, in this video from the St. Cloud Times.

I only managed to spend about 15 minutes at the festival itself.  That’s not nearly enough time to experience all it has to offer: I didn’t even come close to the tapping demonstrations, where EE Fellow Cassie was stationed throughout the day.  I’ve promised to let her take me out sometime this week to tap my first tree.  If this guy can do it, I can too.  Probably.

Hope to see you this Saturday!  Despite yesterday’s snowfall (Tom Kroll’s idea of an April Fool’s joke?), the Festival is still on.  Come prepared for a literally sweet time!

The Wearing O’ the Green
March 17, 2008

It is St. Patrick’s Day, and even though the Arboretum is currently under a blanket of white snow, today we celebrate all things green.  This is the day the 25% of me that is Irish (mostly manifested in freckles and Conan O’Brien-ish pallor) overwhelms the other 75% of me.  Today, I make Irish soda bread, tell everyone just how many Patricks are in my ancestry, and remember the time I kissed the Blarney Stone and earned the gift of eloquence (can’t you tell?).

Whether you are lucky enough to be Irish or not, today is the day to wear green.  I have my green sweater, but I also have my brown 100% organic cotton Arboretum t-shirt: today, I’m giving a shout-out to two different types of green.  I get to be Irish every day, but I have to work at being “green.”  I’m incredibly imperfect at it, but it’s important to keep trying.  By wearing this slightly-mismatched t-shirt/cardigan combo, I’m honoring my past and what I hope to be my future.  And you thought I just got dressed in the dark.

Besides dressing the part, St. Patrick’s Day also gives me a chance to connect with my heritage through traditions.  Every year, I bake Irish soda bread.  It connects me to my ancestors, until I overwhelm the recipe with sugar and basically turn bread into candy.  I’m not much of a chef, and I have a sweet tooth – which is why I find maple syrup season to be the most exciting time I’ve spent at the Arboretum.  Just as baking bread is a connection to my personal heritage, maple syruping is a connection to the Arboretum’s heritage: Saint John’s Maple Syrup is a Benedictine tradition since 1942.

For a few more hours, everyone who wants to be Irish gets to be.  Tomorrow I’ll still be a little bit Irish (and probably a little bit sick from all the sugary bread), while the rest of the world puts away its green.  As for that other type of “green”: don’t put that away.  Wear it (and unplug it, cool it, skip it, and recycle it) proudly.

March 11, 2008
You CAN Take It With You

Years ago, my grandfather, a lifelong Minnesotan, took a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Unable to comprehend the warmth and lack of snow in December, he asked, “I wonder what it’s like here during the winter?”  My family laughs at this, but I can see his point.  I just spent the weekend in California, and the perpetually seventy-degree-and-sunny weather was both amazing and confusing to me.  If this is winter or spring, what happens in the summer or the fall?  And anyway, aren’t we in the desert?  Why is everything so green?

I went to Los Angeles for two important reasons: one, to visit my friend Sabrina “is your office in a tree” Walter; and two, to go for a walk.  I admit, taking a vacation from an Arboretum to go for a walk in L.A., a city in which no one walks, is a little illogical.  Okay, entirely illogical.  Sabrina humored me, however, and we started Saturday morning with a hike.

Even though I was on vacation, I couldn’t get the Arboretum out of my head.  The land at the Arboretum flows gently, while L.A. is nothing if not dramatic: high hills and low valleys, cliffs and beaches.  The greenery threw me for a loop, too – I’m so used to touting the natural landscape and native plants of the Arboretum, seeing green where there should be desert was surprising.  Our trails have bergamot and the Stella Maris Chapel; the trail I took on Saturday (Fryman Canyon in Studio City, overlooking the San Fernando Valley) had palm trees and George Clooney’s house.

These places seem like different worlds – the weather, the landscape, the people – but it’s important to remember they aren’t.  There’s just one Earth.  When students come to classes at the Arboretum, they are told to leave behind everything they find in the Arboretum except for their lessons and memories.  Those they can take, because the goal of environmental education is to foster a connection to all of the Earth, not just our portion of it.  And while it might seem easier to love the parts that have sun, beaches, and (let’s face it) George Clooney, it’s just as important to love the non-glamorous bits: highways that need adopting, gardens that need tending, and Arboretums that need friends.

