A Reading List for Earth Day

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, and I intended to have this post ready. Instead, I am writing it today, because (as some like to say) Every Day Is Earth Day.

The global pandemic has been going on for several weeks now and my winter of solitude has stretched into spring. I’m not suffering because of that. It’s not much different from how I live when there’s not a current catastrophe. As an observant reflective person, I thrive in situations where my hands are busy with gardening, sewing, baking, etc., and my mind wanders all over the place. I like to give myself little thought exercises and play my favorite game, which I call “What If?” So what if I read a book very slowly? I’ve skimmed through Mary Oliver’s last book Upstream, published in 2016, but never read it from beginning to end. It might be the perfect book to read very slowly. The essays are short, topical and lyrical in a spare way. Oliver, who died last year, was best known for her poetry. Her prose is the prose of a poet who has spent a life taking her time to choose the exact words she needs. Every tool in the literary toolbox—imagery, metaphor, foreshadowing—has been used so skillfully to construct paragraphs of her thoughts that you aren’t aware of that tool have been used at all. Oliver was a master craftsman who never hurried. I would read portions of an essay most mornings, and getting to the end of one was like finishing a large meal. I had to digest. Ruminate. Let settle.

Mary Oliver was an observer of the natural world, rising early to walk in the woods and fields around her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the title essay, “Upstream”, she recounts being taken to the woods as a child. She wandered away from her family to explore a small creek, and kept walking upstream, discovering small pools, mossy banks, ferns while hearing birds. As well as the voices of her family growing fainter as she moved higher. She comes to the conclusion that she’s been walking upstream ever since. Away from the known and predictable, toward the unknown and the wild.

I had to stop reading sometimes, for the words and ideas filled me so completely I couldn’t take any more in. The language felt so exquisite and polished that I despaired of my own writing. Then I realized I was comparing myself to Mary Oliver, and laughed. My life has been more adventurous and messier. I haven’t focused on one thing, such as poetry. My writing voice has been shaped by where I came from, what I’ve done, and the teachers and companions I’ve met along the way. But I believe I too, have been walking upstream since childhood.

Some books are meant to be read slowly. This is one.

I’m still reading this one. Also slowly. I bought the book last year, intrigued by the title. Usually I am frustrated by subtitles. If you need a subtitle, then maybe you need to do a better job developing a descriptive main title. War and Peace for example. Or Love in the Time of Cholera. Those titles make you curious to find out what the book is about, rather than explain it in a subtitle. But maybe with our short digital attention spans, we need things spelled out a bit more.

Anyway. This one—Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man—caught my eye because it’s an idea that has been rolling around in my head since before the first Earth Day fifty years ago. We live in a culture that has drawn a line between Man and Nature. We are accustomed to think in conflicting dualities—Heaven and Hell, Male and Female, etc. It has to be Either/Or, not Both/And. Or All That Is. Jason Mark spends the first part of the book trying to explain how this has all gotten to the point that some academics and writers have declared the End of Nature. We are all now “post-natural”. Huh? Mark is a gardener and farmer in the Bay Area of California and understands that gentler cultivated nature. This is the nature of the nearby, where processes are harnessed toward human ends. But he also believes that wildness still exists, where nature is uncontrolled and more or less free to follow its own path. Each chapter is the story of his search for evidence, from the Arctic to the habitat of Mexican red wolves. Everywhere he goes, he finds human conflict over how the diminishing wild should be protected or used.

When I read that soon anyone will be able to access a Google street view of anywhere in the world, I had to shut the book. I felt incredibly sad. Is it necessary for technology to infiltrate every nook and cranny of the planet? Just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Is nothing sacred? Is there no place where we can just leave things alone? No place to be alone?

I intend to finish the book. A part of me wants to be left with some kind of hopeful conclusion. But I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.

Much is being written about the convergence of the Covid-19 pandemic with climate change. Global catastrophes combining in a perfect storm of unforeseen consequences! What horrible event will happen next? Much is also being written about anxiety and mental health as humanity faces the reality that life is not a continuous train of progress and upward mobility.

