Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Community, Bicycles, and Fresh Food with Free Cycles by Claire Compton

In the first week of January I went out to lunch with one of my oldest friends.  We shared stories of important events gone by and made predictions for the year to come.  When the conversation quieted, she asked me, “If you were to sum up everything that you want for this year in one word, what would that word be?”  I panicked.  I had no idea what to say.  I laughed and gnawed on my salad when all at once, the answer barreled into me.


This semester, my internship has been working with Free Cycles to build community.  Over the winter, I came up with this hair-brained idea that I couldn’t shake: what would happen if we started planting vegetable gardens in shopping carts?  Could that address our dependence on packaged grocery-store food?  I met with Bob Giordano, Free Cycles’ director, and we started bouncing ideas off each other.  It didn’t take long for this hair-brained scheme to begin to take shape. 

Since the semester began, I’ve been working with Free Cycles on a project aiming to bridge the gap between people and our food sources both physically and metaphorically. 

In today’s cities food is obtained by driving to the grocery store, grabbing a shopping cart, and loading it up.  Whether your food choices are local or imported, organic or conventional, the act is the same.  My goal was to take a symbol of this disconnect, the shopping cart, and transform it into a bicycle trailer mobile garden to bring fresh food to those most in need. 
In order to do this, I had to get well-acquainted with bicycles and bike trailers.  I found myself ogling the hitches of every trailer I passed in my daily life.  It took a lot of trouble-shooting and problem-solving, but Bob and I managed to make two shopping cart trailers out of entirely recycled materials, mainly bike parts.  This meant I had to learn every part of a bicycle in order to find the exact part to fit a specific need.
While I was still working out the kinks, I began looking to the future.  I really wanted to get community involvement, but building the cart was so complicated that it was hard to imagine getting volunteers to come help.  Instead, I thought it would be fun to host an event to plant the gardens.  When I told Bob about this, he suggested that I tag along with an event that was already planned: fixing up bicycles for the Boys and Girls Club at Council Groves Apartments.  So I contacted the manager in hopes that she would be interested in hosting me so I could teach the kids about gardening.
I had never organized anything like this before.  Everything had to be timed perfectly.  First, I went to the Library and checked out some vegetable seeds (if you have never used this resource, I highly recommend it!  Go to to check it out).  I borrowed seed starting supplies from a friend and hoped that the seeds would germinate in time for the event, but not so soon that they would out-grow their four-packs.  In the meantime, I finished up the construction of the trailers and attempted to work out any kinks.  I mixed up a special light-weight soil blend that would allow for easier toting.  I did a few practice runs before the big day to make sure that everything would go smoothly.
The event was perfect.  All of my hard work paid off.  The kids were so excited, they raced each other, pulling the trailers behind them.  They all gathered quietly and respectfully in order to get their hands dirty and plant some vegetables.  It was wonderful to experience the joy that gardening can bring to kids.

During fall semester, the Wilderness and Civilization program got me thinking a lot about the problems that we face as we lose our connection to the land.  Some moments, I got overwhelmed worrying about the future of the interface between civilization and the natural world.  This internship has helped me to understand the many ways in which a person can foster care for the land.  While mobile gardens don’t solve the world’s problems, they encourage people to get dirty under their fingernails.  They have the potential to help feed communities and plant the seeds of sustainable agriculture even on the smallest scale.  I can’t wait until, a few weeks down the line, I bring the gardens back to the Boys and Girls Club and show them the magic of fresh food.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Afternoons at the Forge by Christian Lipscomb, Photos by Jocelyn Catterson

I've been frequenting the forge lately. The seasonal shift between winter and spring in Missoula, wildly bipolar in day to day climactic norms, lends itself to bursts of creativity. After long winter nights spent inside on the couch reading about the wonder and opportunities of the world, I'm ready to do everything all at once as soon as the sun rifles its way through the dingy gray. I popped out of my den on queue with the sun's angle reaching the tipping point of warmth and thereby growth, and sought out ways to create. No better way, I think, to bring to fruition all the pent up energy building through winter than by pounding on hot iron. 

My mentor still officially lives in the Swan Valley of western Montana, a relatively remote depression tucked between two of Montana's most jagged mountain ranges. He owns a cabin up there, has for a long time. He came down to Missoula for business over a decade ago, however, and has since not fully resided in the Swan. Lucky for me, he got himself a forge for his more urban setting. While living in the Swan he taught himself to simply make parts for broken machinery and equipment rather than making the haul into Missoula, and now that he's living here he's more than happy to pass on his knowledge. 

The hammer, the anvil, and the forge. The key ingredients to shaping metal into a thing of your desire. Other spices serve to enhance the product, such as abundant scrap metal and a strong grip. 

In the past I always experienced what I thought of as art from a detached perspective. From abstract landscape paintings in bizarre color with hidden political and metaphysical depth to incredibly lifelike alabaster sculptures, I saw the beauty but often couldn't relate to the consciousness the pieces had arisen from. In a way that I thought of as completely separate, I would spend long amounts of time examining the craftwork of a particularly simple but elegant wooden bench, eyeing all the different pieces and steps that went into the creation process. I didn't think of a simple but elegant bench as art, but rather just a well-made utilitarian accessory. 

