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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Killing ourselves with stress

October 18th, 2013

It's enough to eat you alive, from the inside out. Stress can kill. And if you've ever gone through a particularly stressful event, you understand just how true that can be.

The human body responds to stress in harmful ways. I'm not entirely sure why. The addition of corrosive acid to the stomach is just one effect. There are plenty more that come when danger strikes. Short bursts are not a problem. Remedies, such as drinking peppermint tea, can soothe those rough spots. But when stress is prolonged for days, weeks, months, or years, no medicine in the world can cure it.

And when you're pacing the floor, wringing your hands, or banging your head against the wall, the knowledge that the stress you're experiencing is harmful to your health -- that it might even take years off your life -- only makes the stress more stressful.

“I've got to calm down,” you tell yourself. “Don't pressure me now, I've got enough to worry about,“ you respond. It's vicious and self destructive, and all the advice in the world can't make it stop. The only method to ensure it truly goes away is to resolve whatever is causing it.

In the last two weeks, I experienced what I believe was the most stressful period in my life so far. It wasn't a matter of life and death. It was just stressful. Now that the worst is over, I can see why I was bothered so much. What it came down to in this instance, in a single word, was uncertainty.

Horror writers know all about the human tendency to dwell on "what's going to happen?" Suspense is big business. People get profoundly frightened by the unknown, that some thing which may or may not be around the next corner.

You can try to breathe deeply. You can exercise, sip wine, be in the moment, or visualize something beautiful. But the real cure doesn't come until the shadows are lifted and the uncertainty is banished.

The best example is the medical test. Doctors are now questioning the hyper preventative state of mind that today's technology has driven. It feels as if it won't be long before a scientist will be able to run a test to tell a mother how long her infant will live, whether it be ten months or ten decades. Wouldn't you like to know? Really? Would you survive the stress of waiting to find out the results? There are a lot of diseases and defects in the human condition. At what point does our need to know result in so much stress that we become unable to enjoy the life we've got?

My uncertainty was related to the current task of selling our house to buy another. Were we going to move or not? Either answer would have been fine. We love our house now and the neighbors who surround it. But the house we hoped to buy held a key to a lifelong dream. Which one was it going to be? I just wanted to know.

It appears now that we will be moving, although we won't know for sure until December. With each passing day, with each hurdle cleared, with each test result reported, I knocked down the cause of my stress. The relief that came from resolving the problem -- the uncertainty -- was far more beneficial to my state of mind than any temporary remedy could offer.

Of course, we must take the doctor's advice and do the things that help us cope, but to truly tackle stress, we must identify its cause and then find an end to it.

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A Few Comments About Those Comments

October 10th, 2013

Since I write a blog, I read multiple blogs. You probably read a few too, although sometimes you might not even know it. Online news is often presented in Blog format today. How do you know? The simplest way is to check if comments can be read or posted after each story. If so, then it's technically a Blog.

Two icons from the bottom of a Blog post. The one on the right was for Twitter. The one on the left indicated comments. Twenty-five had been made; if you clicked on the link, the comments would appear.

Through this technology, we don't just get our news or information, we can read immediate reaction to it from a medley of news-reading people.

It's a great concept, but the sight isn't always pretty.

A Brief Blog-Versus-Website Primer

For those who are still a little confused, a Blog is a crazy name for a journal on the Internet. Blogs are not really Websites, but some Websites are Blogs. Since you can start a Blog for free, it's becoming popular to build one instead of a Website (although you can build them for free these days, too). But the primary difference is that a Website contains static information that is pushed out to the reader (beyond the occasional form to fill in), and a Blog is a two-way street.

When used in this fundamental way, a Blog is all about feedback, like a conversation. The reader can interact with the writer by posting a comment, to which the writer can respond. Facebook and YouTube have blog-like functions. There are Blog communities, such as LiveJournal or WordPress, in which sites are accessed and promoted through a common portal. This helps readers find and keep track of the ones they like and helps writers connect with an appropriate audience.

You can stay connected with ones you like by signing up for notices via email, or by following Blogs, reading them via RSS feeds, utilizing Blog tracking/reading services, etc. It depends on your work style and the features available on each.

The ones I favor are written by friends or like-minded individuals or offer insight that I find useful. I usually share something in common with the other readers, too, because I often agree with their comments.

