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Beginning my visiting professor year at UConn

Beginning my visiting professor year at UConn

Teaching has risen to the top of my list. I am a visiting assistant professor in journalism at the University of Connecticut this year. I will be teaching environmental journalism, the history of journalism in America (“The Press in America”), and two newswriting labs for Professor Mike Stanton. I’m excited to be teaching undergraduates in my home state. My appointment draws on my advanced history training from Arizona State University and my many years of journalism experience going back to Philadelphia in the early 1980s.

During my teaching year I will continue as editor-in-chief of Appalachia, the mountaineering and conservation journal. When school is in break, I’ll keep working on my next book proposal about struggling farmers in southern New Jersey and other writing projects.

During this time of the new coronavirus, I will teach both online—my journalism history lecture class—and in person. I’m looking forward to the challenges of helping students through this history-making year.

 

Testing poop is the future:  Yale’s tests of New Haven sludge offer faster way to see outbreaks

Testing poop is the future: Yale’s tests of New Haven sludge offer faster way to see outbreaks

Above, from the Yale study: The red line represents the rise and fall of the COVID-19 outbreaks as detected in New Haven sewage. The darker line, seven days later, represents a similar curve of the outbreak as tracked in human testing.

A new study by Yale University of the COVID-19 virus in New Haven’s sewage sludge has found that testing human feces is a quicker and broader way to understand the pandemic in communities—a week faster than human testing and including even cases where people didn’t feel sick.

The study published Friday as a preprint (before peer review) compared sludge results from the settling tank at the East Shore Water Pollution Abatement Facility on New Haven Harbor to human testing and hospitalization rates for the New Haven area between March 19 and May 1. It found that the so-called curve of the epidemic’s rise and fall tracked each other but that the sludge results could be determined more quickly.

Testing continues daily.

Another outbreak going forward could be predicted through sewage testing seven days earlier than human testing and three days ahead of results on hospital admissions, said the lead author, Jordan Peccia, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University.

Sewage testing has been used for years to understand drug use, eating habits, genetics, and diseases. Lead author Jordan Peccia’s past research has tested sewage for viruses including herpes, adeno virus, HIV, norovirus, and other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Eric Alm started a study of Cambridge, Mass. sewage in 2015 called Underworlds, and the Somerville, Mass.-based sewage testing company Biobot Analytics is now looking for COVID-19 in samples from sewage plants in 42 states.

The way to test people without symptoms

Sewage doesn’t lie. “When you test people,” he said, “you’re testing only the symptomatic people. You’re missing the asymptomatic fraction, which is significant. Meanwhile, they are giving their samples to the sewage treatment plant: samples from everyone served by the New Haven plant — 200,000 people. “We can do this for about $20 per test.” The East Shore sewage treatment plant serves New Haven, Hamden, East Haven, and parts of Woodbridge.

In the first weeks of the New Haven study, the Yale team froze sludge samples while they perfected methods to detect the virus. People who are infected—whether they show symptoms or not—shed RNA (ribonucleic acid) from the centers of COVID-19 molecules into their feces.

The sludge testing method involves the turning of the virus’s RNA (a single-stranded molecule) into DNA in the lab, which allows them to detect the virus at the molecular level.

In March when the team began, the sludge results weren’t available in real time. “We were figuring out how to do the analysis. We were storing it and checking,” Peccia said.

Peccia’s 11 co-authors are affiliated with Yale’s schools of public health, management, medicine, and nursing; its Institute for Global Health; and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

“The city has been really remarkable in allowing us to continue to sample and taking any interest at all in our results,” Peccia said.

He said he hoped that widespread sewage testing could be a valuable nationwide method to understand the pandemic because 250 million people in the United States are served by municipal sewage plants.

“It’s certainly not going to replace (human) COVID testing,” Peccia said. “I want to be really clear: as an individual you know you are positive or negative and you can do contact tracing and quarantine yourself. That’s the gold standard.”