I realize now that what I was seeing as art and what I was seeing as a useful tool are, of course, quite intimate with one another. The best bench is made through the eye of an artist, someone looking beyond the initial comfort of taking a seat and towards the subsequent wandering of the sitter's eyes and hands for interesting and beautiful things around them. I feel the melding of the utilitarian and the artistic very strongly when working with metal. To make a hook from a piece of rebar, I merely have to pound one end of the piece over the horn of the anvil. I could stop there, and I would have a perfectly viable hook for my coat. My capacity for seeing and appreciating beautiful things, though, would be left to wander in search of something more worthwhile. By tapering the rebar before bending, by adding a twist, a curled end, an ornate top, I can make that necessary step of marrying form with function. 

Plus, nothing helps a person sort their thoughts better than hammering a glowing piece of metal into submission. Add good friends, a hot fire, and a little beer, and the wintertime blues melt away. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bad Goat Forestry and Watershed Consulting LLC Internship by Jacob Seidel

"Associate's degrees are the best - I don't know why anyone goes further". Great advice from someone who left school just short of a PhD, and especially someone who is such a proponent of educating others. If I had a way of knowing and following Mark Vander Meer's advice, I wouldn't have come to UM and had the amazing experience of working with him and his crew sporadically over the last few months. Mark is the founder of Bad Goat Forestry and Watershed Consulting LLC. Besides the copious number of degrees Mark has accumulated, a good bit of his knowledge originated during his time working with Bud Moore, a local legend who, early on, trapped fur-bearing wildlife in the Bitterroot mountains and later became one of the first Forest Service rangers in the area. Bud also operated a portable timber mill on his property in the Swan valley, where he set a fine example for sustainable forestry practices. 

Both of Mark's businesses do a myriad of projects using the best management practices available. They're able to work on a variety of projects - everything from road restoration to timber framing and blacksmithing - because Mark and his coworkers are incredibly well-rounded in this field, and they are all willing to try or learn something new if it means that the outcome of a job will be of a higher quality.
One of the forward-thinking ideas being pursued by the city and enacted by Mark & Co. is the use of  poplar saplings as a method of water treatment. In a nutshell: instead of retrofitting an addition to the old water treatment plant to purify water with elevated levels of compounds like nitrogen and ammonium, this water will be used to grow saplings. These compounds act as a fertilizer for the poplar, which on the test plot grew up to eight feet (!) in a single season. The water re-enters the ground water system and the Clark Fork safe to consume, and the trees can be harvested later for pulp-wood or other purposes.

There are few activities that will test the constitution of your hand strength more-so than pruning poplar whips for eight hours a day. Unfortunately (fortunately, though?), I could only help sparingly. 12,000 whips. Sometimes trimming 20+ branches per whip. Brutal. But, there's hardly a better time to learn about your crew, formulate thoughts on Krakauer's new book with the university gracing the cover, or bask in the sunshine-turned-graupel. This was my first introduction to the so-called "Missoula migrant workforce". What a relief from the daily drubbings of mass-lectures, where I could finally feel like I was producing while still daydreaming and watching the clouds catch and bend rays of sunshine.

During one of the last accumulations of snowfall in the Missoula valley, we tried our hand at blacksmithing on a coal-fired forge. Mark began forging out of necessity. At his home in the Swan, it was usually cheaper and quicker to craft a replacement part for the tractor than to get one in Missoula. Christian (my fellow intern, friend, and W+C alum) and I had both been looking forward to this for awhile, and it didn't disappoint: after a brief introduction to how a forge works (you work the fire more than you work the iron), we both came away with wall hangers crafted from old railroad spikes. For me, there's nothing that beats that satisfaction of creating something that's both useful and aesthetically pleasing. The forge works beautifully, but Mark had a dilemma: coal burns dirty and he has an excess of wood from his business; what to do? Enter the wood-fired forge, which can run off wood or bark. Mark, Christian and I spent an afternoon building the second forge, and Mark put the finishing touches on it by ordering a custom muffler that directs air from the bellows to the forge body. What a beauty!

Our largest project thus far was a prescribed burn in the Rattlesnake valley at Steve Siebert and Jill Belsky's house. Both are currently professors at the University of Montana and they do the best they can to put into practice the science that they specialize in. When they first purchased their home, the steep hill that abutted their house could hardly be seen, choked by small pines and shrubs as a result of fire suppression techniques over the past one hundred years. Little by little, both the professors and Mark's crew thinned the small stand, taking care to not only reduce fuels, but also to create micro-habitats for flora & fauna and provide nutrient and water retention sources for the soil (among other things, Mark is one of the finest soil scientists around). After thinning, and especially after small sample plots of prescribed fire use, stunning wildflowers covered the hillslope below the larger pines and Douglas-fir. Projects like this are complex, especially in the WUI (wildland-urban interface), where a lack of fuels management and a propagated fear of fire has set the stage for dangerous and costly fires, but proactive and practical management can benefit many goals. Finding balance between the human aesthetic/use and biological/ecological needs is difficult, but I think catering to one extreme or the other often produces lackluster results. Was this burn a success? I think so: the stand is now in a more resilient/resistant state concerning many disturbances and is likely closer to it's historical stable state, the property (and adjacent properties) have a reduced risk of catastrophic fires, it still provides good habitat value while preserving aesthetics, and we got to play with drip torches for a day. Not too shabby.  

