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The Pine Trees of My Childhood

The pure scent of pine trees and the terrible stench of smog—these opposites planted the first small seeds of love for the environment in my heart.

I grew up in California east of Los Angeles in the 1950s. At that time, the fading rim of the LA megalopolis encroached like a consuming alien on the hot desert edge where I lived. As Los Angeles grew, it ate into the orange groves that were once ubiquitous in the valleys, and it devoured the surrounding hillsides and deserts.

Finally, it ate into the air, as well.

As the heat rose in late spring and summer in the 1950s, Southern California smog became a problem of London-before-coal-laws proportions. I remember deep aches in my chest after playing outside in the smog. Frequent smog alerts shortened school days at my elementary school and held us children captive, inside.

Old people died from the pollutants in the air.

LA’s smog descended upon our stucco houses, smothering their soft yellows, whites, or pastel blues. The haze depressed me as I grew, with its dullness, its irritants, and its poisons: reminders of dimmed colors, lost orientation, and smog smothered dreams.

Whole mountain ranges disappeared behind smog’s poisonous veil.

In winter Mount Baldy, part of the San Bernardino mountain range located due north of Ontario, my hometown, was the glory of the region. In late spring and summer, though, Mount Baldy vanished for days, even weeks on end. If I was an early riser I might catch a mystic glimpse of it, before smog once again obliterated it from sight.

 

                                 Wikimedia.org

The camp grounds on Mount Baldy were at a sufficiently high altitude, though, that even in the 1950s, we could camp above the heavy smog. My father and I did this on occasion, rising into fresh mountain air, into the crisp California night, into the stars, where the Milky Way felt like a touchable entity, the stars were bears and seven sisters, and they could be located by a small girl and her father equipped with a star-gazer map.

My favorite memories with my father are of us camping there, snuggled side-by-side in our sleeping bags—tent free, so we could study the stars.

In this private world, pine trees hovered over us like friendly, sheltering giants. As my father and I lay beneath the stars, we talked about astronomy, watched meteoroids flash across our view as they entered the atmosphere, discussed the misery of smog and its destructive effect on the natural world, and talked of how nice it was to camp high in the mountains, until I fell asleep, knowing that I would awake to the familiar scent of my father fixing bacon and eggs, and of the pure mountain scent of pine sap.

The pines where we camped had not yet succumbed to the effects of the smog. This toxin would soon rise from the valleys below, though. Like creeping tendrils of wild vines entangle, bend, and break structures, slowly turning them to ruins, smog would soon rise and poison the trees even at these high elevations, turning them brown and making them die.

All this destruction happened in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, before humankind regained its sense and acted to stop the devastation.

By the 1960s, the frightening effects of smog on California’s trees, and particularly its pines, were becoming understood. By that time, smog had killed 46,000 acres of pine trees in our San Bernardino forest. Many died—but not all.

By the 1990s, environmental guidelines had begun to heal our sickened air. Some people resented these rules, imposed on home incinerators, industries, and cars. (Most disliked? The catalytic converter.) Despite their outcries, though, the regulations saved our mountain pines, at least for the time being.

I am truly indebted to the scientists, environmentalists, and activists of the mid-20th century who combined their efforts to save human lives and the remaining pines by enacting effective anti-smog regulations.

The smog of my childhood was visible and stank. The grey death stench of climate change is invisible, but it is just as real. Its shadow shows in the bleaching of our coral reefs and in the melting of our polar ice caps.

To make a difference today, we need to cooperate with our international neighbors on climate change strategies. We need to work together to resist efforts to undo climate change policies and regulations.

Although today I still struggle to know how to have an impact as an environmentalist, my concern for the natural world began when I was a child living with the terrible effects of people-made smog, on me and on the pine trees.

I struggle to know what I can do, and one way I’m seeking to grapple with the problems faced by our earth is by writing this blog.

A great deal has already been lost, but not all. We have worked together before and we have been successful. We can still heed the warning of the pine trees of my childhood, and protect this precious planet—if we will.

My Love Affair with Scotland

I’m in a love affair with Scotland. I lived there for three years thirty years ago, and in the intervening years, I’ve returned thirteen times.

This past summer, I spent five weeks in Scotland: exploring Edinburgh anew, a city of turrets and spires; revisiting Midlothian where our family resided; rambling through coastal villages in Fife; visiting my sister, her husband, and dear friends; and feasting on visions of “drystane dykes” (stone walls without mortar) and rolling vistas descending to the Firth of Forth.

The skies were clear blue; flowers–roses, fuchsia ‘trees,’ lavender, and poppies, all at their peak–overflowed pots and beds.

And the golf courses and hillsides—unexpectedly—were turning from their usual emerald green to yellow-gold and then to shades of brown, far too early for this predictably rainy country.

One of Scotland’s well-known, humorous postcards is divided into four boxes, each containing one of the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Each box pictures a sheep standing in the rain—winter snow/rain, spring rain, summer rain, and fall rain.

“Welcome to Scotland, where the seasons don’t matter” says a joke.

When it rains in Scotland, people just get on with it.

Rain has made Scotland a haven for flower lovers, like me, and a go-to-place for a lot of golfers. (It’s a country of only 5.3 million people, but Scotland boasts 550 golf courses!) It is not known as a go-to-place for a summer tan. But it was this year.

