Thursday, March 31, 2011


OUR AUTHOR FOR APRIL 2011 is John Himmelman and we are reading his Discovering Moths: Nightime Jewels in Your Own Backyard. From the back cover: Moths offer an incredible variety of color, form, behavior, and ecological significance, but since most of them are active at night, we are often simply unaware of them. John Himmelman opens our eyes, showing how moth watching can offer as much beauty and fascination as birding.In lively, accessible prose, he explains the intricacy of moths' life cycle, their importance in nature, and how just a tiny handful of the many moth species are truly pests to humans. He tells how to attract moths with lights and bait, when and where to observe them, and how best to photograph these tiny subjects. Entertaining personal anecdotes and short profiles of some of the country's foremost "mothers" add human interest. Illustrated with the author's own superb pen-and-ink illustrations and spectacular close-up photographs of moths found in the eastern U.S., this book will be of interest not only to nature enthusiasts, but also to parents, birders, butterfly aficionados, and anyone interested in the outdoors. John Himmelman is the author of numerous books and articles on nature subjects. A cofounder of the Connecticut Butterfly Association, he has lectured and led field trips throughout the US. "My interest in moths probably evolved along with my tendency to stay up at night," he says. "The fact that I could find hundreds of different kinds in my own yard, and that I find their form, function, and beauty a marvel, helped make them an obsession."
Click on his photo to peruse his website and read his self-penned biography. On his website there are links to his photos of moths and amphibians, and information about his other books.


Our group discussed John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid on March 27, 2011. Here is a report by member Joy Pardue:

Having never delved deeply into the realm of ancient religions, I had only a vague notion of the definition of ‘archdruid’. Druids are defined as those who “worship the forces of nature by means of meditation, prayer and celebration of the Earth.…” Thus, John McPhee bestows the title of “Archdruid” onto David Brower while one of his adversaries lumps David (and all conservationists) with druids and dismisses them as people who “worshiped trees and sacrificed people”.

In this absorbing book, McPhee orchestrates meetings between David Brower and three impressive, driven professionals whose ambitions – as far as David Brower is concerned – are anathema to the well being of the planet and its inhabitants. These encounters are set in some of the most scenic regions of our country. “The Mountain” refers to the Cascade Mountains where McPhee arranges a trek which includes Brower, geologist Charles Park and two medical students. Brower and Parks debate the economic advantages versus the natural and esthetic losses of copper mining is this pristine setting. “The Island” hosts a meeting between Brower and real estate developer Charles Fraser who was proudly transforming picturesque Cumberland Island into an extravagant resort. “The River” section covers a rafting trip down the Colorado River and a visit to Glen Canyon Dam. Floyd Dominy, US Commissioner of Reclamation, who built this and many other dams, is an outspoken critic of conservationists and as determined to have it his way as David Brower is.

A passage in this chapter illustrates McPhee’s ability to record opposing views clearly and concisely – with a touch of humor. He quotes Dominy as saying “Reclamation is the father of putting water to work for man – irrigation, hydropower, flood control, recreation. Let’ s use our environment. Nature changes the environment every day of our lives – why shouldn’t we change it. Diametrically opposed, conservationists think “there is something special about dams, something – as conservation problems go – that is disproportionately and metaphysically sinister. The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT…and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam.”

In each setting, McPhee faithfully records the dialogue, discourse and the many disagreements between Brower and his foil. In the telling, Brower comes to life as a naturalist practically on par with John Muir, an intrepid mountaineer, a passionate defender of the planet and the seriously successful executive director of the Sierra Club where he was revered as a “poet, naturalist and politician” amongst the rank and file. (or “ the membership”).

For twenty years, Brower served the Sierra Club “brilliantly…magnificently”, growing it from a “small, local organization…into a major national and international force in the conservation movement.” In time, as Brower became more powerful and his methods became more controversial, he alienated and infuriated many members of the Board of Directors – enough to have him ousted. Even Ansel Adams’ vote was “Anti-Brower”. Lending truth to the member’s observation: “There is no love-hate like the love-hate that exists among mountaineers.”

Our PVNWG members rated this book highly and agreed that McPhee maintained a fairly neutral stance in depicting these strong, single-minded characters. He records their interactions with neither commentary nor criticism It isn’t easy to determine where his sympathies lie as he records these communications and relationships without commentary or judgment. Perhaps McPhee’s primary goal is to be well informed and to inform others. What a creative way to learn: bring together the archdruid and his archenemies (so to speak) and take notes as they debate the subject. On site of the area in dispute!

In the process we learn something about geology, the extraction industry and the laws – or lack thereof – pertaining to these corporations. We are privy to behind-the-scenes people and politics that make or break dreams and schemes. We’re among the very few who are privy to the inner workings of a dam. And we enjoy the vicarious pleasure of rafting through the Grand Canyon. All of which give us glimpses of the world David Brower saw, loved and appreciated. “Archdruid” may not be considered an altogether complimentary term, but I think McPhee chose it as a tribute to David Brower – a fitting title for this dedicated devotee of Planet Earth.

Brower photo via

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


John McPhee was the March 2011 author. Our main reading selection is his 1971 work Encounters with the Archdruid but members should feel free to read alternate McPhee works if they wish.

McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. McPhee has taught at Princeton as Ferris Professor since 1975. Both Encounters with the Archdruid and another of his works, The Curve of Binding Energy, were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. In 1977, McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His book Annals of the Former World was published in 1998 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.


Calling David Brower an important environmental activist is like calling Hamlet an important member of the Danish royal court. Brower invented modern American environmental activism. John Nielson, National Public Radio

Reading like a novel, Encounters... acquaints us with the personalities of four men. The protagonist is Friends of the Earth founder and "militant conservationist" David Brower. Brower's three antagonists on the environmental battlefield include an developer, a geologist/miner, and a federal bureaucrat. McPhee takes us on virtual journeys to three wildernesses - a coastal island, a Western mountain range, and the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. We witness the clash of these men's differing philosophies and relationships to nature, but also the humor and friendliness of their interactions as worthy opponents.

Resources to learn more about McPhee, his life and work, and the Archdruid, David Brower.

Awareness Flowers from Natural History of WATER

On February 27, seven old faithfuls and three perky guests bubbled with opinions about Alice Outwater's Water: A Natural History. Our group included a water quality scientist, and extremely knowledgeable members of the local Watershed advocacy association, who contributed much to our discussion.

Outwater's book ripples with fascinating details plumbed from Herculean research into North America's past. Chapter by chapter, the book mixes a toxic brew of evidence: civilization has damned our continent's ecological systems that formerly provided a continuously self-cleaning, self-renewing water cycle. As the Fox admonished the Little Prince, "You become responsible forever, for what you have tamed." Without the natural wetlands, free flowing rivers, and intact forests, we awkwardly, expensively and unsuccessfully attempt to use technology and regulations to produce what was once provided free, by Mother Nature. The book underscores how all aspects of nature are related, and work in concert. Removing one species can have a domino effect. For example, Europeans' lust for fashionable and supremely warm fur almost extincted the North American beaver, the wetlands engineer par excellence.

Comments of amazement and uncomfortable heightened consciousness at what has been lost through ignorance, negligence, short-sightedness and sheer greed, in only a few centuries, were followed swiftly by queries as to what can be done? The sheer volume of human population, agricultural, mining, manufacturing uses and abuses, not to mention polluting sources such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, when taken together suggest hopelessness as to ever restoring a natural balance. We wondered--are other, less developed countries learning from our mistakes?

Members mentioned the Green Belt tree planting movement in Africa, and the use of human waste as fertilizer in China. A member who had recently returned from visiting a South African city noted that power outages are routine, occur without warning, and are simply adapted to by the populace. In Croatia, coal falls from the sky. In the Middle East, conflicts are over access to water of any kind, quality is a secondary issue. We are lucky to live where there are regulations on the books, even if they are imperfectly enforced, and as unfunded mandates, become a cruel mirage.

Our watershed association visitors (See Opeqon Watershed, Inc. and Opequon Creek Project ) offered that West Virginia has the most dams of any state in the nation--494 at last count. The WV EPA has determined the most polluted watersheds are home turf: Sleepy Creek and Opequon. The association hosts two water cleanups yearly. The Associations' monitoring for E. coli has been discontinued for now. We know that rain storms spike it. The EPA safe standard for E. coli is 235 MPN/100 mL--a storm event raises it to 1600. Waste water treatment plants, agricultural runoffs, raw sewage are primary culprits.The WV Department of Agriculture is monitoring the streams. Unfortunately there is no one site a concerned citizen can go to to see all the different monitoring results gathered by various entities that relate to water quality.

The EPA has a Watershed Implementation Plan that specifies upgrading of all Wastewater treatment plants. As demonstration projects, the association built five rain gardens throughout the area to retain run off but it has been found that they require so much maintenance that they are not as efficient mechanisms as originally believed. Riparian buffers--three rows of trees by the sides of rivers and streams--do much to prevent erosion and minimize runoff. There are federal funds and other types of grants available to offset costs. The Association holds several tree plantings yearly and draws folks from all over.

How can we take action? Join and become active in water quality activist groups like your local Watershed Association or Riverkeepers group, as well as chapters of national groups such as the Sierra Club. Donations are always welcome! Write to your local, state and national legislators, and agencies such as the EPA. Participate in water monitoring projects. Vote. Think about your consumer choices. If you own property, think thrice before building, altering the landscape, removing natural flora, or using pesticides and fertilizers. Educate yourself. Dispose of waste responsibly. For example, keep unused pharmaceuticals out of the waste stream. Contact your local hazardous waste disposal agency and check out these guidelines here.

We thank Alice Outwater for her work. We now have a thirst to learn more, do more to protect our water.

Poetry Walk Seeks Submissions for Yankauer Wildflower Festival on April 16

The Potomac Valley Audubon Society will hold its annual spring Wildflower Festival on Saturday, April 16 at the Yankauer Nature Preserve, from 11:00 to 4:00 PM rain or shine. For the fourth year in a row, the festival will feature a Poetry Walk. Original poems relating to the season will be displayed along the preserve’s Kingfisher trail where the majority of wildflowers are found.
Poets are invited to submit for consideration up to three works that explore themes and images related to spring. Send poems by email to or by regular mail to Poetry Walk, c/o PVAS, PO Box 578, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Entries may also be dropped off at Four Seasons Books, 116 W. German Street, Shepherdstown. The deadline for receipt of submissions is 5:00 PM on Friday, April 8.