Mark is always tossing new projects and ideas our way, and in turn expects that we do the same. Before the term is over, we'll have tried our hands at tree pruning, timber framing, hand hewing and mechanically milling lumber, and any other random skill that piques our interest. Should we build a sauna? Sure. A solar dehydrator? Why not? I'm sure that most people look forward to finishing their internships (and school), but I'm not. Wilderness & Civilization and working with Mark have connected me to people, places and activities that have made me a more thoughtful, engaged and confident person. I came to UM to grow as a person, and experiences like this internship have been crucial to that. What value is a liberal arts education if the real life skills are dropped in favor of focusing on test scores or memorization skills? For me, this not only verifies the importance of the Wilderness & Civilization program, but also the importance of trying new experiences solely on the basis that it can provide you with new way of seeing and interacting with the world. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

From Creek to Website: Interning with the Watershed Education Network By Cory Hoffman

Hard at work.
I love Data! Those three words would play a large part in how I would be spending much of my time working with the Watershed Education Network. The Watershed Education Network, or WEN, is a nonprofit organization that provides education and outreach to the local community to raise awareness about local water related issues. For my experience with WEN, I have had the privilege of getting the hard work and countless hours of data collecting available to the public. 
As it turns out, there has been more enthusiasm by previous interns and volunteers in collecting stream monitoring data in the field, than there has been working with that data on a computer. This is understandable, because spending time wading around in Montana's streams while netting bugs is very appealing. So for a while, this information has been tucked away in binders, awaiting for someone with the time and patience to sit down make it available to the world. 

This is where I came into the picture. What a great responsibility and chance to enhance my skills. While I certainly love being in the outdoors, I felt grateful for the opportunity.

Fortunately I have been on both ends, in the field and in the office. This has allowed me as an aspiring scientist, to get an appreciation for the entire process. From standing in a creek netting macro-invertebrates (bugs), counting them,writing the information in the field, and putting that information into spreadsheets and onto a website where anyone can see it. It is also important as someone interpreting data to understand where biases and errors can occur, when collecting data for research or for conservation management decisions.

An empty data sheet I created on for a Lolo creek tributary.
I have been using a website called as a way of bringing WEN's information to the public. It is a site allowing anyone to create projects where you can share data and observations to the public at large. You can also potentially allow others to join your project and contribute their own observations. I had to start from scratch, learning all the details of the website, and whether it would be a good fit for WEN or not, as well as determining the best layout for data sheets and finding a way to appropriately organize the data. Not to mention a great deal of other details that have given me experiences I hadn't had before. 

Collecting data in the field photo courtesy of
I also recently got to be a part of the training for the Stream Team, which is a program of WEN's that is involved collecting data on the local watersheds. WEN has a very thorough sampling method that it uses to gauge the local water quality. Biological, chemical and physical variables are all used to assess the overall health of the streams. I learned that mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and dragonflies are good biological indicators of pollution levels in a stream, as they are very sensitive. They require cold water, relatively high levels of dissolved oxygen, clear water and a fairly neutral pH, therefore when you find them in a stream, you know the stream is doing pretty well. 
Other stream monitoring protocols involved pebble counts, which was a  random sampling of 100 pebbles to exam the average size of rock on the stream bed. Also there is the grid toss, another sampling of substrate involving a random sampling of a stream bed for fine sediment. Other features sampled were stream velocity, temperature, and the level of browsing on riparian vegetation from ungulates. Possibly one of the most interesting aspects of monitoring though, was using chemicals to check the pH and  dissolved oxygen levels. All this information was filed away in my brain to hopefully be used when I am working as a fisheries biologist. 

Hard copy data ready for where it is not very easily accessible
Being in the wilderness and civilization program has strengthened my desire to be an active part of the community I am in. Most of my life I have felt the need to be a conservationist in one way or another, and my time spent interning with WEN has allowed me to do that. Not to mention all the people I work with are some of the nicest people I have ever met, including Becca with her adorable dog George. There is also Deb, who is so positive you can't help but feel good about the world when she's around, not to mention she has a reputation of keeping those in the office well fed with all kinds of good treats. My time with WEN has not only allowed me to gain valuable skills, meet some great people, and have a great time, all while giving back to the community, and the environment.

The Clark Fork river, seen from the Kim Williams trail, is a symbol in many ways to the importance of 
monitoring stream health for me, as well as the fact that science can be used to restore ecosystems that 
have been previously degraded.