“There are two important things we get out of this testing,” Peccia said. “It’s another thing for cities, public health officials, municipalities, to look at as they’re making a decision about whether they’ve had 14 days of decrease in a row. The second one is it can be earlier than the testing data. It can answer this critical question we have right now: Are things going to go back up?”

Peccia said virus levels in New Haven sewage were so low by late May that “in the next set of analyses we will get some non-detects.”

What about combined sewage overflows and swimming?

 It’s not known yet whether coronavirus can live in the diluted combined sewage overflow (CSO) discharges (untreated sewage mixed with rain) that still sometimes pour into water bodies in New Haven and five other cities. Peter A. Raymond, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is sampling CSOs in the area. His results are not yet available.

Amy Kirby, a senior service fellow in the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an April 27 webinar, “We think it is unlikely to present a substantial infection risk in wastewater.”

Jennifer Perry, assistant director of infrastructure management in the water bureau of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said DEEP has no evidence of how long the coronavirus can live in untreated wastewater. “So we recommend not swimming, bathing, drinking, or fishing next to or downstream of a combined sewer overflow for at least 48 hours after any storm.”

Peccia said, “I don’t want to go swimming in a water body that gets a CSO, but if I did, I wouldn’t worry about catching COVID. I’d be much more worried if on my way back from taking a sample, I stopped in the grocery store. It’s a disease that definitely goes from person to person, and the evidence suggests it’s much harder to be transmitted in the environment.”

 

Manage public outdoor spaces the way we manage grocery stores: like essential spaces that should never close

Manage public outdoor spaces the way we manage grocery stores: like essential spaces that should never close

People need to get outside, breathe fresh air, move around, and fix their eyes on some actual distant shore.

The coronavirus pandemic is rising toward its peak in the Northeast. Cities, towns, states, and the federal government are closing access to public parks across the United States. They are closing them because people were flocking to the popular areas. The theory goes that by going to parks they risk passing on or contracting the virus.

I speak for only myself here. I ask that we look carefully at the logic of this. If society realizes people need food, medicine, and gasoline, why would it not consider the outdoor areas as just as vital?

If people are trusted to wear masks, wash hands, and remain distant inside a grocery store, why can’t they be encouraged, taught, or forced to behave that way outdoors? Perhaps it would take a few staff members and signs to herd people into following protocols.

Why is food vital and outdoor exercise considered expendable?

That’s what I’m asking myself today.

Mountains in a pandemic: a call for submissions

Mountains in a pandemic: a call for submissions

I am the editor of Appalachia journal, the country’s oldest journal  of mountaineering and conservation. We take a literary approach to wilderness and adventure.

We are living through an unprecedented pandemic, something no one alive today has ever seen. This will go into the history books. Those who read and write for Appalachia journal find their true selves in the backcountry and wilderness areas around the world—but especially in the Northeast. And within the Northeast, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and wild areas of Maine especially call to us.

Appalachia journal is looking for thoughtful essays between now and May 20 in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 words on the COVID-19 pandemic. What has getting onto trails and cliffs and hills meant during this terrifying period? Do you see mountains more as life itself and less as recreation now? What is it like going to the backcountry and finding that facilities are closed and people must stay away from each other? Submit drafts on Submittable.

Announcing a one-day Writing from Nature workshop on February 15

Announcing a one-day Writing from Nature workshop on February 15

Join me for my local, one-day version of a workshop I’ve given very successfully in New Hampshire.
For the second year, Incarnation Center in Ivoryton has graciously given me space to run the workshop from 9-4 in their adorable, waterfront building known as the Tumble Inn.
My workshops are all about helping writers identify their own ideas. We don’t bring manuscripts to the workshop, but we do spend time in nature and then I guide writing. We also talk about how nature is filled with metaphors that inspire deep writing.
I’ve kept my outreach very low-key for this workshop. Please consider joining us. It is a chance to spend a day with your own ideas in a supportive environment. And to get to know more about what’s going on in the woods around us in this most dynamic shoulder season of early spring.
Please let others know about this, and consider joining us.
The clattering-of-feet landscape

The clattering-of-feet landscape

Looking through 20-year-old photos this week, I glimpsed the full landscape of my personal life in a true, complete way. And realized that I have neglected that landscape as a writer, creating here and in my published articles this sense that I spend all my time sitting on rocks in the backcountry. These inspire a lot of my writing, but the full story is… fuller.