I started reading Pema Chodron about 15 years ago, when my marriage was falling apart. Chodron is an American Buddhist nun who was a student of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Her writing and teaching has made Buddhist philosophy available to westerners in a simple, humorous, and compassionate way. Finally, someone said: Yep, life’s not fair. You can be going along minding your own business and then the rug gets pulled out from under you. Things are always falling apart, coming together, falling apart…there are ways to grow up and face uncertainty, your fears, all the dark demons. Everyone suffers. Through self-awareness, we can begin to end our own suffering. In this way we can also help others end theirs.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate Chodron’s writing. Buddhist teaching has a lot in common with other major faiths of the world. Or you can adapt it to your own personal philosophy. Meditation can be of benefit to anyone.

These times require the skills to be comfortable with uncertainty, to recognize and examine fear, and even get to enjoy the sensation of no solid ground under your feet. If you know how to land without getting too damaged, then falling isn’t so scary. To the extent that you can have compassion for yourself, that is the extent to which you can offer it to others.

And certainly this is a time when compassion and loving-kindness to all beings is needed more than ever.

Reading is a comfort and a challenge. Solace and escape, as needed. Stimulation and learning, as needed. The process continues when I close the book and get up to be more active. The words and ideas, the voice of the writer, the reflection and insight—all as necessary as breathing.

Yesterday as I filled the kettle at the kitchen faucet, my eye caught the flash and glimmer of a hummingbird at the feeder. I know a pair of rufous hummingbirds is nesting in my neighbor’s spruce tree—he is shiny and coppery with a bright red throat, she is plain green with a streaked white belly. But this new bird! Iridescent green back shining like silk, a violet neck sparkling like jewels—my breath caught in my throat. Had I ever seen him before? I exhaled slowly as he zipped away.

That’s the thing about this life, this living in the world. The news can be sad, unsettling, frightening. A person can read, can compare and despair, can be brought down by visions of a hopeless future, can have moments of insight and moments of thrashing around. But a good chunk of the non-human world goes on just as it does. A brilliant hot spark of life can fly by your window, stopping your breath and holding you hostage to immediate beauty and the persistence of things to live.

Happy Earth Day.




What To Do With A Life

I’ve been corresponding with Claire, a graduate student in environmental writing and also a seasonal trail worker. She interviewed me about my work and life, and this came as a follow up question: “You wrote in the PCTA blog that this career ‘pursued you’ as opposed to the other way around. At what point did you realize that trail work (or working for the FS in general) had become your life’s work? You talked of having been unsure of your direction very early on, and of finding your niche in art school and later pursuing your art career in the off season. What kept you coming back to trails?”

Hm. The best questions are the ones that make you stop and think. Some questions are existential. Asking why I keep doing trail work is like asking “Why are you here? What is the meaning of life?”

I had to go out and dig in the garden and ponder. I pondered some more while I sewed masks, went for walks, returned to digging. Where to start? How to state my answer succinctly? At last, I came in the house, booted up the laptop and opened a document. I made a timeline of my life, starting with wanting to be an author/illustrator at age 7. Documented various events that led to the Forest Service, to art school, to a balanced life, to an out-of-whack life, up until now. I could see that there could be no succinct answer. As I continued to write, it’s almost as if I had to explain things to myself in an essay.

I never had any expectation of a “career” in the sense of making a plan, going to college, and ascending a professional ladder. My family are all rural working folk, and I had no role models for a career. You just went to work and hoped to make a living for the rest of your life. I am the first among them to complete a bachelor’s degree, and the fact that I went on for a master’s in fine arts is a complete tangent. In my teens I was strongly discouraged from following any sort of creative path. The authority figures in my family were horrified that I wanted to be a writer and predicted I’d starve to death. I had to be practical, get a real job, and save art for a hobby. I was unwilling to compromise, in that I wanted work that I had aptitude for and cared about. In my confusion, I drifted for a while, but it was a good day when the Forest Service hired me for the trail crew in 1980.

