The Big Here Quiz


You live in the big here. Wherever you live, your tiny spot is deeply intertwined within a larger place, imbedded fractal-like into a whole system called a watershed, which is itself integrated with other watersheds into a tightly interdependent biome. (See the world eco-region map ). At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

The following exercise in watershed awareness was hatched 30 years ago by Peter Warshall, naturalist extraordinaire. Variations of this list have appeared over the years with additions by Jim Dodge, Peter Berg, and Stephanie Mills among others. I have recently added new questions from Warshall and myself, and I have edited or altered most of the rest. It’s still a work in progress. If you have a universal question you think fits, submit it to me.

I am extremely interested in hearing from anyone who scores a 25 or better on the quiz on their first unassisted try. I’d like to know how you got your Big Here education. I have a few small prizes for anyone who scores (on the honor system) a perfect 30, without Googling.

The intent of this quiz is to inspire you to answer the questions you can’t initially. I’d like to collect and then post the best step-by-step suggestions about how to answer a particular question. These are not answers to the quiz, but recommended paths on how one might most efficiently answer the question locally. Helpful websites which can provide local answers are wanted. Because of the severe specificity of local answers, the methods provided should be as general as possible. The emerging list of answer-paths will thus become the Cool Tool.

Post your methods in the comment section for each question linked in red to my Help Wanted page. I will award a copy of the next paper-book version of Cool Tools to the person providing what I consider the best solution method(s) for each question.

— KK

30 questions to elevate your awareness (and literacy) of the greater place in which you live:

1) Point north. [Recommendations for answer methods]

2) What time is sunset today? [Recommendations]

3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap. [Recommendations]

4) When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water? [Recommendations]

5) How many feet above sea level are you? [Recommendations]

6) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom here? [Recommendations]

7) How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours? [Recommendations]

8) Is the soil under your feet, more clay, sand, rock or silt? [Recommendations]

9) Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves? [Recommendations]

10) Name five native edible plants in your neighborhood and the season(s) they are available. [Recommendations]

11) From what direction do storms generally come? [Recommendations]

12) Where does your garbage go? [Recommendations]

13) How many people live in your watershed? [Recommendations]

14) Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood? [Recommendations]

15) Point to where the sun sets on the equinox. How about sunrise on the summer solstice? [Recommendations]

16) Where is the nearest earthquake fault? When did it last move? [Recommendations]

17) Right here, how deep do you have to drill before you reach water? [Recommendations]

18) Which (if any) geological features in your watershed are, or were, especially respected by your community, or considered sacred, now or in the past? [Recommendations]

19) How many days is the growing season here (from frost to frost)? [Recommendations]

20) Name five birds that live here. Which are migratory and which stay put? [Recommendations]

21) What was the total rainfall here last year? [Recommendations]

22) Where does the pollution in your air come from? [Recommendations]

23) If you live near the ocean, when is high tide today? [Recommendations]

24) What primary geological processes or events shaped the land here? [Recommendations]

25) Name three wild species that were not found here 500 years ago. Name one exotic species that has appeared in the last 5 years. [Recommendations]

26) What minerals are found in the ground here that are (or were) economically valuable? [Recommendations]

27) Where does your electric power come from and how is it generated? [Recommendations]

28) After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go? [Recommendations]

29) Where is the nearest wilderness? When was the last time a fire burned through it? [Recommendations]

30) How many days till the moon is full? [Recommendations]

The Bigger Here Bonus Questions:

31) What species once found here are known to have gone extinct? [Recommendations]

32) What other cities or landscape features on the planet share your latitude? [Recommendations]

33) What was the dominant land cover plant here 10,000 years ago? [Recommendations]

34) Name two places on different continents that have similar sunshine/rainfall/wind and temperature patterns to here. [Recommendations]


Butterfly Alphabet


I’ve had one version of this poster on my wall for years. Its creator, a maniacal Swedish photographer, spent years uncovering letters hidden in butterfly wings and collected more than one full alphabet from his quest. To make the challenge more difficult, all his snapshots are from live butterflies (better color). He now has a small cottage business selling posters of his work, including alphabets and numbers found in other realms of nature. They are beautiful yes, but for me the enduring attraction of his work is his fanatic amateur over-the-top enthusiasm, which this poster emblemizes.

