Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

Environmental Ignorance is Bliss

Written by John Frederick. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Ignorance is bliss.

Poet Thomas Gray’s famous quote is often taken out of context.  Gray wondered in his 18th century poem if learning more might actually complicate his life.  Not knowing about something, he speculated, might be better than understanding a problem and worrying about it.   

Today, it usually implies that ignorance leads us to overlook problems that we might otherwise be able to address.  This holds true for all sorts of social, health political and even environmental issues.  With this in mind, let’s look at a few of the environmental problems many have selectively ignored.

Teachers & the Lessons They Teach

Written by John Frederick. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Too often we underestimate the impact and worth of our teachers and mentors.  Similarly, we do not always realize the great things being done or the lessons being learned by those we mentor.

I recently learned that two of my Penn State Geography professors, Fred Wernstedt and Wilbur Zelinsky, passed away within a few weeks of each other last summer after impressive academic careers and long retirements.  It reminded me of the many worthwhile lessons passed onto me during my college days. 

Wernstedt was my undergraduate advisor during my time at University Park and taught me climatology.  As an advisor, he always challenged those in his care to think about how their education would prepare them for their professional careers.  Despite a demanding teaching and research load, he always had time to talk with us.

I loved his climatology course and sincerely could not wait to get to class.  I can still recall his lesson on California’s incredibly diverse climate.  He presented us with a dozen pages of climate data and told us to compute each town and city’s climate category and then plot them on a map of the state.  California has nearly every climate found on the planet and the map was, at first, a confusing mess.

Then Fred started to explain why things were the way they were, how the mountains impacted temperature and how the subtropical high made for the extremely dry climates in Southern California.  He helped bring together a hundred things I had learned in my other Geography classes.  All the sudden, the complicated map started to show patterns that I had not seen.

Zelinsky was very different from Wernstedt, more aloof than his colleague but still an impassioned teacher.  He was a cultural geographer and had done research on a variety of rather unique things, including the geography of both cemeteries and religious affiliation.

His “Historical Geography of North America” class became the place that History, Geography and Sociology all came together.   His semester project was a fascinating map analysis in which we were to compare and contrast two places at two different points in time.  (Penn State’s incredible topographic map library had maps going back to the nineteenth century so it was possible to see changes over a very long period!)  I looked at one place I had bicycled through – Big Meadow, VA – and another town I planned to visit on my bike – Harlem, MT.

Like Wernstedt, Zelinsky taught us to see things in ways we had not seen them before.  Several other Geography professors shared that gift. 

  • Greg Knight and his “Human Use of the Environment” class taught me that our most profound modern environmental problems did not always have straightforward solutions. 
  • Landform specialist Pierce Lewis not only explained (with both enthusiasm and humor) why America’s varied landscape was so diverse but also how it affected the way humans used it. 
  • Urban Geographer Rodney Erickson (who would become Penn State’s President) helped me see my hometown of Altoona through a new lens. 
  •  I had Diana Liverman (who met with the Dalai Lama several years ago to discuss the environment) for a fascinating graduate course on global challenges and how the world’s most vulnerable are impacted by environmental degradation.
  • And how could I forget my first adviser and Geography instructor at Penn State Altoona, Garry Burkle, who planted the first seeds of enthusiasm for my collegiate studies?

Three dozen years after my undergraduate years, I am preparing to say goodbye to two exceptional Penn State Altoona Environmental Studies interns, Janelle Thayer and Josh Clark. They remind me that not only the student, but the mentor too, can feel rewarded by their experience.  Somewhere in the great beyond, Fred Wernstedt is smiling, satisfied that his student learned the most important lesson of all.

The Ultimate Recycling: Historic Buildings

Written by John Frederick. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Many historic and architectural treasures have fallen to the plagues of neglect and misdirected development over the years here in Blair County. Yet amidst all those sad stories, are a number of happy endings, too.   Here, in no particular order, are some exceptional building recycling projects that preserved a place that might otherwise have been a victim of the wrecking ball. (You can link to our short survey if you'd like to tell us about your favorite recycled buildings or treasures you hope can still be saved.)

A Miraculous Place

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

I have long been fascinated by lightning bugs. Several nights this week I sat on my back porch, mesmerized by one of nature’s most interesting light shows
Lightning Bugs are miraculous insects, carrying their own light source by way of a chemical reaction that they create themselves. It was not just the miracle of the fireflies, though, but the absence of man-made sounds that made me smile those nights on my porch.  Though there were plenty of sounds of nature, the harsh, abrupt, often annoying sounds made by humans and their machines could not be heard at that late hour.

Earlier that same day, a bicycle ride took me through rural Huntingdon County. As the wind blew in my face, I was struck by the sweet smells of the clover family and later by the cool, moist air along Spruce Creek. That humid air could be felt as much as it could be smelled.