After that first season, I attended community college to complete an associate degree in forestry technology. This was practical and met my needs as far as aptitude and caring. And to suit myself, I took an elective art class every quarter. My painting instructor told me that the Forest Service would never be enough for me. I should go on to a bigger school for an art degree and then get my MFA. With the ignorance of youth, I figured I could make the Forest Service be enough. I even tried majoring in forestry at the University of Washington a few years later, but was defeated by higher mathematics and living in Seattle. After community college, I worked seasonally on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and desperately wanted a permanent job. I thought I had found my place there in the remote valley of the St. Joe River. During the 1980s, the mission revolved around timber sales and reforestation. I liked the sense of purpose, even though I couldn’t toe the company line all the way. I did forest inventory, counted trees in plantations, cruised timber, laid out skyline profiles, inventoried fuels and burned slash. By the time I was 25, I saw the futility of the traditional Forest Service career. In order to move up, you had to leave the field and spend most of your time in the office. Not an option for me. I had been away from family influence long enough to hear what had been clear from early days: creativity would never let me go. With much trembling and trepidation, I enrolled in the College of Art and Architecture at the University of Idaho. What a relief to live the dream at last. In order to be practical, I focused on graphic design. It took a trip to San Francisco to visit museums and design firms to help me see that to do the most interesting work, I’d have to live in a city. In order to freelance in a smaller place, I’d need to change from a shy introvert into an extraverted hustler. Again, not an option. When I switched to drawing and painting, my professors started saying things like “When you’re in graduate school…” My community college painting instructor had been right.

Ironically, as I finished my undergraduate degree, the Forest Service offered me a permanent position. They were actively recruiting women to work in the fire organization, and I had been a fuels technician my last two seasons in Idaho. I accepted. But I soon tired of measuring and counting after ten seasons of data collection. The data I painstakingly gathered was used in ways that didn’t accurately reflect what I saw happening to the forest. This was during the Spotted Owl Wars of the late 80s-early 90s. After two seasons, I was disgusted and disillusioned enough to resign and go to graduate school in fine arts.

Life really is like a trail. It doesn’t run in a straight line from Point A to Point B. It has to follow the terrain, climb ridges and descend into valleys. When there are junctions, choices have to be made about which way to turn. Sometimes you have to thrash through the brush, wade rivers, climb over obstacles. Sometimes you can stand on a summit and look at some other direction you might have gone. But choices once made, are made. And once in awhile, serendipity pops up.

As I was finishing my first year of grad school, thinking that I might be done with the Forest Service, my partner came home with news. He was setting up his own thesis work on Forest birds and had visited the nearby Forest Service office in Cle Elum. He said that if I wanted work on the trail crew that summer, I should talk to them. So I did. It was a good summer. I noticed how elated I was to walk in places that hadn’t been logged over or were about to be logged over. There were no politics or controversies. I learned to run a chainsaw. I renewed my acquaintance with the crosscut saw. I liked my coworkers and boss. I went back the next season and the next. I finished my graduate degree and spent the next ten years making and showing artwork, teaching, and being a partner in a marriage. Every summer was spent on the trail crew, which kept my memory and imagination well-supplied with ideas and experiences.

For the first time since childhood, my two callings were not in conflict. There was no career, only a way of life. This is what I meant by the work finding me. The sweet spot is where the hands, head, and heart are all in alignment. You want to keep that going for as long as you can. I have a clear memory of the summer I was 40, hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail between Deception Pass and the Mt. Daniel Ford. It was one of those euphoric summer days in the subalpine where there isn’t much to do on the trail except get from one place to another. I was thinking—I’m 40. How much longer am I going to do this? The answer came immediately—for as long as I can.

When I first started out in the Forest Service, my crew mates and I used to joke about growing up and getting a real job. Seasonal work was fine but what if one day you grew up and wanted a real job that lasted year-round so you could get married, have a mortgage, and start having babies? We saw other people doing it. Some of my friends saw it as inevitable, doing the expected thing, living the American dream after they tired of this adventure. To me it felt like giving up, giving in. For women, the whole kid thing seemed like the end. Once you did that, your days in the woods were over forever.

If growing up and getting a real job meant leaving the woods, then I wasn’t willing to do it until I was ready. The woods are home, where I belong. My partner and I had reached one of those junctions in our path together. We were in our mid-forties and he wanted me to stay home. He wanted me to be someone I was not. In the midst of the crisis, I went to the backcountry with the trail crew. One evening after work I laid on my back on sun-warmed mountain rock to watch the stars emerge while my mind whirled: What am I gonna do? Give this up?

