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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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.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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.
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Interning at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab: Hands On

Video: Interns at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, FL, get hands on experience working with marine life and equipment.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We’re on a boat, speeding through Apalachee Bay on our way back to land.  We’ve accompanied Cypress Rudloe and two Gulf Specimen Marine Lab interns on a trip to collect samples.  Buckets full of octopus and sea urchins slosh as I take a good look to my left and right and get a firm perspective of where I am.  We’re several miles from the St. Marks Lighthouse; it stands out unmistakably as it was designed to do.  Smoke unfurls over it and into the Gulf, from a controlled burn on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  I look left and see the mouth of the Ochlockonee River, and follow the contour of the land as it curls out of sight to Alligator Point.  These interns are preparing for a life that keeps them in places like this.  Bravo.

P1080062-smallerOf course, it’s more than merely being outdoors that they’re getting out of the deal.  They’re learning about sea turtle rescue, collecting specimens in the wild, and outreach activities.  This includes leading tours and taking the Seamobile out to where kids who don’t always make it to the coast can touch a horseshoe crab.  The day after our trip, the Seamobile is going to Thomasville, GA for a festival.  The stingray and horse conch that inhabit the tank at the rear of the mobile aquarium will be traveling dozens of miles from their home, but to a place bound to their home nonetheless.  Making that connection is part of the educational outreach that interns perform.

“We take the Seamobile around and do programs on sea turtles, coastal watersheds, marine invertebrates,” Tom Harrah told me as he loaded some critters into one of its tanks.  Tom manages the Seamobile and the intern program at Gulf Specimen.

Just a few miles west of Thomasville is the upper Ochlockonee River.  This makes it a part of Apalachee Bay’s coastal watershed.    If rivers are the strings that connect places like Thomasville to the bay, then standing on this boat I am over a knot.  Two watersheds meet here, the Ochlockonee and St. Marks, rivers whose mouths I can alternately see by turning my head one way or the other.  Somewhat by design, every video I’ve produced over the last few months tugs at this knot, and standing here I trace my way backwards to farms and through underwater caves.

Both Full Earth and Turkey Hill Farms compost using fish waste. The compost should release less nitrogen into waterways.  Both farms are near rivers that drain into Apalachee Bay, so a more efficient means of fertilizing their crops helps keep the watershed cleaner, ultimately benefiting the species that provide fuel to their plants.

Both Full Earth and Turkey Hill Farms compost using fish waste. The compost should release less nitrogen into waterways than synthetic fertilizers. Both farms are near rivers that drain into Apalachee Bay, so a more efficient means of fertilizing their crops helps keep the watershed cleaner, ultimately benefiting the species that provide fuel to their plants.

In our last segment we covered two farms in the Ochlockonee watershed.  Full Earth Farm co-managers Katie Harris and Aaron Suko are cognizant of where their farm is in relation to the river, and it influences the way they work their land.  “We don’t want to negatively impact the local waterways and the groundwater.” Aaron told me. “That’s, I’d say, one of the primary reasons we don’t use synthetic fertilizers.”  In our first segment on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, I talked to Louise Divine.  She and her husband, Herman Holley, run Turkey Hill Farm just east of Tallahassee, and near to a small waterway named Black Creek.  Like Full Earth, Turkey Hill is an organic food grower.  And like Aaron and Katie, Louise and Herman are well aware of their place in the watershed.  “I think about it every day.” Louise said.  “I think about it when I drive down the highway and I see Roundup sprayed everywhere.  And I know that that Roundup ends up in Black Creek and I know that Black Creek goes into the St. Marks and I- it makes me insane.”

Excess nitrates from fertilizers figure prominently in stories we’ve done on Wakulla Springs.  It runs off of lawns in Tallahassee and down streets, into sinkhole lakes like Upper Lake Lafayette or into Lake Munson, a heavily polluted waterway that drains into Ames Sink.  Dye trace tests have linked Ames Sink to the springs, its water running through one of the largest underground cave systems in the country.  Nine miles or so after its water emerges from Wakulla Spring, the Wakulla River meets up with the St. Marks.  Wakulla Spring has suffered from an increase an algae due to excess nitrates.  Perhaps due to tidal influence, the lower river’s water appears to be cleaner.