This year—the summer of 2018–the seasons mattered. During the five weeks I was there, it rained only twice.

Scotland’s churches celebrate harvest Sunday in September. But this summer, Scotland’s farmers started harvesting in mid-July.

On June 28th, Glasgow, Scotland, topped 91.7 degrees—the second highest temperature ever recorded anywhere in Scotland. The BBC reported that “The ‘weatherproof’ membrane on Glasgow Science Centre’s roof melted and dripped black ‘goo’ down the building” because of the heat—Scotland, like many other places, isn’t prepared for such temperatures.

In a report from the Met Office (the people behind British weather forecasts), “there has been a general increase in summer temperatures averaged over the country as a result of human influence on climate, making the occurrence of warm summer temperatures more frequent.” And they add, “Every region of the UK is forecast to see average summer temperatures rise by around three degrees over the next 60 years.”

Scotland wasn’t alone in experiencing such a summer. During the first week of July, in the north, from Siberia to Canada–and across the rest of the globe—the planet baked.

Scientists from both NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have said that “17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.” Seriously.

As the Washington Post said, “No single record, in isolation, can be attributed to global warming. But collectively, these heat records are consistent with the kind of extremes we expect to see increase in a warming world.”

Scotland 11 37534591_10212238571584339_3993478377280372736_nA warming world could be considered good news for those who want Scottish suntans. It could portend trouble, though, for Scottish golf courses, bird life, fisheries, flowers, and farmers.

The Scientific community has agreed that humans are playing a leading role in climate change. They do not and will not agree on how fast it is warming, the extent of our species’ role versus other causes, or the specific consequences of climate change. Science doesn’t work this way. Science hypothesizes and tests out theories to get nearer to good conclusions. But thousands of experiments have led to their consensus that climate change is real, dangerous, and an emergency the whole world must address intentionally. Now.

Scotland is determined to be one of the countries taking the lead. According to the Scottish government, they plan to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 1950.”

All of Scotland’s efforts won’t be enough, though, unless the rest of the world—including the United States—is on board.

Friends, we need to vote out anyone who says they don’t believe in climate change. We need to vote in those who acknowledge it and plan to do something about it. We need to stand with local, state, and federal agencies that are making climate change a priority. We need to get on board, and we need to get our country on board, as well.

I want to still see pots and beds that are bulging with flowers, and fields that are emerald green, on my next visits to the Scotland that I love.

Consider the Birds of the Air

I’m currently in Scotland visiting family and friends. Last night, gathered on a rustic bench and folding chairs outside my friends’ farm cottage, one friend played his guitar while we all sipped wine and talked. Behind our gentle evening, birds chirped loudly from their aerial world. I sit today on that same bench, listening, as pigeons coo from the ridge of the barn roof and dozens of white bellied, split-tailed swallows, here for only a short while on their annual migration, sweep between trees on unseen errands, singing all the while.

Some years ago, after roaming with my husband John from California, to Chicago, through Scotland, and then to Indiana, I moved into a home with a sun room. Just outside the sun room, I planted a garden of flowers that birds would enjoy, and in the garden, I positioned birdhouses and feeders.

Jesus is recorded as having said, “Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them…. Will He not do so for you, oh you people of little faith?”

He was suggesting, I think, that we should not be greedy and accumulate more than we need.

Reading that passage, I am reminded of an observation made about it by George MacDonald, a late 19th century Scottish pastor, writer, poet, philosopher, and sometimes socialist experimenter, who noted that those who read this Scripture often neglect Jesus’ first directive:

Consider the birds of the air.”

Pay attention to nature. What does it illustrate? How is it instructive? Consider, and learn.

One day, while sitting in the sun room, I watched as birds winged back and forth between their airborne world and my feeders. A cardinal pair visited shortly, then departed. Two downy woodpeckers, boasting striking, bright red head marks and black and white wing coats, took over. Sparrows, ever present, popped in and out. Newly launched baby wrens, born in a bird house I had attached to the patio wall just above the window, fluttered between the home of their birth and the phlox and other flowers in the garden, drawing nearer to my feeder with each nervous flight. Gold finches landed, eager to feed on the sunflower seeds and cracked corn. Purple finch dropped in.

It soon became a bird mob, the whole mob chattering at once. Their songs were at odds—chirping, warbling, tweeting. The birds weren’t trying to harmonize–they were singing their own songs. Sometimes they tussled for position; often, though, they appeared content eating together, gorging at the full larder, chattering in their distinctly different voices.

Watching them brought me joy; in their variety, I saw God’s joy in diversity. “The Lord is loving toward all He has made” (Psalm 145:17).

Birds the world over, however, are at great risk. Due to habitat degradation and climate change, hundreds of common bird species are becoming endangered. According to the Audubon’s Birds and Climate Report,

Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

Among those endangered? The American White Pelican, the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle, the Boreal Chickadee, the Brown Headed Nuthatch, the Common Loon, hawks, warblers, owls…. I cannot imagine our world without them. And this problem is multiplied globally.

Here in Britain, where I’m visiting, 67 bird species are threatened—including the curlew, puffins, skylarks, and Scotland’s rare capercaillie.

