To order Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World, go to http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/book/diary-of-citizen-scientist
Think of this as a nice dinner out? And as a dinner date, the two of us, talking about citizen science.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Toothpick grasshopper.

Thirty years ago, my midwife was seven months pregnant when I was nine months pregnant, and not that long ago I was talking to her son, who has just gotten his PhD in molecular biology at New Mexico State University. He is working on a microbial vaccine for chili plants, trying to induce an immune reaction for a better defense against blight disease. He asked what I was writing about these days, and I said citizen science, and he asked what I had learned, and I said, “Well, I now know why I didn’t become a scientist,” and he burst out laughing.

“Yes!” he agreed. “Everyone thinks it’s so glamorous and romantic.” I was laughing, too, “But there’s so much detail work!” I complained. “You have to quantify everything. You have to measure everything!” We bad-mouthed the tedious aspects of science, gathering data, inputting data, and the caution required—trying to say something simple about a complex world--but it was just family talking about family: you can make fun of your grandmother because she’s your grandmother.

I told my midwife’s son about tiger beetles, the little I’ve learned, and he told me about the microbe Phytophthora capsici and related species. He had heard about some of my favorite citizen science projects, and he personally logs on to InnoCentive, the online site where “creative minds solve some of the world's most important problems for cash awards up to $1 million.” Those problems range from new ways to get energy from algae to better material for surgical gloves. I’m intrigued anew by this mixing up of science and citizen science and the entrepreneurial spirit. I’m reminded again: the power of citizen science is not going to be kept in a tidy box. The potential of citizen science will still surprise us.

Today, the typical citizen scientist in America is white, well-educated, and middle-class. More outreach needs to be done. Even so, the field of citizen science is inherently democratic, offering opportunities for almost everyone in almost every scientific discipline. You can be an auto mechanic designing medical equipment or a third grader in Deming, New Mexico filling out her observation of a robin. You can be the first to transcribe a papyrus from the City of Sharp-nosed Fish or find a new species of fly in your backyard. You can transform yourself in a variety of ways. Become an expert in bryophytes. Experience Zen-like moments in the office and in the field. You can do public good—add to scientific knowledge, monitor changes in the environment, promote better social policy—even as you roam your private paradise, whatever and wherever that is, collecting treasure and bringing it home: crumbling seed pods, feathers in your hair, clouds in your pocket.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014



Traditionally I support writers and writing by having guest writers come on this site. Mary Black has written a wonderful place-based novel which she talks about below. I am a great fan of  Paleolithic fiction! That world is our home, our heritage, who we are...










Guest Blogger: Mary S. Black

            I fell in love with the Lower Pecos region of Texas more than 20 years ago. It is dry and rugged, and can seem lonely and little travelled. The region is centered on the mouth of the Pecos River, where it enters the Rio Grande, about 50 miles west of Del Rio, Texas. There is one two-lane highway where semi-trailer trucks drive 80 mph from San Antonio to San Diego day and night. The Southern Pacific Railroad runs parallel to the highway, mostly, and long freight trains snake across the desert. Hardly anyone stops to spend time here on purpose.
            Yet for those who do, new worlds await. This land that looks so forbidding, with parched, rocky uplands, and steep stone canyons that pass in the blink of an eye when youre on the highway, has nurtured animals and people for thousands of years. The region is famous for its archaeological sites and abundance of complex, abstract rock art made by ancient human beings so long ago. Who made those paintings? What were they trying to tell us?
            Those questions spurred me to write Peyote Fire, Shaman of the Canyons, to bring those ancient people to life. In it, Deer Cloud, a young man who lived 4,000 years ago, is painting the stories of the gods on the wall of a rock shelter when the death of his grandfather changes his life. I did extensive research to portray the life ways of these people accurately, and to understand, perhaps a little, their world view. In their legends, human beings and animals were once one. Their knowledge of animals and plants was subtle and huge (especially compared to someone like me), and their respect for the living world knew no bounds. They knew how to survive in ways modern people can barely comprehend, and through that illustrate the ingenuity of all human beings.
            Today the area is popular for deer hunting and fishing on Lake Amistad, which was formed about 40 years ago by damming a section of the Rio Grande. Trophy hunters come for white-tailed deer and bass. But ranchers have given up raising cattle anymore, its just too dry. Long ago there used to be buffalo, especially in wet years, as old bones attest. The bones of more than 800 bison at the bottom of a cliff in a small box canyon are evidence of a huge buffalo jump several thousand years ago. Further under the cliff are bones of saber-toothed tiger and mammoth. The land supported these animals and many others along with the people who stalked them, and painted stories for future generations to remember, if only they would stop to listen. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014