— KK

Butterfly Alphabet #2
Available from
Butterfly Alphabet


Bioquip is the best supplier of professional grade entomology tools there is. Everything you could want to collect/examine insects and other small creatures.

As a teacher with a strong interest in science, I’ve owned two of their collapsible pocket butterfly nets for many years. The hoop rims are made of a narrow band of spring steel. When twisted, they result in three smaller loops which are secured with the net bag. A full 12 inch folding net thus fits nicely in my pants pocket while birding in the forest. I just cut a piece of bamboo to make a temporary handle.

— Mike Brady

Pocket Net
Available from Bioquip

Bioquip Catalog


Corliss Sourcebooks

Frequently, insight begins with an unexplained anomaly — a novel phenomenon which upon diligent pursuit leads to a new way of doing or understanding. On the other hand most anomalies are just that — unexplained exceptions of no lasting import. Telling the difference is what science is about. But first these odd things must be acknowledged, and better, documented. This is what the Sourcebook Project does. William Corliss, a maniacal archivist working alone has steadfastly cataloged all reported anomalies in biology, chemistry, geology, archeology, physics, and the atmosphere. He lists everything: ball lightening accounts, out of sequence fossils, ancient glass lenses, geological deposits where they shouldn’t be, weird ruins, musical sands, unexplained radioactivity, out of place historical artifacts, unusual ancient buildings, strange weather formations, and anything odd that has no easy explanation.

An animal resembling a mastodon. Pipe found in Iowa, USA
From “Ancient Man: A Handbook of Puzzling Artifacts”

Corliss clips primarily from old scientific journals, expedition reports, and society proceedings. The observers have some credibility. The anomalies are presented without interpretation — that is up to you. The work can easily be appropriated by cranks (and has been) but it is equally useful to others searching for new science frontiers.

A few words from William James, reproduced on the title page of Anomalies in Geology:
“Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always proves more easy to ignore than to attend to…. Anyone will renovate his science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena. And when this science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the exceptions in them than of what were supposed to be the rules.”

For most of us this remarkable series of volumes will be a constant source of wonder, amazement, and re-thinking. Because each observation is offered without explanation (“just the facts ma’am”) in such volume (thousands and thousands), one quickly realizes the extent of our ignorance. So far Corliss has compiled 34 volumes, all items indexed according to his classification scheme. Confusingly these volumes overlap, and it is not easy to determine which are the latest, but those in his “catalog” series seem to be the most recent.

Corliss adds 1,200 new reports a year, and has only published 40% of the material he has compiled. Obviously this Catalog of Anomalies should be on the web, as an open source project. But for now these amazing tomes are only in paper, self published by Corliss himself, available via Amazon.

— KK

You can’t go wrong with the following volumes:

Ancient Structures: Remarkable Pyramids, Forts, Stone Chambers, Cities, Complexes, $24

Ancient Infrastructure: Remarkable Roads, Mines, Walls, Mounds, Stone Circles, $25 (used)

Biological Anomalies–Birds: A Catalog of Biological Anomalies, $28

Biological Anomalies, Mammals I: A Catalog of Biological Anomalies, $22

Neglected Geological Anomalies: A Catalog of Geological Anomalies, $19

Anomalies in Geology: Physical, Chemical, Biological: A Catalog of Geological Anomalies, $19

Rare Halos, Mirages, Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena: A Catalog of Geophysical Anomalies, $17

Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena: A Catalog of Geophysical Anomalies, $25 (used)

Ancient Man: A Handbook of Puzzling Artifacts, $11 (used)



The Laos Jars are mostly fashioned out of sandstone, although a few were laboriously carved from much harder red granite. Besides the 250 jars at Ban Ang, there are about 80 more at Lat Sen, 155 more at Ban Soua, 34 at Na Nong, and still more at Ban Hin, the latter group is made from red granite.