Most of life vibrates in the everyday, the wiping up crumbs, unwrapping vegetables, pouring out pasta water, listening to those little anxieties of one’s children or pets. The clattering of feet defined life in our little Victorian house for so many years. From 1988 until 2009, at least one daughter lived with my husband and me, and our daily landscape was so very colorful. They dressed up in scraps of cloth. They invented stories about princesses who lived in the woods. They gave names to their tiny dollhouse figures and set them up with labyrinths of rooms on the front porch. Etc.

Mountains and backcountry lowlands seem to clear out something on my head, answering some yearning fixed in me way before I became a mother. The noisy comings and goings of my large family growing up gave me much joy. But when I left home and went on my own and then committed to marriage and motherhood, I thought that I sought quiet.

What I truly sought, and what I wanted, was a family. My family. Our family. That is, the next branch of a large tree of people in two families going back thousands of years. I told myself I wanted a peaceful family, but actually I wanted the kind of noise that I was the mother of. Rather than being part of the noisy, loving chaos as a sister and daughter, what felt like quiet to me was simply being the mother.

Well, now those sparrows have found their nests. The younger of the two, pictured above, is now 29 and creating her own special world. Her sister, 31, is doing the same. My world, and my husband’s world, now almost resembles the quiet of a windblown mountaintop. But we reminisce about the clattering of feet. That’s right; that’s how it should be.

 

Remembering a rescue effort

Remembering a rescue effort

I came across this post from Philip Werner, aka Section Hiker. Eight years ago, I tried to save a man’s life as part of a group of hikers who came upon a collapsed father on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. He had been trying to climb Mount Washington with his two teenage daughters, one of whom sat nearby while we performed CPR. This event brought the circle of life into sharp focus, pushed away petty distractions, and proved (again) that people draw on essential goodness when an emergency demands it. The man did not survive.

Sewage Overflows: Legal but Tainted

Sewage Overflows: Legal but Tainted

The Connecticut Health Investigative Team has posted Christine Woodside’s three stories on routine sewage overflows into Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut. She had long wanted to understand why sewage overflows legally in some of Connecticut’s cities. She settled on the Bridgeport neighborhood of Black Rock, on Black Rock Harbor and near the promenades of Seaside Park. There she found recreation, industry, and local people who were getting tired of pollution. She went to Black Rock at least a dozen times between late March and late July. She read sewage plan documents. She scouted. She tagged along with citizen scientists collecting water. She sought out the overflow pipes with diver/boat cleaner Kevin Blagys. She wandered around the docks, streets, beaches, and markets. This gave her a sense of the residents’ anxieties and the enormity of the project to stop overflows.

This group devoted many early mornings in spring and summer as citizen scientists taking water samples to test the quality. Pictured are: Holly Turner, a teacher at the Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture School; Lyle Given, and Charlotte Hickey, both students. Kevin Blagys, a volunteer, observes their work.

The archives of my mountain childhood

The archives of my mountain childhood

The week after my mother’s memorial service, I found myself standing on the top of the first mountain I ever climbed, at 3, with her, my three brothers, and my father. Mom told me once that she had sort of pushed me up the short, steep path. I even remember how she asked me to stand by a small pine tree for a photo. The tree is still there. It pushes out of the rock ledge at the woods edge, back from the view over lake and mountains. And oh, was I grumpy. She later said how I used to complain, during family mountain climbs, “I hate this. I’m only doing this to get to the top.”

