Sanctuary and Science

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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.

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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.  

Something Positive I Could Do

I sometimes feel so discouraged by the groaning of this lovely blue and green planet that I succumb to negativity. And then I feel worse.

Rather than just feeling ashamed of my own poor environmental practices, or angry about the abject failure of people in power to take the needs of the planet seriously, I am trying to find small ways to do things that are constructive. Something positive.

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Invasive Garlic Mustard. Photo by Steven Katovich, U.S. Forest Service.

One of those involved participating in a Nature Conservancy Invasive Garlic Mustard Pull in Indiana, where I live now.

I’ve been a member of the Nature Conservancy for maybe 25 years. I love their work, and I like the way local chapters offer hands on opportunities for people to help.

A few years ago, a small group from my church joined our local chapter in its efforts to fight back against invasive garlic mustard at Cedar Bluffs near Brown County, Indiana. The Nature Conservancy now owns the Cedar Bluffs Nature Preserve, “named for the gnarled red cedar trees that cling to its cliffs” according to naturalbloomington.com, and is seeking to protect this fragile ecosystem for future generations.

Invasive plants are one of the reasons fragile environments like this need protection.

The garlic mustard plant, with its dainty white flowers, was once safely boxed in, fenced in, and contained within home herb gardens. But all that changed.

The hills and valleys of Brown County, Indiana, an hour south of my home in Indianapolis, are made of moraines left at the terminus of the glacial advance during the ice age, unlike the northern part of Indiana, which was sliced flat. Native wild flowers like wild ginger, trillium, and hepatica thrive in this undulating area.

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Hepatica. Wikimedia.commons

Cedar Bluffs sits amidst these moraines.

Wildflowers are so prolific at Cedar Bluffs that botany students from Indiana University visit it regularly for their studies. But this site, like so many other treasures gifted to us by this earth, could soon be lost because it is being engulfed by this simple plant, which has turned invasive.

Some conservationists speculate that as developments edged deer territory, hemming them in, deer wandered through home gardens and carried garlic mustard seeds to woods, fields, hills, and valleys. The plant has an amazing ability to self-fertilize and, unfortunately, few natural enemies in North America.

This dainty flower appears unobtrusive. Once I became familiar with it, though, I saw it everywhere–in my neighbor’s back garden, near the edges of remnant forests, and along the verges of lanes and highways. In Indiana, this little intruder has been devastating. The Nature Conservancy describes it as “one of the ten most destructive invasive species in Indiana today.”

Garlic mustard has an unexpectedly potent destructive ability. Where garlic mustard grows, all other species are crowded out. It’s like a child who, upon entering a room, begins running around knocking things over and causing sudden havoc. But in this case, garlic mustard isn’t just irritating. The havoc it causes is deadly to competing species. Nothing remains but it.

Once at Cedar Bluffs, our group set out on a small trail following a tributary of Clear Creek and then climbing up the limestone cliff with its cedar trees, rock formations, and copious undergrowth. As we walked along the bluffs our Conservancy guide showed us dozens of plants, helping us avoid crushing the native flowers while introducing us to the invader taking over their habitat.

During the garlic pull, our group filled over 20 large black garbage bags with this invasive plant. More mustard remained, but we limited its destructive potential by eliminating it in places and thinning it as best we could.

The Conservancy returns to this site year after year, in a persistent effort to salvage this bounty of native species. While the Nature Conservancy cannot stop all the ravaging done to wildlings by such invasive species, they can preserve a few of our most pristine sites.

Garlic mustard is only one of a numbers of invasive plants taking over across the country. Our action against it was just one small step for nature and biodiversity.

It was, however, something positive that I could do.

My Avocado Tree: Remaking the Possibilities of Life

Trees have been my teachers. I may have learned the most from an avocado tree I planted as a small girl.

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Wikimedia Commons

We called it my tree, because I was the one who had dug the hole and carefully planted the slippery globe into the hard, dry earth. I remember myself as a dirty little girl in pigtails, my body bent like an elbow, as my three-foot frame inspected the miniature, one-foot sapling. My seed was growing!

My home in the Inland Empire was 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many of the burgeoning towns that eat into California east of LA today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them. Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited that good earth. This former orchard soil was well prepared to nurture my avocado seed into its own bright existence.

I knew nothing of our soil’s composition, though. I planted the slippery globe from the yellow heart of this fruit into the dry soil of my backyard because I believed in seeds.

And then, I waited.

I don’t remember the day it emerged, but I do recall my crouched child-frame, inspecting its tender, one-foot beginnings.

We were oblivious, the tree and I, to the vicissitudes of life, and to my avocado tree’s limited chance to survive, much less thrive. Yet this stalwart tree lived longer than the two larger ones that my parents planted in our backyard when they purchased our home in 1950.