Next week is spring break for CSB/SJU.  We’re setting up a contest for students: send in a picture of yourself in an Arboretum t-shirt on your vacation, and you will be entered in a prize drawing.  The first reason for this is simply that it’s fun.  The secondary reason should be just as obvious: to encourage you to bring your love for the Arboretum and the Earth with you, wherever you go.  If I can connect with nature in Los Angeles, you can do it anywhere.

March 5, 2008
Special Bonus Entry: Arboretum Word Find

Have you seen The Record this week?  If you have, you might have noticed an Arboretum word find.  As promised, here are the answers:

  • 5 Prairie Plants: Bergamot, Blazing Star, Coneflower, Milkweed, and Yarrow.  These are just some of the many prairie plants we have at the Arboretum – check out the full list for pictures!
  • 4 Lakes: Hilary, Ignatius, Sagatagan, and Stumpf.
  • 3 Sweet Things: Sugar Shack, Sap, and – what else? – Maple Syrup.  The season is upon us, friends – volunteer or sign up for one of the festivals!
  • 2 Trails: Chapel and Pine Knob.
  • 1 Amazing Place:  You figure it out.

March 3, 2008

I’m generally pretty oblivious.  Sometimes Cassie will make a comment about a song on the radio, and I won’t even realize the radio (my radio) is on.  Maybe oblivious is the wrong word; maybe “focused” is better.  I can only focus on one thing at a time.  I cannot be expected to operate a car and figure out where I’m going at the same time; nor can I talk and make sense, sing and be on key, or walk andsense danger.

Since I’m trying to cut down on my chances of ending up in a newspaper with the description “innocent bystander,” I’m working on my observation skills.  For the past several weeks, I’ve been a student in Dr. Jim Poff’s nature journaling/watercolor class, “Drawing to Learn,” offered by the Arboretum.  Although I’ve always been interested in art (understatement: I cannot go to an art museum and act like a non-awestruck human with normal social skills), I would rate my watercolor ability only slightly higher than my snowshoeing ability.  Cross one post-Arboretum career off the list.

Nothing can be erased with watercolor: even the sketch lines are permanent.  You have to know where you’re going to start and where you’re going to end and every step in between – my one passable painting was of a dragonfly, and Dr. Poff taught me to start with the background to achieve the invisible look of the dragonfly’s wings.  Even though I was painting something so little, I had to see the bigger picture around (and through) it to successfully capture the moment.

Dr. Poff’s class taught some great techniques for observing little things in the wild, but didn’t quite prepare me for the other little things I observed last week: children at the Pierz library program.  I went along with Cassie and student naturalist aide Kathleen to take a few pictures and learn about animal tracks right along with the students.  Mainly, I observed how fearless kids are.  I spent a lot of my high school and college career terrified of giving the wrong answer; at the library, I watched a seven-year-old shout out “polar bear” when asked to identify an animal by its tracks.  He got it wrong, but he wasn’t embarrassed.  He was willing to shoot his hand up and guess again.

In Dr. Poff’s class, I was afraid I’d ruin my painting before I even picked up a brush.  Maybe I did.  I’m guessing that little boy would not share my fear of messing up a painting.  Although I admittedly need to become more aware of the bigger picture, I miss being fearless of the little things; the little failures.  After all, how can you fear being wrong and still learn?

February 26, 2008
Playing Favorites

I have a favorite everything.  This mostly stems from my brother; all of our conversations over the past decade or so have involved lists of favorites.  Movies, musicals, actors, books – you name it, we’ve debated it.  In my house, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a thorough discussion of favorite religious and secular holiday songs.  Now, after nine months at the Arboretum, I’ve added a new category: Favorite Animal Noises.  In the spirit of the Oscars (my favorite awards show), here are the nominees: Howler monkeys, birds of paradise, barred owls, and the Eastern Spadefoot toad.

As you can probably guess, not all of these animals are native to the Arboretum.  Not a lot of monkeys in central Minnesota – unless you count the one on display in the Natural History Museum (we’re not sure why we have it, either).  The Eastern Spadefoot and birds of paradise also aren’t found in the Arboretum, although we do have barred owls.  Still, I wouldn’t know about any of these if I had, say, a normal job.

Howler monkeys and birds of paradise made the cut because of the BBC documentary Planet Earth.  The Arboretum is showing an episode a month throughout the spring semester, and last week we took in “Jungles.”  The filmmakers captured animal sounds and activities that I will likely never experience in the real world, including the call of howler monkeys and the displays of birds of paradise.  I can’t do them justice in the ArbLog; you are just going to have to see the documentary yourself (our next free showing will be on March 10, at 7:15 p.m. in Pellegrene Auditorium).