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Scotland’s Capercaillie

These birds are at risk of vanishing because humans overuse resources and ignore those with whom we co-exist on this blue and green globe. We are indeed a planetary disease, destroying all in our path in our greed to have more than we need.

I don’t know all that needs to be done to slow climate change and the decimation to birds that Audubon and other observers suggest could occur this century, and I’m still struggling to discover my part in the global efforts to end the destruction. But we all need to realize that action is urgently needed, now, or it will be too late.

Regulations are not the bad thing some people make them out to be. If they protect the land, water, or atmosphere that life on earth needs to survive and thrive, they are indispensable. If they preserve fragile bird species, they are well worth a bit of inconvenience to human beings.

We need to stand up to those who act as if the wealth of the few is more important than the well-being of all. We need to shake off our short-term thinking and attend to the long-term health of the entire planet.

We are only one species among many. All of the creatures of the earth are interdependent. All are important to the well-being of the whole.

Consider the birds of the air, Jesus said. We need the birds to survive if we are to obey His directive.

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Why Dad? From High in Our Mulberry Tree

When I was just big enough to climb trees, my dad built my sister and me a tree house: flat-bottomed, 4’/4’ square, with 1’ high sides. He built it in our sturdy fruitless mulberry tree, where the bark was rough, the leaves ample, and the environment suitable for a small girl who needed to escape her house, with its many tensions, and who would always need to explore the outside world.

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The fruitless mulberry. Wikimedia.

The tree house had a rope attached with a bucket, where my mom could place sandwiches and supplies. This made it perfect.

I often ventured into the upper regions, stepping near the trunk where the branches were strong. From my perch high in the mulberry, I had my first glimpses of a wider world.

Of course, I’d traveled in every direction I could see—from the Alpha Beta grocery store in the Northwest, to my elementary school in the Northeast; from Stater Brothers in the Southeast, past track homes like my own in the Southwest. But from high in the tree my mind wandered, and I wondered what lay further, what was beyond all that I could see.

From this tree I could stretch my eyes—I had a need to see distant places.

We humans need to stretch our eyes and see beyond our tiny worlds—physically and psychologically. We imagine something more, and we pursue it. We see an unknown object, and we examine it. We wonder how something works, and we attempt to repeat it. We see another way of doing something, and we consider its value for ourselves. We meet an unanswered question, and we ask “how?” and “why?”

This is the way we discover new views, ideas, perspectives, understanding, or facts.

I tell my first-year college students that one difference between high school and college is that in high school, you were frequently told who, what, when, and where, and the answers seemed settled. In college, you are expected to ask how and why, and to examine both the process and the results.

With a father like mine, asking how and why was inbred. Sometimes, such a querying spirit has felt troublesome (or it has appeared troubling to others). To me, being curious about the how and why has sent me on a path of never-ending exploration and growth.

When I was very young, my dad and I built a go cart together. I remember hammering and painting it, and I recall practicing with it on the pavement, but I do not remember ever using it in a go cart race—although that was our voiced intention.

“What makes it go, Dad? How will it stop?”

“You’ll make it go. You have to kick!” he explained. “We’ll put a brake on. I’m not going to let you race down the street without a damn way to stop.”

Or our homemade rock grinder. My dad built it from scratch—it looked like a cylindrical washing machine tube extracted from the machine, on legs.

“What is it dad; how does it work?” I asked, walking around it on all sides, my stumpy pigtails swinging.

“It’s a rock polisher! It spins, and uses rocks and sand to rub the rough edges off stones, like beach waves use sand to polish beach pebbles. I’m polishing obsidian nodules.” I looked at the machine dubiously. It spun slowly, rocks clanging, clunking.

How long will it take?” I queried.

“Days. You can’t be impatient.”

Why did you make a rock polisher dad? What are you going to do with the rocks?”

CO OBS Stone 3“I’m conducting tests. I want to know how long it takes to polish these raw stones.”

My dad kept records of his experiments. Periodically, he would remove a partially polished obsidian nodule, record the hours it had been in the polisher, and label it with tape. Today, I have some of these nodules, still marked. The longest recorded time says “72 hours.”

I learned to ask how and why because my dad was insatiably curious and interested in testing known and unknown processes for himself—and of course, I wanted to know what he was doing, how, and why.

When my dad learned that the soil in the Inland Empire was too cool to hatch tortoise eggs, he tried alternatives.

Why are you digging up the tortoise eggs, dad?!” I queried.

“They won’t hatch. We’re too far from the desert—it’s too cold here,” he explained. “So I’m putting them someplace warmer.”

He began by putting them in a box, covered by cloths, beneath the water heater. Later, he moved them to a home-made incubator with a temperature controlled light. His experiments worked—we hatched dozens of tortoises using these methods.

When some didn’t hatch, despite his efforts, he wanted to examine them. He placed unhatched eggs in a box and stored them—where else—in our refrigerator, for later study.

Give my mom credit for patience.

We all need to learn to go beyond what we already know or believe; to discover what we do not yet understand; to learn from God, nature, and others—those like ourselves and those quite different—to grow into truly empathetic human beings.

It takes humility to do that. Self-awareness, without pride. The space to stretch our eyes to new horizons and different ideas.

We may all want to begin by spending some time in a good tall tree.

Star Sightings!

