All posts by Rob

About Rob

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer and editor for WFSU-TV. Rob covers ecology, managing the National Science Foundation funded In the Grass, On the Reef project. Previously, Rob produced and directed WFSU’s music program, outloud. He has also produced a number of ecology and music related documentaries and was selected the PBS Producers Workshop, a program that grooms up-and-coming producers to create programs for national broadcast.

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Raising a Kid with Nature Takes Creativity, Persistence

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

This past Saturday, my son Max and I returned to Owl Creek to join a few dozen paddlers for a special event.  The Apalachicola Riverkeeper welcomed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they continue to make their way from the headwaters of the Everglades to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola.  While on the water, I could see that people liked the image of a father and son in a kayak.  Other paddlers would occasionally say things like “That’s the right way to raise a kid.”   Max and I made a little game of picking up trash along the creek, which garnered more positive comments.  It feels nice to hear those things because, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m just making things up as I go with this kid and his outdoor experiences.

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Max uses a duck whistle (every kid in the duck calling contest got to keep theirs) to call an Operation Migration member in a whooping crane feeding suit during the 2015 WHO Festival.

At times, raising your kid to have nature in their lives can be more “rewarding” than “fun.” On other occasions, you battle lack of interest at best, total three-to-four-year-old meltdown at worst.  He has never, for instance, shared my love of exploring the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  What kid wouldn’t love to strike out and see a bunch of wildlife?  Instead, a couple of hundred yards around Headquarters Pond, I hear “I’m tired Daddy, pick me up.”  I thought he’d like to see fiddler crabs in the beach and marsh behind the lighthouse.  Instead, I can’t pull him away from the map kiosk (he does love the big maps).  He did like the excellent children’s activities at the Wildlife and Heritage Outdoor Festival, however.  And he loves petting the stuffed otter at the visitor center.

I’m always trying to find that sweet spot between kid friendly activity and the kind of excursion that I would enjoy regardless of whether the family was along.  Luckily, we share two favorite outdoor activities: camping and paddling.  I could probably go up to Max at any point on any day and say “Drop what you’re doing, we’re going camping,” and have his absolute attention.  Even so, it can take a bit of doggedness and creativity to make these adventures work.  Saturday was no different.

Managing Expectations

Originally, we were going to camp at one of Owl Creek’s Hickory Landing sites the night before the paddle.  Then, the forecast went from a low in the upper 40s to a low of 35.  Max was recovering from something heavy earlier in the week; he was still coughing a bit by Friday even if he had regained his characteristic young energy.  Still, I hesitated canceling that part of the fun.  Why not expose him to some slightly rough conditions and do some character building?  Another parent might have chosen to tough it out, but it didn’t feel right to me.

Indoor campfire.

Indoor campfire.

The problem was that I had already brought up that possibility to him.  There are no maybes to a four year old.  So I decided to camp out right in his room.  My wife, Amy, made an indoor “campfire” utilizing a flashlight in a jar surrounded by red and yellow gift bag tissue.  When I got home from work, Max was scribbling brown marker on spent paper towel rolls to make logs.  We ate hot dogs and s’mores baked right in our oven and slept on the floor in our sleeping bags.  We left the lights off and used headlamps and “campfire” for illumination.  Max had received some glow-in-the-dark stars for Christmas; I affixed them to his ceiling and we slept under a fluorescent green starscape.

Was it a lot of effort just to keep from disappointing a child?  Well, Daddy wanted to go camping, too.  And now, Mommy and little brother Xavi got to sit around the campfire as well (Xavi will go camping for the first time in the next few months).  Sometimes, we do these things for ourselves as much as for them.

Containing Excitement

The problem with not camping at Hickory Landing, right where the kayaks were launching, is that we had to wake up in Tallahassee, get ourselves ready, and drive for an hour-and-a-half into the Apalachicola National Forest, where Owl Creek runs.  And be there by 9 am.  We woke up just after 6 am and Max got up out of his sleeping bag a little faster than he normally does when he wakes up for school.  But only a little.

“Max, if you don’t get up we’ll be late for kayaking!”