Chloe Jackson is an honors biology student at Florida State University.  She interned at the Gulf Specimen Lab over the summer, and is currently using their dock for an experiment using recruitment tiles (which should look somewhat familiar for those of you who've been following In the Grass, On the Reef over the last few years).

Chloe Jackson is an honors biology student at Florida State University. She interned at the Gulf Specimen Lab over the summer, and is currently using their dock for an experiment using recruitment tiles (which should look somewhat familiar for those of you who followed In the Grass, On the Reef over the last few years).

Both the St. Marks and the Ochlockonee provide an important influx of freshwater to coastal ecosystems.  “There’s a high level of biodiversity in this area” Tom Harrah said.  “There are a lot of rivers coming into the ocean, dumping nutrients.  And there’s just animals everywhere.”*

Tom was new to the area when he volunteered at Gulf Specimen as an FSU biology major.  Eight years later, he’s still here working and enjoying these natural resources.  Intern Cara Borowski’s love of these natural resources manifested itself in a different way, as we cover in the video above.  For her, the thrill is getting kids interested in ecology and fostering a spirit of stewardship.  When she entered the program, she was aiming to be a research biologist.  Now, she’s thinking more about education.  Without an opportunity to host field trips and take the Seamobile to schools, she might never have considered this career path.

 *If you’re confused about the roles of nutrients, which can cause lethal algal blooms but also provide a foundation for all life on earth, I’ll direct you to this blog post written by Dr. David Kimbro about the nitrogen cycle.

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Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills Part 2

Over the past couple of months we’ve made a foray into local agriculture, an industry that’s of critical importance to the ecology of our area.   We’re now in the process of setting up some new adventures that get us back on the water- both salt and fresh.  And of course, our EcoShakespeare segments will begin airing January 28 on Dimensions (before streaming here).  We’re always looking for new ways to interact with the outdoors, and we always want to hear your suggestions for how we can accomplish this.  Don’t be shy about leaving comments!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Miccosukee Root Cellar strives to be a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers.  Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

Miccosukee Root Cellar is a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers. Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

“Eating local means eating seasonal,” Katie Harris told me in an unused clip from her interview.  That means that if you want to go full locavore, you’ll soon be saying goodbye to fresh tomatoes and yellow squash and hello to chard and broccoli.  Katie co-manages the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance with Louise Divine, who we interviewed in part one of this video.  Part of their public outreach is to provide recipes and seasonal calendars to consumers who may not be used to limiting themselves to food that grows within a few counties of their house.  The food that will grow in north Florida will vary with our seasons, and so eating locally means adjusting to what’s available.  Eating locally is one of those things that’s easy to get behind.  You’re supporting the local economy.  And you’re supporting the environment, aren’t you?  Let’s take a closer look.

The primary environmental argument often used in favor of eating locally are the “food miles” traveled by the food.  Tomatoes from a Red Hills farm may travel 20-30 miles to get to my house.  Tomatoes grown in Mexico, which you may see at your grocery store of choice, have traveled over 1,000 miles by truck or plane to get here.  A lot of gasoline is used to transport food around the world.  A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on the emissions of California’s imported foods found that in 2005, 250,000 tons of global warming gasses were produced by incoming food products, as much as 40,000 cars.  And that’s just one state in one country.

But food miles are just one factor in the equation.  A post on the Harvard Extension Blog looked at data for total carbon used in food production and found that, overall, most emissions occur from the production of food rather than their transport to market.  This is especially true of meat products, which alone account for more greenhouse emissions than all cars and trucks on earth.  Cows, sheep, and goats belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and a lot of energy goes into producing the grain they eat.  That’s food miles and the fertilizer it takes to grow the grain.  Which gets us to how produce is grown.

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Aaron Suko, co-manager at Full Earth Farm, lays ribbon hose along an unused row. Drip irrigation uses water more efficiently than center pivot irrigation, a technique used on many large farms.

