Featured

Water Wars

In the 1970s, my dad frequently said that the next wars would be fought over water.me hawaiiDSCN2984

He told a story that I think arose from an idea proposed by Georges Mougin, as reported in Phys.org. “Way back in the 70’s Georges Mougin, then an engineering graduate, had a big idea. He suggested that icebergs floating around in the North Atlantic could be tethered and dragged south to places that were experiencing a severe drought, such as the Sahel of West Africa. Mougin received some backing funds from a Saudi prince but most ‘experts’ at the time scoffed at his idea and the whole scheme was eventually shelved.”

Back then, it might have sounded like a good idea, if it could be managed without the ice melting before arrival, for a cost that was reasonable. Today, some scientists think an iceberg could be transported without melting, but the costs would be exorbitant.

More importantly, something critical has happened since Mougin’s idea was first conceived.

Today, the arctic contains considerably less ice.

Arctic sea ice fluctuates in quantity throughout the year. According to NASA, it reaches its minimum each September. Because increased levels of carbon dioxide and other pollutants are leading to a gradual heating of the earth’s atmosphere, the global temperature has risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. As a result, more arctic ice is melting. NASA said that September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

And this heating trend in our atmosphere is accelerating. Nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since 2005. The EU satellite service just reported that June 2019 was the “hottest ever recorded on earth.”

Today, countries like India are running short of groundwater.

clouds mine 22046022_10210249962150346_4908882350092498926_nIndia supports 1.3 billion people who need water to survive. This June, NPR reported that India’s sixth largest city, Chennai, “with a population of almost 10 million, is nearly out of water.” Rains are becoming more unpredictable due to climate change. India’s lakes and groundwater are drying up. NPR said that 21 major cities in India could face water crises by next year (2020) due to water shortages!

Today, the effects of human-induced climate change have become apparent.

Scientifically trained individuals—like those who created the diagnostic systems you rely on to know whether you must act quickly or die soon of cancer—agree that we must act immediately to reduce human produced carbon emissions or the earth will become unsustainable for life as we know it.

Seriously.

This is not the time to listen to a quack doctor or to try a cancer cure of apricot kernels. This is not a time to put politics before good sense. This not a time to be stubborn.

Climate change is a life and death issue for billions—billions—of people, and for the uncountable other species with whom we share this earth. Species that know something is changing, but can do nothing to stop it. Only our species can make a difference.

The Sixth Edition of the Global Environmental Outlook Report, published by the UN in 2019, “calls on decision makers to take immediate action to address pressing environmental issues to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as well as other Internationally Agreed Environment Goals, such as the Paris Agreement.” At the very least, take a look at this research! Figure 2.20 lists five independent indicators that scientists have studied showing a changing global climate: land surface air temperature, sea surface air temperature, marine air temperature, sea level, and the extent of summer arctic sea-ice.

All indicate that human activity is leading to climate change, and that the change is accelerating.

This is a time to listen and act.

It is a time to vote in people who believe the science and will ADDRESS climate change now, aggressively—pulling out all possible resources.

It is a time to work together with other nations—reentering and leading alongside other countries to fulfill the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

It is a time to work together for the earth, for our children and our grandchildren—so the children of this world have a planet that can sustain them.

This is a time to listen and act.

As Thomas Moore wrote in The Reenchangment of Everyday Life, “According to the Greek philosopher Thales, everything is water, and water is the basic element in all life… water is not just H2O but also an element of the soul….” Water is at the heart of life, physical and psychological.

This is a time to listen and act.

Or the next wars will be fought over disappearing ground water, drowned cities and islands, dying sea life, failed crops, and global hunger. As my dad reasoned in the 1970s,

Unless we listen and act now,

The next wars will be fought over water.

Caring for the Animal World is Messy, Sometimes Terribly Sad, and Full of Opportunity

I’ve had some terrible experiences with pets. When one of my pet white rat mothers died, leaving the remaining mother with 13 babies, and this mother went insane, suffocating and partially eating the babies, I learned of the horrors that can occur in nature.

When I discovered our beloved cat Midnight stiff in the ivy beside our garage–she, along with several other animals in our neighborhood, had been poisoned overnight by an unknown, vicious person—I wept.

