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.

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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.)

Photo by Brown_County,_Indiana,_Estados_Unidos,_2012-10-14,_DD_10 (1)
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

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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.  

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.

hepatica free wikimedia.commonsimages
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.

Wikimedia commons 90px-Avacado_on_tree_(closeup)
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

tortoise wikimedia.org images
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.

wikimedia.org Wilson44691 DesertTortoise.JPG
Wikimedia.org

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.

wikimedia.org hatching tortoise download
Wikimedia.org

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.