In a 2008 article in the Guardian on the “Myth of Food Miles,” green beans grown in Nigeria are presented as a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local product.  A professor they interview touts Nigerian growing methods, which don’t use tractors (all manual labor, no gas) or cow manure, and use low-impact irrigation.  The Harvard Extension blog post referenced a study that showed lamb grown in New Zealand is a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local lamb, because New Zealand lambs are pastured (eating the grass that grows on the ground) and live on farms that use hydroelectric power (This blog post from Oregon Public Broadcasting, while ultimately agreeing that grass is a greener feed for cattle, does a good job of outlining the controversy over which feed is more environmentally friendly).

While sustainable practices are not a prerequisite for membership in the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, The farms we’ve highlighted do practice organic techniques (the lone meat producer we featured in part 1 of this video, Golden Acres Ranch, isn’t organic but aims to be “all natural”).  In our Sharing Water Conference segment, we see how Katie (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) and Herman Holley (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) prepare compost intended to provide fertilization to their plants without contributing nitrate runoff to local waterways.  They both use tractors for certain tasks but, as you see in the video above, do a lot of work manually as well.  As Katie’s co-manager at Full Earth, Aaron Suko, says in the video, they can be efficient by planting at the right times, hoeing weeds when they’re small, and being organized.  “You just got to work smarter, and not harder.”  This, they tell me, is the key to small, sustainable farming.

There are advances and techniques that both conventional and organic farmers are exploring to increase efficiency and help preserve natural resources.  Here are a few that we’ve covered on WFSU-TV:

  • My fellow WFSU producer Mike Plummer recently visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna.  There, he learned about their research into reducing methane emissions from cows.  In another segment, he looks at their research into better selective breeding of cattle.
  • Mike also visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, where they are working on a sod based rotation system that aims to improve irrigation by alternating plots of bahia grass with crops.  They claim that if the techniques were to be adopted, they could reduce water usage of farms along the Flint River to a degree that would greatly increase freshwater flows downstream on the Apalachicola.
  • P1070982-smallerThe IFAS Research Center in Quincy is also looking at satsuma oranges as a potential crop for north Florida.  They are cold hardier, meaning they would perform better here than other varieties grown in the state.  In fact, some Red Hills farms are already growing this Japanese variety.
  • Red Hills farms are experimenting with rotating different crops that would help build soil.  Wayne Hawthorne at Blue Ridge Farm has planted sodbuster radish in his outdoor beds.  This New Zealand import has roots that are supposed to break up hard soils (like the red clay that is prevalent in our area), add a natural fungicide to the soil, and then tap into minerals deep in the soils without tilling.  He sent some of his seeds to a friend working at an IFAS extension in Ruskin, Florida, where they’ll perform their own experiments.
  • Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth experiment with cover crops.  Full Earth’s Aaron explained to us the benefits.  Cover crops are planted in plots not currently in production.  Their roots keep the soil from eroding.  Sometimes they plant sunflowers, which attract pollinators.  They also plant legumes, which naturally add nitrogen to soil (lessening the need for added fertility).
  • Also in the aforementioned Sharing Water Conference video, we visited Simpson’s Nursery, which uses Monticello’s reclaimed water and recycles water on site to reduce aquifer withdrawals.  This is by no means a small local farm (every Red Hills Farm together might fit in its 1400 acres), and its water usage is considerable.
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Father & Son Apalachicola River Kayak Adventure

Over the last two years, WFSU’s Rob Diaz de Villegas has documented the RiverTrek kayak journeys down the Apalachicola River.  While he didn’t participate in this year’s paddle, he was able to tag along for a small stretch.   He took with him the biggest fan of the work he produced on those trips- his son Max.  Camping and kayaking with a three-year-old has its challenges, but can be rewarding in many ways.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Pulling into the Hickory Landing campsite on Owl Creek, I’m happy to see so many familiar faces.  It’s the final night of RiverTrek 2014, and the paddlers’ families have been invited to camp out and see their loved ones off as they make the final approach towards Apalachicola.  Some of us are here as part of the extended RiverTrek family, such as fellow ’12 paddlers Jennifer Portman and Chris Robertson, who were nice enough to bring a tandem kayak that I could use to explore Owl Creek with my son Max.  If my participation in RiverTrek has reached one person, gotten just one person interested in the Apalachicola River, or in paddle sports, it’s this kid.  And I couldn’t be happier to have him get a taste of the RiverTrek experience.  But first I have to wake him up.