To her credit, she didn’t wave that at me much after I was climbing mountains all the time and telling anyone who would listen that the experience has nothing to do with the summit. Ha!

Mom didn’t do much hiking—let’s be clear. This one little mountain was her thing. She climbed two others with us that I know of. I’m pretty sure she and her sisters complained when their father drove up Pike’s Peak. She didn’t mention how it looked, just how scared they all were.

The coming months will unfold so that I can understand where Mom’s complete soul remains in mine. Now I can see the complete mother—and no longer have to think about the problems she had in old age, and the fact that she was unhappy as her freedom to move around freely evaporated with her strength. All that is over now. Now I’m standing in my little green pants by that gnarly pine that could keep going despite the rock on which it had rooted. Now I am trying to cool my flushed cheeks again beneath the same tree, and I can hear her voice asking me to look toward the camera.

Spring bursts out

Spring bursts out

We climbed two mountains in the Pliny Range of New Hampshire today. On the ridge, spring’s arrival was creeping upward toward winter’s exit. Low on the ridge, wildflowers reached away from the path. The red trillium is the most beautiful and amazing of them all. It grows out of a rhizome, and the leaves aren’t true leaves (the true leaves apparently live underground). It puts out a single bloom. A world that can produce something so stunning in a scrubby woods in the North Country—with no humans tending them in greenhouses, no cultivation, no planning—is a world I want to know. I will not reveal where I saw this flower. It’s too amazing.

Raining in Arizona

Raining in Arizona

Hello everybody. Yesterday I graduated from Arizona State University with my master’s degree in history. The program gave me so much. View my final Capstone portfolio here.

Here I sit in Phoenix, looking out on a steady rain falling on the cacti. Soon I return to my usually-rainy homeland of Connecticut. Wherever you are, let the landscape inspire new writing, new ideas, and ways that you can make those ideas unfold.

I am working this month on my series for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team on sewage overflows in Bridgeport. Tomorrow I’ll be on the water with a group of concerned citizens learning how to take samples near an outflow pipe in their neighborhood. More on this project as it progresses.

Shoulder season

Shoulder season

I waved away gnats, an instinct I haven’t practiced since last October. I stepped over dried mud and looked at the sticks that would offer forth raspberries in a few months.

Cataclysm has visited my life with the death of my mother last week from an unexpected, major stroke. For years I hoped that she would slip from this world without pain. I just didn’t expect it to happen that way. And yet—this is what answered prayers look like.

Living things die. People must die. Animals and plants must spring up, ripen, and then decline. The first thing a living creature or plant offers? Optimism.

 

Seven-hour Writing from Nature workshop March 30

Seven-hour Writing from Nature workshop March 30

Bushy Hill Lake knows more about the past than we might think. Once upon a time, it trickled as a stream at the bottom of this valley. Such changes offer a writer stories and symbols. (Pioneer Village end of the lake, mid-January 2019.)
I am offering a seven-hour Writing from Nature workshop in my home community!
It will meet in the lakeside Tumble Inn at Incarnation Camp in Ivoryton, Connecticut on Saturday, March 30 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For the detailed plan for the day, go here. (Subject to tweaks.) Writers of all stripes welcome: from new to experienced. This workshop incorporates observing and rambling outside with guided writing of new ideas next to our lakeside view,. Coffee/tea and lunch included.
Only $50, and I donate 20 percent of proceeds to Incarnation Camp scholarships for children. Pay that day but you must sign up ahead of time! To sign up, send up flares and email me at chris@chriswoodside.com. Let’s write and help send another kid to camp.
Fear of rattlesnakes

Fear of rattlesnakes

Biologist Tom Tyning scrambles up a ledge in Massachusetts, looking for rattlesnakes he will study in his lab and then return to the wild. The snakes are rare because poachers steal them and sell them illegally. (Photo by Christine Woodside)