If you would rather step outside than watch a DVD, try trekking through the oak savanna on a search for owls.  EE coordinator Sarah Gainey shared her love of owls at last week’s 9th annual Owl Hoot.  She taught us characteristics of Minnesota’s native owls, where to look for them, and how to recognize their calls.  Had the coldest air mass in the northern hemisphere not been above Minnesota on that day, we would have gone out to try her techniques (the bitter cold did not stop several of our members from showing up prepared to go out for a hike; they are true Minnesotan Survivors).  I can’t wait to hear the courtship duet of male and female Barred Owls, which, according to Sarah, “can best be described as similar to laughing monkeys.”  Again, do not let the Barred Owls fool you – we do not have monkeys at the Arboretum.

We also do not have Eastern Spadefoot toads, which is hard for me to believe, considering how many times I have heard their call.  Cassie Herbst and I spent an afternoon listening to a CD of frog calls last summer – she in preparation for the library program “Frog Symphony,” me because we share an office.  I dare you to listen to this sound, over and over at high volume, and not giggle just a little bit.  For me, it’s impossible, and not just because it sounds exactly like my friend Elizabeth’s laugh (definitely one of my favorite non-animal noises); it reminds me of just how wonderfully ridiculous nature truly is.  Nature has a sense of humor.  That’s probably my favorite thing about it.

February 18, 2008
Do you know where your Arboretum is?

I’ll be honest: when I was a student at CSB/SJU, I had no idea what the Arboretum was, much less how (or why) I could get involved.  Sure, I was aware of the land around Saint John’s University – I swam in Lake Sagatagan, enjoyed several Pinestocks on Watab, and did the infamous chapel walk a time or two – yet I never made the connection.  To me, “the Arboretum” was some vague place my enviro-friends went, and always made me think of those Joni Mitchell lyrics: “They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum…”

As with most things in my life, everything I thought I knew about the Arboretum was 100% wrong.  The Arboretum is not an unavailable and contained space – the Arboretum is everything in the 2,740 acres around Saint John’s University.  In fact, the Arboretum was actually one of the major reasons I chose to attend CSB/SJU*, even though I didn’t know it. I know I’m not alone in this: student naturalist Richelle wrote a lovely article in the winter edition of Sagatagan Seasons explaining how the land drew her to CSB/SJU long before she even knew the word Arboretum.

So perhaps you are wondering how I wound up here.**  I’m not sure, either, but I’m glad I have the opportunity to make up for lost time (I mean, what was I doing for four years of college?  Homework?  Ha!).  I encourage students to get involved by simply getting outside – enjoy the fact that your school is surrounded by wilderness!  Run, hike, snowshoe over ten miles of trails!  Jump in Lake Sagatagan (maybe wait a few months on this one)!  Or by checking out one of our events – just this week, we have three community events on our calendar: Planet Earth, Nature Journaling, and the Owl Hoot.  Or volunteer – Maple Syrup season is fast approaching, after all.

There are so many ways to connect with the Arboretum, but why should you?  I’ve written before about the many learning opportunities provided by the outdoors; it goes beyond that.  The Arboretum offers a relationship with the environment that can be carried beyond one’s time at CSB/SJU, although it might require a change in perspective.  Take Watab: we often call it an island because it is connected to Saint John’s by a bridge. Take a look at a map, however, and you will see it isn’t an island at all – the land extends beyond the borders of the Arboretum.  We need to start seeing things from the other perspective.  Saint John’s is not isolated from the rest of the world by wilderness; it is connected by it.

*The other reason being I like ridiculously long acronyms.  From BDRSH HS to CSB/SJU to SJA OC/M/W Fellow, I like to keep my résumé as cryptic as possible.

**That is if you are not wondering if I got paid extra to type the word “Arboretum” seven times in the first two paragraphs of this entry.  I did not, but just in case: Arboretum Arboretum Arboretum!

Fe bruary 11, 2008
Survivor: Minnesota

Minnesotans are a strange breed.  In addition to the funny accents and the preference for every meal in “hotdish” form, we all seem to be involved in a single unending conversation about the weather.  Our State Motto should be “So how about this weather we’re having, then?”  And yet, as much as we gripe on about the cold, we are fiercely proud of our ability to survive in this climate.  We go coatless the first time the weather climbs above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, we send our kids trick-or-treating in blizzards, and not even a winter weather emergency can keep us from the holiday sales at the mall.

