Climate Pledges

Five weeks ago, the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement. I found this inexcusable, and so I chose to take action by re-committing to my own carbon cutting efforts and publicly documenting them. The general idea was to make one new pledge every week for as long as the US remains out of the accords, track my progress, and generate conversation. If I could bring a few others along with me, so much the better. This week’s pledge was to commit an entry in this space to the project, so here we are.

I will spare you the arguments about climate change being real and human-caused. They’ve been made elsewhere better than I possibly could and at this point the deniers are pretty much in “Flat Earth” territory. It’s real, it’s our fault, and I’m moving on to “what do we do about it?”

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I have found myself increasingly frustrated in recent months with regard to communication about important issues. I believe social media is an important platform for advocacy, but simply expressing one’s opinion using that platform is ineffective to the point of being self-defeating. So when I heard the news that the US had pulled the plug, I felt impotent. I wanted to shout into the echo chamber, share every article, chastise all the deniers, and comment on every post. In my fuming I hit upon a possible answer: do something, then talk about it. I knew I might not reach anyone who didn’t already agree with me, but I could still exchange knowledge and ideas with those who did. Maybe a few needed only a tiny nudge to make an adjustment or two of their own.

In order to make sure all my pledges were meaningful, I first thought about what I was already doing and disqualified those things from consideration. That increased the challenge, and it also means I haven’t yet touched on a lot of basics. Before I move on to the pledges so far, here are just a few ideas:

 

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Some of the lawn reduction in my yard.

My Pledges So Far

 

Pledge 1: Bike to work at least one day a week.

Reasoning: This one’s self-explanatory. Use less gas!

Status: My initial pledge was delayed getting started due to a busted-up bicycle and some weather issues, but it is officially underway. I’m behind but hoping to make up the missed days in July-August and stretch this as far into the Fall as possible.
Pledge 2: Eat no beef for 30 days.

Reasoning: Cattle ranching is extremely bad for the environment in a lot of ways, one of which being the high carbon footprint beef brings with it.

Status: Because Pledge 1 was behind, I opted to extend this to 45 days, allowing myself the exception for July 4th. So far I haven’t cheated once, outside of the one hot dog on my prearranged cheat day.


Pledge 3
: Turn off the water when soaping in the shower, and lower the temp.

Reasoning: Believe it or not, conserving water (especially hot water) lowers your carbon footprint too!

Status: I’m at about an 82% success rate in following this guideline.


Pledge 4
: Drink less coffee.

Reasoning: Coffee is another commodity with a high carbon footprint. My office uses a Keurig, which intensifies that problem.

Status: This is going a little more slowly than I intended, but I haven’t really cheated much or backslid. My consumption is down.


Pledge 5
: Commit to more fuel-efficient driving.

Reasoning: Use less gas.

Status: So far the gas light hasn’t come on, but I’ve only refueled once since making the pledge. The other things are hard to measure this early, so TBD.


Pledge 6
: Post about the pledges on my blog.

Reasoning: There’s a finite amount I can lower my own carbon footprint, but if my efforts spread to others that amount grows exponentially, like a pyramid scheme.

Status: If you’re reading this, mission accomplished! Remind me to hang a banner.

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Generic nature image to inspire conservationism!

Ancillary benefits to these pledges abound. Biking helps keep me in shape! Cutting beef is healthy! Taking quicker and cooler showers is god for my skin! Drinking less coffee is healthy, and makes me pee less, thus conserving water! Fuel-efficient driving saves money! Writing about it all teaches me I should use fewer exclamation points!

It’s starting to look like I will need a lot more ideas to keep this going for the duration of US non-membership in the Paris Agreement. I do have a few more thoughts, but please hit me up with yours! Leave ’em in the comments, email me, reply to the Facebook posts, DM me on Twitter, text me, beam ’em to me telepathically, send smoke signals, or do whatever you’ve gotta do. And of course, steal my idea – or let me know if you’ve been independently doing anything similar. I would be thrilled to hear about your own pledges I hope some will join me.

Earth Day/Science March

Fair warning: this post will be a tad political. I don’t want to use this space often for such things, but after careful consideration this topic is relevant to my content and frankly has no business being political in the first place. I am talking about the acceptance of facts and science. Our current administration is hardly the first to have an adversarial relationship with the scientific method, nor is it exclusive to conservatives in general. It is nonetheless much more on the surface now, and so I chose to celebrate Earth Day by attending the March for Science and writing about it.