Hiking by ourselves in the California High Sierras, my husband John and I camped far above timberline, beside a still, pristine lake, surrounded by heavy boulders in lieu of mountain pine. That evening we ate big golden trout, unwary and easily caught, for our dinner.

As my father and I had done when I was a child, John and I slept tent free, open to the night around us. Rain came infrequently in September in the Sierras. We preferred to sleep only in downy sleeping bags, our vision unfettered by a covering of canvas. In this place, far above civilization, out of reach of star-dimming light, on a moonless, clear night, the sky seemed embodied with stars and galaxies.

Wikimedia VISTA's_infrared_view_of_the_Orion_Nebula
Orion Nebula    Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/Vista   

Knowing better, I extended my arm, wanting to touch them, caress them. Thousands of stars—some shining pure light, others shimmering—painted the black sky with gleaming dots of white.

We were on the edge of the world, high above the level places, where the atmosphere thinned and the night was black and the stars were the prime attraction.

Glorious stars like those we saw that night bear witness to their Creator. I had learned this on an earlier star sighting. On a dry, clear night, perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky, as my father and I stopped our car on the verge of Interstate 10 and stepped through a row of eucalyptus trees to view the sky, I first encountered the stars capacity to inspire awe.

As I described in another post, that night glowing stars peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory. As I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I have never forgotten it. I never want to.

We often looked for stars when I was a child. Through a telescope, set up on our asphalt driveway, we picked out one constellations after the other. Camping high on Mount Baldy in the San Bernardino Mountains, we watched stars traverse the sky with our naked eyes.

These experiences tell me that stars are more than the sum of the luminous gasses of which they are composed. They are more than beautiful glowing dots in the sky. They have a voice of their own and they cry out in praise of their Creator.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

Scientists say that at least a third of all the people in the world cannot see the stars at night now, because of light pollution. Many more people—as many as two thirds of all who live in the United States–see only a few stars, indistinctly.

Most of us forget even to look up. We have successfully blinded ourselves to the grandeur of the night sky that boundlessly bears witness to its Creator.

Light pollution hurts other creatures as well as ourselves. Bright city lights can confuse migrating birds, causing them to fly over cities until they die of exhaustion. Light from developments on beaches and nearby cities can scare sea turtles off from nesting.

We can do something about light pollution, if we make it a priority. Bending lights downward, rather than upward on city roads would be a start. It would cost us something. But I believe removing light pollution, like other environmental measures, will be worth the cost.

Instead of maximizing profit, those placed here to tend the earth should be minimizing the harmful impact we have on the planet, ridding ourselves of human pride, and letting the earth serve the needs of all its inhabitants, plants and animals. The land, water, air, and even the atmosphere above us are all affected by human activity. We have far to go to tend this planet as we should. I want those stars to speak as loudly to future generations as they have done to me through star sightings

By doing so, we may remove an impediment that we have created between ourselves and the voices of incalculable galaxies declaring the glory of God.

Full photo credit: Wikimedia. Taken 10 February, 2010. ESO/J. Emerson/Vista  http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1006a/

 

It’s a brutal world. We don’t have to add to its brutality.

httpsgoo.glimagesyihtnZWhite ratsdownload
https://goo.gl/images/yihtnZ

When I was seven or eight I raised white rats. They often crawled under my shirt; I loved feeling their tickling toes as they scuttled across my shoulders, along the nape of my neck, and onto my head. They weren’t rats to me. They were like downy pet mice, overgrown.

 

Then one terrible night a mother in my white rat family went insane and killed all the babies. It was my fault, although it had been an accident. My two mother rats gave birth almost simultaneously to 13 offspring. One day, closing the cage door too quickly, I caught the neck of one mother in the door and she died. I felt terrible, for my pet’s death and for my culpability.

The next morning I hurried down the cement steps to our back patio, where the rat cage sat under the living room window, to check on my pets. What I saw has never left me. Half eaten baby rat bodies bloodied the cage floor, some sawn in two like gruesome casualties of a plane crash, chewed bits dangling from tiny body parts. Other babies, their noses protruding, shrunken but elongated from near suffocation, staggered hideously around the cage.

The surviving mother, driven mad, was running from side to side. Unable to cope alone, she was killing the brood. Did I scream? I don’t remember. I cried.

This was my first encounter with the horror that is part of nature, and with the knowledge that even animals can feel overwhelmed to the point of despair and insanity.

Nature is frequently brutal. At my home in Indiana I planted crocus to brighten early spring. Rabbits, ever prolific, gnawed my crocus to stubs before they ever bloomed. Then, a large hawk descended on the neighborhood and two mother foxes dug dark holes in a gulch behind our house, made burrows, and bore kits. Within a year, they killed every rabbit. That spring, my crocus survived. Bunnies are resilient, though. When the hawk and foxes went elsewhere looking for new food sources, the rabbits returned. Soon enough, so did the hawks.

Predators come, take, and leave when the takings are diminished. Like bunnies, the resilient may bounce back. It is a hard world though, and we sometimes wonder if we are among the resilient.

The younger of two sisters, I remember my anxiety as a child at the dinner table. When would I get my share? Would there be enough? Seeking my share first; seeking the bigger share. Anxiety driven dinner manners. The fear that we won’t get “enough” infects us all.