When a tortoise found wandering around my elementary school was given to me by the school principal and I took it—a little girl carting it for blocks to offer it a home alongside our own desert tortoises—but then we discovered that this tortoise carried an upper respiratory disease sweeping through the California desert tortoise community that soon killed a number of our family’s tortoises, we all grieved.

me 20190702_191659Loving other animals (humans are animals too) has confronted me with horror, tragedy, mourning, and loss. Yet my life has been replete with animals. This picture of me is evocative: encircled by turtles, holding a cat, with a puppy nearby! Paradoxically, it was in caring for such animals that my love for nature was nurtured.

When I was growing up, our family rescued, hatched, and raised over 80 desert tortoise—keeping most in our improvised “turtle yard.”

My mom couldn’t say no to any dog who, frightened by the sound of fireworks, found its way to our front porch year after year on the 4th of July. We always tried to find a lost animal’s home before keeping it, but quite often the lost pet became ours.

Before her murder, our cat Midnight gave birth to a litter of kittens and Shadow (the one we kept) lived to be 21 years old—a full life.

We brought home tadpoles, hatched them, and then loosed them in the thick ivy of our back yard. For over a decade, huge toads, bloated by a diet of flies, mosquitoes, and grasshoppers, emerged from the ivy, living high on the prolific insect supply.

When one of our cats caught birds, and brought them to our porch to show off its prize, when possible, we rescued, tended, and released them.

Our family cared for dogs, cats, tortoises, white rats, a skunk, a chipmunk, birds, frogs, horny toads, and fish. Many lived into old age, the tortoises saved from roads littered with roadkill, dogs taken in and made part of the family, and cats living to die natural deaths in a secure home.

Sometimes the tragedies seemed to exceed the joys, as they sometimes do in the rest of life. But most of life is composed of everyday experiences, and my daily life intermingled with that of these animals. I learned that caring for the animal world is work, dangerous, messy, and sometimes terribly sad; and it is full of love, joy, and the opportunity to observe, tend, and appreciate our fellow earthly inhabitants.

Tending and loving them is personal, practical, local, national, global, and must reach the level of policy.

Humans were not given the earth for ourselves (if you believe in the record in Genesis). We were meant to be caretakers, not takers.

Humans are big, and powerful, and violent, and our interactions with the world have often been deeply destructive. We have functioned as a “planetary disease,” destroying the environment on which all species depend. Yet our human world is only one of a myriad of other worlds God made that coexist with ours but are often out of sight, worlds inhabited by birds, fish, reptiles, insects, and mammals like ourselves.

Today, five bird feeders surround my home, and I watch these winged creatures in a fairly natural habitat. This spring and early summer, pine siskin, red robins, American goldfinch, red cardinals, house finch, woodpeckers, nut hatch, and humming birds have roamed my gardens. The birds tend to their own needs; my feeders merely add to their pleasure.

I am less acquainted with the birds’ sorrows than I have been with those of my pets. But I’m aware that suffering takes place. Out of my sight, tragedies are unfolding. I’ve been acquainted with great loss associated with loving creatures from these other worlds. I’ve felt horror at their suffering. So today, when I hear of sea turtles, seals, seabirds, fish, whales, or dolphins suffering and dying after ingesting plastic, I grieve. When I hear of disappearing species, lost due to habitat destruction, I mourn.

Perhaps the sorrow I’ve known as a pet owner has developed compassion for these earthly fellow-inhabitants, stirring my concern for the natural world. I hope so. And I’m trying to turn my sorrow infused concern into more responsible actions.

In every election—local, state, and national—you have the opportunity to do the same. In your workplaces and your homes, you can seek to care for the world rather than injure it. Listed below are a few key organizations that can help—most have local chapters where you can become engaged. We must all find ways to turn a love of nature into urgent action.

Featured

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.

A Tribute to Earth Day, Today in Indiana

redbud 2 gail20190422_193627Today was a beautiful Earth Day, here in Indiana. In the older neighborhood where I live, magenta redbud blossomed along every stem, cherry buds burst open wide, while maple leaves leisurely unfurled.

Today on Earth Day, in Indiana, nature hosted a garden party!

Yet it is on Earth Day, while we bask in earth’s delights, that we are reminded: around us, “extinction rates are up to a thousand times higher than they would be if people weren’t in the picture.”