My avocado tree grew beside the “turtle yard” on the west end of our back lot. After my father died in 1986, the last of our family’s tortoises were given away to a tortoise preserve, and the honey suckle covered chicken wire fence that enclosed their yard was ripped down, but my avocado tree survived both the shovel and the sheers.

My tree grew through a thick ivy skirt edging the base of the six-foot high brick fence my father had constructed to enclose our lot. The ivy’s tendrils climbed high into the tree, but my tree arched its branches further still, finding breathing room and surviving. It endured for the remainder of the 56 years my mother lived in that house, and I hope it does still.

Through the 19 years I lived there it never bore fruit. A few years after I went away, though, it managed to become pollinated without human grafting. Bird droppings, with specks of avocado in them, may have found their way into a tree wound and “inseminated” it.

My mother called one day with wonder and excitement in her voice. “Gail, your avocado tree has fruit! It’s growing real avocados!” she exclaimed, excitedly.

Two small nodules were all she saw, but they were indeed fruit. They grew, I received one in the mail and ate it, and it was glorious. My avocado tree bore fruit every succeeding year, presenting my mother with large luscious avocados season after season.

Truthfully, this tree had no need to justify its existence. It provided shade to birds and attractive greenery to all who saw it. It had blessed me by its emergence, its growth, and its health. Its very life was a gift. That it survived was enough.

Perhaps we too have no need to justify our existence; perhaps our mere seed-spawned lives, lived out humbly and humanely, are our own planter’s pleasure.

Trees, like other living creatures in this ecosystem, seek to survive; when they can, amidst countless difficulties, they also find ways to thrive. My tree thrived on its own, really, with little to assist it. I take pleasure in that. And comfort.

I have thought often about survival and the art of thriving. My husband John died unexpectedly when we were both 47, and I became a widow as well as the single parent of a 13 and a 9-year-old overnight. During the next few years, I often felt like Tolkien’s Frodo, worn, wounded, and weary. I yearned for my own garden escape—a Rivendell or Lothlorien where I could retreat and be refreshed.

To most of us, mere survival is insufficient to give life meaning. As Thoreau said, “most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and most, I think, are not resigned to doing so. We seek to thrive as well as survive.

Trees that do not thrive frequently do not survive, either. Wilted, they succumb to disease, or hemmed in by more successful siblings, they lose the competitive advantage for water or nutrients, and they slowly die.

Trees look tough, but they are vulnerable. Today, trees face new challenges in their quest to survive and thrive. Countless entire species of trees are endangered.

They are threatened to near extinction by human actions such as deforestation, over-logging, urbanization, pollution, non-native invasive insects, climate change, and much more. But the mere fact that they are here as part of this interconnected ecosystem is certainly enough to justify all of our united efforts to protect them.

And the trees that we save can be our teachers.

As the avocado tree that I planted as a small child might well point out, a seed, small, unyielding, embedded in hard, dry soil, broke forth roots, emerged trembling into the world and, despite minimal tending, through some unexpected encounter, bore fruit, remaking the possibilities of life. Clapping with laughter and joy.

Our Tortoise Managerie

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Wikimedia.org

Our family built a backyard tortoise rescue operation in the 1950s and 60s.

My father worked at Edwards Air Force Base in California, site of the development and testing of the X15 experimental rocket plane, known widely as “the first airplane to reach Mach 3, Mach 4, Mach 5, and Mach 6.” As a small girl, I once watched close up (hands over my ears) as the plane broke the sound barrier.

My father’s drive to work took him from Ontario, on the desert edge of LA, along the San Bernardino freeway east until it veered north through a cleavage in the San Bernardino Mountains, into the desert toward Barstow, before finally swinging west toward Mohave. Long stretches of his drive were on roads dissecting the heart of the California high desert, where the tortoise has lived for over two hundred million years.

Man-made roadways like those he traveled slay thousands of desert tortoises.

Sometimes on his way to work or back my dad passed dozens of crushed tortoises. He once told of his fury at a truck driver he had seen deliberately target a tortoise and smash it.

Sighting the lumbering creature making its slow way across the highway, he had pulled over to the verge, intent on dashing into the road to save it when the way was clear. As he stood, visibly, at the road’s margin, a heavy truck veered into the direction of the tortoise, aimed directly at it, and crushed it under its heavy tonnage. My dad was livid.

Man, a planetary disease, its sickness spread by disregard for fellow planetary inhabitants.

On other occasions, spying a desert tortoise ambling across the highway, my dad would slow his Volkswagen bug to a near stop mid highway, scoop the tortoise up with his hand, and land it in the seat beside him.

It was for the protection of these creatures that we constructed “The Turtle Yard”—our tortoise rescue operation.