From Appalachia Winter/Spring 2019, published originally by the mountaineering and conservation journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

 

The rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is not cute. Poachers and scared people have nearly wiped them off the New England landscape in the last century or two. A few hundred years ago New England’s only venomous snake thrived. Streets, hills, and valleys are named after them. In my hometown of Deep River, Connecticut, Rattling Valley Road rambles down past outcroppings of ledge rock where, long ago, rattlesnakes lay on the cliffs. Back then you watched where you put your feet. Now cars ramble down that valley looking for a back way. A few dozen miles north of here, Rattlesnake Mountain houses television and cell antennae. Another Rattlesnake Mountain, free of snakes, overlooks Squam Lake in central New Hampshire; no snakes there, either. Rattlesnakes are so rare that biologists who study them won’t reveal the last few spots where they live lest they encourage poachers who usually know where they are, anyway.

For some years now, I’ve been on the trail of an underground rattlesnake poaching operation in New England. Snakes sell for hundreds of dollars on the internet, although harvesting and selling them in the Northeast is illegal. I set out to visit where they do thrive so that I could understand what drives small-time criminals to collect them in sacks and what fascinates those people who would buy a wild snake and keep it in a cage. And so I followed the only people who could legally show me: snake biologists.

Tom Tyning, a rattlesnake biologist from Berkshire Community College, panted as he trudged slowly up the steep side of a traprock ridge somewhere in southern Massachusetts—location to remain secret.

Tying has spent his life following snakes. As a kid he caught and kept snakes as if called by God. He told me that if he hadn’t picked the scientist route, he could have grown up to be a snake hunter—except that in the Northeast if you collect rattlesnakes without a scientist’s permit, you’re a poacher. Poachers have worked long careers with limited penalties. The most notorious of them was the late Rudy Komarek, who poached and killed 9,000 rattlesnakes in three states over 30 years. Komarek singlehandedly caused what researchers have called “the shocking demise” of rattlesnakes in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. Tyning told me that after authorities caught and imprisoned Komarek, he remained unrepentant. From prison, as a protest, he mailed other illegal snake catchers maps marked in detail with places the rattlesnakes lived. Apparently it’s easy to help poachers from jail.

Komarek did the damage of several people. Today the secret Rudys are still at it. Tyning said, “There are always people getting arrested at airports who get caught with snakes in their pockets, tied to their legs. It’s become a really weird international ring of poaching. And it’s a huge smuggling operation. After birds and even before monkeys, reptiles, especially snakes, and turtles and lizards are among the biggest entities in international smuggling. They’re fascinating; they’re beautiful. I understand all that stuff.”

I had promised I would not say where I now trudged behind Tyning up a steep hill. The sun shone, which was vital to our quest. Sun brings out the snakes. As he panted up the ridge, Tyning joked that he was getting too old to chase his research subject. He was slightly overweight but very strong, and he pushed energetically toward the cliff where he knew a community of timber rattlesnakes lived. I would help him collect a few for his research. We were using all the same techniques poachers use. First, we would hike right to where he knew they would be basking. Then he would reach out with his snake tongs just as a snake went by. He would grab them with his snake tongs and drop them into a bag I would hold open. The bag looked like a pillowcase.

Late spring’s vegetal soil filled my nostrils. I heard a raspy hiss. A creature looking more like a black snake glided from under a rock. “Why does it look so dark?” I asked. Tyning said that sometimes their tan and black patterns seem to recede under grayish tones. “It’s about to shed its skin,” he told me. “Are you ready? I’m going to grab it, and you’re going to hold open the bag just when I tell you.”

“I’m ready,” I said, as if saying so would make it true. I had come out here out of respect and awe for an endangered reptile that could kill me with its bite. If it felt threatened, it could sink its fangs into my hovering arm. My skin would swell up and eventually turn black as the venom kills tissue so that it might be more easily digested were the snake to later make a meal of me. That would never happen. Snakes eat mice and other small rodents. They only bite humans if we threaten them. Which of course we were doing right then. Still, humans almost never die of rattlesnake bites, and antivenom available at nearby hospitals would reverse any bite’s damage quickly. I thought of none of that as I stood with the pillowcase, but Tyning’s calm demeanor washed over me.