That's not ALWAYS the case, though, especially when it comes to online news Blogs.

Blogging's Impact on Journalism

I call them journalistic blogs because they are written for newspapers and the like. They can be produced by the local news service or a firm such as The New York Times. Some limit the coverage to a particular topic, such as StateImpact, which is said to be "a reporting project of local public media and National Public Radio," and covers energy, environment, and economy surrounding the Marcellus Shale industry.

The posts present the facts as known, quote a few sources, and include the opposing view if needed -- the typical journalistic structure. It's written for a broad audience: anyone who wants to know more about what's going on with the topic at hand.

The Way it Was

For most of my life, Americans collected the paper from their doorstep or mailbox every morning and retreated to the breakfast table to read about what happened yesterday. Neighbor might have waved to neighbor, said a friendly hello, or asked if she knew if the Phillies won, but beyond that, little was known about what the other thought of the news. Some might have engaged in debates over the issues, but they always knew exactly who they were talking to, because they were looking at each other's face or hearing each other's voice.

The News Today

Thanks to the Blogosphere we can retrieve the news in secrecy. And we can tell the world our opinion while hiding in the same shadow. Today, we can essentially write a passionate letter to an editor without divulging our identity or our place of residence. And because this can be done in an instant, readers can see into our reactionary mind, as well as those of a broad spectrum of readers.

It has often been the case that a well-articulated opinion will force me to challenge my own. Commenters may shed light on a fact not included in the article. Or they bring up a historical event witnessed before the writer was born. This collective knowledge can enhance the story, and the perspectives show just how wonderfully diverse we all are. Thanks to the Blog format, a whole new dimension has been added to the news.

The Bad and the Ugly

But sadly, too often the comments make me shudder. They leave me thinking "Am I totally alone? Has the world gone mad? Does this ugly sentiment represent that of the average citizen?" I'll tell you, there are days when the comments leave me feeling distraught. I think, "maybe I should just stop reading them. Ignorance is bliss, so they say."

Then I began to look closely. And I found a pattern. A few specific phrases or tactics were used, especially among the most disturbing opinions. With light shed on their faults, the credibility of the commenters who used them disappeared. Now I can quickly reject them and move on. So that you too can weed out the croakers and trolls to make way for intelligent debate, I share these with you here:

1.) Commenter to journalist: "Do your homework."

Unless the commenter is a respected journalist himself, he cannot know how impossible it is to capture every angle, every fact, and every piece of information related to every story. If this was a prerequisite to publish, nothing would reach the public's eye. Why don't they just say, "I know more than you about this, you ignorant bastard, so the paper should fire you and hire me to write just about this one topic every day, all day."

Of course I don't appreciate lazy journalism -- that's a rampant problem today -- but a reader should be able to add what he or she knows without throwing insults. And besides, no matter how good the reporting, the journalist can never know it all, and even if (s)he did, the editor would have cut the copy sooner or later.

2.) Commenter to journalist: "Who do you think you are?"

They probably think they're the writer of the story.

3.) Commenter to writer, "This is typical [insert paper name]-style reporting."

This one is just looking for a fight with the network or the conglomerate. If you don't like the paper's slant, don't read it or take up the issue with the executives or the editors. The commenter probably disliked whatever would be written before he or she even clicked on the link.

4.) Words like "arse" or "sh_tface" are used, because they know ass and shitface won't make it through the vulgar filter.

5.) The commenter has an inclination to use words like ass or shitface.

6.) Outright verbal attacks are used.

They might have something to say about the story, but it is so buried in direct insults, its difficult to figure out the point.

7.) They rewrite.

The person copies an excerpt from the story, pastes it into their comment, and then rewrites it as if their version would have been better. Like in #1, they try to insult the writer with this tactic. It usually unveils the fact that they have no understanding of how difficult it is to present information in an unbiased fashion.

Although these types of comments are rampant, they are NOT an accurate representation of public opinon. Frankly, of the people I hold in the highest regard, many are too shy to comment. Or they care so greatly about the English language, they don't have time craft a letter that would meet their own standards. That leaves us with folks who are 1.) not intimidated by Blog technology, 2.) brave enough to share their thoughts with the entire world, 3.) carefree enough to accept that Blogs are forgiving when it comes to grammar, spelling, and typos, and 4.) ignorant tyrants who like to hide behind a screen name.