The natives in the areas where jars are located know nothing definite of their origin. It is customary to say the jars were made to celebrate a great military victory 1,500 yeas ago. Modern professional opinion is that they are funerary urns probably made more than 1,500 years ago.

From “Ancient Infrastructure: Remarkable Roads, Mines, Walls, Mounds, Stone Circles”


Blundellsands, England. June 5, 1902. “The evening was dull and grey, a strong northwesterly wind was blowing in from the sea and the tide was flowing in. In the distance we first saw smoke with frequent jets of fire bursting forth from the mud of a shallow canal. Drawing near, we perceived a strong sulphurous odour, and saw little flames of fire and heard a hissing sound as though a large quantity of phosphorous was being ignited. It was impossible to detect anything which caused the fire, only the water where the flames appeared had particles of a bluish hue floating on the surface. The area over which the tiny flames kept bursting forth was about 40 yards. A gentleman present stirred up the mud with his walking stick, and immediately large yellow flames nearly 2 feet in length and breadth burst forth. The phenomenon lasted some time, until the tide covered the part and quenched the fire.”

From “Anomalies in Geology: Physical, Chemical, Biological”


August 17, 1876. Ringstead Bay, England. “Between 4 and 5 p.m. two ladies who were out on the cliff, saw surrounding them on all sides, and extending from a few inches above the surface to two or three feet overhead, numerous globes of light, the size of billiard balls, which were moving independently and vertically up and down, sometimes within a few inches of the observers, but always eluding the grasp; now gliding upwards two or three feet, and as slowly falling again, resembling in their movements soap bubbles floating in the air. The balls were all aglow, but not dazzling, with a soft, superb irridescence, rich and warm of hue, and each of variable tints, their charming colours brightening the extreme beauty of the scene. The subdued magnificence of this fascinating spectacle is described as baffling description. Their numbers were continually fluctuating; at times thousands of them enveloped the observers, and a few minutes afterwards the numbers would dwindle to perhaps as few as twenty, but soon they would be swarming again as numerous as ever. Not the slightest noise accompanied the display.

From “Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena: A Catalog of Geophysical Anomalies”


Mammal Tracks & Bird Tracks & Sign

Mark Elbroch is a young tracker quickly gaining a reputation for his obsessive devotion to craft and comprehensive style of seeing. He once spent a whole New England winter tracking a single red fox — which wound up tracking him! More than stories, Elbroch offers an astounding encyclopedia of observed animal signs and visualizations that are the most helpful I’ve ever seen. Pages and pages of life size paw prints, a whole long chapter of diverse specialized burrows, dens, nests, and cavities — many in life size — and all photographed. Elbroch is not only an ace naturalist, but a fabulous communicator. He must sleep with his camera because he captures every nuanced disturbance on film. There’s distinguishing scat, urine and other secretions, by species. And most wonderful of all, several hundred pages on feeding patterns left by each mammal on vegetation and prey. This immense guide (almost 800 pages of full color illustrations and images) is by far the most ecological of any tracking guide ever written. It shows you how to see animals through their effects upon the other living organisms around them. The amount of knowledge, respect, and insight packed into this brick of a book is stunning. I’m sure it will become a classic.

Equally astounding is a companion book on bird signs. Imagine going birdwatching without looking at birds. All you inspect are the ripples each bird makes as it disturbs the environment in its daily routine. At first the ripples are faint, but soon with practice they swell in size and plenty until they seem a wave that all but shouts out the bird’s identification. That’s the Elbroch way of seeing.

These fat books, lovingly published by Stackpole Books, will change the way you walk in the woods.

— KK

Mammal Tracks & Sign
A guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch, 2003, 792 pages

Bird Tracks & Sign
A guide to North American Species, by Mark Elbroch and Elearnor Marks, 2002, 464 pages


Negative space. The spaces between the toes, between the toes and palm pads, and between the individual interdigital pads form shapes that are incredibly useful to track detectives. I often look for an X, H, or C shape to help distinguish feline and canine tracks. The front tracks of gray foxes and domestic dogs tend to show an H, while those of red foxes and coyotes show an X. Look for a C in the front tracks of cats.