I grew up in a small Minnesota prairie town and can claim countless memories of snow days, snow forts, and snow pants.  These things are less thrilling to me now, but I wouldn’t dream of depriving a child of these experiences.  Although some days are just too cold to safely spend too much time outdoors (for those days, the Arboretum recommends cozying up with a book from our recommended reading list), there are things to learn in the outdoors even when everything is muted by snow.  Thanks to the Arboretum’s Winter Survival class, area elementary students have the option of getting outside and learning how Minnesota’s animals live during the state’s signature season.  Here’s a taste of survival trivia (more of which can be found on our FAQ page’s trivia section, which is updated with no regularity whatsoever).  Did you know:

  • red foxes eat insects and fruits in the summer, but switch to rodents in the winter?
  • muskrats construct shelters that help protect them from severe weather? (Since all of my previous muskrat knowledge comes from “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tennille, I can only assume they build these shelters after doing the jitterbug in Muskrat Land)
  • lynx grow thick fur on their paws to help them run across the snow and avoid sinking?

According to the Mimicry Match Game prepared by the EE staff of the Arboretum, humans can mimic lynx by wearing snowshoes.  Cassie “EE Fellow” Herbst, student naturalist Richelle and I tried out this theory a few weeks ago.  There was no lynx-style running (although I have never seen a lynx, I assume they don’t run bow-legged with what look like tennis rackets strapped to their feet), but we did manage to stay atop the snow and hunt for animal tracks.  This was good practice for Cassie and Richelle, who also help teach Animal Tracks and Signs classes, and a good chance for me to channel my inner six-year-old.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Those are squirrel tracks,” Cassie said.

“What’s that?”

“That’s where a deer has been digging through the snow to find food,” Richelle said.

“What’s that?”

“That’s the imprint you made when you fell down for the third time.”

There’s always something to learn outside: on this particular day, I learned that I am no good at snowshoeing.  But hey, I’ll survive.  I’m a Minnesotan.

February 4, 2008
Energy Challenged

I imagine that when kids go home after field trips to the Arboretum, they start flooding their families with nature trivia whether it’s wanted or not.  I’m pretty much the same way: someone asks me about my day, and suddenly I’m explaining the dietary habits of bald eagles.  I’m aware that not everyone finds this as interesting as I do, but I cannot stop myself – it’s like my brain has a leak.  So now that I’ve decided to increase my energy awareness, I feel like I should warn you:  It doesn’t matter if I’ve known you for five minutes or five years, if you invite me to your house, I am going to unplug your hairdryer.

This newfound fascination with energy (and unplugging) is due in part to the National Campus Energy Challenge (NCEC) going on this month.  I’m not a student and my participation doesn’t matter to the competition – but it matters to the Earth, so I’m doing it anyway.  This week, the theme is “Unplug It.”  Next week we are supposed to “Cool It,” then “Skip It,” and finish out the month by “Doing it in the Dark.”  These aren’t drastic life changes; they require just a little flexibility (and maybe some long underwear).

Sarah Gainey, Environmental Education Coordinator at the Arboretum, is also partially to blame for this life-greening desire of mine.  She got me hooked on reusable grocery bags; I have, at last count, half a dozen.  I’ve never needed that many for groceries, but the things are so darn handy for other things (like moving, which I’ve done 11 times).  I’ve started skipping the bag at department stores, and even at Subway restaurants, which I recommend doing if you don’t mind a few funny looks.

I don’t know exactly how much good I’m doing by going bagless and unplugging every device I encounter, but I have faith that the little things add up.  Or in this case, subtract from my total energy use.  It’s also nice to keep an eye on the bigger picture, like the carbon-neutral future of CSB/SJU.

If you look over the Energy Awareness portion of our website, you will find a few handy suggestions for cutting your energy consumption.  I’m also going to share my favorite energy- and environment-related websites:

  • Grist: environmental news with a twist of humor
  • Ideal Bite: one small tip a day makes greening one’s life seem feasible
  • Freecycle: Give your old stuff away
  • Swaptree: It’s cheap. It’s fun. It reduces waste. And it allowed me to trade an old textbook for a copy of “Spaceballs.” What’s not to love about that?
  • Carbon Fast: Go green for lent!  Way better than giving up chocolate.

If you have any more ideas, send ’em my way.  Then unplug your computer.

January 28, 2008
Animals Among Us

The phone rings.  I answer: “Saint John’s Arboretum, this is Rachel.”