So for those of you who get your news via Blogs today, don't let those aggressive and ugly commenters get you down, and never fall into the trap of thinking they represent the average reader. They don't. They represent the average bully and, since every playground has one, we all need to learn how to ignore them until they go away.

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Uncloaking the Invisible Sorrow

September 27th, 2013

The Eastern Phoebe is not a particularly beautiful bird. Gray on top, white on bottom, its markings are rather bland. With a lack of melody in its song, I can't image the Phoebe inspiring any classical symphonies. Still, one had become my favorite backyard resident, and it wasn't because of its looks or its voice. I loved it because of what it did. As a member of the flycatcher family, it caught flying insects.

And now it's gone, and I'm sad.

I first began seeing what appeared to be a single Eastern Phoebe every spring, hunting from the empty wash line where it would perch in search of insects. It would dive into the air or down to the grass in order to grab a morsel, which it would quickly eat upon returning to its post.


© Russ Campbell*

For three years in a row, it came back every spring, but then it would disappear as the weather warmed. This year was different, though. It didn't leave. To my amateur birdwatching eyes, it seemed as if it was going to stick around and call my yard home. I watched its aerial antics almost every afternoon as I sat outside to drink my coffee or eat my lunch. And whether or not that one bird was to blame, I was not plagued by insects this year, a fact for which I would thank the quiet hunter when I would say to it out loud, "I love having you here."

But yesterday, while mowing the lawn, I found an Eastern Phoebe laying dead in the yard. Sudden sadness was made worse from two assumptions:. 1.) It was the exact same bird; 2.) It died because of my sliding glass door's window.

You see, I know window glass kills because of a professor who has been studying the issue for years. His name is Dr. Daniel Klem, Jr., and he works in the Department of Biology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Nearly every article written about the topic of birds vs. windows will reference his name, because his research and dedication is extensive. Together with his assistant Peter Saenger--who is president of my local Audubon chapter--Klem has enough field data to prove that birds cannot see glass. (Click here to see my article of 2010, written for a commercial audience.)

Thankfully, there are measures you can take to prevent the loss. Klem is working with manufacturers to develop and test window-film products that can be applied to expose the surface to flyers without blocking a beautiful view. I've seen parachute chord or ribbons hanging vertically in front of a window at regular intervals to keep birds away.


Image courtesy of the Fatal Light Awareness Program

I also try:

•Window decals. Klem and other experts will warn you that they don't work, but I have found some success with them by using multiple decals on one window, and the one time I took them down, I heard a crash within hours, proving to me that they at least make a difference.

•I keep a curtain pulled across one-half of my sliding glass door at all times.

• I got rid of my bird feeders. I miss watching the birds, but I don't miss the fatal collisions that once occurred. And I certainly don't miss finding cats hunting underneath. I leave the seed heads on the plants in my yard, allow wildflowers to grow, and try to provide as much ungroomed, natural habitat as possible, so the birds can forage for seeds and insects the old-fashioned way.

• I keep my screens on the windows all year long. This is the most effective since my screens cover 100% (top to bottom) of the house's windows (with the exception of a bay window and the sliding glass door).

Still, with two windows unprotected, collisions happen. And rarely does a bird survive one even if it temporarily flies away. After yesterday's experience, I will keep trying to illuminate the danger that window glass clearly is. (Click here for additional suggestions.)

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If you walk outside at dawn on a spring morning, you'll hear an orchestra that will lead you to believe we have birds aplenty. But consider the impacts of car windshields, energy generation turbines, and roaming house cats, and you begin to get a glimpse of the extensiveness of man's impact on the songbird population. Then, add in the odds that every building with an uncovered window kills at least one bird a year--more than all other threats combined after habitat loss--and it becomes hard to imagine just how many there really should be.

And even if you have no interest in birds, you cannot ignore the possibility that this decline may have helped the spread of the mosquito-born and tick-born disease.

If I sent the bird's body to Saenger, he could dissect it to determine the cause of its death. Hemorrhage probably. I had heard the crash, actually. It was the night before. It woke me at 3am. I don't know for sure that the noise was the Phoebe . . . why would it be flying after dark? But I examined the door closely and found a small smudge of yellowish gray downy flakes, like the color on top of the adult Phoebe's head.