I chose my path. Took the ring off my finger and stayed in the woods. In the hard times that followed, the woods were home, where I belonged. The woods held me. The trail crew kept me company. And I accompanied them. The closest I’ve come to a real job was the permanent seasonal position that I got in 2002 and still have. I entered what I call my “Emily Carr phase”. She was a Canadian painter of the forest, coast, and First Nations villages. She was a single woman of great promise but was artistically ahead of her time. When she tired of the struggle to support herself as an artist, she stopped painting and ran a boarding house. Late in her life, her work was rediscovered and she experienced a creative renewal before her untimely death. Trail work is the boarding house which makes my living but doesn’t leave much time and energy for artistic flowering.

What keeps me coming back to trails (besides the health insurance and mortgage payment)? The refusal to grow up and get a real job. The knowledge that I am unsuited to the clerical, the managerial, the academic, the domestic and maternal, the computer screen in the cubicle and so much more. I’m a dirt person. I need those physical euphoric days in the subalpine sun or deep old growth shade. Those less-than-euphoric days of rains, snow, clouds of bugs, mind-numbing zombie hikes on an overly familiar trail, breathlessly hot days with sweat trickling down my spine, covered in dust or pitch or bar oil—then coming home to rest, knowing I can get clean, warm, cool, dry then eat, drink, scratch, and feel unspeakably glad to be alive. Laughing. The hardest I have ever laughed in my life has been out on the trail. I like the challenge of solving a trail problem by rebuilding it in a way that will keep it stable for years in spite of the increasing difficulty of getting work done in an underfunded bureaucracy. The joy of continuing to master the crosscut saw, the ax, the explosives. The sometimes painful opportunity to bear witness to the changes in the environment and society. The privilege of working with like-minded others. The lifelong friends. I never want to give up that feeling of congruence of head, hands, heart. The feeling of being where I belong, the place that feeds the outpouring of writing, images, dreams, and memories. I still check in with myself from time to time. How much longer do I want to do this? When will I be ready to stop and go do something else? The answer is—Not quite yet. But soon.

There are many good people in the Forest Service, people who have dedicated their lives to the mission and idea of stewardship. They are serious and solid. But literal-minded and focused. Given my broad curiosity and interests, penchant for metaphor and oddball connections, preference for the hands-on, obscure old tools, and staying outside, I’m an outlier in the agency culture. You don’t have to be an over educated weirdo to work in trails, but it kind of helps.

In the end, creating a career and being practical about making a living has mattered as much as finding what I love and being true to it. Knowing what I wanted was made easier by having a clear idea of what I didn’t want. I wish I had realized sooner that the notion of conventional success is an illusion. If I hadn’t spent my working life I the woods, I would have wished I had. If I hadn’t gone to art school, I always would have wondered what it might have been like. If I hadn’t been married, I would have wondered if I was capable of commitment. If I had grown up and gotten a real job, maybe I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing that I have truly been of service by caring for such treasures as wilderness areas and National Scenic Trails. I have been part of something larger than myself, which has given my life purpose even when I have been cynical and bitter about certain aspects of it. The trail of my life has had plenty of switchbacks and bushwhacks, but also some smooth ridge and valley walking. I know this—woods are big and I am small. The woods endure. That’s what matters.

Under the Wind Turbines

Sisyrinchium inflatum, or Grass Widow

Bright but windy, a hint of snow in the air. I have my springtime rituals, little pilgrimages to visit returning friends. In my head there’s a map of special places to go at certain times of the year, just to say hello after another year of existence. Spring is the time to wander in the shrub-steppe, that zone of the rain shadow that could be described as a northern desert. The primary shrub is big sage, the geologic substrate is flood basalt. Hot and dry in the summer, cold and relatively dry in the winter, the shrub steppe supports a surprising amount of plant and animal life well-adapted to the seasonal nature of life there. Moisture and warmth in the spring brings a flush of flowers and insects that flourish briefly then deploy their strategies to survive whatever summer brings.

Driving through the shrub steppe reveals no spectacular vistas or eye-catching displays. You have to get out and look.

