More Bang for Your Duck

California’s wild storms of January-February 2017 sure made this story for Comstock’s magazine a tough one to report: lots of canceled interviews, farms getting evacuated, levees needing to be repaired (and photo shoots rescheduled). But here we go! With photos by Ken James.

On assignment at Rue & Forsman Ranch in the Sacramento Valley (photo by Sena)

More Bang for Your Duck

After a rough few years, Sacramento Valley rice farmers are supplementing crop profits with environmental stewardship

By Sena Christian

Rice farmer Michael Bosworth can easily recognize the distinctive “kla-ha, kla-ha” call made by white-fronted geese on his property. They always sound like they’re having a good laugh. The birds’ high-pitched yelps reveal their presence before we approach a flock of them among some wintering grounds on a December morning.

“These guys will hang out ’til we drain the fields,” he says, pointing to the geese. “We get bald eagles all winter long.” Swans, great blue herons, white-faced ibis and other waterbirds swim and wade around flooded paddies. A flock flies above in a V formation, each bird catching the updraft of the one before them.

Over the past few years, Bosworth has participated in programs to increase habitat for waterbirds along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway. At least one billion birds, representing 300 species, travel this journey from arctic Alaska to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. While that may sound like a lot, scientists believe it’s only a fraction of historic numbers. Along the way, millions of birds spend time in the Sacramento Valley, including at Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst.

Bosworth has made his land a prime spot for the birds, and not just for the feel-good eco-vibes. Providing wildlife habitat actually boosts his bottom line.

… Read the rest of the article here …

The ‘Microbial Clock’

Here’s my latest article for Newsweek, “Using the Human Microbiome to Predict Time of Death,” inspired by a seminar visit by Dr. Jessica Metcalf during my time in the Ted Scripps Fellowship for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder. Read an excerpt below.

Brandon Anderson
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Brandon Anderson.

Using the Microbiome to Predict Time of Death

By Sena Christian

On a Tuesday evening in July 2013, a woman in her 50s was found bound, gagged, stabbed to death and wrapped in a carpet in the driveway of her Honolulu home. The woman’s ex-husband hadn’t heard from her since the two had dinner the Saturday before, and he grew worried, so he went over to her house. No one answered the door and her car was missing, so he flagged down a security guard from a building next door. They investigated and quickly noticed a foul odor emanating from around the back of the house. The police were called in and they soon discovered the decaying body, rolled up in a moldy rug tucked away out of view in the driveway. Then they started piecing together evidence about her murder.

In cases like this, in which the body is found in some state of decomposition, one of the key mysteries is the time line of the crime. Investigators may look at cellphone records to see when the deceased sent her last text message. Or ask colleagues when she left work. They might measure the corpse’s temperature to see how much it has cooled or examine insect infestations in a body found in a shallow grave. But these methods can’t be used in all homicide scenarios, and all have flaws. A body’s temperature, for instance, will cool differently depending on if it’s been left in a sunlit room or submerged in cold water. And the more days that elapse between when someone dies and the body is found, the more difficult deciphering the time of death becomes.

“A lot of estimates for time of death really aren’t scientific at all,” says David Carter, an associate professor of forensic science at Chaminade University of Honolulu. For most deaths that’s perfectly fine, because they’re natural, the result of aging or illness. With homicides, though, that detail can be critical, as detectives use it to substantiate witness testimony and determine a timeline of the crime and validate alibis, excluding people from the suspect list. Investigators may soon have a much better—and more scientific—tool at their disposal to help with all that: the “microbial clock.”

… Read the rest of the article here …

What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?

My latest article for Newsweek about “What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?” is now online. Read an excerpt below:

Lions Rey and Simba are among 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International as part of its Operation Spirit of Freedom. (Photo courtesy Animal Defenders International/Rex Shutterstock/AP)
Lions Rey and Simba are among 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International as part of its Operation Spirit of Freedom. (Photo courtesy Animal Defenders International/Rex Shutterstock/AP)

What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?

By Sena Christian

Smith was destined for execution. The lion had already been castrated, declawed, separated from his mate, Amazonas, and caged with another male’s offspring. He was agitated. Then one day in August 2014, during a circus performance in Peru, as he sat perched on a pedestal above a spectator’s head, which was lowered, exposing the back of her neck, the trainer commanded Smith to jump, and his natural instinct prevailed. He pounced on the audience member, grabbing her in his jaws and dragging her around the ring until a handler beat Smith into submission and forced him back into a cage.