As we drove down State Road 65, flocks of robins and other colorful birds would fly across the interruption in pine flatwood habitat where we drove.  In a couple of months, the disturbed, artificially created fringe habitat on the shoulder of this road will burst with a greater diversity of carnivorous plants than you’ll find almost anywhere else.

We pulled into Hickory Landing with a few minutes to spare.  Some of my fellow Rivertrekkers were on safety duty for the paddle, and Max and I made our way around saying “Hi,” or in his case “Ooh- ah ah.”

The day's paddlers gather to listen to the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioners.

The day’s paddlers gather to listen to the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioners.

“On Georgia’s packing list, it actually said ‘bring monkey’s paddle,'” said Rick Zelznak.  I paddled the river with Rick in 2012.  He and his wife, Georgia Ackerman, brought several kayaks and kayaking gear for the day’s trip.  Georgia coordinates the Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s RiverTrek fundraiser, a five day paddle trip down the entirety of the Apalachicola.  She coordinated today’s affair as well.  The monkey paddle to which Rick referred is a child’s paddle Max has borrowed on his other kayaking trips, with smiley faces to let little ones know if they’re holding it right side-up.

We saw other ‘trekkers Max has paddled with recently, such as Doug Alderson and Katie McCormick, who we joined here on Owl Creek for a sliver of the 2014 ‘trek.  Others, like Micheal Taber, hadn’t seen Max since that day he toddled down onto the floating dock in Apalachicola to watch us complete RiverTrek 2012.  Jill Lingard, with whom I paddled in 2013, had followed his adventures on the blog, but met him for the first time on Saturday (while on the water, no less).

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition’s Mallory Dimmitt addressed the group.  Max was bouncing a little, and I worried that at any moment I’d have to put my hand over his mouth and carry him away.  But he managed to stay mostly quiet during her address and that of Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.  Dan pointed out the gnarly, leafless trees around the creek.  Right around the time that those carnivorous plants along 65 bloom, so too will the ogeechee tupelo.  This region is a mecca for tupelo honey, which relies on the waters of the Apalach and it creeks, sloughs, and swamps.  Max may be too young to appreciate the biologically special nature of where we are, but he likes tupelo honey.

And he likes kayaking.  Whereas in October we paddled out to where the creek meets the Apalachicola River, this time we paddled up the creek for a longer trip.  He’d never seen so many people in the water at once; it was exciting, overstimulating.  He grabbed his paddle from behind him and hacked at the water for a few seconds, then gave it back to me.  “I’m hungry.”  His snacks for the trip were a banana and a granola bar.  After eating the granola bar, I carefully received the wrapper from him, nervous that we’d pollute the creek in our first ten minutes on the water.  He then grabbed his orange dip net, dragging it on the surface of the water.  He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

Occupying Busy Hands

And then, floating there in the water was a vintage Pepsi bottle.

“Max, get your net ready.  There’s garbage ahead.”

P1080190-smallOnce the bottle was aboard, I heard someone say “Did they just pick up trash?”  People were smiling at us.  I was on the lookout now, scanning the banks for bottles that washed up into the cypress and tupelo.  Soon, we also had a couple of plastic bottles, a rusty can, and a Clorox spray bottle.

Picking up garbage gave us a little bit of a mission, a focus to occupy my child’s energy.  When we went too long without seeing any, he’d start playing with the trash, dipping it back in the water as we propelled forward.  To avoid having his boredom inadvertently return the trash to the creek, I’d look for more.  Owl Creek is a pretty clean creek, overall.  Eventually we ran out of visible garbage.

The garbage in his cockpit served another purpose.  With a lot of strangers talking to him, he’d get shy and respond with nothing more than an impish grin.  When I’d see him getting shy, I’d say “Show them what you’ve caught.”  And he’d pick up every piece of garbage, one by one.  A plus is that people would compliment him for picking up trash, which reinforces that behavior.

Building Skill

At 10:45, Doug Alderson in the lead kayak turned around, and we headed back down the creek.

Having run out of trash to pick up, Max got restless again.  He’d pick up his paddle and rest it across the cockpit, hands free.  “Max!  Don’t let the paddle fall in the water!”  Another time, he had the paddle out and the net resting on it, hands free.  My instinctual reaction was a panicked plea to just get his hands on something and keep it from falling in the water.  I became self conscious of how I sounded to surrounding paddlers.