We learn to manipulate to get more. We rape the earth, despite its consequences. We become the predators.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a philosopher, theologian, and social activist who wrote from the 1930s-1960s, shed light on our capacity to be predators. A liberal who wanted to see greater justice in society, he also challenged the overly optimistic views of other liberals who argued that society was getting so much better it could be perfected.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr says that we oppress others most egregiously when we congregate, in our family, tribe, religion, nation, gender, society, profession, or international entity. “Serious sins are mostly communal sins,” he says, adding, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

The group becomes both rationale and means—locus of power—to ensure that we, at least, and those in our group, have enough, even if others have very little or unquestionably not enough, a “not enough” often caused because someone has taken more than they truly need.

This planet has horror enough without our contribution. It can be pitiless, independent of our actions. But tragically people, exploiting the world, are among its most ruthless occupants. Humankind, the great predators. We “plunder, rape, poison, and kill this living system,” as Ian L. McHarg argues in “Man, A Planetary Disease,” “threatening our own extinction.”

We have added immeasurably to the pain, suffering, and despair of the creatures with whom we share this world. We have decimated nesting places, put barriers across migration paths, drawn birds to their death with our indiscriminate use of urban lights, poisoned and polluted their dwelling places, and contributed to the extinction of countless species.

By removing environmental regulations that protect arctic waters, national parks, coastal lands, and air and water sources, we endanger our children’s world.my beacg16298579_10208367341446005_6683342185421786910_n We have done great harm, but we can reverse our course. We do not need to add more to the suffering of the world.

Life abounds with sorrow, but it also swells with goodness and beauty.

It is a broken, damaged world, yet the glory of God still glows within. We can chose whether we add to the brutality of the world or not.

We are not insane. Not yet.

Splendor in Indiana: The Dangers of Shrinking Territory

Leaning forward, a fox peered over the edge of a massive rectangular hole cut deep into the earth. The dark gash would soon become the basement of a house about to be constructed a few hundred yards from my property. Just the previous day, foxes had wandered here freely, shielded by 60 foot sycamore, ash, maple, locust, and walnut trees in this small bit of wood they called home.

fox in.gov download
Credit IN.gov

The fox looked puzzled, wondering. Its territory had been dwindling for some time—now, one more piece was obliterated.

For the seven years I lived alongside this forest remnant, I watched as it shrank piece by piece. Like taking bites out of a sandwich, the owner/developer sold chunks of this small forest land, making room for new homes. It was fast disappearing.

The wood behind my house was part of a tiny bit of forest land near Turkey Pen Creek, which flows west into Honey Creek in their journey to the White River (a wide, shallow waterway cutting straight through the city of Indianapolis).

Hugging the meandering paths made by these creeks, tiny remnants of old woods, bits and parcels really, like ours, persist among the roads and housing developments. Fox, deer, raccoons, rabbits, bobcats, beavers, badgers, coyote, mink, muskrat, skunk, turkey, and woodrats all once lived in these woods; they still dwell in Indiana’s larger forested areas. Just a few skirt from parcel to parcel now, though. Tiny copses, territory for a diminishing variety of animal life.

Seen from my back doorstep, the trees of “my” tiny wood formed a dense screen in the summer that seemed impenetrable. But this was only an illusion. The wood was thin, fragile, its life uncertain.

Still, I took great pleasure in this tiny remnant of Indiana woodland.

Of course, before we moved in, developers had removed other wildlings to make way for what would become my home. Indiana’s forest lands have long been disappearing.

According to the  Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), “Indiana was more than 85% forest land (20 million acres)” before swelling human populations from the east overflowed into the territory in the early 1800s. The entering settlers chopped down the forest land’s most valuable “trees first–black walnut, yellow-poplar, black cherry, and white oak.” When these were gone, they removed the rest, and converted the cleared acreage into farms.

By 1903, only “7 percent of the original amount of forest land” (IDNR) remained.

In the last 100 years, groups have begun to remedy this. Both to protect biodiversity and to enable the harvesting of wood products, Indiana’s forested lands have made a comeback. Today, the IDNR says that nearly 21% of Indiana’s land is forested. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has increased privately owned forest lands, have borne good results.

But overall Indiana’s forests—like others in surrounding states—face grave problems.

The remaining forests suffer from reduced diversity. Of the existing forest lands in Indiana today, “Timberland accounts for 96.7%,” according to the IDNR. Planted for harvesting, timber forests are less varied than old growth or reserved forests. Only 3.3% of the 21% is “reserved” forest land–in state and national parks, or federal wilderness areas.

And of both the timberland and reserved forest land, “41% is in unconnected fragments” (IDNR)

Tiny, scattered bits are generally all that is left of the great, diverse forests that once covered 85% of this state. This makes the few large swaths, like the forests in Brown County that I spoke about in my last post, invaluable, for fragmentation puts the entire ecosystem at risk.

While forest bits are better than no forests at all, forest fragments are less safe for flora and fauna and less healthy than big forest swaths. Fewer large trees survive in these tiny remnants. Animals are cut off from mates, breeding grounds, and food sources. Dissecting roads kill countless inhabitants. According to the World Economic Forum, forest fragmentation is the “primary driver of the global extinction crisis.”

thumbnail_CAM00262Forest fragments are also prone to further parcelization, as the wood behind my house illustrated. Fragmentation can lead to permanent land use changes, requiring more political activism to preserve what remains.