RiverTrek 2014 paddlers getting ready to complete the final leg of their journey, from Owl Creek to Apalachicola.

RiverTrek 2014 paddlers getting ready to complete the final leg of their journey, from Owl Creek to Apalachicola.

We made a two-hour drive down highway 20 and then through the Apalachicola National Forest on State Road 65.  Max misses all of this.  He wakes up hungry, so I give him what is now my go to camping and kayaking snack for him, a conveniently self-packaged banana.

“Is monkey eating his banana?” RiverTrek coordinator Georgia Ackerman says to Max, still drowsy in his car seat.

“Ooh-ah-ah,” he says.  This is his greeting of choice as I take him through the camp. We see other ‘Trekkers I’ve had the pleasure of paddling with over the last couple of years, such as Doug Alderson, Josh Bolick, and Tom Herzog (whom I initially met while interviewing about his beer can canoe).  Max remembers Katie McCormick from our Wakulla River trip, and even the host of WFSU-TV’s Dimensions, Julz Graham, is part of this year’s adventure.  RiverTrek founder Earl Murrogh is visiting the group, witnessing his vision continue to evolve and raise awareness of the river he loves.

RiverTrek is a five day paddle benefiting the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.  Participants (except for Jennifer and I, who cover the event as media) get pledges from friends and neighbors and then paddle 107 miles down the river.   Three of those miles are the trip into and out of Owl Creek, to a campsite in the National Forest.  For the first three days of the trip, ‘Trekkers camp on sand bars directly on the river.  These are abundant between the Woodruff Dam, where the river starts, and Wewahitchka.  South of Wewa, sandbars start to disappear and more creeks, small rivers, and other channels join the Apalach as it flows into Apalachicola Bay.  This is why paddlers go 1.5 miles off of the river to sleep on that last night.  Those 1.5 miles would be Max’s taste of RiverTrek.

I struggle to set up our tent while keeping my three-year-old from running off to join all of the action.  As it was when I was last here, everyone is in high spirits from having paddled 80+ miles together so far.  They’ve shared experiences that will become the stories told by those who repeat the trip in years to come.  Add those of us who’ve been here before and are equally stoked to be back, and things are bound to get a little festive.

Chris walks by in the forest just beyond our campsite, looking for firewood.  Like any three-year-old would, Max sees someone picking up big sticks and decides that’s what he should be doing, too.  So off we go.  We’re not on any trail, so I have to pick Max up once or twice as he runs and gets his foot caught on a vine.  He’s unfazed.

Hickory Landing campsite on RiverTrek 2012.  On the last night of the trip, paddlers get a good hot meal and enjoy themselves before heading back to thee real world the next day.

Hickory Landing campsite on RiverTrek 2012. On the last night of the trip, paddlers get a good hot meal and enjoy themselves before heading back to the real world.

For dinner, we eat some delicious chili and vegetable lasagne made by Riverkeeper board members Joyce Estes and John Inzetta.  Captain Gill Autrey then takes us out on the Lily, the river cruise boat he volunteers every year as a support vessel.  We sit in the upper deck, from which many of the paddlers dive into Owl Creek for a little swim.  Then, back to the campsite for some stories.

Georgia roasts a marshmallow for Max to make a s’more, which Max calls a “marshmallow swammich.”  Thank goodness for wet wipes.

Doug tells a couple of ghost stories based on his outdoor Florida adventures.  I don’t think Max fully understands the scary part of Doug’s tales, but someone is standing by a fire telling stories, so he enjoys it.  After the stories is the typical fireside banter.  “There is a three-year-old present,” Georgia reminds people.