David Adams, a Scottish Christian poet, speaks of the reflected glory of God in poems that celebrate the Celtic belief in the unity of the world and the divine presence within it. In his book Border Lands, he recalls St. Patrick’s words to the Princesses of Tara:

“Our God is the God of all men,
The God of heaven and earth,
The God of sea, of river, of sun and moon and stars,
of the lofty mountains and the lowly valleys.
The God above heaven,
The God under heaven,
The God in heaven.”

Adam’s own poems help me to pause, to see His presence in the world I seek to protect, and to believe that surely we can be better stewards of this majestic, yet easily wounded planet.

“Where the mist rises from the sea,
Where the waves creep upon the shore,
Where the wrack lifts upon the strand,
I have seen the Lord.

Where the sun awakens the day,
Where the road winds on its way,
Where the fields are sweet with hay,
I have seen the Lord.

Where the stars shine in the sky,
Where the streets so peaceful lie,
Where the darkness is so nigh,
I have seen the Lord.

The Lord is here,
The Lord is there,
The Lord is everywhere.
The Lord is high,
The Lord is low,
The Lord is on the path I go.”

 

Featured

The God of Other Worlds

My children groan when I mention the documentary “Winged Migration,” which I’ve watched several times. Each time I see it, though, I’m reminded of a world that coexists with ours but is out of sight—often beyond our imagination. In this world high above myriad bird species fly thousands of miles from north to south and back, circling the globe, year after year. Like ephemeral beings, a few enter for a short while into our sight, then disappear. But the world they inhabit in this other sphere is as real as ours, filled with birthing, tending, gathering, singing, exerting, enduring, living, and dying.

sea CaptureAn air world. One of God’s other worlds, intersecting our own.

I discovered a similar world undersea, snorkeling in the warm waters off the Hawaiian Islands. Coral reefs drew sea species to feed. I was mesmerized by this world—where yellow sea snakes slithered; tang and butterfly fish glided by; green sea turtles emerged to investigate and descend again; and damselfish swarmed. I only fingered the fringe of this undersea world, a world of a million species, many yet unknown to human kind.

A great underwater world. One of God’s other worlds, intersecting our own.

Humans are big, and powerful, and violent. We destroy bird species for pleasure, like the passenger pigeon lost long ago. We pollute coral reefs, draw birds to destruction with our lights, chop down forest cover, and over fish the seas. Sometimes we do so unawares, forgetting how big we are. Sometimes we do so out of selfish ends.

The creatures in these worlds are mostly out of our sight. But we are everywhere in theirs. We drain their nesting grounds, dump our rubbish in their waters, and fish their kind to near extinction. They cannot comprehend what we are doing; they cannot stop us. They only know that it is harder to find a mate; their resting place is gone; their coral reef is dying.

Ian L. McHarg called humankind “A planetary disease … an epidemic, multiplying at a super-exponential rate, destroying the environment upon which he depends, and threatening his own extinction.” When we act like a disease, we imperil other worlds.

We imperil other worlds when we forget who we were meant to be. Like Tolkien’s Ents, we were meant as creation’s caretakers, not “takers” for our personal pleasure.

We imperil other worlds when we forget what the other creatures are. God is a God of other worlds. These worlds are His handiwork. They are His creation. They give Him pleasure.

We live on a beautiful planet, home to 7.6 billion humans. But it is also home to others—in the air, on the land, and in the sea—with billions of other species living lives of their own. We should ensure that these other worlds, ephemeral to us but vital, can continue.

We think we are the dominant species, but we are nothing without the other species with whom we share this planet. We live in a world of intersecting worlds. God’s worlds. Doom these other worlds, and we doom ourselves.

Cherish these other worlds, though, and joy upon joy! Now and then, we intermingle—ephemeral encounters with a world of winged migrations and swarming creatures of the sea.

 

Featured

Surprises from the Untamed World

My daughter pulled into my driveway with two of my grandchildren. Scrambling out of the car one called, “Grandma, do you have any tweezers? I’ve got a splinter.” The other said, “Grandma, I have a black eye! I fell down.” Children–full of surprises; always something new.

A bit like nature.

I confess, since moving to the Midwest, my explorations in nature are less frequent in winter than they are the rest of the year. On my way to a party on a slippery ice day last year, carrying a bottle of pinot noir, I tumbled, crashed onto the sidewalk beside my car and lay shaken, sore, amidst shards of glass, watching a growing red pool ooze from beneath me. Had I cut arteries? Broken bones? I waited. After several minutes the pain subsided. I stood, slowly. The pool was not my blood, only the pinot. I was fine. So I cleaned up, located another bottle, and went on my way—more cautious now about icy weather and outdoor ventures.