When I lived there, the wood behind my former home seemed tired, frail. One winter a great sycamore split down the center, two-thirds of the way to the ground, where it cracked off, tottered backward, and lay splayed. This was one of four large sycamore trees visible from our yard, and I grieved to see it go. Was its loss a freak of nature, or a sign of hidden decay? Would the others go soon as well?

Indiana’s trees face threats on multiple fronts. (The next post will describe other equally serious threats.)

Preserving forests for their own sake, for the animals’ sake; preserving them for our sake, for our children and for their children’s sake; preserving them for all they contribute to the nation and the world, behooves us.

For the sake of the wild woods… biodiversity… future foxes… we need to see ourselves as part of nature, for we’ll win for us all if we can work together to cherish the whole.

Splendor in Indiana

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Courtesy of Pixabay.

A woman I knew long ago told me that her favorite memory of her home state of Indiana was when the dogwood bloomed in spring among the rolling hills of a region an hour south of Indianapolis called Brown County. When I moved here, I was eager to see these blooming trees for myself. I found more than I anticipated; the dogwood trees of Brown County are part of a fascinating landscape that is as engaging below ground as it is above.

I admit, my first impression of the state of Indiana, after moving here, was that it lacked “impressive” topography. In fact, driving down I 65 from Chicago through miles of flat farmland can be somewhat off-putting. But dig deeper; look further.

Over the years, I’ve been awed by Indiana’s riches beneath the earth’s crust, and inspired by the sublime that lies on top.

The cool term for the study of landforms and what lies beneath is called “Surficial geology.” The Midwest was once under a great lake, and the demise of that lake left skeletons of its inhabitants—fossils—compressed in sedimentary rock, like limestone and dolomite.

0821161609_HDR-1Long after the lake dried, multiple periods of glacial advance and retreat moved other rocks down from Canada, squashed and sliced the northern part of the state flat, and deeply buried the most interesting sedimentary and glacial materials.

This wide, flat plain now provides you with your corn and soybean crops!

In contrast, retreating ice left “tills” and “moraines,” creating ridges and ravines in the middle and southern portions of the state. Brown County lies among them. Here, a massive segment of limestone was uplifted intact and formed into an outcrop called the Salem Limestone. In their book, Stone Country: Then and Now, by Scott Russel Sanders and Jeffrey A. Wolin, Sanders describes this as “a rare, thick-bedded, tight-grained stone that can be quarried in large blocks, cut to any shape, and carved in fine detail.” It is “the largest accessible deposit of premium building stone in the United States,” and was used to build the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Tribune Tower, and San Francisco’s City Hall, for starters. Pretty impressive.

Encompassing a portion of these incredible limestone features are the Brown County Hills—the site of my friend’s beloved dogwoods. These hills include the highest elevations in the state, like Weed Patch Hill, which is 1,058 feet above sea level and part of a geologic feature called the Knobstone Escarpment that moseys south all the way to the Ohio River.

While their elevation may not sound imposing, hill after hill of tree-covered ridges tucked together for more than 300 square miles are exquisitely beautiful. These forested hillsides are also invaluable—according to the Nature Conservancy they are “the largest and most heavily forested land remaining in Indiana.” The whole nation will benefit from their preservation. (Watch for a later post to learn why.)

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2012 Photo in Brown County, by Diego Delso

If you have seen a dogwood, you’ll know that its flowers lie horizontal, like hands outstretched. During spring in Brown County, clouds of pink and white dogwood flowers float in the understory of tall tree cousins: old oaks and sugar maples; pawpaw, sycamore, black walnut, and ash. Standing at an outlook, they all seem to be competing to crowd the acclivities and declivities of Brown County, hogging the glory.

Beneath their canopy, lilac colored redbud contest with dogwood for attention, along with the occasional bloom of a rare yellowwood tree.

During the spring in Indiana, dogwood and other trees bloom profusely all across the state, in woods and forests, in parks and gardens.

It is my favorite season.

In summer, the trees take on an even green. They provide verticality. They rest in their majesty.

But in the fall, to me the trees become an icon, representing the world within the world not yet seen. The chlorophyll levels drop, and the trees’ true colors appear:

I watch, as nature sheds the even green of summer. Like the curtain rent, Autumn drops its veil of green, freeing star spun colors. Green slides down the stems of nature like heaven’s impenetrable curtain parted, revealing colors hardly dreamt, if not remembered: The sunburst yellows, purples, pinks, and ambers that storm forth each year in autumn.

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Indiana boasts a subtle but brilliant beauty, expressed in its hardwood trees and forests. They embellish the land in every season, but in spring and autumn they inspire awe.

Having grown up on the desert edge of LA, when even the cultivated orange orchards were dug up to make way for expanding developments, I have a special love for the hardwood trees of Indiana, its woodlands, and its scattered islands of old growth forests.

Still, destructive forces are impacting our state today, decimating trees that have graced this landscape for millennia.

If we are to preserve the trees in Indiana, and those in other states with trees and forests like it, we need to care for our forested lands and act to reduce these destructive forces.

Some ways to do so will be the focus of my next two posts.

Even Trout Need Trees

Gail Backpack Scan
Climbing over the pass with my 30+ pound back pack.

