Kerlly Bernabé: Building the Bridge

When Kerlly Bernabé first arrived in the late ’90s, The New York Botanical Garden served as more of a “look but don’t touch” establishment. The Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, far from the hub of children’s activities it is today, was little more than a blueprint doodle. But it was on that same day, with the appearance of our first Explainers, that all of this began to shift for the better.

Kerlly’s four years as one of the original Garden Explainers resulted in the founding of one of the most significant volunteer programs of any cultural institution in New York City. Today, these high school students–aged 14 to 17–work daily to make learning more than a chore, engaging kids and families throughout the Garden in hands-on activities and open exploration. In helping to build this thriving program, each Explainer leaves with not only a newfound knowledge of nature, but a sound jumping-off point for opportunities in their education and careers. Perhaps more importantly, they leave with a sense of confidence and responsibility.

It’s been years since Kerlly first donned the green shirt, but even as a busy graduate student, she’s still generous enough with her time to show today’s Explainers how it’s done. Her brief return sees her facilitating one of our newest summer courses, MasterCard’s Priceless Budding Masters. But before she once more set off into the business of education, I had an opportunity to sit down with Kerlly and discuss the early days of the Explainers–the drive behind the program’s creation, and the obstacles to kicking off such an unprecedented project within our century-old institution.

To say that the Explainers had humble beginnings is something of an understatement.

How did you come to volunteer at the Garden, and what drew you to the program?

It was around 1996; I was in junior high. I first connected with the NYBG through the Math/Science Institute, which back in the mid-’90s was a new program being piloted to help inner-city kids test into specialized high schools, because African-American and Latino kids–even public school students in general–weren’t being well-represented in these science-focused institutions.

The program was launched by Mr. Bruce Ravage, who had this vision for reducing the education gap he saw here in the Bronx. I think that was around the sixth or seventh grade. Mr. Ravage believed so much in our potential, and he felt that if there were more bridges created for kids like us, it would keep us motivated and on the path to do more in science and math. So he spoke with people here at the Garden in around 1997. At that time the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden didn’t even exist, and there wasn’t as much going on to engage people’s curiosity as to the beauty of the Garden.

Bruce struck up a couple of conversations with the Garden’s education department and said, “Hey, you know, I have a group of highly-motivated high school students here from the Bronx; is there any chance you have a program they could help you with?” He built the first bridge. Along with Master and Senior Explainers in higher grades, many of which came from the Bronx High School of Sciences, this is how the Explainer internship program came about.

What were the challenges like for the first group of Explainers?

It was myself and four or five other students from the Math/Science program, a tight-knit group, and we were set up with these little science carts. One of them focused on plants, flowers, and the like. Another dealt with the wooded areas of the Garden, featuring different trees. They all had different themes. So in a way we just sort of jumped in head first, a bunch of science students that knew the basic terms but saw the program as an opportunity to expand our curiosity about nature and this amazing resource in the Bronx. The Garden was something we hadn’t found a chance to appreciate before then.

It took a lot of tenacity to head out with those five little carts and convince people to talk to us. But after a while, it became clear that most visitors were happy to see us, to stumble across us with an honest desire to learn. The greater challenge lay in the fact that many of the Garden’s visitors were botanical researchers themselves, and they clearly knew far more than we did. It was intimidating for high school students. “So how much do you really know?” But, in the end, they were very gracious. The experts shared so much of their knowledge–intricate subjects, tree species, plant physiology–so many things we weren’t aware of when we first arrived. It kept us on our toes, while working with the public taught us to be sensitive to perceptions and different learning processes. It was such a social experience.

How did the Explainer program influence your growth as a person, or your education and career goals?

As my first real job, it was one of the best things to happen to me in terms of showing me what responsibility meant, especially at such a young age. I was never a rebellious teenager, but being an Explainer showed me how to discipline myself, and to build on my love of science and the ongoing learning process that comes with it.

After leaving the Explainers, I went on to become a biology major in college while also studying pre-med. I’m now completing a graduate program with Boston University’s School of Public Health. For a junior high student to be talking about any subject with authority–it’s something to be proud of. I learned so much about how to build my communication skills with people of any age or level of knowledge. And the Explainer program helped me to overcome a lot of the common insecurities that kids at that age generally deal with. That confidence has gone a long way.

What’s the most important thing you took away from your time as a Garden Explainer?