I got out and the wind stuck its icy fingers in my hair and whisked the curls into a froth around my head. Fingers in gloves, coat zipped to my chin. Walked along a ridge of chunky basalt, eyes cast down for plants and interesting rocks, then up to pick a route, then back down. I found various lomatiums—desert parsleys. The umbelliferous flowers emerge first, followed by ferny leaves. The early ones stay prostrate, hunkering close to the ground while it’s cold and windy. By May, warmer weather encourages the tall ones. Then I found the yellow bells, Fritillaria pudica, nodding downturned clear yellow cups with graceful green leaves, only three inches tall. As I walked on, I found a few yolk-yellow coyote tears, tiny annual daisies that can turn a hillside yellow when they really get going. A few sagebrush violets with two pale purple petals on top and three dark purple petals below. The wind vibrated everything, shaking flowers and foliage in a steady blur. When I looked up, silvery gray clouds crested the mountains, filling valleys with white snow squalls.

I moved on, driving to the top of a bare ridge where wind turbines harvest the restless motion of the air. These things are enormous, industrial white and sleek, taller than the tallest trees in the forests to the west and visible from the Cascade crest. Each tower has three narrow wing-like blades that power the turbine. They never appear to be moving that fast, not like a spinning propeller on a plane. But that’s deceptive. If the wind speed is 15 miles per hour, the tip of the blade can be moving at 120 miles per hour. This wind is faster than that, and there is a deep tearing roar as the blades slice the air. It’s easy to be hypnotized by the round and round, the drop and rise of those three wings. Once I became motion sick from watching while riding in the backseat of a car. So I turn away. I haven’t come to admire the wind farm.

In a sloping depression following the fall line of the hill, a swath of red-violet and green shimmers in the spare winter-bleached landscape. Grass widows! These members of the iris family are fleeting harbingers of a new season, and prefer damp places that get plenty of sunshine. I have only ever seen them in basalt lithosol—stony ground with thin clay soil that swells with water during times of snowmelt or rain. This spot is a textbook illustration of a microclimate, a place with perfect growing conditions for certain species. The line between perfect and not perfect is clearly visible. I drop to my haunches for a closer look, amazed at the intense color and satiny surface of the petals. Some of the flowers are like the skirts of ball gowns, circling yellow centers. Others are finished, crumpled into dark knots. The leaves are like other irises, arising spearlike from clumps. As I watch, bees zoom in deliberately flying low to beat against the wind that shakes the flowers. Other moisture-lovers are there too, hot pink shooting stars and strawberry-like hesperochirons. New grass is emerging from perennial roots.

When I’ve had enough of the wind scrambling my hair, chilling my core and trying to knock me over, I retreat to the sun warmed interior of the truck and drive back toward the highway. A few birds streak by, and I think they must be recently returned western bluebirds. They are away before I have a chance to get a good look. The highway is practically deserted in these pandemic times. People have been told to stay home, the economy has slowed. Ordinarily there would be many trucks hauling freight and many cars and trucks with people going here and there. Things are different now.

There comes a point in any essay where the writer has to persuade the reader to follow them in whichever direction the essay wants to go. Some circle around, some travel in a zigzag, some thrash though the brush and come out on the other side. But in the end, the writer has to lead the reader to some point back near the beginning. I imagine you have followed me out to the shrub steppe to look for spring flowers, get tossed around by the cold wind, and listen to the unsettling roar of a wind turbine. Where, you might be wondering, will she take me now?

Ready for a tangent? Here we go.

From time to time, I listen to a podcast called The Wild. It’s produced by KUOW in Seattle. The host, Chris Morgan, is an ecologist who studies bears and his passion for nature comes through in his stories. He has a pleasant British voice that’s very easy to listen to, and the productions include all sorts of evocative sounds from the crew’s travels. I want to like the podcast because it’s actually well done and has important messages. But there are things that bother me, and it’s possible I don’t belong to the target audience. For one thing, there’s a quite a bit about charismatic megafauna, those sexy apex predators like lions and tigers and bears. There are scientist voices. The first season was all male voices; now during this second season he’s talking to a few more women. There’s somewhat of a balance between Chris going in expeditions to foreign lands and exploring his own backyard in the Pacific Northwest (albeit the west side of the mountains). OK, maybe they’re still figuring it all out. But when will they talk about what it means to be wild? Where does the wild begin and end? Will they talk to some artists and writers who approach wildness from a different perspective than scientists? Folks from other cultures?