I also became exasperated when he played with his paddle.  He’d drag it behind him, in the area where my paddle had to go to move the kayak forward.  He’d carelessly twist it in the water.  It was annoying sometimes.

"Their faces are happiest when they're wet."

“The smiley faces are happiest when they’re wet.”

But it’s understandable.  The trip lasted almost three hours.  An adult can enjoy natural splendor and conversation for three hours without much else.  For many of us, this is an escape from the noise of our daily worlds.  Kids, however, crave more stimulation.  On long drives and flights, we have a bag full of books and toys.  That day on Owl Creek, I had a paddle, a net, and some garbage for him to play with.

So I worked on developing his paddle skills.

At first, I relied heavily on repeatedly telling him that he had to see the smiley faces.  And to move his arms to the middle of the paddle.  Sometimes he listened.  Sometimes he laughed and twisted the paddle in the water some more.

Passing paddlers were a help.  Sometimes kids just respond to advice from adults other than their parents.  Mike in the blue kayak, whose last name I didn’t catch, showed him how to hold the paddle.  Rick came by and showed him how to scoop the water with his paddle.  He was receptive.

But, in the end, what worked best was silly voices and turning the smiley faces into characters.

“Use my face to push the water!” I’d say in a high pitched voice.  Then I’d tap the other side of his paddle with mine and say “Now use my face to push the water!”  And so on and so forth.  Soon, he was able to do this a couple of times:

Once on land again, his little legs were finally unleashed and he was zipping about.  As we took a RiverTrek reunion photo, Max was a blur in front of us until Georgia scooped him up.  We ate lunch, got in the car, and he was asleep before we were off the forest roads.

As I took the scenic coastal route home, I reflected on the trip.  He can be exhausting, this kid.  Each trip with him has presented a different set of challenges.  When I took him on the Wakulla River, he was sleepy and I wondered whether he might be bored.  On our first Owl Creek trip, he was disappointed that the other paddlers continued down the river without us; though eventually we had a fantastic time on our own.  Most of out nature outings have been great, even if sometimes it feels like I’m making things up as I go along to keep him engaged.  But that’s why I write these posts.  I’m no expert, but I’m figuring it out.  It’s doable, and I hope parents see that.  More kids should be exposed to nature, even if it’s going to your neighborhood pond to see tadpoles in various states of limb growth and turtles basking in the sun (one of my personal favorite activities).

Anyhow, it’s starting to warm up, and the wheels are turning to plan the next adventure.  Where should we go next…

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A Song of Protection for Wakulla Springs: EcoShakespeare

Video: Titania’s fairy retinue sings a song to ward off beasts of ill omen as she goes to sleep.  Likewise, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to ward off threats to America’s largest spring.  Jim Stevenson, a board member of Wakulla Springs Alliance, leads our trip, which is based on the Wakulla Springs Overland Tour he he leads with Palmetto Expeditions.
EcoShakespeare is a series of adventures through north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  During each trip, adventurers view a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each with its own significance to the day’s habitat.  Florida State University English professor, Dr. Bruce Boehrer, ties it all together.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

While editing the video above, I kept hearing the Standell’s Dirty Water  in my head.  It’s a strange sort of ode to Boston, with its chorus, “Love that dirty water, Boston you’re my home.”  It refers to the polluted Charles River and contains some other less than flattering Bean Town references, but that song and Sweet Caroline are staples at Red Sox games (my wife and I were married in her native Massachusetts, where both songs were loudly sung along to during the reception).    Looking at shots of algae mats, the garbage piled into Lake Henrietta, and, most sadly, algae covered turtles, I don’t feel like writing even satirically about loving the quality of the water heading south to Wakulla Springs.  Instead, I offer you a song written by William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival’s Stephen Hodges).  In it, Titania’s fairy servants call upon Philomel the nightingale to protect her as she sleeps in the woods.