“The fear of snakes,” a Minnesota snake information site explains, “is a learned behavior, which has been exacerbated by such things as myths and media misrepresentation.”

I would not fail Tyning; I would help him without causing new problems.

Road noise could not drown out the molting snake’s loud hissing. Tying leaned in, ready to strike with his grabber. I leaned in. He expertly affixed the two sides of the grabber around the snake. The rattling got louder.

The snake didn’t like what it knew was coming. It rattled and rattled; I felt rattled. Tyning reached out with his grabber—and the thing wouldn’t shut down. It was stuck open. The snake slid down and away and underneath another rock. That had never happened to this biologist in his entire career, and I was a witness. Something about the escape told me more than if we’d gotten the snake. I’d gotten very close and could see the beautiful shingles of its skin.

Dennis Quinn, an independent herpetologist, wore tan cargo pants and a green striped polo shirt. He might have been out for a ramble in the woods. Except he looked pretty odd. He was carrying a long snake grabber and he asked if I would take one side of a large plastic cooler. He joked that he dressed like a poacher—and that they tend to use the same collecting tactics. Quinn’s job that day was collecting snakes for a study of fungal disease. In a lab, scientists would take blood samples and make observations.

We trudged up and around a set of rock outcroppings covered by young tree growth. They were in there. We peered down. He gently poked a pole under the rock, just to rustle them up a bit. They slithered out like a slow, downhill seep. I stood by, thinking I ought to apologize. One short one I peered at from a crouch, watching his eyes, which looked like vertical slits. “Sorry, guy,” I murmured. Quinn turned to me, reassuringly, and said, “I’ll return these in a few days. Your job now is to open the cooler when I say.”

He grabbed first one, then another, then another snake with his tool and quickly placed them into giant pillowcases. These are the tools of the poacher. He said, without irony, that he guessed scientists gathering snakes for lab studies could easily become snake hunters if they didn’t have their work. The hissing went on and on as I held open the green plastic lid.

A few days later, as he promised, Quinn returned alone with the cooler and set his research subjects free. I imagined them sighing (or the serpentine equivalent of sighing) and making fast time back to their big ledge rock. I felt awe by now. I cared. Many people do care about rattlesnakes now. Connecticut’s wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson told me later that the days of hysteria and fear have passed. “The public is more understanding,” she said. “You’re going to get the occasional intentional killing of the snakes. But they’re probably going to think twice before they pick up the shovel and just randomly whack something.”

A few years ago I thought I might see what else I could learn about the poacher Rudy Komarek, so I sent an email to the office that had secretly investigated his crimes in New York State:

“Dear office of environmental crime,” my letter started awkwardly. “I am working on a story about rattlesnakes and their incredibly low numbers due to poaching. I would like to interview someone who can talk about the problem of poaching timber rattlesnakes and who was involved with Operation Shell Shock a few years ago. Please let me hear from you.”

I did not hear from them. I will venture a guess why. The battle goes on. Any publicity might expose the last of the dens. I know well that reticence to tell a writer about endangered snakes. Poaching continues by quiet, strong criminals wearing hiking shoes and carrying pillowcases. They know where the snakes live, and they sneak in, take them, sell them illegally, and go back for more.

Stealthy small-time poaching in southern New England and New York State threatens a species that has retreated in the parade of civilization. This tragedy continues silently. People have crushed their land and them, losing important predators of rodents and disease-carrying ticks. If I got my wish, and it were no longer rarer than a lightning strike to see one, I could then fear them, and even hate them. To save the timber rattlesnake, we must preserve or recreate the conditions that led to our fear and hate. And we must learn not to act upon that fear.

 

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