When hiking in the California High Sierras, my husband John and I always took along our fly fishing rods. We usually planned to include a few brown, golden, or rainbow trout in our menu.

Apologies to vegans, but truthfully, after five or ten days carrying heavy packs, hiking through difficult territory, and subsisting on gorp (raisins, M & Ms, and peanuts), freeze dried food, and boiled water, a dinner of fresh caught trout tasted like a bit of heaven.

I loved fly fishing in the Sierras. Doing so was tricky—flys with hooks easily snag trees, and trees lined the streams along our trails. We couldn’t let the line out as far as we might on a wide river. We usually had to swish the line from side to side over the stream rather than back and forth over our heads. But angling just right to make the fly land gently was part of what made fishing in the High Sierras an engrossing challenge.

fishing ScanThe fish we hunted often hid beneath fallen logs. They lay concealed, watching for a fly or mosquito to land and float up close. The partially submerged trees gave the fish the chance to surprise a bug and snag its dinner.

Knowing their hiding places, those logs gave us an opportunity to catch our dinner, as well. We knew the trout were there, lying in wait beneath the sunken trunks.

In the Sierras, fallen trees provide hiding places fish need for survival. But trees play more than a single role in the survival of fish species. Trees also help make fish fat.

In 2014, the BBC reported on a study showing that deforestation is reducing freshwater fish populations. According to Andrew Tanentzap from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, “Where you have more dissolved forest matter you have more bacteria, more bacteria equals more zooplankton. Areas with the most zooplankton had the largest, fattest fish.” And higher quantities.

Simply put, when we remove forest cover, the fish that depend upon it go hungry. Fewer young fish survive to adulthood. Those that do survive are too skinny to make a good dinner.

As the article noted, this problem effects more than the fish. “Freshwater fishes make up more than 6% of the world’s annual animal protein supplies for humans” and, alarmingly, “they are the major and often only source of animal protein for low income families across Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.” These are places where millions of poor families—men, women, and children—are already hungry.

What we often forget, when people urge action on climate change; or call us to reforest rather than deforest; or say that we ought to retain policies that protect the air, land, and water; or that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to be substantially funded if it is to conduct research and enact regulations to save the environment, even if these actions are sometimes inconvenient; is that saving our environment not only helps the air, land, water, or species we are protecting, but our own species, as well.

Caring for the environment saves lives. It is fundamentally pro-life.

Abusing the environment takes lives. It kills.

There is no way around these facts.

Caring for this earth isn’t a simple obligation. It will take all the energy and creativity we have. I, for one, am struggling to find my way forward to make a difference.

The air, land, and water are worth preserving for themselves. And so are other species. But we ought to also realize that human lives are at stake if we don’t act, persistently, assertively, and proactively, to care for this still lovely fragile blue planet.

We share this ecosystem with millions of other people whose lives depend upon the world’s continuing resources.

 

 

Sea Fog and Starfish

The California Coast can take on a mystic aura in February. I observed this while cozying away at a B&B near Huntington Beach one year ago, during part of a sabbatical from the University in Indiana where I teach.beach pier mine 16508498_10208425390977207_1788845324917153_n

One day, I stood under a pier as fog blanketed the coast. Fog and sea blended at a point of oblivion beneath the pilings; the sounds of wind-whipped waves served as a reminder of the unseen ocean beyond.

On other days, I played in sand made from a thousand crushed sea shells, conversed with sea birds, explored rock-bound tide pools, watched the ocean shift from sage-green to sky blue, sat silent before vermilion sunsets, and camped with old friends. The joy of sea beauty filled my soul.

I love the ocean. Perhaps it’s because it was such a treat for our family to go to the beach when I was a child growing up in California. On childhood family beach outings, my only complaint was when my dad used an old cotton towel to wipe sand from my sunburned shins.

Perhaps this love is caused by the smells I recall from those youthful beach days—seaweed, suntan oil, salty air, beach food.

Perhaps it’s all those negative ions from the crashing waves, or the repetition in the ebb and flow of the tide; the coming crash and receding slide.

I think, in part, it is the sense of infinity I feel when I stretch my eyes to the edge of my vision and cannot see over the arc of the earth to the continents beyond—an endless horizon, unmarred by obstructions, natural or man made.

The sea is in great danger now, though. Scientists warn that the ocean is warming rapidly as it absorbs carbon dioxide. Pollution is decreasing oxygen levels. Coral reefs, highly susceptible to pollution and changes in water temperature, are dying. Over-fishing ibeach sunset mine 16387018_10208367341526007_8310263649798584274_ns extinguishing marine species. Plastics are choking the ocean with plastic islands. “So much plastic is ending up in the ocean that in just a few years, we might end up with a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the sea,” warns the Ocean Conservancy.

And recently, the US Department of Interior said it will auction off oil leases for 47 new sites along the Atlantic and Pacific shelves, Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico, risking oil spills that will kill fish, and obstructing the sublimity of the coasts with dozens of rigs.

The seas, these great bodies of water that keep us alive, need our help.

The sea inspires many stories. I’m going to recount one you may have heard before. The author, Loren Eiseley, wrote many versions of this story, and you may have heard a different, simpler, version.

This one, though, is my favorite.