We worked with talented docents and retired teachers, each with a wealth of knowledge far beyond what we entered the program with. But there was an informal sort of peer and mentor relationship between all of us. For them, I think it was wonderful to have protégés of a sort, impressionable young minds that were simply curious about science. For us, they served as role models–through their careers, or their personalities–and we had their expertise to draw from when interacting with the public down the line. We held onto a lot of what they taught us.

When you’re a teenager, you think you know everything. The Explainer experience definitely kept us humble. It made us aware that we didn’t have all the answers. It showed us how you could not only be a follower, but hopefully a leader later on.

Do you have a particular memory of being an Explainer that sticks out above all others?

Karl Brummert–he was here at the Garden when we started the program. He was actually one of the first people Bruce Ravage spoke to, along with Aija Sears, to get the Explainer program moving. Karl had this great love of sharing what he had learned, and with us, it was often ornithological. It was something of a running joke that he would pick the strangest times to get excited about birds.

Often it would be the middle of winter, and we’d be trekking through the snow. You have to imagine this group of inner city kids who’ve never even been camping, and it’s like, “Why are we even out here in the middle of winter when we could be inside, drinking hot chocolate?” All of a sudden Karl starts talking about the birds in the area while we’re shivering behind him. He’d hear the birds’ calls and start talking excitedly about the local avian population. We were miserable. But, for a moment, we’d just look at each other as if to say, “No, this is stuff we’re going to need to know later on.” We weren’t even being graded, but we knew that this was part of our learning experience, and that we should make the best of it.

Karl had a very animated, accessible teaching method that spoke to his abilities and passions. It was walking away with this experience that really sticks in my mind. Of having these individuals caring enough to invest in us as teenagers.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for current or future Explainers?

Enjoy the time that you have in the program. It’s an opportunity to meet like-minded peers and build lasting relationships with them. For me, the friends I made through the Explainer program have been a support system even years later. For you, that might mean friends to fall back on when you’re struggling through university or having a rough time. But it’s wonderful to be around people of a like mind, with similar goals and motivations in the sciences.

It’s the same with the people who are running the Explainer program. Get to know them. They’re here because they really want to be here, and they want to see each intern flourish in his or her own way, whether the aspiration is academic, artistic, or whatever else interests you. They have so much to impart, even if you don’t notice at first; later on, you might be surprised by how far their advice carries you. So if you really want to be here, try to make the most of your time.

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Morning Eye Candy: Happy Bastille Day!

Wishing a wonderful July 14 to every one of our French friends! And everyone who’s just being French for the weekend, for that matter. Don’t forget that the NYBG will be on 60th street in Manhattan for the Bastille Day NY festivities tomorrow, from 12 to 5 p.m. There won’t be any storming of fortresses to my knowledge, but I figure food, music, and celebration will suffice. Vive le 14 juillet!

Hemerocallis ‘Siloam French Doll’ — Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen

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Guest Blog: Simple Steps Toward An Organic Lawn

Keeping the grass tall helps the lawn outcompete the weeds. (Phil Nauta photo)

By Phil Nauta

If you’d like a lawn that’s mostly weed free, I’m here to tell you that with a little bit of knowledge and commitment, it’s definitely possible.

Now we do have to remember that a lawn with just a few species of grasses is quite an unnatural environment, and that weeds are actually there to improve the soil, so to keep them away is really to work against nature. Yet, paradoxically, if a weed-free lawn is the goal, we need to work WITH nature to achieve it.

How to do it? In a word, the goal is HEALTH. If you grow a healthy, dense stand of grass in soil that is appropriate for that grass, it will eventually outcompete most weeds. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons we use grasses for the lawn, because they’re so tough and competitive.

Creating a healthy lawn is a huge topic, so what I’m going to do here is give a broad overview of some topics you’ll need to address to succeed:

Fertilizing — It’s important to avoid applying N-P-K just for good measure. My usual advice on fertilizing is to get a proper soil test through a good lab and follow its recommendations. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that most labs aren’t doing a great job because they’re coming out of the old chemical paradigm that limes the soil based on pH (which makes no sense) and worries about just a few nutrients instead of the dozens that are really required. So I my advice is to pay to ship to a quality lab giving biological or organic recommendations.

Compost — If you’re installing a new lawn and your soil is low in humus, which is very common, be sure to till in six inches of high quality compost before installation. That’s a heck of a lot of compost for a soil to take, but lawn soils are much more difficult to amend once they’re established, so it’s best to just do it now. If you’re working with an existing lawn, it’s a slower process of topdressing with 1/2 inch of compost in the spring or fall for several years in a row. I strongly prefer to do this after core aeration to get that compost into the root zone, along with my fertilizers and anything else I’m putting in there.