We won’t be interpreting the song literally, because what’s the fun in that?  The fairies are attempting to ward off what Dr. Bruce Boehrer calls “beasts of ill omen:” spiders, snakes and snails.  In the Wakulla Springs ecosystem, though, these are important members of the food web.  Our beasts of ill omen are defined by Madeleine Carr, President of the Friends of Wakulla Springs: dark water, hydrilla, and algae.  The creatures mentioned by name in the song actually need protection themselves from these threats to the spring.

When I was meeting with our partners at the Southern Shakespeare Festival to plan EcoShakespeare, one of the themes we wanted to explore was the Victorian concept of the Great Chain of Being. I had a wonderful brainstorming session with Lanny Thomas and Laura Johnson, the Artistic and Executive Directors of the Festival, and Wakulla Springs seemed an ideal place to filter through Shakespeare’s worldview.

On thew shores of Lake Munson, Titania's fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders.  Lake Munson is Tallahassee's most polluted lake, receiving nitrates filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.

On the shores of Lake Munson, Titania’s fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders. Lake Munson is Tallahassee’s most polluted lake, receiving nitrate filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.  Lake Munson feeds Wakulla Springs through the Munson Slough system.

In the Victorian Great Chain, order in the world is maintained by God and queen.  It’s a top-down model.  You see this at play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Oberon and Titania, as king and queen of the fairies, are a type of nature deity.  Their marital discord upsets the skies and the seas, causing problems for plants and animals.  That upheaval moved from the top-down.  But nature often operates from the bottom-up.  Hydrilla entered Wakulla Springs State Park and crowded out apple snails, which deprived one of the park’s showy attractions, the bird on its sign, of its food. So the limpkin left, and has been gone almost two decades.  That problem moved its way up the chain, not down.  Likewise with algae.

Jim Stevenson leads our pursuit of water as it flows south from Tallahassee and collects contaminants.  One contaminant, nitrates, feed a microscopic plant, algae, which accumulates in the water.  It forms mats which block out the sun for native marine plants.  It blooms and sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing fish.  Those fish in turn are meals for birds and other larger animals, the ones tour guides point out on Wakulla Springs boat rides.

Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida's State Park Service.  In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state's springs.  At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.

Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida’s State Park Service. In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state’s springs. At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.

Of course, algae and hydrilla didn’t decide one day to become a nuisance and wreck the spring.  Hydrilla is an asian import, an aquarium decorative that found its way into American rivers.  It was introduced by humans.  Nitrates originate from people, too, often right within us.  It’s in our poop, which we like to think disappears to a fairy realm once we flush it down.  That’s just not true.  Utilities have to figure out how to sanitize and dispose of that waste, and the City of Tallahassee’s solution had inadvertently been putting nitrates directly into the aquifer.  They have spent a lot of money to fix that problem.  Nitrates also come from the synthetic poop substitute we use to make green lawns and larger tomatoes.  This assault on the aquifer starts in our homes and is carried by storm water down the streets and into lakes and streams.  Many Leon County lakes have sinkholes directly depositing water in the aquifer; many of our streams flow south into the Woodville Karst Plain, where sinkholes abound.
So, top-down and then bottom-up.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of a world controlled by the emotions of fairies is probably more fun than our reality of poop, algae, and invasive hydrilla.  Still, with his imagination, and his often wicked sense of humor, I can only imagine that he would craft something simultaneously tragic and comedic from what has happened in Wakulla Springs.  In the play, the gentle sea cow, the manatee, comes in and saves the day by coming in and eating the hydrilla in the spring run.  In reality, the power to fully save Wakulla Springs lies closer to the top of the Chain of Being, with the humans living in the Wakulla Springshed.

EcoShakespeare and the Wakulla Springshed

It just so happens that our three EcoShakespeare adventures move southward through the geological regions within the Wakulla Springshed, illustrating the different ways we interact with our aquifer depending on where we live.

EcoShakespeare 1: The Streams Region

old growth longleaf pine forestIn our first adventure, we visit the “Big Woods,” a private forest outside of Thomasville, Georgia containing a tract of old growth longleaf habitat.  This is in the heart of the Red Hills region, in which a layer of dense red clay sits atop the aquifer, slowly filtering water.  It’s referred to as the streams region of the Wakulla Springshsed because much of the rain that falls on it doesn’t actually recharge the aquifer, it just flows away on rivers like the Ochlockonee and Aucilla.  According to the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (released by the Howard T. Odum Spring Institute), this region adds about one inch of water per year over 770 square miles to the Floridan aquifer.