I will focus on climate change here, as it’s one of the most relevant, most publicized, and most important manifestations of the rejection of science. It is hardly the only case in which science is willfully rejected; it happens with evolution, gun control, abortion, human sexuality, fracking, and really any topic about which people have strongly held opinions and/or financial interests. I understand it and am not immune. We all tend to reject things that don’t support our existing belief structure. It’s not exactly science, but just this week there was an argument in my office about which direction a backslash goes. We looked it up, and I was one of those on the wrong side. Despite the unanimous agreement of the sources we consulted, it was hard for me to accept my wrongness. Isn’t that stupid? I did accept it, though, and I guess the point I’m making is that we should try to be aware of our biases toward what we already think. It’s this one, by the way: \.

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Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker giving an interview at the March for Science

I mentioned in the mission statement of this blog that I have no patience for climate denial, and I don’t. Climate change is real. It’s objectively proven, consensus has been established, and the models for its impacts have proven essentially accurate. I didn’t arrive at this conclusion without doubts. During college I was exposed to the opposing views and few dissenting publications, via news and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, among other things. At that time I did have a strongly held belief that climate change was real and anthropogenic, but I forced myself to review and study the science that seemed to support the other side. As I did so, I came to find that those works were systematically refuted by better science. I say all of this not to take some sort of moral high ground but to establish that on this particular topic I have done my due diligence and I do not speak from ignorance.

If I had doubts of my own, why am I so aggressively opposed to climate denial now? Because doubt is an important part of the scientific method, and the evidence is more than strong enough to withstand that doubt. Because the “science” of dissension has become more fringe and earned those quotation marks. Because rejecting this particular science is not just wrongheaded and short-sighted, it is dangerous. If you don’t believe in evolution I will disagree with you, and I will argue, but ultimately your belief does no direct harm to others and so I can accept it. Deniers of human-caused climate change are doing tangible harm to me and to the world in which I live by way of their beliefs, and so this is a disagreement I cannot ignore.

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And some slick dinosaurs

I can’t quite wrap my brain around the arrogance of politicians and pundits that tells them their opinion on a scientific matter is more valid than that of the actual scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying it. Of course my opinion isn’t more valid than those scientists either, but the difference here is that I find myself in agreement with the climate scientists. There are surely subjects on which I hold opinions or beliefs in opposition to the scientists in that field. I am almost certainly wrong about virtually all of those things. I hope I am wise enough to accept that wrongness and adjust my worldview when and if I learn about the science that contradicts me.

I suppose I’ve spewed forth on this long enough now,  so I’ll just end by saying Happy Earth Day!

Taking a Moment

It’s a beautiful Tuesday at lunchtime, and I need to be outside. I hit up a McDonald’s drive-through and park near the Rock Creek Trail. I eat hurriedly and begin a stroll with rap music incongruously providing a mental accompaniment (I’ve been reading Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book). Robins sing and doves coo while squirrels scurry by amid a blanket of lesser celandine and leaf litter. The cover is dotted here and there with purple violets and white spring beauties. I hear the calls of other birds I don’t quite recognize, but I have forgotten my binoculars. One in particular is harsh and low, tantalizing in the middle distance. Squinting and straining, I almost misstep into a pile of deer scat. When I recover and glance down, I spy a water strider gently keeping pace against the slow flow of the stream before me.

A moment later I spot a single bloodroot in bloom on the other side of the path and pause to snap some quick pictures with my phone. A nuthatch scolds me; I accept the criticism and move on. With my shift in perspective more bloodroots and some cutleaf toothwort emerge from the background. A review of my photos tells me I had completely missed a small patch of ground ivy, as well.

As I near the stream’s mouth where it joins Rock Creek proper, a tree hangs perilously over the far bank, its mossy roots exposed and entangled like something Jurassic. Goldfinches and crows punctuate this scene with their starkly contrasting calls.

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I turn back, knowing I have little time left to appreciate nature’s masterwork. Either the cacophany or my perception of it intensifies. I pick out a cardinal here, a downy woodpecker there, then suddenly and obviously a pileated woodpecker. Frogs, too, add their voices to the composition. I pause to roll over a log, remembering a handsome garter snake I’d found in this exact spot some months ago. Nothing this time, so I rock the log easily back into place.

During the final steps of my journey, a few less than pleasant thoughts start to creep in: the invasiveness of all that lesser celandine, the casually discarded garbage scattered about the streambed, my need to return to my office in but a few moments. I push them aside, aided by a pair of passing blue jays calling back and forth. “This,” I think. “All of this is life.”