The rest of the year, though, I’m outside as much as possible.

I’m a gardener. As a child, my mom encouraged my love of gardening as we planted carrot beds, tended roses, and trimmed camellias. I love the gift of nature in its cultivated grandeur. I’ve gardened in four states and visit gardens wherever I travel.

Yet I realize that the more our time in nature is spent in less tamed places, the more we experience the surprises offered by the natural world.

I’ve moved from suburbs equally manicured, planted with the same shrubs and trees, beside similar houses–to the less tamed bedlam of an old neighborhood, speckled with 100-year-old arboreal giants, lined with houses from differing decades, planted with flora in and out of vogue over a hundred years.

I’ve walked in farmland, with verges walled by hedges covering an under-story of flowering weeds, semi-cultivated–to hikes in the woods, cut by a trail bordering a running stream, hiding unexpected ruins or unanticipated encounters of the animal kind.

I’ve been blessed by the rugged adventure of backpacking in high mountain terrain, where the acclivities and declivities are acute, the animals bigger, the dangers more significant.

There are many climbs I have not made and won’t, to places barely reachable by human beings, where ice cracks, avalanches occur, storms erupt, and life is always at risk.

In cultivated gardens, and especially in untamed out-of-the-way locations, the world is full of surprises, always changing.

Why do we need natural places? What is the value to us in protecting them? My sister Jacqueline suggested:

While an understandable attraction for our own kind should be part of our lives, humankind was always meant to live in fellowship with the rest of creation. I think our human sense of isolation and loneliness is, in part, a yearning for our immersion in the natural world. Too much time spent in a human made world is deadening. Too much time in cars, concrete buildings—even our own homes, is like only looking at life as a reflection of ourselves, instead of standing outdoors and experiencing a full sensory engagement with the natural world—listening to sounds, feeling the wind in the air, smelling the fragrances, seeing 3D reality.

We need this “full sensory engagement” with a moving, active, living, natural world, a world where we encounter the unexpected through the land, air, water, flora, and fauna. Because we cannot control what will come next into this space and moment, we attend.

We listen. Feel. See. Learn. Engage.

Come alive.

Hear the whispers of God.

Learn about ourselves.

We must protect all of nature, but particularly the remaining untamed places, for this is part of our inheritance: a world filled with surprises there to be discovered.

Photo credit: Rich Beedle, a friend who spends a great deal of time in nature, gave me permission to use some of the photos he’s taken while exploring out-of-doors. All of the photos in this post are from his photography of Indiana wildlife. 

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

God’s Immanence in a Rose: Reflections from New Year’s Day

Scotland 12 37217421_10212201409055299_7486753352756232192_nAt the Rose Parade, flowers reign. For those unversed in parade rules–every surface inch on every float—from huge twirling elephants to the image on the elephant’s IPad—must be covered in natural materials–dried stretched seaweeds, tea leaves, cranberry seeds, corn, beans, or rice. Herbs like cumin and cloves. Carnations, mums, daisies, orchids, bird of paradise flowers, and half a million or more roses. No artificial plant materials or coloring are allowed—nature’s colors are dramatic enough.

New Year’s Day, to me, always means the Rose Parade. Watching in 2019, its 130th anniversary, the parade of floats evoke the sublime!

I lived in Pasadena, the Parade’s home, for six crucial years of my life. I attended Pasadena City College for one year (before transferring to Occidental College nearby), worshipped at a Pasadena church, met and married my husband in Pasadena, graduated from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and stood on Colorado Boulevard watching the Rose Parade as often as I could.

One year when I was a child, my dad packed my sister and I into our VW bus, drove to Pasadena, parked near the parade route, and staked out a viewing place while my sister and I struggled to sleep in the van. The overnight celebrations on the parade route are lively. We didn’t sleep much. By the time we found our spot and the parade began, I could barely keep my eyes open.

I’ve camped in the van, slept on the sidewalk to get a seat at the curb, stood behind deep rows of crowds to catch parade glimpses, and sat in the bleachers (once).

Many of my pivotal life memories occurred in this city that dedicates its parade to roses—a parade that reminds me how much poorer the world would be without flowers.