EcoShakespeare 2: The Lakes Region

BerriesWe follow Colbert Sturgeon down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia (sounds kind of like ammonia), foraging for natural edibles along the way.  Lake Iamonia is one of four major sinkhole lakes in the Red Hills region.  Here, we still have that thick red clay to filter our water, but we also have four direct inputs to the aquifer that bypass the clay.  These lakes are Iamonia, Jackson, Lafayette, and Miccosukee.  This region adds eight inches a year over 250 square miles.

Last spring, we played on Lake Iamonia and hiked Klapp Phipps Park, which protects Lake Jackson.  In that video, we looked at our lakes and their relation to the aquifer with Tall Timbers and some other friends.  A couple of months later, we looked at the cleanliness of our lakes by reviewing Leon County’s 2011 Water Quality for Selected Lake and Streams report.  They have since published an updated report, which you can view here (the reports are long; you can use our blog post containing the older data as a guide to the information in the newer report).

The Cody Escarpment

Also known as the Cody Scarp, this is Florida’s ancient shoreline (and maybe, with sea level rise, its future shoreline).  This is where the Red Hills end, and our aquifer sits nearer to the surface.  This is an important dividing line when thinking about how water penetrates the limestone beneath us.

EcoShakespeare 3: The Woodville Karst Plain (WKP)

IMG_2987Even those of us living in the very south of the Red Hills see our water roll down the Cody Scarp and into the more porous WKP.  Rain is more directly in contact with the limestone aquifer here, and so that limestone is more likely to collapse and form a sinkhole.  There is little filtration here.  In the Red Hills, many contaminants are removed in the ten years or so that it takes to flow through the clay; in the Woodville Karst Plain everything flows right in.  This is the most vulnerable part of the Wakulla Springshed.  This region recharges the aquifer at a rate of eighteen inches a year over 145 square miles.

The Southern Shakespeare Festival

I’d like to take this opportunity too thank all of our partners in the venture.  Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Palmetto Expeditions (for whom Jim Stevenson leads the tour we feature in the video above), and the Friends of Wakulla Springs.  I’d also like to thank Colbert Sturgeon for enlightening and entertaining us, and FSU Professor Bruce Boehrer for the way in which he tied all of our crazy elements together.

Most of all, I would like to thank the Southern Shakespeare Festival.  Projects with this kind of unique twist are always great to work on, and more so when you can collaborate with people like Lanny Thomas, Laura Johnson, Kevin Carr, and Stephen Hodges.  Michele Belson designed the costumes worn by our uncredited performers, who braved some cold and windy weather to bring this project to life.  The SSF performances of a Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place from April 17-19 in the very place that the video above begins, in Cascades Park.  You can watch their groovy 60s take on my favorite Shakespeare play, and then gaze at the water flowing from beneath the stage and watch as nitrates feed algae (seriously, that’s what that waterway was meant to do.  Please do not touch it!).  It promises to be a doubly educational experience.

EcoShakespeare has been produced in association with WNET-TV's Shakespeare Uncovered.  Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
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Foraging and the Magic of Plants: EcoShakespeare

Video: William Shakespeare grew up in nature, and it shows through in his plays. We visit Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy with wilderness survival instructor and star of National Geographic’s Live Free or Die, Colbert Sturgeon. As we walk down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, we gather wild food and explore Shakespeare’s knowledge of plants and their uses.  Once again, FSU’s Dr. Bruce Boehrer makes the connections in this second installment of EcoShakespeare.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Oberon, the king of the fairies, sends Puck to find an aphrodisiac flower in the woods outside of Athens.  Puck then uses a potion derived from the flower on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to set up some of the most comical moments of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Oberon, the king of the fairies, sends Puck to find an aphrodisiac flower in the woods outside of Athens. Puck then uses a potion derived from the flower on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to set up some of the most comical moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If William Shakespeare were alive today, would some local BBC producer ask him to show  the plants of his native Warwickshire on camera?  Or would he consider flying to Tallahassee to sample persimmons growing by Lake Iamonia for WFSU?  In our year-end post for 2014, Dr. Bruce Boehrer starts to paint a picture for us of a man whose classic works are inextricably tied to his country upbringing.  It’s cool to think that the things that inspired him also inspire us here in north Florida.  He might have been right at home in the Red Hills region of farms, forests, and rivers; perhaps incorporating tupelo swamps and RCW cavities into his verse.