Finding a hair. This is an exercise I have practiced over the years to help myself look deeper. Whenever I sit down in the woods, I won’t allow myself to stand until I’ve found a hair within approximately an 8-inch-square patch of earth. When I’m relaxed, it’s a short exercise, but when I’m tense, it may last 30 minutes. When I’m struggling, it’s usually just after I’ve proclaimed that I’ve finally found the first piece of earth devoid of animal hair that I find the first one. The second one is easy.


A great horned owl has swooped and picked up a mouse.


Tracking & the Art of Seeing

I’ve had meager success in tracking animals using other guide books. This one employs color photography which matches what I see on the trail much closer that black and white sketches. Also it emphasizes animal scat and browsing patterns. It includes primarily North American mammals.

— KK

Tracking & the Art of Seeing
Paul Rezendes
1999, 336 pages
Harper Perennial


Since white-tailed deer have only bottom incisors, they leave rough, torn, or squared-off cuts when browsing.


White-tailed deer beds may show a lot of detail. In this one, the impression of the deer’s rump is to the lower left, the hind leg is to the lower right, and the two folded front legs are to the upper right. You can determine the size of the deer by measuring the bed from the center of the lower folded front leg diagonally across to the rump. A large deer’s bed measures 41″, a small deer’s 25″.


The scat of snowshoe hares (left) and cottontails (right) is not always this dissimilar. Notice that one of the cottontail pellets looks exactly like those of the snowshoe hare. You cannot rely on scat to differentiate between most of the rabbit family members.


A comparison of cat and dog tracks highlights the asymmetrical shape of the cat’s track. The toes point in a different direction from the heel pad, and the two inner (front) toes have one slightly ahead of the other, as with the two outer toes. In contrast, the dog track is more symmetrical.


Red squirrels opened these hickory nuts, leaving large, jagged holes. When gray squirrels open hickory nuts, they chip away at them, creating a ragged appearance, and often break them into small fragments. Red squirrels and flying squirrels leave the shells more intact.


Natural Reef Aquariums

The folks who know the most about reef ecology are the amateur reefers. These passionate hobbyists explore the essentials of marine life by creating artificial salt-water reefs at home. They can cram an amazing diversity of species – sponges, coral, mollusks, fishes — in a few square meters. The coolest residents are the invertebrates.. So much of this craft is like high-performance gardening. You’ve got grow-lights, pumps, salts, and lots of technical gear. Technology makes the chores not much more difficult than keeping fish. To handle this complexity, though, and the whims of dazzlingly strange creatures, veteran amateurs point to this book as the most helpful. The author stresses using the proper mix of reef organisms to filtrate the water without unneeded mechanics. He guides novices easily through sophisticated methods, keeping it as “natural” as possible. Because home reefer enthusiasts are so attuned to the life cycles of their captives, I learned more about marine life from here than any other source.

— KK

Natural Reef Aquariums
John H. Tullock
2001, 336 pages
T.F.H. Publications


Your grandfather, perhaps 100 years ago or so, could only imagine what wonders the world beneath the sea might contain. Your father could follow the exploits of the first explorers of the undersea realm and could just begin to see and experience the explosion of life on a coral reef. But you and I, we can not only visit this world whenever we wish, but we can also capture a small part of it in an oceanic microcosm of our own making in our own homes.


Even in the most northerly regions, an aquarium placed in direct sunlight can overheat. Aquarists should avoid placing the aquarium in a sunny window, as seasonal fluctuations in temperature in such a location will make maintaining the correct water temperature a challenge. Artificial lighting, for most home situations, is the better choice, being more controllable, predictable, and programmable for the most convenient viewing period.


Alternatively, organisms from deeper waters, or specimens that have languished for too long in dim light, may have ceased production of protective pigments. When these specimens are then placed under bright lights, the effect is similar to that experienced by someone who, having spent a long winter indoors, rushes out on the first sunny day and spends an afternoon sunbathing. I believe that the alleged burning of corals by metal halide lights can be attributed to a lack of understanding of how these organisms respond to light and not to any inherent detrimental effect of the lights themselves.