To me, God shows up in flowers.

God as transcendent, who exists above Creation, and God as immanent, who can be met through Creation, join harmoniously in the theology that guides my life. As St. Patrick put it:

I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me….

I arise today, through the strength of heaven,

The light of the sun,

The radiance of the moon….

To the Christian academic and writer C. S. Lewis, beauty—like music or the scent of a rose—serve as a metaphor of our longing for Heaven. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis wrote:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

God present in the world He has made. Through it, God hinting at a world we have not yet seen. God present in roses—even at the Tournament of Roses.

One more reason to protect the flora and fauna of this world.

A naive quest for a wooden treasure

Rough branches brushed our car. Birds cawed nearby. The jungle was impenetrable—we could see only a short distance in any direction. Had we been utterly naive? We were, after all, driving by ourselves deep into an unfamiliar jungle searching for a prison. Following the advice of locals, who had assured John and I that the prison was the only location on the big Island of Hawaii selling items carved of Kou wood, we had set off that morning, along a long road leading deep into the jungle.

Trees have inspired me all my life. As a small child, I found escape from family troubles in a simple, roofless tree house—a stumpy box, really–constructed by my father in the hefty fruitless mulberry canopying our back yard. Trees provide places for little girls to escape.

In cold climates, when tree leaves unfurl in spring, they transform our grey-brown world. In fall, when they reveal their true colors, they remind us of hidden truths unveiled.

Trees offer windbreaks, fruit, nesting sites, and covering for plants and animals. They give flat vistas verticality, produce oxygen, and even clean the soil. And inside their protective coverings, their rings and burls affirm the remarkable beauty hidden throughout creation.

“Just follow the road inland,” the locals had said. “Keep driving. It’s a ways, but if you keep going, you’ll get there.” So they’d said.

We had been “going” for nearly two hours, and it looked like we were getting nowhere. Edgy, we considered turning back. And then, we saw it–a high, cut-edge barbed wire fence came into view where the jungle parted. Now we just had to climb out of the safety of our car, call someone on the phone attached to the prison gate, and ask to be let in.

Before long, we found ourselves inside the prison in a room displaying an array of products carved by inmates out of native woods. We bought a Kou fish tray as a gift for my mother (which I have today), and then drove two hours back the way we came.

John and my appreciation of native Hawaiian woods began when we first traveled to Kauai on our honeymoon. For Californians, the islands were a common destination. Of course, like other visitors, we loved everything—snorkeling, sunsets, grilled ahi from our favorite restaurant, the Dolphin. Greenery. Green valleys, green trees, green jungle vegetation. And products local artisans made from native Hawaiian trees.

On our first trip, we stopped at a small woodworking shop and were greeted by a graying woodcarver of Hawaiian ancestry who showed us a few unfinished vases from a Kou tree. The old woodcarver told us the Kou was going extinct; the carvings were from one found downed naturally. And so we bought a vase.

It was years later that we set out on our quest to find this second Kou product in the jungle at the big island’s prison.

In those years, we did not understand the impact humans were having on native trees in Hawaii and elsewhere. We did see the beauty hidden in the trees’ bowels.

Fortunately, the Kou is still living in parts of the Islands. But other trees in our world are disappearing. According to a 2017 Newsweek article, “9,600 types of trees” across the planet are “threatened by extinction.” Such extinctions are particularly devastating in rich and fragile natural environments, like Hawaii.

Home to over 10,000 endemic species (native species, found nowhere else on earth), Hawaii’s forests helped conserve water, allowing this stunning assemblage to thrive. These forests are now among the world’s most endangered, though, due largely to the invasion of humans, pigs, cows, goats, rats, insects, and non-native plants introduced in the past few centuries.

Over the years I’ve learned to ask questions about the wood products I purchase, to ensure that I am not purchasing products from endangered species.

My environmental awareness is under development, and I trust I am growing wiser with the years.

Trees like the Kou and others native to Hawaii are worth all of our endeavors to save them. For the trees themselves; for our interconnected ecosystem; for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children not yet born—working to save whole forests and individual tree species from extinction is imperative. Trees—appreciating and saving them–are part of the reason I began this blog. And they are a reason I’ll keep trying to find my way to make a difference.

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.

thumbnail_20151023_172532-1

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.