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Two Bird-Related Discoveries

Listen, I understand that three posts in a row about birds might not be ideal, and I promise this isn’t about to become a birding diary. It’s winter, though, and birds are kind of the most exciting thing going ’round these parts. So, I’ve been birding a lot and in the process I’ve discovered a couple of great new tools for bird identification. Well, one of them is new to me and the other is a new feature to an existing tool, but I call poetic license here. Either way it’s an excuse to post a bunch of old bird photos.

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The first is ebird.org, a tremendous undertaking of citizen-science. The site collects data from birders all over the globe and uses the information in all manner of scientific endeavors. It’s teaching biologists about birds distribution, relative abundance, movement patterns, habitat preferences, responses to climate change, and more. You don’t have to know a ton about birds to contribute, just be able to identify a few and report on what you’ve seen. Submitted checklists are reviewed and flagged for further confirmation if anything seemingly unlikely shows up. Observations can be submitted online or via their handy smartphone app. Their data is available to the public at large, and the amount of information available is staggering. I’ve already learned a lot from the site in a short time. For one thing, I now know more about how bird counting works: precise numbers don’t matter much but any estimate is better than saying “at least one.” That’s just from a couple of the articles, though. The “Explore Data” tab is an unparalleled  wonder of nature nerdery. You can subscribe to alerts for rare bird sightings in your area – or temporarily for places you’re traveling to. You can export targeted lists of birds you’re likely to find in a given place at a given time. I guess what I’m saying is, “Nature’s hottest club is ebird…”

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The second is that the Cornell Lab of Ornitholigy’s Merlin Bird ID has added a photo ID feature. It takes up a bit more space but once you download the add-on it’s basically two taps to a fairly reliable ID. I took the below bad-to-mediocre photos of a winter wren today at lunchtime (yes, I spent my lunch break birding). I’d already IDed the bird through conventional means, but I used it to test the app, starting with the best photos and working through to the worst. Winter wren was the first suggestion every time. I know this is anecdotal, and there could be any number of reasons that this particular bird is an easy one for the app to get right… but I am impressed.

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12 Months of Nature: January

Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam

Some time ago at a used bookstore in Silver Spring I discovered Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. It’s a month-by-month guide to seasonal events in nature offering tips on how, when, and where to observe some breathtaking scenes. I’ve relied on it to point me toward new and exciting experiences a number of times, and this year I’m going to choose one event per month to talk about here.

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One of the very first eagles I saw at Conowingo Dam, in 2012.

It wasn’t long after I bought the book that I put it to good use. Its first entry for January is about viewing bald eagles at Conowingo Dam (where US Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River). At the time I’d only seen a handful in my life, and the opportunity to see several at once was too good to pass up. I thought maybe we’d get the chance to see four or five, a treat well worth the ninety minute drive. We arrived and saw a promising number of folks with fancy cameras, binoculars, and spotter’s scopes, but at first all I saw was a few black vultures and a ton of gulls. Given a few minutes to adjust to the landscape, though, we started seeing them. At first we saw one in a tree right in front of us, and then a couple more soaring overhead, and gradually more and more until we realized there were dozens all around. One dove into the river and returned to a tree right next to where we were standing to devour its prize.

This congregation of eagles happens predictably at Conowingo Dam every winter. As ponds, lakes, and streams in the region freeze the Susquehanna remains one of a few ready food sources in the region. As a bonus for the eagles (and gulls, cormorants, ducks, and vultures) the dam stuns fish every time its flood gates are opened. The birds have learned that the sluice alarm is a dinner bell for them. Even in relatively warm winters they appear in great numbers knowing that a feast awaits.

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Speaking of feasts… vultures hang out to bus the tables, so to speak.

Laurel and I have made this an annual pilgrimage since that first time, and only once have we come home disappointed. That year we were forced by weather to wait until February, by which time the activity had tapered off. The area around the dam is almost always decent for birding in general, but the eagles thin out between February and October. I was inspired to go early (December instead of January) this year because I had heard there was an “official” count of over 250 bald eagles in a single day earlier that month. I’m not an experienced bird counter, but when we visited on 12/23 I came up with a conservative count of 67 bald eagles, not to mention at least 150 black vultures, hundreds of gulls, a dozen or so geese, a pair of cormorants, and a small flock of mallards. In past trips we have seen golden eagles as well as many species of “backyard birds” in the woods downstream of the dam. The highlight of those was a pair of pileated woodpeckers a couple years ago; always a treat unto themselves.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about bald eagles is what they sound like. We’re enculturated to believe they possess a primal scream, unleashed with fury as they dive upon their prey. The Colbert Report, for example, uses the call of a red-tailed hawk for its snarkily patriotic intro. However, in reality they sound more like some kind of gull or blackbird with a sort of high-pitched chortle. I lack adequate onomatopoeic skills to describe it, so I’ll just recommend you listen.