Because, here are the things that interest me—having spent a lot of time working in wild places, I don’t find firm boundaries any more. Watching bugs in the backcountry has made me notice them at home, and I’m amazed to keep learning more about the pollinators in my garden, to the point of near obsession. And while I love an animal encounter as much as anyone else, it doesn’t have to be an apex predator. I am just as thrilled by frogs the size of my fingernail that hop out onto the trail or the newly-fledged sparrow that alights on the handle of the crosscut saw I’m carrying. Or the bumblebees that land on my hands to sip perspiration from my pores when I’m on a mountaintop watching a fire.

And what about fire? Uncontained fire in a landscape is one of the wildest most unpredictable things I’ve ever observed. Same with the energy of avalanches, big storms, floods. The world we live in is powerful and wild, in spite of the human-built crust that covers a lot of it.

We are wild too. When I had heart failure, it became clear to me that the electrical currents that make my heart beat are wild. I can’t control them with my mind. The heart—and indeed the mind—are not domesticated organs. They are wild entities that I coexist with, whatever “I” am. I am legion, me and my wild organs, micro flora and fauna, a whole ecosystem and civilization in one human organism.

So now it’s time to circle back around to spring in the pandemic year, the wildness of viruses, to a realization I have recently come to. It’s good to connect with nature, to feel what E.O. Wilson called biophilia. We come from the natural world, we love it, and perhaps in our self-centered ness want to feel that love reflected back upon us. We give our love and wish for it to be returned. But what I have learned from keeping bees and sitting outside the hive watching them go in and out, is that they are indifferent. They fly around me and get on with their business. I am insignificant in their scheme of things, unless I open the hive or knock it around. And so it is with the wind and the blooming flowers—with their presence and power they put my self-importance into perspective. I am small, the world is big and old. Life is persistent and beautiful. That comforts me more than I can say.

How to Occupy Your Pandemic

Day 2 of Washington State’s “ Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order:

Take it seriously? Yep, that’s my decision. I have a comfortable, well-stocked haven and no inclination to go out into the mad, mad world. Here are some thoughts on how to spend this uncertain time.

  1. Don’t panic. Don’t be an invincible idiot or a hoarder or conspiracy theorist. Don’t spread misinformation. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, state and local health departments are probably the most reliable sources.
  2. Wash your hands with soap. Follow recommended procedures at home and if you must go out.
  3. Catch up on rest.
  4. Catch up on reading.
  5. Bake bread. Here’s my current favorite: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/french-style-country-bread-recipe. The King Arthur Flour website is loaded with great baking possibilities.
  6. Go for a walk someplace where you can experience weather, sights, and sounds.
  7. Tackle that horrible closet/basement/shed/garage that you’ve been meaning to clean out for ages.
  8. Write letters slowly and by hand. The US Post Office states that there is a very low possibility that Covid-19 can be spread through the mail. https://about.usps.com/newsroom/statements/usps-statement-on-coronavirus.htm
  9. Dig On For Victory. There are some wonderful old WW2 posters from both the US and UK that encourage Victory Gardens and the home production and processing of food. I like the jaunty fellow above with his tools and load of vegetables. It’s early for gardening here, but I have been tinkering with four season gardening and just harvested my first batch of spring greens and lettuce. Yesterday I planted a 4×8 foot garden bed with cool season crops to sell/share/barter and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Tender seedlings are growing in the house. I’ve never thought much about how much I can produce from my small patch of ground before this, but the pandemic has me considering it. Even though the grocery stores are still open, I prefer to go there as little as possible. Here are my favorite seed sources: https://territorialseed.com/, https://www.superseeds.com/,
    https://www.johnnyseeds.com/ . These sites also include information about propagation and growing. You might be surprised at what you can grow in pots and small spaces.
  10. Keep in touch via email, phone, text, video but don’t overdo it. I’m fairly reclusive and have been overwhelmed by the calls and emails. It’s too much socializing, too much time on devices, and I can’t keep up.
  11. Crash the Internet. With so many of us keeping in touch, checking social media, shopping, streaming movies and podcasts and music and books, I wonder if there is a point where all the servers overheat and give up. Might be good to take a break and do some of the stuff listed above.
  12. Hunker in for the long haul. Stay well, stay patient, flexible and resilient. Do what you can for your community and the less fortunate. It ain’t over till it’s over, and looking at WW2 posters reminds me that the world will not be the same once the pandemic has passed. As my favorite historians like to say, Plan for the worst, hope for the best.https://joditaylor.online/collections/the-chronicles-of-st-marys-series