Here in the Gila Valley, the end of August continues to be green and spectacular. As part of celebrating Walt Whitman Month (something entirely made up), I’d like to quote his prescription for a good life. From the preface to Leaves of Grass:
            This is what you shall do. Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches,   give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your             income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever             insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.
            It is essential Whitman that we move in a long sentence from the earth and sun to the skin between eyelashes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014





August is Walt Whitman Month. Okay, maybe not. But the glorious rainy season here in the Gila Valley should be Walt Whitman month and so it is in my house, Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman, the poet I blame the most for who I am. In college, I read his long poem “Song of Myself” like the Book of Psalms. We were all meant to be Walt Whitman, children of the cosmos, male and female, young and old, plantation owner and slave. Like him, our bodies are made of earth and sidewalk. We spread sideways into nature. We burrow into people. Animals adorn us. Plants grow in our ears. We have lived a trillion summers and will live a trillion more. Unlock the doors, unscrew the door jambs, take down the walls! We experience everything. We are everyone. (We are the orange skipperling.) We go naked and undisguised to the river bank, mad to be in contact with the air which is for our mouth forever. Logic will never convince. Sermons do not convince. The damp of the night drives deeper.

In the nineteenth century, Whitman proposed to write an “indigenous” or uniquely American poetry that reflected the country’s abundance of resources, energy, ambition, and political idealism. He brought together mysticism and scientific theory and fused them in a fiery circle. He would allow for no separation, certainly not the separation of humanity from the natural world. He infected me when I was young and impressionable with his dreams of democracy and his cries of celebration. His “barbaric yawp” proclaimed that this was our job--to celebrate and be joyous.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

I walk Sacaton Mesa surrounded by cloud streets, cloud turrets, a small cloud East Asian art museum, cloud doorways arched and dissolving. It is architecture on the move. A storm builds in the east. The cloud cliffs grow taller. The prow of a ship crashes into another. Already there is rain over the Mogollon Mountains, the line clear between where water is falling and where it is not. Already I should turn back and hurry home if I do not want to get soaking wet.

I feel what the Transcendentalists might have called a correspondence. This beauty is not a doorway into something better. This beauty is my other half. This sky, this majesty, is my other self. I feel the yearning to reunite, join with the sky. In some way, we reflect each other. I am transparent, and the clouds pass through me. I have felt this before on Sacaton Mesa, and I am careful now not to get too excited or try and hold on to the moment with words. The Quaker tradition of silence works best. There is something under the words. There is something calm and whole under the words. (from Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist)

Saturday, June 28, 2014



Recently I have been in Los Angeles teaching at Antioch University. A few weeks ago I was in a city in northern Spain, watching the narrow streets fill with people of all ages—coming together to eat and drink and enjoy each other. As an environmentalist, I believe that the cultural conversation has shifted to green cities—walkable, livable, lovable, filled with beauty and art--the hope now for our relationship to the planet. Cities are where 85 percent of Americans now live, where humans will use the least resources and emit the fewest greenhouse gases, where creativity sparks in the diminished spaces between us, where we’ll contain the damage of overpopulation. Long ago, in the 1980s, my husband and I were back-to-the-landers, believing we were on the cutting edge of social change. We were part of a larger cultural conversation, wanting to root our lives in soil and sun, to make the world better by making our personal connections to the natural world more direct in the shape of an onion or an adobe brick—with a home-built house and a too-big garden and two homebirths and two goats and too much goat cheese in the refrigerator. Today I am acutely aware that living in the rural West is less ecologically sound than living in places like Madrid or Portland. I am not unhappy that the ideas of my youth—the very arc of my life--have been proven wrong. I’m only relieved that the cultural conversation is still alive. I’m pleased hope still exists.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

 


Yesterday I saw a white-lined sphinx moth in the yard. A flying Escher painting! The Op Art of the Sixties reborn! Whirring, rotor-whirling away, a dervish on a mission. And then that proboscis or “drinking straw” which extends half the length of the moth’s body, a kind of magic trick--like pulling an impossibly long scarf from your sleeve. This is an insect whose life has been one long art scene, the caterpillars also highly designed: often lime-green with a yellow head, side rows of spots bordered by black lines, and a bright yellow-orange horn protruding at the rear. The horn’s function is to scare off attackers like wasps or stink bugs, with the larva rearing up like a miniature sphinx, regal and demanding, daring you to interfere with its happy life of eating. Periodically, these moths hatch from their eggs en masse and can be seen migrating toward food. Years ago, herds of such larvae were described stretched out for hundreds of yards on well-traveled roads in the Southwest. For various reasons, I doubt we will see such abundance again. I’m happy just to see this single hallucinatory blur in my yard, my first sphinx moth of the season.

--photos by Elroy Limmer