The next day, I had the pleasure of visiting Brother John Kerr at Saint Bernadine’s Monastery near Newry to talk about their sustainability and environmental stewardship initiatives. As we walked through the stunning grounds and gardens, I looked eastward and saw the end of Dunning Mountain. Most of the ridge is covered in trees, but where soil never developed, large fields of Tuscarora Sandstone boulders litter the mountainside. The mountain does not look much different than it would have long before man set foot in the valley.

Folded by crustal collisions that occurred a quarter billion years ago, these mountains are stubs of what were once much larger and more spectacular highlands. Despite their smaller scale, they remain a scenic treasure, a source of clean air and high quality water and a vibrant habitat for a diverse collection of flora and fauna.

This flood of different sensory experiences – the smells, the sounds, the sights, the feelings – made me think about a bigger picture point, that the Earth itself is a miracle and an oddity. It is too often taken for granted.

Astronomers have concluded that Earth-type planets are rare indeed, for the conditions that make an environment like ours is unusual. As Goldilocks has so often been quoted, we need something “just right” to make the conditions for life as we know it. In our own solar system, we are the solitary planet that supports advanced life, the inner planets being too hot, the outer ones too cold.

Our Goldilocks planet has a temperature range that allows water to exist most frequently as a liquid, one of the keys to the evolution of larger plants and animals. Yet we have a rather cavalier attitude about the planet, locally and around the world.

Too often, our peaceful firefly-filled evenings are shattered by the din of a motorcyclist that has altered his mufflers. Mountainside vistas are spoiled by a poorly planned development or an obtrusive billboard. The smells of summer are too frequently overcome by a smoldering burn barrel.
Those seem like odd things to do to a planet if it really is a once in a million oddity.

Don’t forget to celebrate our once-in-a-million planet at Saint Bernadine’s Summer Bounty Green Fair at the monastery on August 3rd. Find out more at

Hazardous Wastes

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Today’s hazardous waste collection at PNG Field at the Blair County Ballpark gives us a great opportunity to reflect upon our generation and mishandling of toxic and hazardous chemicals and products. Even if you missed today’s collection, this is a great time to pass on some reminders about the purchase, use and disposal of these sometimes dangerous products.

Not all hazardous products are created equal. Some are simply irritants, causing temporary discomfort or irritation. At the other extreme are extremely toxic chemicals or substances that are potent cancer-causers (carcinogenic). Understanding the risks, then, is a key to using them properly or deciding that you might not need to use them at all.

The poster child for the dreadfully toxic, carcinogenic chemical was DDT, which had all the worst characteristics of a chemical. It was persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, or PBT as it is known in scientific writing. In simple English that meant it lasted a long time and resisted biodegradation. It accumulated in organisms so it was passed on through the food chain and it was a poison that by itself could cause immediate illness or death.

Though DDT and many of its chemical cousins have been illegal for decades, a number of chemicals that share some of those characteristics are still sold and used both here and abroad. Some research (and the internet is a great source) is necessary to better understand what products are the worst. We can still pass along a few general guidelines about some common toxic products.

Insecticides and Herbicides. These are generally petroleum based chemicals designed to upset the metabolism of insects or the biochemistry of vegetation. Of the 350 chemicals evaluated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, nearly a fifth of those are listed as possible, probable or likely carcinogens. There is suggestive evidence that another five percent cause cancer. 

Many of those that are not cancer-causers are either acutely toxic or have been linked to birth defects or neurological disorders. These disorders of the central nervous system of humans are understandable since a number of common pesticides are intended to attack the nervous system of insects.

Oil-Based Paints and Varnishes. Vapors from oil-based paint and stains are especially unhealthy. Those exposed to paint vapors are more likely to develop respiratory problems, liver and kidney damage, and other related ailments. In response to concerns over these dangers, water-based, VOC-free (paint without toxic volatile organic compounds) paint has become the standard.

Mercury-Containing Products. Mercury is a potent and dangerous neurotoxin and is found in fluorescent bulbs and old style thermostats and thermometers. While some of these have been replaced by mercury-free alternatives, recycling old mercury products is important.

Beyond learning more about the dangers of what we buy and use, here are some final hints about what to do with hazardous products.
Don’t buy it in the first place. Look instead for those less toxic alternatives.
Use it up (if it can be used safely).
Recycle it at HHW Days. If you find yourself with something you don’t want or can’t use, recycle it today. If you miss today’s collection, save it for the next year
Today’s HHW collection is from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Altoona Curve’s PNG Field VIP parking lot. Visit for a complete list of acceptable materials. Checkout our fact sheet on latex paint, which is not accepted at the collection.

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