So I am sad. It is likely that my house was the culprit. Now I can only hope that the bird successfully raised a family nearby, one you can bet I'll be watching out for next spring.

The wash line.

And thank you Dr. Klem and Peter Saenger for a lifetime of work on this issue. We will never know how many birds you've saved, but we are grateful for the knowledge and the chance to make an informed difference in the lives of our feathered friends, ones that are truly missed when they're gone.

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*http://www.birds.cornell.edu/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=1636

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Tapped out or tuned in?

September 20th, 2013

When John Rogers of Keystone Conservation Trust asked me to join another planning committee, I groaned silently. I needed more paid opportunities, not volunteer ones. Tempted to say no, I decided instead to see what it was all about first. I'm glad I did.

Don't get me wrong; there is a lot to be said for saying no. Many of us scramble to do everything for everyone but ourselves. However, there are times when saying yes is right, too.

When I got to my first committee meeting, I found that the individuals involved were dedicated to their task. This wasn't just some well-intentioned-but-ineffective group; these people had a goal, one that was directly in the line with the mission of their work as well as my own: to inspire people to take part in the good health of the environment in which they live. Now, more than a year later, I and my fellow committee members are once again ready to see the results of our work. On Saturday, September 28, the The Green Lane Park Bird and Wildlife Festival will take place for the third time.

We have reached the moment when we begin praying for good weather, checking lists twice, and packing up materials for hauling to the site. Come 12 noon, people will arrive to find games for both kids and adults, hayrides, artwork, music, demonstrations, and even a bird calling contest.

The event will take place alongside Deep Creek Lake, near the amphitheater.

A scene from the start of the 2012 festival.

It couldn't happen without the committee any more than without the support from sponsors, vendors, volunteers, and most importantly, Pennsylvania Audubon and Montgomery County's parks department.

For me, a communicator, the best part is and will be the spread of information and the conversations that get started. For instance, last year, representatives from three local municipalities (Marlborough, Lower Frederick, and Upper Salford Townships) were there to promote and explain their participation in PA Audubon's Bird Town program. (Related article). Better than any newsletter or blog post, residents and leaders were able to stand face-to-face and talk about why they believe a healthy, natural wildlife habitat is good for people, too.

Lower Frederick Township's display included a place where kids could make a peanut-butter-pine-cone bird feeder.

I created a video slideshow to give those who missed last year's event a glimpse of what went on.

Looking back, I remember my initial, reluctant response. It's easy to feel maxed out and unable to take advantage of opportunities when they come around. It's wise to limit the number of volunteer activities when there are bills to be paid. Meanwhile, it's also important to engage in the things that energize you. It helps to ask yourself a few questions before responding to invitations such as John's:

• Is this something I need to do?

• Is this something I like to do?

• Is this something I aught to do?

When you can say yes to all three, you should say yes to the opportunity at hand. More often than not, the results will be positive ones.

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From barren to green, engaged citizens made a difference.

September 13th, 2013

Did you ever wish you could do something to fix a serious problem where you live? Have you ever tried? Did you feel like giving up? This week I'm posting a story that proves it's worth it to keep trying. Some of you have seen it on my Facebook page already. I wrote it for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a magazine that covers outdoor recreation, micro breweries, and music festivals (three of my favorite things!). With a love for nature, the magazine also publishes environmental-issue-related stories, especially those in which engaged citizens have pitched in to solve a problem.

I grew up near Palmerton, PA, where my published story takes place. Over the years, I've watched with interest as an entire mountainside turned from completely barren to wonderfully green. I had to dig into the pre-digital archives (circ. 2000) to find these "before" photos of the scene.

The view from the Blue Ridge showing the Lehigh River and the barren mountainside

Glenn sits in a scene void of trees, in a place that should be as lush as the Delaware Water Gap.

In my quest to find out what had happened, I got to meet and talk with the lead man on this citizen-action, non-profit managed, simple-solution project that was anything but simple to carry out.

Click here to read the article.

The whole story could fill a book. Bound by a limited word count, this online article is just a summary. Don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions, or better yet, take your family on a trip to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center to learn more, right from the source. While you're there, you can see the "after" scene for yourself. And if you go, don't forget your hiking boots.

Meanwhile, do you have memories of Palmerton and the gap? Please share them in the comments below.

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