One of the more vexatious challenges, even for experienced reef keepers, is the appropriate placement of corals within the aquarium. Finding just the right level of light intensity and water motion can mean the difference between a specimen that thrives and grows, showing full polyp extension and brilliant coloration, and one that leads a lackluster existence, with polyps retracted or shrunken, dull coloration, and no growth.

Open (top) or closed polyps, as in this Palythoa colony, can be an indicator of water conditions. Constantly closed polyps are a sign of trouble.

Metal halide pendants provide intense illumination while permitting easy top-down viewing of the clam reef. A convenient acrylic sump houses the skimmer, heaters, pouches of activated carbon, and phosphate remover.


Ecology of the Deep Sea Vents

Alien life discovered on earth! To see what life could be — to imagine its fullest possibilities — descend to these burning underwater fissures where an entirely unknown world of distinctly different organisms is now being noticed. This scholarly anthology has the latest reports. Anyone who says we know life is wrong. My goodness, how strange life is.

— KK

The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents
Cindy Lee Van Dover
2000, 424 pages
Princeton University Press

Methane hydrate habitat of the ice worm, Hesiocaeca methanicola, on the Louisiana Slope in the gulf of Mexico.

Time-series images of community development at Biomarker #9 following the April 1991 eruption at 9°50’N on the East Pacific Rise. (top) April 1991: Flocculent, bacterially generated material in the water column within 15 m of biomarker #9 immediately following the eruption (within days to weeks)…(mid) December 1993: The giant vestimentiferan tubeworm (Riftia pachyptila) has colonized the site, growing rapidly and overgrowing the population of Tevnia jerichonana…(Bottom) November 1995: The Riftia pachyptila population is now in excess of 2000 individuals and tubes are stained with rust-colored, ferrous oxide precipitate coincident with increased concentrations of iron in the diffuse, low-temperature vent fluids.


The Deep

You want life weird and strange? It’s in the deep a mile down. You don’t know life at all until you’ve met these spectacularly different creatures. I mean way different. Totally bizarre, totally awesome. Guaranteed to alter your consciousness. The filmmaking is superb and jaw-dropping. The disk you want is Part 2 of the acclaimed BBC Blue Planet series. The rest of the series is okay, but not extraordinary; the other episode on Part 2, “Open Ocean,” is one of the better of the series; so you can order just this one disk (or tape)
— KK

The Blue Planet
Part 2: Open Ocean/ The Deep
Narrated by David Attenborough
$13 DVD



Sibley’s Birding Basics

Our contemporary Audubon, David Sibley, will mentor you in how to see birds. This is not one of his legendary field guides; instead it’s a masterful course on how birds work, distilled into a small compact book, and illustrated with his impeccable drawings. Even if you’ve been birding all your life, every page will illuminate the art of seeing them. How can you tell just from a flitting glance in the dark that was a white-throated sparrow? Sibley the grand master tells how he does it. It will be a very long time before anyone else understands and communicates this hard-won knowledge better.


A Purple Finch with representative feathers from different parts of the body.

Western Sandpiper in fresh (left) and worn (right) alternate plumage, with representative scapular feathers from each, showing the striking changes that take place gradually, over a period of about four months, with no molt. Most field guides can show only one example of each plumage, so they illustrate an “average” bird, somewhere between these extremes.


The making of hissing, shushing, and squeaking noises (known among birders as “pishing”) is done in imitation of the scolding calls of certain small songbirds. It is often combined with imitations of the calls of a small owl in order to simulate the sound of an owl that has been discovered by songbirds. Birds approach to see what’s going on and to join in scolding the predator. Pishing is most effective when you are somewhat concealed within vegetation. The birds need to be able to get close to you without leaving their cover, and ideally there should be an open spot for them to sit when they do reach you. Curiosity will bring the birds in and then draw them to a perch where they can take a clear look at you.

The visible outline of a bird changes with feather movements: bird with puffed out (left) and sleeked down (right).

Sibley’s Birding Basics
David Sibley
2002, 168 pages