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The Rain

The canvas of our tent echoed as rain splattered our shelter. The rain came lightly at first, like whispers. Then torrents struck the tent—and the rain went on for days.

I loved it.

John and I were safely ensconced inside our tent. Outside, as the rain fell, the river, which was only a few yards away, rose by the hour—we knew we weren’t going to catch our dinner in that roaring torrent. Instead, we played Uno, poker, talked, and listened, closer to the elements than we could ever be inside hard walls.

We wondered, occasionally, when it would end… tomorrow? The next day? We checked periodically for holes in our tent, for damp spots on the tent floor, but the pouring rain didn’t stop our vacation adventure. The rain became an escapade in its own right, rising and falling in intensity, filling our ears with its pounding and with the river’s passing thrust. Inside our cozy tent we played on, and then we slept.

I love the rain. In California when I was growing up, rain came rarely. The first rain of the season always mixed with oils on the roads to create slick conditions; forgetful drivers, who didn’t slow down, skidded into one another, creating a flood of accidents. In summer, thunderstorms struck with ferocity, lightning crisscrossed in the sky, thunder rolled, and streets flooded, losing all that good water to gutters and sewage systems.Pixabay no attrib req lightning-1158027_960_720

Rain in California washed the muck that stuck to smog smothered trees off the leaves and onto the ground, transforming the grey green trees into the deep green of healthy vegetation. Rain introduced Petrichor and ozone into the atmosphere—filling the air with a clear, natural perfume. Negative ions amassed.

Today, we are going on two weeks of nearly daily rain here in Indiana, yet I still love the rain. Tonight I sat outside on my porch, listening to the rain begin, feeling the rising wind just before the rains came, smelling that familiar scent, watching the first drops land upon the plants in my front flower beds.

I tire of overcast days; I need bursts of sunshine and the long sunny days that intersect the rainy season during springtime here in Indiana and make it gleam. But I also love the rain because it is the nurturer that brings on flowers, softens the soil, makes the grass grow, and caresses the world into spring. And I also love spring.

Tonight, the rain has stopped. Flowering trees drip, losing water droplets and clinging blossoms. The sky glows from the horizon to its topmost reaches with a golden pink light. Soft clouds reflect the setting sun’s rays. Vegetation quivers, shaking off excess moisture, readying itself to burst further into bloom. Green grass glimmers.

Rain seems so common. Ubiquitous. Certain. But there, our instincts are wrong.

All over the world, the climate is changing. Yes, it’s true—the four warmest years on record have all occurred in the last decade. According to Climate Central, “2018 was the second-warmest year on record without an El Niño event, behind only 2017.” Scientists know that if we do not address climate change, if we do not prioritize the need for a biologically diverse world, if we do not live more sustainably, nothing is certain.

None of the things that we love.

Not even the rain.

Gratitude Practices

I often begin my morning listing five things for which I’m grateful. Often they are small things—a cardinal outside the window, a call from a friend. I have much to be thankful for, and I make this practice part of my devotions. I think I’m going to start a thankfulness list, though, for the foods I am privileged to eat today, for many foods are treasures that are here today, but may be gone tomorrow.

armstrong_nurseries_(1909)_(14784771735)
Orange Grove in the Inland Empire. Credit below.

My home in the Inland Empire sat 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many in the burgeoning towns that eat into the California desert 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 what remained of that good earth.

The oranges came to California in the early 1800s with the mission padres, who carried individual trees north from Baja into Upper California. The first sweet orange grove “was planted in the garden of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Francisco Miguel Sanchez in 1803,” according to a history compiled by the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the few remaining groves in Southern California. They were largely confined to mission compounds until the 1850s—the time of the California gold rush. (For those interested, here’s the link to the Inland Orange Conservancy – Home | Facebook page.)

In the 1880s Eliza Tibbit, a famous horticulturist, agronomist, abolitionist (and more) used her connections to obtain a new seedless orange, which originated in Brazil. Her trees flourished and laid much of the foundation for the orange industry in California; by the 1940s, an impressive 75 million cases of navel oranges were being shipped from southern California orange groves throughout the United States, Europe, and the world!

These orange trees were later confiscated by developments like the one where I grew up, developments that were built to house half a million or so of the 16 million soldiers who, like my dad, my uncle Roy, and countless others, returned en masse from World War II.

My development had been surrounded by block-long groves to the west of my house, and more, further to the north and east. But I watched these groves progressively disappear throughout the march of my childhood.

The groves were doomed, cornered like stray orange pieces sewn here and there in a cement-colored quilt of growing feeder streets and suburban developments. As the groves disappeared, the rich earth they fed on went too, covered by stucco structures and asphalt pavement.