Then Max starts rubbing his eyes and I feel it is time to get him back to the tent.  But first, a bathroom break that turns out to be something of a mini-epic.

Hickory Landing does not have any running water.  There is however, a composting toilet, which is slightly more luxurious than just going out in the woods.  If you’re able to ignore what you see in the deep chasm beneath the bowl, and tolerate the smell, it’s not bad.  But Max sees a big smelly hole he might fall in.  And he doesn’t want to stand to pee because he doesn’t really like what he sees.

So we take to the woods.

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The Apalachicola National Forest by our campsite at Hickory Landing. The fog dissipates before we disembark.

I have in previous months prepared him for the fact that camping means having to pee on trees sometimes.  We walk out into the woods and I shine my headlamp on several candidates.

“That tree is beauty-ful.  I don’t want to pee on a tree that is beauty-ful.”  Evidently every tree in the Apalachicola National Forest is “Beauty-ful.”  I keep looking for trees with drooping leaves, or even broken branches lying on the ground.  I see what looks like a dead tree, and am reminded of his sympathy for dead trees (he once tried to get me to buy a dead cactus at Home Depot so that we could bring it home and water it back to life).

As often happens when raising a three-year-old, I’m stuck.  He’ll tell me he can hold it, and then we’ll go back to the tent and sleep in the same open sleeping bag.  I know how that story ends.

Then I see a double tree, two trunks growing from the same base.

“Max, look at that.  A double tree.”

“It is a double tree!”

“Double trees are what monkeys pee on.  They pee between the two trees.”

And that’s the story of how I woke up in a dry sleeping bag the next morning.

We get back to the tent and I read him a story by headlamp.  When that is done, he’s too excited and doesn’t seem like he’ll settle down.  Again I’m stuck, but luckily we’re in a place called Owl Creek.

“Max, do you hear that?”

We stop and hear a nearby hoot.

“It’s an owl!”

It lets out one long hoot, and then another, and then utters what Max knows to be the catch phrase of the barred owl.

“Who cooks for you!” He giggles.

“Let’s listen and see if we can hear another owl.”  He’s listening, lying still.  Soon we’re asleep.

This is only his second time camping, and again he sleeps like a rock.  I know this because as usual, I wake up twenty times in the night and see him sleeping like a rock.  I hear all manner of animal movement in our campsite.  I can only imagine there are raccoons and possum, and something larger that is likely a deer (maybe a bear?).  I wake up, find a new position to sleep in, fall asleep again, and wake up with a different arm numb.  I couldn’t find my sleeping pad in the shed when I got home from work earlier.  Max looks comfortable, anyway.

When we wake up, Georgia and her husband (and fellow 2012 ‘Trekker) Rick Zelznak are making coffee and arranging gear on a picnic table in the adjacent site.  Max sees a double tree right by our tent and loudly tells me he wants to pee on it.  “That’s where monkeys pee!”

“We don’t pee right next to our campsites, son.” I say in a low voice.  I look around to see if anyone has heard this exchange.  I lead him into the woods and we find the tree from last night.

P1070552-owlcreek-paddle-smallOver a breakfast of pancakes and Bradley’s sausage graciously prepared by RiverTrek husband Warren Jones, I ask Max if he’s ready to go kayaking today.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going to the Apalachicola River with everyone, and then they’re going to Apalachicola.” I tell him.

“Can we kayak to Apalachicola?”

“No Max, they’re going to have a hard day.  This is the hardest day of the trip.”

Steve Seibert, a first time ‘Trekker, overhears me saying this. “I didn’t need to hear that.”

It can get windy in the river delta, and they may be facing an incoming tide.  And it is the longest day from a mileage standpoint.  Nevertheless, Max is disappointed that we’re not going the distance.

We get out on the water, and already he’s working the paddle more than on our previous Wakulla River trip.