Soil Food Web — Quality compost not only supplies nutrients and organic matter, but just as important, it brings in beneficial microorganisms that feed and protect your turf plants. Since there’s never enough good compost around, compost tea has become more popular. With compost tea, these microorganisms are inexpensively extracted and multiplied from a tiny amount of compost in aerated water. But to make a good tea yourself requires a fair amount of knowledge and practice (see the SafeLawns Video); for home gardeners, both effective microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi are easy products to purchase and simple ways to get started and are very beneficial for lawns. A balanced soil food web favors grasses over weeds.

Seed — I prefer seed rather than sod because it allows you to get a mix of species that are appropriate for your soil and light requirements, and makes for a more diverse and resilient lawn (sod is usually just 1 or 2 species). Grass seed mixtures also used to contain clover. When seeding a lawn, I still like to include 25 percent clover in the mix. That could be an annual clover if you don’t want it to come back as strong, or a perennial clover if you want it to stick around. It provides nitrogen for the grass, attracts insects, and the flowers look nice, too. If the lawn and soil are healthy, it will probably crowd out most of the clover eventually.

Maintenance — Water is crucial. If you don’t want to water your lawn, you’ll often have to allow for some weeds, many of which thrive in the summer when many grasses shut down until autumn. Of course, if you follow the other steps to create a healthy soil, you can water substantially less. As for mowing, keep your blades sharp and mow high — 3-4 inches for most grasses — to allow the grass to shade the soil, develop a dense root system, and be healthy enough to compete with weeds. Be sure to leave the grass clippings on the lawn, where they’ll be broken down to feed the soil (they don’t cause thatch).

All of these steps will help create a healthy lawn that outcompetes the weeds.

Phil Nauta is the author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally’, to be released by Acres U.S.A. this summer. He taught for Gaia College and was a director for SOUL. He was an organic landscaper/consultant and ran an organic fertilizer business before starting Smiling Gardener to teach practical organic home gardening tips.

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The Trouble with Legumes

My only run-in with the legacy of Pythagoras lies in a mathematical theorem: A2+B2=C2. One of those familiar formulas you’re smacked around with in middle school geometry, something most of us had to suffer. (“Suffer” being relative to whether or not you’re as mathematically stunted as I am.) But in the shadow of this Greek philosopher’s lauded contributions to the number game, what else do we find?

Beans, actually–the same delicious, colorful family of foodie favorites we were talking about only recently. It’s thanks to the obscure (dare we say esoteric?) knowledge of Matthew Wills that we were clued into the rather demented history of the legume.

Bear with me here. I’m not running off on a mad tangent about the piddling dietary habits of a long-dead philosopher. Or maybe I am. It was during Pythagoras’ lifetime as a renowned Greek thinker and teacher that he seeded a bushel of ideas far above and beyond his maths. He also created a religion of sorts. And within the guidelines of that religion, supposed dietary restrictions. I say “supposed” because Pythagoras never wrote anything down himself; it was owed to his followers in succeeding generations that anything the man thought or declared was ever saved for posterity. In and among reflections on the transmigration of the soul and the importance of music, we find the humble bean.

The Pythagoreans, as they came to be known, were prescribed strict dietary precepts by their founder. Arguably, a follower must eschew all animal-based edibles in favor of a vegan menu. But a grave exception is made: stay away from beans.

Fava bean (Vicia faba)

The reasons for this edict are hazy, and prone to tedious reinterpretations (as ancient wisdom is wont to do when run through the sausage grinder of modern translation). The poet Callimachus cites Pythagoras in calling beans a “painful food,” something which scientists have attempted to unravel by blaming it on favism. Caused by a hereditary disease found often in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean males, its prime catalyst is the fava bean, which also happens to be a staple of the diet in these regions. Certainly Pythagoras wouldn’t want the men in his following riddled with jaundice, their red blood cells imploding in their veins.

Of course, Cicero blames the old master’s loathing of the legume on its ability to “cause considerable flatulence.” No argument there.

Other critics aren’t so sure the issue is with the bean’s threat to the body at all. It’s well-known among historians that early Greek and Roman democracies would vote with beans. As a pot was passed around a gathering of constituents, each person would drop a black or white bean into it, anonymously deciding the outcome. Avoiding the bean would, in a roundabout manner, suggest avoiding politics altogether.