Most of the groves of my childhood experienced a demise. Today, though, whole foods that we depend upon are at risk of disappearing.

orange tree16142454_10208240366751717_4284977956070090556_nOranges and lemons, from California, to Texas, to Florida, to the U.S. Virgin Islands, are at risk today from a plant disease known commonly as Citrus Greening (short for Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus—a name I’ll never remember). Apparently it is one of the most serious plant diseases in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture offers a list of things people can do to help avoid spreading the disease.

Coffee and bananas are both in trouble. Forbes just published a story on a report that “60% of wild coffee species are under threat of extinction. This includes the wild species of Arabica, the most popular cultivated coffee species accounting for 60% of global production.” Coffee’s potential demise is directly attributed to the changing climate in coffee growing regions.

Bananas have been at risk for decades. In Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel reminded me that the bananas I ate as a child tasted better than the ones I find in my grocery store today (which may be why I loved them then but don’t like them now).

We grew up with a banana called the Gros Michel, which tragically became commercially extinct in the mid-1960s from Panama disease. Banana growers were forced to switch to the less tasty Cavendish, which stores sell now. But the Cavendish and many lesser known banana varieties are under threat by a new form of Panama disease that has traveled from Southeast Asia and is now ravishing Africa. Scientists are working overtime to find solutions to this new threat.

Our memories are short. But once a grove or species is lost, it is hard or impossible to replace it.

  • Recognizing that we were granted stewardship of this planet by God to protect it, and not to use it for selfish ends,
  • acknowledging the reality of climate change and getting on board with efforts to address it, and
  • beginning gratitude practices for the good fruits of the earth

may help us start to appreciate these treasures and stop taking the harvests of this amazing but fragile good earth for granted.

 

Orange grove photo credit: By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14784771735/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/armstrongnurseri1909arms/armstrongnurseri1909arms#page/n8/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42134261

Even Giants Risk Extinction

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s Ents battled ferociously when Saruman and his orcs, acting like a vicious “planetary disease” sought to uproot and chop the ancient Fangorn Forest to extinction. Ripping free from their stupor the Ents fought heroically, heaving rocks and loosing floods, until they ended the destruction.

Ent giants, Middle Earth’s trees unchained. In Tolkein’s story, the Ents were the trees’ shepherds; they would fight deforestation to the end. 

Our earth’s trees are sessile, tethered by roots. In our world, if trees are to have shepherds to fight their destruction, those shepherds will have to be us.

A few years ago, the giants in Indiana were heavily breeding. Our silver maple let loose thousands of spinning seedlings, and I regretfully became the tree’s adversary as I plucked hundreds of new born maples from their successful implantations in my lawn. Ash trees lining our street were dense with seeds clusters. Sycamores in the woods bulged with pods.

I asked a tree expert, a state employee whose job involved growing trees used to repopulate forests deforested by industry, if something was up.






By USFWSmidwest https://www.flickr.com/
photos/49208525@N08/13985429209/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=61073572

He explained: Silver maples were seeding madly statewide. To protect their kind, when trees sense danger, some varieties bear offspring in far greater quantities than usual. That year, they were doing this throughout Indiana. They knew something. Two past summers, hot with drought, had killed trees throughout the state. A long cold winter gave warning.

Giants communicating with giants in voices unheard. Instinct urging. The trees listened, acted, wise with the centuries’ accumulated wisdom. Better go all out this year, they whispered. The future is precarious. They understood: even giants risk extinction.

The most majestic tree giants that I have seen are the huge redwoods of my native California. We visited them as a family when my sister and I were children, and I felt the awe such trees inspire. The California coast hosts the largest remaining virgin redwood forest in the world, with 2,500 year old trees. They are the tallest trees on earth. Massive at their base, redwoods are planted firmly on wide set legs, sufficient to hold each tree’s towering form.

We build buildings that emulate the shape of those tree trunks.

But even giant redwoods are disappearing. According to the 2018 State of the Redwoods Conservation Report, this region along the California coast once boasted 2.2 million acres of tall, old growth redwoods, a forest in existence since the age of the dinosaurs. Now, due to factors such as rapid logging since California’s gold rush in the 1840s, the old growth forest has shrunk to a meagre 113,000 acres.  

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=621584

Tragically, these “arboreal giants” are also being attacked by poachers. Much like the big animals of Africa—the elephant and rhinoceros—giant redwoods have been murdered for economic gain. Poachers with chain saws extract redwood burls—some nobs, burls with beautiful, swirling patterns—weigh hundreds of pounds. Even when the tree survives, the New York Times reports that “removing a burl cuts into a tree’s living cambium layer, which can weaken it and make it vulnerable to insects and disease.” [Follow this link to a storyboard showing the destruction.]

Tethered, the redwoods have no recourse but to stand proud and endure when they are attacked—no running for them. Brave and determined forest rangers (tree shepherds!) are closing roads and trying to stop the poachers—but too frequently, more trees are defaced. 