“Remember, you want to see the smiley face on the paddle.”  Georgia has provided him a kid’s paddle.  I take time to work with him on his paddling, and then take it from him when he’s tired of it, give it back when he wants to try again, and so on.  And like any parent of our times, I take a multitude of photos.  We’re at the back of the pack, just as I was on the last two RiverTreks, where I kept shooting video and finding myself working to catch back up.

Soon, we get to the part of the trip that worries me most.

“Bye Max!”

As always when he doesn’t want to say goodbye, he says nothing.

The paddlers head down the Apalach, and I circle around by the entrance to Owl Creek by mile marker 22.2.  He always talks about wanting to see the Apalachicola River, but he barely acknowledges it when I tell him that we’re finally here.  Max hangs his head.  These are good people that just left us, many with children older than Max and that seemed to like playing with a three-year-old again.  I can see where he’d miss their company.

He thoughtlessly sticks his hand in the water and lets it drag.

“Max, you have your hand in the Apalachicola River.”

P1070569-handinwater-small“I do?” He perks up.  Now he realizes where he is.  Ever since I took this trip two years ago, this has been the magical River of all Rivers, and a Place Where Adventure Happens.  He remembers this.  And now that he’s getting into it, I do too.  I remember where I am, and what a pleasure it has been to paddle these waters.  And of course everything I’ve seen in or read about Apalachicola Bay deepens my appreciation and concern for this waterway.

Max and I have the river to ourselves.

We paddle in circles, and he does some of his own paddling.  And then we head back up Owl Creek for some lazy exploring.  I show him fish hooks hanging from cypress trees.  A 2012 photo of a hook that snagged my shirt has previously captured his imagination.  We cross through cypress islands.  “These trees are where the good honey comes from,” I tell him as I notice how many of the trees are ogeche tupelo.

The highlight of this whole experience starts when we turn into Devin Creek.  This canopied side channel was too low for me to properly enjoy during the record low flows of 2012.  Today, we paddle under fallen and sideways growing trees, maneuvering from one side of the creek to the other to follow the most navigable path.  A johnboat is wedged between trees on the bank.  I wonder where its occupant has gone wandering in these dense woods.  I could spend all day finding out how far back this creek goes.  Eventually, though, I decide to turn us around so that Chris and Jennifer can enjoy some on the water time.

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“Let’s stay in here,” he says as we look out from the canopy to Owl Creek.  Like on all of these other trips, we do have to leave the river at some point.

When we get back, Max and I sit on the boat ramp as Chris, Jennifer, and her son paddle and swim around the big cypress island by Hickory Landing.  Earl comes in on his boat.  “This is the creek I where bring out of town visitors,” he tells us.  “It’s great for first time paddlers.”  I can see spending family days here when Max’s brother is older, the four of us taking turns on a tandem and exploring trails in the forest.  We’ll work our way up to that family RiverTrek; it’ll likely take years.  We’ll train nice and slowly, like we have today, and we’ll enjoy every bit of the road there.

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Sharing Water Conference: Agriculture Solutions

The above photo of an algae covered turtle swimming among algae mats was taken at a sinkhole near to Wakulla Spring.  The sink is a stop on Jim Stevenson’s Wakulla Spring Overland Tour, which WFSU will be taping as part of our EcoShakespeare series.  Jim uses the sink as an example of the connectivity between area sinks and Wakulla Spring, and to illustrate the high level of nitrates entering the spring.  Wakulla Spring’s issues are representative of those facing the larger Floridan aquifer, through which the Wakulla Spring underground cave system runs.  The Floridan aquifer was the focus of the Sharing Water Conference in Monticello earlier this month.

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Are agriculture and the environment inherent enemies?  Seven billion people on this planet need to eat.  Industrial agriculture produces food on a large scale, but can tax water supplies and create nutrient rich runoff that can wreck marine and freshwater ecosystems.   Small organic farms like those in the video above take great care to use practices that protect waterways.  But can the world be fully fed by this type of agriculture?  In early October, a diverse group of people gathered in Monticello to discuss issues such as these.