In the scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we explore in the video above, we see that he likely had a good knowledge of the plants that grew around him.  Where Colbert Sturgeon extols pine needles’ abundance of vitamin c or the curative properties of St. John’s Wort, Shakespeare was versed in the magical properties of plants.  It’s reflective of a contemporary world view, just as his sense of ecology in our last video was rooted in interpersonal relationships.  He didn’t have the benefit of our science, but it is interesting to note that he had a general understanding of cause and effect in nature.  He might not have understood greenhouse gases and their role in climate change, but he could conceive that people could cause an imbalance that would change the weather and upset plant productivity.  Likewise, he knew that different plants had the ability to affect us, even if he didn’t understand the chemical basis for this.  Magic is just a name for all that we don’t yet understand.

In our final installment of EcoShakespeare, we’ll explore what Dr. Boehrer calls Shakespeare’s “proto-ecological” sensibilities.  Unlike the other leading playwrights of his day, Shakespeare didn’t have a university education.  Yet he still learned classical literature, inventively mixing drama and comedy, the high-brow and the down-home.  It’s much the same with his perception of the natural world.  Two-hundred-and-fifty years before the word ecology is coined, he sort of intuitively gets it.  It’s nothing less than you’d expect from a man whose works still resonate four-hundred years after they were first written and enjoyed by audiences.

As we walked down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, this is what Colbert collected.  The bright purple beauty berries are attractive and nearly flavorless.  The duller colored berries are sumac.  When we shot this in really November, they were slightly out of season.  The persimmons were not quite ripe.  Our local variety is intensely bitter until it ripens.  As Colbert was making his medicinal tea, we realized that we had no cups or straws, so Colbert fashioned this straw from a bamboo stalk and we all sipped straight from the teapot.

As we walked down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, this is what Colbert collected. The bright purple beauty berries are attractive but nearly flavorless. The duller colored berries are sumac. When we shot this in early November, they were slightly out of season, whereas the persimmons were not quite ripe. Our local variety of persimmon is intensely bitter until it ripens. As Colbert was making his medicinal tea, we realized that we had no cups or straws, so he fashioned this straw from a bamboo stalk and we all sipped straight from the teapot.

Next week, we conclude EcoShakespeare with a song of protection for Wakulla Springs.  Nitrates, algae, hydrilla, and dark water have weakened one of our area’s foremost ecological resources.  Just as Titania’s fairies cast a spell to protect her from spiders and snails, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to protect the beloved local tourist destination and wildlife habitat.

Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
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Clearcutting the Longleaf Forest: EcoShakespeare

EcoShakespeare is a series of expeditions into uniquely north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  Each adventure is led by a master of their field and includes a scene performed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that relates to the trip.  Florida State University English professor Dr. Bruce Boehrer ties Shakespeare’s words to our local habitats, creating a one of  kind blending of art and nature.  Part one takes place in a secret, ancient forest…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he's the one not holding the camera).  Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he’s the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

We begin this EcoShakespeare project, appropriately enough, in a longleaf forest that exists much as it did during the time of William Shakespeare.  The “Big Woods,” as Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox calls them, sit on private land.  Few people will ever get the privilege to walk under those ancient longleaf pines, in one of the few places where Henslow’s sparrows and red cockaded woodpeckers are relatively easily seen.  And it’s one of the few places where you might find longleaf pines that lived while the Bard’s plays were being penned.

You can see the numbers in the video above.  The American southeast was once covered in 90,000,000 acres of longleaf.  Today we have 3,000,000.  Of that, only 8,000 has never been cut.  Jim compares it to the entire population of the Earth being whittled down to a city the size of Milwaukee.  And while 3,000,000 acres is still a vast reduction from the historic number, it’s much better than 8,000.  So why do we emphasize the especially low acreage of remaining old growth forest?