The spectator survived, but the incident triggered an outcry for the lion to be euthanized, says Tim Phillips, vice president of Animal Defenders International. His group countered by pointing out how it was people, not Smith, who had acted recklessly and violated a law banning wild animals in circuses. ADI successfully pleaded with Peruvian authorities for Smith’s life to be spared and, with law enforcement’s help, the group returned a few days later to seize the lion from Circo de Monaco. “The world would be appalled if a lion is effectively murdered for what comes naturally when it was human beings and the circus being completely irresponsible and stupid,” Phillips says.

In addition to Smith, 32 lions and about 60 other animals have been recovered from circuses in Peru and Colombia over the past year—following bans on the use of animals in circuses in those countries—as part of ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom. In some cases, the organization and the Peruvian government worked together to accept and relocate recovered animals, while other times they had to free the animals from circuses that refused to let them go. The rescue portion of the nearly $1.7 million operation was completed this July.

But freedom isn’t enough. These animals need an adequate place to spend the rest of their lives, and one that’s not “in the wild.” Animal activists can expect to encounter this challenge more often as governments continue to crack down on the use of animals in circuses; 40 nations have now outlawed this practice to some degree. (In the U.S., circuses are allowed to use wild animals in acts, though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 provides some minimum standards for the care of animals in traveling exhibits.) The stakes are high: Without a rescue group such as ADI assisting with logistics, these animals would likely be euthanized or put in zoos possibly without the infrastructure to accommodate them, or bans would simply go unenforced by overwhelmed authorities.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Is Plant Science The Answer To Improved Food Security?

In May, I had the opportunity to participate in the Metcalf Institute for Climate Change and the News in St. Louis, Missouri. The institute coincided with the second National Adaptation Forum, and I wrote a dispatch from the forum for Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team tasked with developing virus-resistant cassava, which is a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri (Photo by Sena Christian).
Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team developing virus-resistant cassava. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Photo by Sena Christian).

Is plant science the answer to improved food security?

In a world of climate change and growing global population, researchers believe plants are key to adaptation

By Sena Christian

Nigel Taylor spreads apart the wilted and discolored leaves of a cassava plant. He wants us to see its sickness on full display. Taylor leads a team of scientists in St. Louis attempting to genetically engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant, and is working with researchers in Uganda and Kenya, where cassava is a staple crop. Once created, this plant will be delivered to small-landholder farmers for widespread use in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Cassava is an incredibly important source of calories in the tropics,” Taylor explains to a group of journalists visiting the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri in early May. The ultimate goal of this not-for-profit center, founded in 1998, is to double production of the world’s most important crops while lowering agriculture’s environmental footprint. More than 200 employees are on the case, and for these scientists, answers lie in an obvious place: “We think plants are a wonderful solution to a lot of global challenges,” vice president of research Dr. Toni Kutchan tells us.

Among the biggest challenges is a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, which will need to be fed without degrading more natural resources. Other challenges include regions around the world suffering from increased salinity in soil, water supplies tainted with fertilizer, declining crop yields due to plant disease, and intensifying droughts. The agricultural powerhouse of California, for instance — responsible for producing about half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts — has entered the fourth year of a historic drought with no relief in sight. Danforth scientists are developing crops to withstand these environmental stressors as we brace for the impacts of climate change.

“Human-induced climate change is here and now. It’s not just something we need to think about for our grandchildren,” says Kathy Jacobs at the second National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, where she joined more than 800 representatives from the private and public sector in May.

… Read the rest of the article here …

It’s Go Time

I’ve been in Boulder for a month now. Moved here from Northern California to take part in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. After moving here and settling in, and brief forays to New York for a wedding and New Orleans for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I finally had a moment to pause and think … and realize I had gone three whole weeks without writing a single article! What the heck?! That’s a record for me. Determined not to waste another second, I have officially begun my fellowship project, focusing on sustainable farming. I interviewed farmers from Indiana, Illinois, California and Colorado this week, including the operator of Cure Organic Farm and interns with the Farmer Cultivation Center (see below):

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado.
Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)
Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado.
Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)

On Puget Sound

As I prepare to move to Boulder, Colorado, and begin my participation in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, I’m — not gonna lie — feverishly brushing up on my knowledge of the history of the environmental movement in the United States. And, I’m reminded of another great environmental journalism fellowship I was honored to take part in through the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources. The nonprofit organization organizes learning expeditions to help reporters and editors become better storytellers. In 2009, I went on an IJNR journey through and around Washington state’s Puget Sound.