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This one seemed to have a wound in its right eye – probably from a fight with another eagle.

Another thing that can be confusing at first is that bald eagles don’t develop the distinctive white heads until their fourth or fifth year, and that males and females share the feature. Juvenile bald eagles can be difficult to distinguish from golden eagles for this reason, but after a few trips to Conowingo it’s become much easier for me.

I don’t think I have quite the patriotic reverence for bald eagles that some of my countrymen seem to, but I am awestruck by the site of even one. To see them in the kind of numbers one might expect of robins or starlings and watch them fish is an unforgettable experience. I can’t recommend a winter trip to the Conowingo Dam highly enough. I’ll refer you to another WordPress blog I came across for a great write-up of how best to enjoy a great day of eagle watching.

New Year, (Mostly) Old Birds

As I enter my age-33 naturalism season,* I find myself seeking new challenges to keep me on my toes. One of those is to continue the improvement and expansion of my butterfly garden. Another is to keep the momentum going on this blog. Most of the rest are general, like “continue to learn about nature” and “ride my bike more.” So far there is only one challenge for the coming year that I’ve put a number on, and that is birding.

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A northern cardinal at my in-laws’ feeder

I was at my in-laws’ home to celebrate the New Year, and I couldn’t help but sit and watch their feeders for big chunks of each day. The common feeder birds there aren’t all that different from those here, but they had this chair in the window and I didn’t have any pressing tasks to accomplish, so I indulged. I was also able to work in some nature walks and talk the family into joining me for some of them. I suppose in winter on Cape Cod it is all about the birds. In addition to the backyard birds I saw an abundance of interesting waterfowl at the Cape Cod Canal. The abundance and diversity inspired me to formulate a personal challenge; in 2017 I want to document more species of birds than I have confirmed in my life prior to 2017.

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An enormous flock of common eiders at one end of the Cape Cod Canal. This was the largest of four or five flocks we saw.

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Even Franklin and Oscar were in on the birding.

That probably sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s no Big Year. I am still learning to distinguish many types of birds, so it’s certain that I don’t have confirmed sightings of many of the birds I have actually seen. As of 12/31/16 my lifetime list stood at 160 species, setting my challenge bar at 161. By contrast, North American birders’ Big Years go well over 500 species (and the top ten are all over 700). So my goal is a Modest Year by expert standards which just happens to be a big one for me.

I think the target is attainable. I reached 33 species over the first five days of the year, and I really only had free daylight hours in which to look on two of those days. More significantly, three of those species were new to my lifetime list. The real challenge is going to be finding enough new-to-me species to make up for those I’ve recorded before but have virtually no chance of finding this year. There are another 30-50 no-doubters which I will see just by virtue of spending time outside in Eastern North America, and frankly the vast majority of the 160 pre-2017 species are relatively common birds. After logging only duplicates yesterday, this morning before even leaving my home I saw 18 total species, checking off 5 more for the year. A short walk in late afternoon added 4 more for the day, two of which were new for the year. That puts me at 25% of my goal with 2% of time expended. The redhead I saw in Wheaton Regional Park’s Pine Lake was another addition to my lifetime list.

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An eastern towhee, mourning dove, and a pair of white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders this morning.
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The best shot I could get of the redhead, spotted keeping to the outskirts of a small flock of Canada geese.

Me from a few years ago would find it odd that birding is such a focus for me in 2017; as recently as 2011 or so I’d say that birds (especially the everyday birds of suburbia) were of little interest to me in comparison to other wildlife. That’s not to say I didn’t like birds, but they were a lower priority to me for some reason. I think it was partly a surrender after struggling to ID them in the field. Then I got the Sibley Guide to Birds, discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website (and later, their app) and got a good pair of binoculars. Trips to the Everglades and Costa Rica didn’t hurt, either.

Now that I’ve spent a few years studying the birds I see with a careful eye (and ear) some things which seemed hopelessly murky are much clearer to me. Small, drab birds used to all look alike to me, but now it only takes a couple of seconds to pick out a house sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, house finch, or winter-plumage American goldfinch. Birdsong also once sounded to me like a complicated mishmash of high-pitched squeals, but I can reliably identify many common species by ear these days.