The caller responds: “Hi, Rachel.  I just wanted to let you know I saw an injured deer on campus this morning.”

I take down the information and pass it on to Saint John’s Life Safety, knowing as I do that for other office coordinators, this sort of call is probably not normal.  For me, however, it’s just another day at the Arboretum.  I’m thinking of adding it to my ever-growing job title: Writer/Marketing/Office Coordinator/Deer Whisperer Fellow.

Since Saint John’s University is so close to the freeway, we often forget how close it is to the natural world as well – until the natural world leaps in front of our cars.  Hopefully you can avoid this sort of connection, but still take time to make other connections with nature through the Arboretum.

Deer are the easiest animals to spot around the Arboretum at this time of year, but evidence of other wildlife is everywhere you turn.  The trail around Lower Stumpf Lake is lined with tree stumps sharpened to spikes, evidence of beaver activity.  Just recently, a pair of bald eagles began building a nest in the Arboretum.  And the Oak Savanna is a good place to scope out owls (especially with the skills you acquire at the annual Owl Hoot).

Then there are the tracks: animal tracks are everywhere.  Cassie Herbst, the Environmental Education fellow, has designed a program for local libraries called “Minnesota’s Animal Tracks.”  I don’t exactly fall in the target demographic of age 3-12, but I’ve still learned a lot just from sharing an office with Cassie.  She’s usually bursting with natural trivia, can read animal tracks like a book, and has almost superhuman vision when it comes to spotting dragonflies (for proof of her passions, check out her article on dragonflies in the winter 2008 edition of Sagatagan Seasons).

Fortunately for those of us with less-than-magic vision, sometimes you don’t have to look that hard to encounter nature: in the fall, a pair of juvenile raccoons took up temporary residence next to a window of the New Science Center.  EE Fellow/dragonfly hunter/budding nature photographer Cassie didn’t even have to leave the building to snap this picture.

At the end of every one of our environmental education classes, our naturalists ask the elementary students where else they can interact with nature.  After the standard responses (“The lake!” “The cabin!” “Grandma’s house!”), a naturalist will point out that even one’s own backyard is a good place to see the natural world.  Elementary students tend to view this with a bit of disbelief; backyards are often overlooked as a connection to nature.  Don’t treat the Arboretum as a backyard – make time to look around.  Watch for birds, smell the flowers, walk the trails, and try not to hit the deer.

January 21, 2008
The Return of the Students

I began working as the writer/marketing/office coordinator fellow at Saint John’s Arboretum almost immediately after graduating from the College of Saint Benedict in May.  When I told my friends and family about the Huge Life Change (moving slightly away from campus, upgrading my CSB/SJU library privileges, and parking in the staff rather than student lots at Saint John’s), most were wondering why I would choose to spend my first year of life post-college at college.  Save for a friend who got caught up in the details of my green-friendly job (“Is your office in a tree?  Will you have to wear pants made out of burlap?”), the majority asked, “Isn’t it going to be weird, being at school and not going to class?”

While my life at the Arboretum does regularly foray into the bizarre, it has nothing to do with going or not going to class.  Everything about this place and this job is delightfully weird – although my office is not, in fact, in a tree.  It’s in the New Science Center, just around the corner from the Natural History Museum, which sounds quaint until you realize it’s filled with hundreds of antique dead animals.  I was interviewed in this room, in the shadow of a mountain goat; that was my first clue.  My first day on the job began with a trip around the boardwalk loop with first graders, learning about insects.  That was my second clue, and as the six-year-olds and I together learned how to distinguish male wood ticks from female wood ticks, I knew I was in the right place.

We like to bill the Arboretum as “an ideal living library.”  It’s fitting, and not just for the students who take part in our Environmental Education program.  Everyday in this place brings a new opportunity to learn something.  How to soothe stinging nettle burns with jewelweed, how to eat a cattail, how to drive a minibus through rugged terrain in the woods – you never know when these bits of information will come in handy.

So how does it feel to be a young alumna on campus now that the entire CSB/SJU community has returned for the second half of the 07-08 school year?  I’ll admit that yes, it is a little weird – just not in the ways I was expecting.  Being mistaken for a first-year student was a little unnerving (do I really look like a nervous eighteen-year-old?), and once again adjusting my days to the odd/even/ABCD-mod schedule of CSB/SJU is a challenge.  Yet I feel like I still fit right in.  I may not be going to class, but I am still learning.


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