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

The immortal king of the fairies, Oberon, stands next to a considerably younger 350 year old (give or take) longleaf pine.

It’s something that I can appreciate as I stare down my fortieth birthday next year- a mature longleaf offers more ecosystem services than a young one.  Red cockaded woodpeckers make nests in trees that are over 90 years old.  The heart wood of these older trees is more likely to suffer from red heart disease, a fungus which softens the wood and makes it easier for the woodpeckers, over several generations, to make a cavity.  Jim Cox, answering questions from our adventurers, says the birds’ numbers are looking much better after getting dangerously low.  He attributes this to artificial cavities sawed into less mature trees.  But for the RCW to leave the endangered list, it has to make it without our help.  And for that, we need more mature trees.  The problem with that is that… you have to wait… and wait… and wait… for enough of them to get to that right age.

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Another ecosystem service offered by a mature longleaf is its wrinkly face.  As a longleaf ages, its bark becomes gnarlier and rougher.  This creates more surfaces for insects and other invertebrates to inhabit.  And as is true in any ecosystem, those little creepy crawlies are food for all of the much prettier animals that we travel with binoculars to try and spot.  An ecosystem will not thrive if the bottom of the food web is not healthy.

Years ago, when we started EcoAdventures, I accompanied FWC’s Andy Wraithmel and Liz Sparks to several birding spots along the Apalachicola River.  Near sunset, we stopped in the Apalachicola National Forest.  When you drive down State Road 65, you may notice painted white bands on the longleaf pines.  These are trees with RCW cavities, or that have qualities that might attract the rare woodpecker.  We stopped by a cluster of those trees, Liz and Andy admiring the good work that has been done to restore the habitat.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest along State Road 65.

Looking at the shots of the National Forest that we included in the video above, the differences between it and the “Big Woods” are subtle.  The trees look a little skinnier, perhaps, but even a 500 year old longleaf will never be that much thicker than a young one.  In one shot, you can see the planted rows of slash pine that timber operations started using after having cut the slower growing/ higher quality longleaf.

Andy and Liz talked to me about the thinning of trees (longleaf habitat features widely spaced trees), regular burning, and other restoration activities that have the forest looking a little more like it once had.  But, Andy noted, none of us would be alive to see the forest fully recovered.  Except, maybe, the immortal Oberon and Titania.

Next week, we look at Shakespeare’s upbringing as we forage for food along Lake Iamonia. Also, marital tensions between Oberon and Titania escalate as the king plots with Puck to use the herbs of the forest against the queen.

Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
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Did Shakespeare write his plays? The Eco-Answer

WFSU’s EcoShakespeare segments have wrapped production and are in the process of being edited.  Three segments explore Shakespeare’s connection to nature, shot in collaboration with the Southern Shakespeare Festival as well as Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park, and Palmetto Expeditions.  EcoShakespeare is funded by WNET in conjunction with their PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered (Season 2 premieres on WFSU-TV on Friday, January 30).  In this web exclusive video, Dr. Bruce Boehrer gives us an answer to one of the most asked questions about William Shakespeare, and does so in a way that gets us thinking about the ecological marvels in the WFSU viewing area.

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It’s one of two questions everyone asks a Shakespeare scholar, and it has an environmental/ ecological answer.  “If you go into a bar and start talking to strangers and tell them that you’re a Shakespeare scholar,” says Dr. Bruce Boehrer “…you’ll get asked one of two questions, depending upon the kind of bar you’re in.”  Dr. Boehrer is the Bertram H. Davis Professor of English at Florida State University.  “Either, did Shakespeare write those plays, or, was Shakespeare gay?”  Dr. Boehrer answers the first question in the video above, using an argument put forth by fellow Shakespeare scholar and “ecocritic” Jonathan Bate.  Simply put, they argue, too many references in his works could only have been written by someone who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon in the English county of Warwickshire.  In the Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Sly makes mention of a couple of small hamlets in Warwickshire.  In As You Like It, characters find their way to the Forest of Arden.  The play is set in France but Arden is a forest of Warwickshire which derives its name from his mother’s family (her maiden name is Arden, a family that dated its lineage to before the Norman Conquest).  The list goes on.