When my parents bought our home, they built a six-foot high brick fence enclosing the back yard. To create the turtle yard, my father added a wire fence covered in honeysuckle parallel to and about 20 feet from the yard’s west side wall. The back and west wall of brick, the inner wall of wire and honeysuckle, and a long, wood slat, red front gate enclosed a 20 by 80 foot section of bare dirt, to which my dad added a watering hole.

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This yard housed our growing family of desert tortoises. We quickly collected 20 or 30. Rocky, a huge female, was the champion mama, laying the more eggs than all the others.

One morning, my mom looked out the kitchen window and began yelling. “Ted, Rocky’s loose.” Then, moments later, “Why, it must be Traveler too.” Then louder, and in a more agitated voice, “Ted, come here. The turtles got out! We’ve got turtles all over the back yard!”

They weren’t our tortoises though.

One of my father’s friends had been to a “turtle race.” When no one knew what to do with the assembled tortoises, he offered to transport them to our house and dump them over the back fence. Our tortoise menagerie grew that day from 40 (we were hatching babies) to over 80.dad turtle Scan.jpg

I must have been the only child in my elementary school with a mega tortoise collection. One day, my elementary school principle called me to his office to determine if a large tortoise found wandering on the school grounds was mine. I looked it over. “No, I don’t think so,” I said, “but I’ll take it home anyway.” So that afternoon, I lugged the monster two blocks home to join our tortoise family, where it was welcomed. We did not know, though, that the new tortoise carried a bacteria (either Mycoplasma agassizii or Mycoplasma testudineum), an upper respiratory disease sweeping through the California desert tortoise community.

Soon, a number of our tortoises died from the ravages of this emerging illness.

When this disease struck, we were devastated. Although we had sought to help save the species from human encroachments into their environment, we could not save them from the puzzling illness decimating our tortoise family and so many more of their feral siblings.

This disease was another blow in a list—crushing by automobiles and off-road vehicles, urban development taking over their habitat—that confronted this ancient species. Today, even climate change, causing drought conditions, threatens their survival.

The California desert tortoise has decreased by 90% since the days my father sought to save them in the 1950s and 60s. His way of doing so—scooping them up and bringing them home—is illegal today.

Instead, reserve habitats—one of which became the home of our remaining tortoise family after my father died—are dedicated to their survival. To help save the species, people can even legally “adopt” a tortoise through the California Turtle and Tortoise Club.

During my childhood, our rescue plan seemed like a good strategy, but it was insufficient. Yet like the hardy Bristlecone pine, the California desert tortoise still survives—barely—amidst its alarming losses and reduced habitat. Other species, less supported by preservation efforts, may not persist at all, though, unless more people stop acting like planetary diseases and begin behaving like co-inhabitants of a shared globe.

We need to stand up for this planet. People of all religious, political, cultural, national, and other differences need to take a stand against greed and for the earth.

We have a common stake in this.

I struggle to be effective as an environmentalist. But I know this: more people must work together than are currently doing so if we are to protect this planet, home to over 7.6 billion humans and a host of other incredibly wonderful species.

“Man, a Planetary Disease”

DadOur garage—my dad’s domain—was a black widow spider haven with its dingy, dust-filled corners, crammed spaces, and caved in boxes, piled awkwardly one inside another, empty, like promises unfulfilled.

This space was an odd reflection of both my father’s strengths and his disappointments.

His big workbench filled one end of the square garage, while a long chest of drawers heavy with nails, screws, bolts, old metal bits, wires, tools, sandpaper–the odd assemblage of a WWII aeronautic mechanic—filled another: treasured opportunity to my dad, the son of a ranch hand and farmer, an airplane mechanic by profession, and a scientific inventor at heart; and interesting to me, a scruffy child in need of new discoveries.

As messy as it was, my dad’s garage fostered learning. It was there he constructed a rock polishing machine where I discovered that hidden beauty glistened in ordinary chunks of the earth’s crust.

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My dad constructed a vice for me there on a small workbench, and I learned to use a hammer and saw. We built a wooden airplane; I sanded a wood block into a cross; we constructed a go-cart.

 

It was there he built an incubator where we hatched desert tortoise eggs. (Later, we learned that they did better nestled in a box under our water heater.)

As I wandered through the garage one day, my dad handed me a booklet. “Here, you should read this,” he said in his gruff-hiding-love type voice.

I took the booklet and read the title: “Man, a Planetary Disease.” Wow. Not a comforting title to an emerging young adult. I was still trying to figure out who I was, whether I had anything to offer the world, whether I was likable, how to clear up my pimples. I looked the booklet over, imprinting its title in my brain, but at the time, I did not read it.

I have read it since, though, and I have come to believe that my dad and the booklet’s author, Ian L. McHarg, understood something important.

In the B. Y. Morrison Memorial Lecture in 1971, McHarg argued:

Man is an epidemic, multiplying at a super-exponential rate, destroying the environment upon which he depends, and threatening his own extinction.