On October 2-4 2014, the Sharing Water Conference looked at issues facing the Floridan aquifer.  Geologists, legislators, lawyers, land and water managers, farmers, and other concerned citizens gathered to learn about the aquifer and the challenges facing it.  Through a series of multidisciplinary discussions, the conference looked to find innovative solutions facing this giant limestone formation that stretches from South Carolina to Orlando.

The aquifer is the source of springs and rivers.  And it is also the source of the tap water within its range.  Tallahassee has 27 wells that bore beneath the clay of our red hills and into well protected limestone.  Cities like Tallahassee and Monticello are situated on red clay which filters pollutants from water as it sublimes into the earth.  It’s great protection for the aquifer, but it also means that water fills it slowly, possibly at a rate less than that we withdraw.

In his speech at the conference and in his interview with us, State Senator Bill Montford lamented a decrease in the quality and quantity of water in our springs.  As was noted in a recent report on the state of Wakulla Spring, the slow recharge rate of the Red Hills proportionate to water consumption is listed as a possible cause in the increase in the Spring’s dark water days.  In other words, we may be using that clear water faster than rain can replace it.  The report advocates conservation measures, and public education on better conservation practices.

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This water treatment facility in Monticello, FL, uses a five-carousel system to filter human waste from wastewater. The water then travels four miles south to a lake at Simpson’s Nursery. Treated effluent accounts for about 400,000 of the 2 million gallons the nursery uses daily.

Another issue facing Wakulla Spring is an increase of nutrients in the water supply.  A problem area identified in the report are the spray fields in the south of Tallahassee, where “gray water” is sprayed on plants in a field located north of sinkholes that feed the Wakulla Spring system.  Gray water is treated sewage, with most of the “sludge” removed (What is sludge?  Watch the video.  I apologize in advance for the image).  It does still contain nitrates, an excess of which can contribute to algae growth and possibly the growth of invasive hydrilla.  Driving with springs advocate Jim Stevenson yesterday to scout our Wakulla Springs Shakespeare EcoAdventure, he did mention that improvements are being made to the wastewater treatment plant feeding the spray fields that would reduce nitrates from over 12 mg per liter to under 3 mg/L.

As you can see in the video, there is a similar arrangement in Monticello between that city and Simpson’s Nursery.  The nursery is located north of the Cody Escarpment, in the Red Hills region; the Tallahassee spray fields are located on the Woodville Karst Plain.  The Red Hills filters water and protects the aquifer; on the WKP, the aquifer is much closer to the surface and water enters more freely.  The Simpson’s Nursery arrangement seems beneficial to the nursery and to the city of Monticello.  The city is spared the expense of disposing of its gray water, and doing so in a way that keeps it out of waterways.  The nursery pumps 400,000 gallons a day less from the aquifer, saving in electrical costs.  These are the kinds of solutions that were sought at the Sharing Water Conference- private business working together with government to mutual benefit and to the benefit of our groundwater supply.

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Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms use a compost made from fish waste and wood chips. The fish waste comes from local seafood markets, the wood chips from tree cutters. These products would otherwise have sat in landfills, but now they are used to fertilize plants on these small organic farms. #fishcompost

In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance (watch our first Red Hills Farm EcoAdventure here).  I wanted to show alternative methods of protecting waterways.  There is a lot of noise about wetlands legislation, and it is definitely important to decide how best to conserve sensitive ecosystems.  But many of the burdens placed on our water supply can be eased by more efficient practices in our homes, businesses, and farms.  Simpson’s Nursery uses reclaimed and recycled water and reduces their withdrawals from the aquifer.  Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms fertilize their plants using materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill, creating compost that keeps nutrients in soils and out of water (not to mention saving local fish markets a trip to the dump).  These are practices that are cost effective as well as environmentally friendly.

Cost effective AND environmentally friendly.  Beneficial to business AND government.  Solutions are out there, and they don’t always have to arise from conflict, which is so often at the center of environmental debates.  Do any of you reading this know of any similar “win-win” arrangements that benefit the environment and private interests?  Let us know below in the comments section.

Slide presentations from the Sharing Water Conference were uploaded to their site earlier this week.  They are packed with information for those of us who want to learn more.