California’s recent fires have also put redwoods at risk, fires made more likely by human-induced climate change. California’s redwood forest has been designated a world heritage site. But like sites situated in war zones or stressed by uncontrolled human encroachment, even these giants risk extinction.

Across the globe trade wars, which can lead big consumers to burn more woodlands to cultivate additional crops, further imperil the Fangorn forests of this world.

Nature has a well-honed instinct for survival. I’ve seen trees at the brink of a riverside cliff, clinging by root threads to rocks and sand, living, growing, persistent. I’ve seen ancient trees like the ponderosa pine, because of its relative inaccessibility and, of improbable benefit, unattractiveness, doggedly surviving.

Living creatures are tenacious. Seeds proliferate, survive, and sprout. Trees hold on, gripping, digging their roots deeper, wider. Life clings, hopes.

But nature is vulnerable, as well. Fragile.

In our world, where humankind has so often imitated Saruman and his orcs, acting like “planetary diseases,” our ancient forests are under attack.

We cannot count on trees unchained. We are the trees’ shepherds.

It is up to us to fight for the survival of the giants of this world. We must rise from our own stupor and do battle, for even giants risk extinction.

[Part two: “How to Battle Like the Ents” will be published soon. For more on Man: A Planetary Disease, go the Ian L. McHarg’s 1971 B. Y. Morrison Memorial Lecture.]

The Day I Met a Goat

1019181232-1_resizedWhile driving through the countryside this week I met a goat.

It was a field of goats, actually, although most of the herd ignored me; only one made the effort to become acquainted. I spied the flock on my way to Tuttle’s Orchards, where I went in a search of great, white pumpkins.

My knowledge of goats is limited, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was a Boer Goat.

For those who live outside the Midwestern United States, harvest looms big in a state like Indiana. Farmers construct corn mazes, build pumpkin towers, and devise hay bale climbing frames; they preserve fresh produce, can jams and jellies, cook apple pies, and sell home grown corn, beans, squash, and tomatoes. Farms become playgrounds, where schools unload busloads of children, and where families converge to pick apples and buy fall pumpkins.

At harvest time, some farmers outdo themselves.

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During my visit to Tuttle’s, I bought a bag of organic basil pasta, a jar of strawberry rhubarb jam, a loaf of home baked cinnamon bread, and five white pumpkins.

On my drive there, though, I was a bit nervous about the “low tire” indicator light that lit up a few days ago, which I hadn’t yet investigated. Abrupt 20 degree changes in air temperature make my tire indicator lights skittish, and I never know if the tires are low or just sensitive. When I first learned to drive (decades ago), “service” stations (aka gas stations) checked my tire pressure for me. Now, I must check the pressure myself or visit my Honda dealer (where they kindly add air if needed and turn off the indicator light free of charge).

How to read my car’s indicator symbols, check the tire pressure, and turn off indicator lights are only a few of the skills I am trying to develop now, skills that once were part of someone else’s area of expertise.

Once, businesses had secretarial assistants, and universities, like the one where I work, had administrative and teaching assistants. Now, in my position as a Senior Lecturer in English, I type my own letters (or emails), sort my own files (which is why my desk risks being hemmed in by heaps of old student folders), and build my courses on an ever changing electronic learning platform, meant to “enhance educational management and delivery.”

My life has grown increasingly complex, and I constantly seem to need new skills to deal with it.

This may be why I felt great joy driving through the countryside and meeting a goat.1019181232a-1_resized

I think this escalating complexity could also be one of the reasons why many people deny climate change and ignore environmental crises that must be addressed. Despite the “world’s leading climate scientists” confirmation “that climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time”–people still try to deny its existence.

When we want to simplify life, it is easier to say, “The temperature is always going up and down” or “The climate changes ‘back and forth, back and forth’” than it is to examine the complex interplay between human induced deforestation, human produced carbon dioxide emissions, and rising temperatures melting glaciers that have protected life on our planet for millennia.

When we’re struggling to learn what we need to know to maintain our cars and keep our jobs, it is easier to ignore the downgrading of entire ecosystems around the globe than to take a serious look at how humankind’s removal of what scientists call “keystone species” have led to the collapse of once thriving ecosystems in our rivers, air, land, and seas. [See the documentary “The Serengeti Rules” for more on keystone species and on new hopes for reviving our natural world.]

Like it or not, though, we have to face climate change and today’s other environmental crises.

Our species’ actions have an out sized impact on the rest of the planet. We simply cannot stand by and let these actions destroy it.

Despite the complexities of modern life, we need to accept our responsibilities for climate change, degraded ecosystems, and disappearing species.

A drive in the country may reconnect us to this wonderful natural world of which we are a part.

Maybe we all need to slow down, take a drive, and meet a goat.

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

 

 

 

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.

blog starfish Google public domain-1499783627tsB.jpg
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.

 

 

 

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

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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.

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.