Hope

Sometimes life slides sideways unexpectedly. As a global pandemic wraps around the planet, every day brings news of the next surreal event. Natural disasters like hurricanes and forest fires upend life as we know it, but the spread of a contagious virus so widely is new for most of us. Life goes along routinely until it doesn’t, which is always surprising and unsettling. We are so connected that we can find news at the swipe of a finger and it’s easy to get caught up. There’s confusion, apprehension, uncertainty and waiting. Fear. No one knows how long this will last or how we will be affected. Will we be seriously ill or dead in a few days or weeks? Will we lose family members, friends, coworkers? it’s impossible to know anything for sure.

Email messages have been arriving from unexpected places. A community art gallery reminds me that artists are creative, adaptable, resilient and empathetic—qualities that we should bring to the current situation. A quilt shop assures me that they are taking extra hygiene steps, that I can order online, and that family is the most important thing. A medical clinic informs me that only one person may accompany a patient to an appointment and that others must wait outside. Plans are being made to hold meetings remotely. Social distancing is a term that has just entered common use.

I have been in a self-imposed exile all winter due to hosting a different, more common virus that takes a long time to recover from. I’ve been fatigued, feverish, and lost my appetite. My spleen was enlarged for weeks and lymph nodes were swollen and painful. My ability to eat and tolerate activity has been on a roller coaster but now I’m certain I’m through the worst of it. Strength and motivation is returning. I don’t miss the ten pounds that magically melted away, although is strange to wear loose baggy clothing. The idea of another virus doesn’t appeal to me at all, but I am philosophical about it. I’ve been hunkered in all winter and am prepared to hunker in for awhile longer.

Spring is always a time of hope for me as the daylight hours grow longer, the snow melts, and I look forward to going barefoot, gardening, and enjoying all the other delights of a warmer season. I planted tomato seeds six weeks ago and have been nurturing them indoors as I do every year. But now, the promise held within seeds takes on even more significance. There is so much wrong with the world and I am paying attention to it. But there is also a lot right with the world which gets short shrift in the news cycle and continuous communication of horrors. Seeds are miraculous and this afternoon I deliberately planted more seeds in order to remind myself of what is right and good and hopeful. Little miracles surround us in the life that goes on in the soil, the air, the water. Observing the natural world is comforting because of its indifference to human drama. This is why I like to watch bees or a river flowing or clouds drifting by. It’s not about me or anything to do with people. Life goes on whether we’re here or not.

This is what I want to remember while I’m watching microgreens and pea shoots grow. When I pick and taste them. I want to remember that whatever happens, it will be all right. Things will go on. The world is always changing, always has been.

So wash your hands. Stay in touch with those you care about. Be kind. Feel uncertain or afraid or whatever, but don’t collapse. Find some hope wherever it dwells, in the little things. Carry on. It’s spring, after all.

Battles

“To sustain an environment suitable for man, we must fight on a thousand battlegrounds. Despite all of our wealth and knowledge, we cannot create a redwood forest, a wild river, or a gleaming seashore.” Lyndon B. Johnson

Some inspiring things were said—and done—in the 1960s, when I was a kid first becoming aware of the world behind the end of my nose. On TV and in National Geographic, I saw pictures of the Cuyahoga River on fire, piles of dead fish lying belly up on the shores of Lake Erie, people poisoned by mercury, smokestacks belching pollution. Battles were fought over banning the pesticide DDT, removing lead from gasoline, setting standards for clean air and water and food. More battles were fought to preserve wild places, keep them from being exploited by extractive industries, and to save native plants and animals from extinction.

Those battles and the landmark legislation that resulted have been around for fifty-plus years and for the most part, have done good. No more rivers on fire. Bald eagles and other bird species pulled back from the brink. Acid rain reduced. The hole in the ozone layer is closing back up.