He treats the world as a storehouse existing for his delectation; he plunders, rapes, poisons, and kills this living system, the biosphere, in ignorance of its workings and its fundamental value.

The real battle in the world is not between communists and capitalists, black and white, rich and poor, green and purple, heliotrope or gamboge. The real fundamental division in the world is between the people who are not planetary diseases and those who are ….

You may find those words a bit harsh. Obviously, I found it off-putting when I first read McHarg’s title. But McHarg spoke at a time when the world was threatened by nuclear war, DDT, and chemical pollutants inexcusably spewed by irresponsible corporations.

Today’s environmentalists speak amidst other troubles: the threat of nuclear war, biological war, chemical war, everyday war, household pollutants, agricultural pollutants, corporate pollutants, habitat degradation, a killer wildlife trade, plastic islands in our oceans, climate change, and people eager to plunder and rape the world for short-term profit.

Wikimedia.org August_2010_CME_SDO_Multi-Wavelength.jpgHarsh, yes. But true also. The disease is dangerously out of control. Still, we can fight it. We weren’t meant to be a plague on this beautiful blue and green planet.

My dad was an environmentalist before the word became popular. He passed his love of the earth, seas, land, rocks, and trees on to me. Later, God stamped this concern deep in my soul. People were not made to conquer the earth; we are to care for it as beings who are interdependent with its other creatures and with its complex systems.

We must stop our greedy practices, restore and extend systems designed to let the whole earth flourish, and cherish this beautiful planet. We can do this, but it will take personal and political will if we are to do so.

If we do not, and if we do not see the need to do so as urgent, then we will destroy the planet we call home—we truly will be a planetary disease of epidemic proportions.

The Bristlecone Pine

Pine trees dot the California landscape like freckles. They cluster in patches, and survive in the oddest places.

Some years ago, I fingered one of the oldest pines in the world during an adventure in California’s White Mountains with my husband John, who died at the very young age of 47.

John had taught me to backpack, and we loved the California Sierra Nevada Mountain Range—the longest and highest continuous mountain range in the continental United States.

We began each expedition from the east side, spending one night at mid-range to acclimate before hiking over a pass on day two into pristine territory. As we climbed, we traversed terrain suited to a variety of pines—the Jeffrey, Sugar, Lodgepole, and Western White Pine—pine upon pine—until we were above timberline, in a world where 16 inch golden trout made ready meals and stars could be caressed from the warmth of our sleeping bags.

On this particular adventure, wLandrovere had been trekking through Death Valley and Saline Valley, two basins east of the Sierras and south and east of the White Mountains. We were traveling in my father’s wildly outfitted Land Rover. The Rover looked like an ancient space vehicle—painted grey with patches of bright red, a pop-up tent carved out of the roof, and removable shelves that flung out like wings from its windows and doors.

The first night, we were chased out of Death Valley by a sudden, vicious sand storm. Nestled in the tent above the Rover, we smelled the dust as it heralded the tempest to come. We dropped the pop up and drew the wings in quickly, like a frightened turtle, and escaped as fast as we could—sand and dust swirled past our faces through cracked door linings leaving a fine coating inside. Then in Saline Valley, we were hit with a snowstorm–cows trembled in the desert, their heads and backsides doused in white.

Despite the less than stellar weather, we were in the vicinity and so we decided to ascend the White Mountains to view the Bristlecone pines—among the oldest living organisms on earth. One, measured in 2012 by a dendrochronologist from the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, was found to be 5,062 years old. They grow at an elevation between 5,000 and 12,000 feet—a bit inconvenient to reach (which may help account for their longevity).

wikimedia.org Gnarly_Bristlecone_Pine
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At first, I was less than awed by the scrubby things. They’re short, stubby, and bent with age—nothing like their towering cousins in the Sierras. But as my husband talked about the trees’ longevity—some were alive near the beginning of recorded human history and endure still—my awe, and my sense of how privileged I was to be there and see them, grew.

I have a long way to go to do all I can to care for this earth. In some ways, I fail miserably as an environmentalist. But I care about this world with which we have been entrusted.

I’ve been privileged to see a great survivor, the Bristlecone Pine. But this earth is at a critical juncture. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the world is facing a mass extinction of species today—the sixth in earth’s history—but “Unlike the mass extinction events of geological history, the current extinction challenge is one for which a single species – ours – appears to be almost wholly responsible.” The causes are multiple—habitat destruction, wildlife trade, and climate change—but once a species is lost, it is gone forever.

What can I do?

I’m not sure yet, but I know I cannot just stand by and let greed or apathy relentlessly annihilate the plants and animals of this amazing earth. I want to be a better steward. So despite my inadequacies, I’m on a quest to find ways to help save some of the species that remain.

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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.

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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.