Still others through history go on to suggest that Pythagoras kept away from beans for their supposed resemblance to a mother’s womb when sprouting, or, more colloquially, the belief that “beans” was an ancient euphemism for “testicles.” Do with that information what you will.

In the end, talk of the Pythagoreans and their classical war on beans falls firmly in the realm of the apocryphal. After all, Pythagoras never wrote any of this down; maybe he didn’t even have qualms with them in the first place. Are we merely the latest batch of fools hanging on a thousand-year word misheard from the mouth of the master? Until that answer comes along–if ever–I’ll keep cooking up my three-bean chili as usual.

The New York Botanical Garden is competing as one of 40 New York City historic places in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Partners in Preservation program. Vote for us, and we have the chance to win a grant to restore a piece of Nature’s Showplace in New York City, the Rock Garden. VOTE FOR THE GARDEN!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Farmers Sue for Roundup Poisonings

A group of farmers from Argentina have sued Monsanto, the makers of Roundup, for “knowingly” allowing them to be poisoned while using the weed killer and other pesticides.

Citing “devastating birth defects,” the lawsuit filed in a Delaware court also names significant players in the tobacco industry, including the Altria Group, Philip Morris Cos., Philip Morris USA, Carolina Leaf Tobacco, and the Universal Corporation.

“Monsanto defendants, the Philip Morris defendants, and the Carolina Leaf defendants promoted the use of Roundup and other herbicides to tobacco farmers in Misiones even though they were on direct and explicit notice that at all relevant times farmers . . . lacked the necessary personal protective equipment and other safety knowledge and skills required to minimize harmful exposures to Roundup,” the complaint states.

“What is more, at all relevant times Tabacos Norte, the Monsanto defendants, the Philip Morris defendants, and the Carolina Leaf defendants did not recommend protective measures to farmers and their families in Misiones. In fact, aforementioned defendants actively recommended and/or required that contracted tobacco farmers, including the instant plaintiffs, purchase excessive quantities of Roundup and other pesticides.

“At all relevant times, defendants were on direct and explicit notice that fruits, vegetables and farm animals designated for family consumption would be contaminated with pesticides including Roundup if contract farmers followed the defendants’ aggressive chemical application specifications for tobacco cultivation.”

For additional details, click here:

This case in Delaware comes on the heels of a February decision by a French court that found Monsanto guilty of poisoning a farmer with a weed killer known as alachlor:

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Volunteering: Use Your Skills to Help People

Those of us with specialized skills should use them to help our fellow man in times of need. We may not be experts or certified, but our knowledge is useful.

Watching and listening to the reports of the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan reminded me that skills such as ours are greatly need by people throughout our communities. We don’t have to go all the way to Japan to find people who need us. Your local Habitat for Humanity needs volunteers who know how to patch holes in drywall, connect the wiring to a ceiling fan and help put up a frame of a house.

Charities often don’t have the money to hire people to fix things, so they depend on volunteers with knowledge to fix their leaky pipes and repair their air conditioners. You don’t get money out of it, but you will make a difference in people’s lives.

I remember volunteering for Habitat for Humanity one year, and we were at an elderly person’s house that needed some significant work. She had a dishwasher, but it stopped working a few months earlier, and she didn’t have the money to fix it. The woman was forced to hand-wash her dishes despite having severe arthritis in her hands.

She talked about having to stop every few minutes because her hands were hurting so bad. It turned out the dish washer had a minor problem that I was able to fix while I was there. She came by when I first turned it on and actually cried when it worked. I made a difference in her life with something as simple as fixing a dishwasher. I helped make her life a little easier.

Charities like Habitat for Humanity, American Red Cross and United Way provide the things that people need to live. They help people when they are down, and I know that if I ever needed their services I would have them. There is no reason, if they need my services, that I shouldn’t offer it to them.

The news spends all its time talking about the devastation, but the real stories come from the people like you and me, using the skills we learned to help others.

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Minute By Minute

The days grow longer~

Snow can cover our gardens.

Arctic freezes can blow into town.

Winter’s wet and gray days can threaten to over whelm us.

Sooner or later the skies clear, the sun returns and our spirits soar, as spring grows closer~

Minute by minute.

Keep warm my friends, hold fast to the knowledge that the days are getting longer and we are moving closer to spring ~ minute by minute.

This post was written by Gail Eichelberger for my blog Clay and Limestone Copyright 2011. Please contact me for permission to copy, reproduce, scrape, etc.
go here for the minute by minute count of the day growing longer

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