Into a forest.
On a boat.
On a clear-cut


What’s A Farmer Look Like?

Here’s an excerpt from my article, “Think You Know What a Farmer Looks Like? Think Again,” for YES! Magazine’s website.

When Lindsey Morris Carpenter was a college student studying art in Philadelphia, she never expected that, just a decade later, she would spend most of her days fixing up tractors, turning piles of manure, and corralling chickens.

But that’s precisely what she’s doing. Carpenter, 29, dropped out of school in 2004 and returned to her home state of Wisconsin, where she found a job on a vegetable farm. She went on to apprentice at a larger operation in suburban Chicago and eventually secured employment at an urban farm on the city’s south side, teaching previously incarcerated people how to grow food.

Lindsey Morris Carpenter owns and operates Grassroots Farm, LLC. (photo by Carpenter)
Lindsey Morris Carpenter of Grassroots Farm, LLC. (photo by Carpenter)

By 2007, Carpenter had decided she wanted her own piece of land to farm, so she and her mother, Gail, bought 40 acres in south central Wisconsin and got down to business—an opportunity she’s grateful for since she’s aware that not everyone has access to the resources that allowed her to purchase this land.

Today, Carpenter’s certified-organic operation, Grassroots Farm, grows fruit, vegetables, hops, and herbs; she also sells pesticide-free cut flowers and eggs from the farm’s chickens. Being as environmentally sustainable as possible is paramount to Grassroots’ operations, Carpenter says. So, too, is a commitment to provide healthy, fresh food to local people regardless of the size of their bank accounts.


‘Quito Grown’ Appears On Earth Island Journal

Whoa, I barely even finished sending out rewards to my Kickstater backers for “Quito Grown,” and I’ve learn that Earth Island Journal decided to publish my article on its website today. I just submitted my draft yesterday. Now that’s what I call a quick turnaround!

The unfinished greenhouse on the rooftop of Escuela Bogota. Photo by Julia C.

Unfortunately, the editor previously forewarned me that the article would likely not make it into print. That’s one of the drawbacks of pitching to a quarterly magazine. But I’m still very excited and thankful for the article’s online appearance, and I’ll be trying to spread the link around and get as much exposure as possible. Feel free to help a sister out!

Marco waters vegetables in the garden at this school. (Photo by Julia)

I hope you enjoy my article “In Ecuador, urban farms provide an antidote to rising food prices.” Thanks, again, to everyone for all your support both emotionally and financially.

UCLA student Daniel Block works with kids on the greenhouse project in Quito. (Photo by Julia)

More good news: Alternet has also published my story. One more thing! In my article, you’ll read about a nongovernmental organization called Triple Salto. This group is critical in making urban farms happen throughout the city of Quito, and they have an ongoing need for donations and international volunteers. To connect with or donate to Triple Salto, visit or email

An agricultural engineer with CONQUITO assembles a greenhouse on the rooftop of a school. (Photo by Julia)

Feast Your Eyes

Well, hello there! Clearly, you must be looking for something to do. I have an idea: Check out more of my photos from my recent trip to Quito, Ecuador.

Quito is nestled in the majestic Andes.
Me and Laurie touring the sites.
Quito’s historic district.
Quito boasts many Catholic cathedrals, built hundreds of years ago.
Hanging out in Quito.
Walking through Quito’s historic district.
Enjoying hot springs up in the mountains.

Time For A Change

So far, this blog has chronicled my “Wailing Peacocks” project, which involved a Kickstarter campaign, traveling to Hawaii and writing about the revival of ancient Polynesian voyaging and its role in navigating climate change. Now, this blog will tell of my second Kickstarter venture, which involves a trip to Quito, Ecuador to write about an urban farming project. Click here to learn about “Quito Grown.” I hope you’ll follow along on my journey! But, first, here are some of my favorite photos from the Hawaii project.

Navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, left, and Kapu Na Keiki member Jason Patterson rebuild Hokule’a.
Kapu Na Keiki member Jason Patterson works on repairing the legendary canoe, Hokule’a.
Kapu Na Keiki members prepare for a short sail.
Kaina Holomalia reflects on the importance of voyaging in his life.