As Dr. Boehrer was describing Stratford and its surroundings, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between it and Tallahassee.  Stratford is a market town, a larger town in a region full of farmlands and forests.  As Dr. Boehrer talked, I became especially interested in this idea of a natural landscape shaping an individual, potentially molding that person’s greatness.  Warwickshire forged William Shakespeare, imprinting itself upon him in a way that showed through in his classic works.  This interests me because much of my job is sharing the experience of visiting our own distinctive natural features.

I didn’t grow up here, but I’ve lived here for twenty years.  Until we started this blog four years ago, however, I didn’t know much about the distinctive land and water resources that define natural north Florida.  I wasn’t used to thinking of my home that way.  Growing up in suburban Miami, my landmarks were streets, schools, and malls.  The waterways I encountered on a daily basis (I saw the Atlantic Ocean often enough, but not daily) were canals built to alleviate flooding.  In the 80s and 90s, Chrome Avenue was the edge of our world, the boundary between suburbia and wild Florida.  It was a great childhood, and I had plenty of outdoor time riding my bike to our neighborhood park or to play in friends’ backyards.  I definitely wasn’t thinking about rivers, swamps, or estuarine ecosystems.

That changed in 2010.  As we started doing segments and traveling the area, I became aware of not just our many waterways and trails, but of a handful of iconic wonders that make north Florida ecologically remarkable.  In 2014, I was able to cross a few of these off of my segment bucket list:

No place looks quite like the Dead Lakes, where you can paddle through the remnants of a drowned forest in the tupelo honey capital of the world.

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For a brief time in late spring, a stretch of State Road 65 running between Sumatra and Hosford in the Apalachicola National Forest explodes with carnivorous plants, displaying a diversity not seen in many places.

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After having explored the Apalachicola River and followed oyster research in Apalachicola Bay, we hiked through the Apalachicola’s floodplain forest.  This is the backstage of the watershed, where oyster food is made.

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This was the year that I learned that Tallahassee is located in the Red Hills region of Florida and Georgia.  Thick red clay protects the underlying aquifer, which is fed by sinkholes in each of our larger natural lakes (Lake Talquin is the largest, but is formed by a dam).

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And, years after we started going to Saint Joseph Bay to follow marsh and seagrass research, I finally got to go scalloping there.

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This year I also started bring my three-year-old son along on some off camera EcoAdventures.  I visit a lot of places that I want to share with my wife and young children, and Max finally seemed old enough for some extended action.  We kayaked the Wakulla River, just a week after he swam at Wakulla Springs State Park.  I know he doesn’t fully understand, but when we play at Cascades Park, I tell him that that water heads to the spring and into the river.  And a couple of years after RiverTrek became the coolest thing that Daddy ever did, I took him camping and kayaking for a sliver of this year’s trip.  The Apalachicola River is foremost among water bodies in his mind, and it was an incredible parental pleasure to see him dip a paddle into it.

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It’s also the third year we’ve taken Max to New Leaf Market’s Farm Tours. Like Stratford, Tallahassee is surrounded by small farms, many of which belong to the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance. We visited a few Red Hills farms for a couple of segments, looking at their different sustainable methods (hydroponics, mulch building, free range animals). Later in his life, Shakespeare invested in agricultural lands around Stratford. Something tells me he would not have felt out of place in north Florida.

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Just as this area has done for so many of us, William Shakespeare’s life in Warwickshire became a part of him and of his legacy.  It’s the last thing I ever thought would be a focus of the WFSU Ecology Project, but here I am editing three segments on Shakespeare’s nature connection, set to air starting in late January.  This, in a year when we capped off our research driven In the Grass, On the Reef initiative with the Oyster Doctors documentary.  There are so many ways to appreciate what we have in this area.  Science, the Bard, kids in kayaks, and tupelo honey.  How do I top 2014?

What segments would you like to see in 2015?  Where should we be going, and what should we be doing?  

Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.