I’ll wrap this up with my 2017 list so far (in order of first sighting).First-time sightings in bold.

  1. white-breasted nuthatch
  2. black-capped chickadee
  3. northern cardinal
  4. house sparrow
  5. dark-eyed junco
  6. tufted titmouse
  7. American goldfinch
  8. downy woodpecker
  9. white-throated sparrow
  10. song sparrow
  11. red-bellied woodpecker
  12. Carolina wren
  13. American crow
  14. mallard
  15. Canada goose
  16. hooded merganser
  17. hairy woodpecker
  18. common eider
  19. ring-billed gull
  20. bufflehead
  21. red-breasted merganser
  22. lesser black-backed gull
  23. American black duck
  24. great black-backed gull
  25. common loon
  26. surf scoter
  27. white-winged scoter
  28. mute swan
  29. American wigeon
  30. Carolina chickadee
  31. European starling
  32. rock dove
  33. American robin
  34. mourning dove
  35. Eastern towhee
  36. northern flicker
  37. blue jay
  38. northern mockingbird
  39. redhead
  40. house finch
*shout-out to all my sports nerd readers who get that joke, by which I am pretty sure I mean one dude.

Year-End Recap (Obligatory)

I don’t really like those year-end recaps that everyone does. I am doing one of those year-end recaps that everyone does. Enjoy my year-end recap that everyone does.

2016 sucked, right? That seems to be a pretty widely-held opinion. I don’t disagree, but this trend didn’t really apply to me in direct and personal ways, for which I am grateful. I hope that 2017 is friendlier to a lot more people the world over, but for now I’m going to focus on the good in my own life in 2016 by sharing some nature stories and photos.

I’ll begin, appropriately enough, in January. We in the DC area had quite the snowstorm early this year. We’ve been seeing more of these in recent years to a degree that the area’s snow removal infrastructure is simply not prepared for. Of course it would be fallacious to attribute any one storm to climate change (that’s weather), but the increase in frequency and severity is exactly what the models project.

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Wheaton under a couple feet of snow

My nature story of the year is definitely the progress of my butterfly garden, including the bench I built in February. I was able to use natural wood and just one long 2 x 6 board. We’d been forced to cut down a dead maple in our backyard in November, so I had an ample supply of logs.

March was a time for more garden prep, but it also yielded my first photos of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), found on the Rachel Carson Trail amid the vernal pools and wood frog eggs. I was also pleased to find some beautiful narrowleaf blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) in Wheaton Regional Park.

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Skunk cabbage is a very cool – if a little bit gross – flower, and one of the area’s earliest bloomers.
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Some of that blue-eyed grass I mentioned, found near the parking lot for the Brookside Nature Center.

The early planting, weeding, and digging continued into April and May, interspersed with short hikes around the neighborhood and to other local destinations. One pleasant walk in late April brought me sightings of much of the common local fauna and flora at its springtime finest.

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A cheeky little eastern chipmunk
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some lovely azaleas

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A family of Canada geese
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A redback salamander
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A red-eared slider

The late spring and early summer was mostly marked by studying visitors to my butterfly garden, most of which were not yet butterflies or moths.

 

Above are a handful of the flowers these bugs were visiting; below is a surprise garter snake (not found in my butterfly garden).

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An eastern garter snake seen on a branch of the Rock Creek Trail in Rockville

I think my favorite new-to-me species in 2016 was the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). I saw several of these on a few different trips to Brookside Gardens and they really were spectacular. They look like hummingbirds, sound like bees, and dazzle like orchids but they’re really large moths.

Narrowing down which landscapes and wildlife photos to share from our August trip to Vermont’s Green Mountains was a real challenge. I’m not confident that I’ve picked the best or the most interesting, so maybe I’ll come back to it in a later post. It really was a fantastic trip.

The rest of the summer and into the fall, I began to really see the payoff of my butterfly garden. Butterflies and moths, birds and squirrels, some surprise visitors, and the flowers themselves were all quite rewarding sights.

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Caterpillars! These are more or less the point of all the work. (These in particular are monarchs.)

 

I’ve hardly included everything that I could have (I’m saving a few things from this winter for a future post or two, for example). We took a late fall trip to Shenandoah National Park and I generally try not to let my interest in nature take a total nosedive through the winter. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed my year-end recap that everyone does.

More Year-End Recaps That Everyone Does