The shore grew steeper, the sound of the sea heavier and more menacing, as I rounded a bluff into the full blast of the offshore wind. … Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.

Eventually, he stooped and flung an object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over another half-mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

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Google Public Domain

‘It’s still alive,’ I ventured. 

‘Yes,’ he said, and with a quick, yet gentle movement, he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

‘It may live if the offshore pull is strong enough,’ he said. He spoke gently, and across his bronzed, worn face the light still went in subtly altering colors.

‘There are not many come thus far,’ I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. ‘Do you collect?’

‘Only like this,’ he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. ‘And only for the living.’ He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

‘The stars,’ he said, ‘throw well. One can help them.’

He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.

‘No, I do not collect,’ I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. ‘Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.’ … I nodded and walked away, leaving him there with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.

I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had, at any rate, the posture of a god.

But again the eye, the cold world-shriveling eye, began its inevitable circling in my skull. He is just a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he, and along every sea beach in the world.”

beach sky mine 16425716_10208380737260892_1771238825627494920_nBut is it? Eiseley’s star thrower had a more hopeful view than his beach walker.

I choose to have a hopeful view too. I do find it difficult to know where to begin: Reduce disposable plastic? Stop new coastal oil drilling?

Despite my questions, I believe we can make a difference, if we will take into account the common good of all the creatures with whom we share this blue and green globe.

 

 

 

Sanctuary and Science

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Wikimedia.org

Abruptly my father stopped the car, pulling to the side of the road where Holt Boulevard, which runs through my home town of Ontario, California, merges into Interstate 10. It was a dry, clear night—perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky.

We parked our Volkswagen bug on the verge, climbed out of the car, and made our way through a line of towering, sparsely limbed eucalyptus trees that framed the roadway.

Stepping from beneath the tree coverage, we looked up. I gazed in awe.

Glowing stars crowded the sky. They peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory.

And as I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I cannot forget it to this day.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

This encounter was my first inkling of faith. To me, creation became the sanctuary where faith became incarnate. As faith became incarnate through creation, creation became something to respect and care for.

photo by jeremy-thomas-on unsplash.com99326
By Jeremy Thomas on unsplash.com

A few months ago, I heard two stories arising from science that added to my awareness of the sublimity of creation and of the challenges humans face in protecting it.

During NPR’s Ted Talk hour, historian David Christian described the amazing confluence of events that occurred with the big bang and led to the emergence of the human species. Our species, he explained, is unique among all others in our ability to create language “so powerful and so precise that we can share what we learn with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals.” He calls this “collective learning,” and says this learning enables us to transform our environment in ways far beyond the abilities of all other species.

But Christian reminded his audience that this ability also creates dangers, for us and the entire planet. “Collective learning,” he argued, is a “powerful force, and it’s not clear that we humans are in charge of it.” He noted that some of our weapons could destroy the entire biosphere, and our rapid burning of fossil fuels may alter the conditions under which humans have flourished over the last ten thousand years. Our story, he argued, which shows us how special it was that we arrived as we did, also suggests that we should stop focusing on our differences—family, tribal, national, cultural, religious—and concentrate instead on our similarities as a unique species on earth in a vast universe.

Earlier that day, though, I read another story that explains, at least in part, why we don’t.

In The Book of Joy, which records a conversation by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “narrator” Douglas Abrams (yes, a book by a Buddhist, Christian, and Jew) mentioned a discovery from neuroscience. Neuroscientists have learned that humans have three deep, evolutionary “innate (and often unconscious)” goals or drives. One of them is to cooperate.

Sounds good. But…

They also discovered that we have been “hardwired to cooperate with and be kind to those who look like our caregivers.” Meaning we cooperate with those we think of as in our “group,” and we are wary of or less likely to cooperate with those we consider outside our group.

Our dilemma lies between the big picture and the small one.

The big picture:

Seen from a religious point of view, a real being exists behind this amazing creation. Creation speaks; it gives voice to its creator and beckons us through what has been made. It is a sanctuary pointing us to a living God. How can we not cooperate to protect this precious planet, which is a means by which our creator reveals himself to us?

Seen from a scientific point of view, we are a rare outcome of eight billion years of evolution, a fantastically complex species at the far corner of a vast universe. How can we not unite around our similarities as a species, our interconnectedness within this limited biosphere, and use our unique abilities to protect this fragile planet that is our home?

Behold, they agree!

But… the small picture:

The religious view: We sin. We think of ourselves first and struggle to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We look out for ourselves and our groups before we look out for others, because we are self-centered and self-loving.

The scientific view: Our individual hardwiring makes us more interested in cooperating with our tiny group—our family, tribe, social class, nation, or religious affiliation–than with the whole of our unique species.

Fundamentally, and remarkably, they still agree.

We are one species, but we fail to love others. We are one, but we distrust others.

 

beach sky mine 16425716_10208380737260892_1771238825627494920_nWe are one, though; we are interconnected to all the creatures on this planet, and even to the fabric of the universe, however you understand that fabric.

We need to stand in awe of this biosphere, this interconnected world, this amazing universe, made, I would like to suggest, by a remarkable God in a very big bang.

For the sake of our planet, we who were given responsibility to nurture the earth, we who are uniquely gifted to pass on information to the generations who come after us, need to set our minds to stand with the big picture. And resist the little one.