Birds — reminding us of what is possible; and a “green” VT welcome

If you would like a ray of sunshine in these dark days, mark your calendar: March 20, 6:30 p.m. at the Pierson Library in Shelburne. Trish O’Kane will discuss her new book, “Birding to Change the World: A Memoir.” The event is co-sponsored by the Flying Pig Bookstore, Green Mountain Audubon Society and the Pierson Library.

O’Kane is a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources but that is not how she spent the early years of her career. A journalist and human rights activist, O’Kane worked in Central America, documenting and writing about social and economic injustices. It was only when she moved to New Orleans, shortly before Hurricane Katrina, that her world changed.

The day before Katrina struck, O’Kane walked her dogs along a levee that protected her below-sea-level neighborhood from Lake Pontchartrain. Until it didn’t. Admittedly clueless about birds at the time, she noticed an avian cacophony of chirping, calling and shrieking. Years later O’Kane would understand that a huge and rapid drop in barometric pressure had triggered this avian news network (ANN, as scientists call it). Birds were making hurricane preparations ahead of the storm while O’Kane and her fiancé were still prevaricating about whether to evacuate.

After Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, including O’Kane’s entire neighborhood, she began to notice birds, the first survivors to return and reemerge after the storm. She admired their resilience and determination to carry on. Daily visits to New Orleans’ Audubon Park to watch the birds cemented O’Kane’s determination to focus her future on environmental education. She eventually migrated to Vermont, but not before earning a doctorate in environmental science at the University of Wisconsin.

O’Kane now teaches a popular course at UVM, “Birding to Change the World,” which includes outdoor environmental education, exercise, mentorship and birding. O’Kane’s students mentor children at Burlington’s Flynn Elementary School. Every week the college students and their mentees explore the outdoors together.

O’Kane’s message: Birds remind us of what is possible. Children who know and love the outdoors will care for it and advocate for it. Too many kids spend their lives indoors in front of screens. She hopes that this outdoor mentoring program will inspire others. “This is not rocket science,” O’Kane says.

Vermont’s “green” welcome center

How often do we speed along the interstate, destination-driven and on the clock? On your next northbound trip on I-89 from central Vermont, budget a few minutes to visit the Sharon Welcome Center — both inside and out.

Before going indoors, explore the Vermont Vietnam Veterans Memorial that honors the 7,000 Vermonters who served in that War. Stone walls create a circular amphitheater at the first Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in the country to be dedicated, on Oct. 30, 1982, two weeks before “The Wall” in Washington, D.C.

After visiting the memorial, it’s time to warm (or cool in summer) both body and soul. Along the walkway to the center, an exhibit honors Vermont veterans lost in recent wars in the Middle East, including Charlotte’s Alan Bean who died in Iraq in 2004 at the age of 22.

Indoors, wood and geothermal heat warm a room filled with Vermont artistry and information. Want to learn more about Vermont maple sugarhouses, cheesemakers, breweries, farmers’ markets, hunting fishing, bicycling or skiing? Perhaps music, theaters, museums, shopping and dining are of interest. Staff can help with all of this and more.

Enjoy a sit in a Vermont Folk Rocker and wish you owned one. Or perhaps a cup of coffee. Then walk into the bright octagonal greenhouse, home to the “Living Machine,” which purifies waste water generated on site. The recycled water, tinted bright blue lest you be confused, flushes toilets in the restrooms.

With expansive views to Central Vermont’s hills and mountains, the greenhouse hosts large tanks filled with banana trees, butterfly ginger, lilies, water parsley and a cast of microorganisms as they work their magic on waste water. The air is warm and moist. The entire Welcome Center is heated and cooled by 24 geothermal wells, each 420 feet deep, even melting snow and ice on walkways.

You will remember a respite at the Sharon Welcome Center long after you have forgotten what time you got home.