And yet. And YET! The forces of darkness are corroding environmental protections at this very moment. Is it acceptable to slip backwards? To accept a world where resources are extracted for maximum profit, humans are treated as slaves, garbage patches whirl in the oceans, and climate patterns shift? Is it acceptable to create a world where only rich people have access to clean water and air, high ground, unpoisoned food and good health? Et cetera…I am not even aware of all the insane things happening.

Here is what I know:

~History does repeat itself unless lessons from the past are learned.

~Humans in general and Americans in particular are capable of rising above greed and selfishness to work toward a greater good.

~Wealth and knowledge aren’t everything. Clean and adequate air, water, food, wild spaces and sharing our world with the earth’s other inhabitants may be considered to be pretty damn important too.

I am paying attention, and I know others are too. My confidence in our political system is at an all-time low, but it’s the system we have. I am writing to my elected officials to protest the erosion of environmental laws and demand more to be done to protect the liveability of the planet for humans and other life forms. The battles never end.

A New Decade

The compost bin in January

As 2020 kicked off, the internet was full of articles about resolutions and pledges, speculation about what the new decade will bring, etc. This website about climate action caught my attention and I read on to see what kinds of changes people are making. Pretty basic stuff, it turns out. I’ve been pondering this for awhile. One the one hand, some commentators would have us believe that no effort made by an individual can make a bit of difference—the problems are just too big, and need to be addressed by governments and the international community. On the other hand, some say that individual change taken in aggregate can turn the tide. Listening to others, especially in an age where digital media makes it possible for every yelping voice to be heard, is confusing. So my response is to unplug and go off for a good think.

What I think is that you have to be able to live with yourself. I imagine coming to the end of my life and being able to look back. Can I live with the decisions I made about how to conduct my affairs? In turn, this makes me think about what matters, what I care about, and what I can choose. From childhood, I watched the adults in my life partially sustain our family by the work of their hands, by gardening, preserving, dairying, butchering, building houses and barns, drilling wells. I learned a lot of things from observing and assisting, but the basic lesson was that we are connected to our food, water, shelter and these things take tending. It’s easy to take prosperity for granted, but everything comes from somewhere. And goes somewhere. My rural grandparents were frugal but not joyless, competent without being cocky, and understood the importance of being good neighbors.

How could I not be influenced by them?

So I wondered about making a list of sustainable practices people are adopting, and seeing where I fall. I can’t afford to do big things like buy an electric car or put solar panels on the house, but maybe the little things add up.

It turned out to be a long boring list. So long that you wouldn’t want to read it. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you want.) I’ve been taking my own bags to the grocery store for at least 20 years, living in a small house which means I have less stuff and use less energy, walking to work which means driving way less than average. My last airline flight was in 2015 and was such a horrible experience that I can hardly consider flying anywhere. My diet is as seasonal, organic and local as I can make it. I’m not ready to go vegan, but the small amount of meat I consume is locally and sustainably produced. I garden, I compost, I recycle, etc. Being over 50 and female means that I am invisible to society, so can eschew fashion. My clothing is comfortable, durable, and worn till worn out. I live by the old motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”

So if I want to do more than I am currently doing with the resources I have, I have to dig deeper. Instead of making lists, I’ve been applying a spatial thought process to my activities. Rather than think about production and consumption as a straight line, I imagine circles. It’s the good old First Law of Thermodynamics that states “Energy is neither created nor destroyed.” Energy cycles around, transforming from one kind into another.

Think about compost. I throw food scraps and garden waste into a bin. Microorganisms and invertebrates show up from the environment and transform the energy stored in the plant matter into energy to fuel their lives. The byproducts of that transformation are now available for me to put back on the garden to grow new vegetables to fuel my life. Some of the energy stored in the vegetables goes to my chickens, and their byproducts (in the form of good manure) go into the compost. Circular, more or less.

The idea is to keep healthy and useful stuff in circulation as much as possible. Some products, like single use plastics (how I detest those clamshell containers for produce) are difficult to reuse or recycle. I have a collection of yogurt containers which I reuse to freeze food, scoop grains, and for various functions in the studio. But when the pile of containers became unmanageable, I revolted. For $50 I obtained a yogurt maker and figured out how to make yogurt that tasted better than what I could buy. Then I had milk cartons, but they are reusable and recycleable, and there were far fewer of them. Same thing happened when I got tired of recycling sparkling water containers—I found a device that puts carbonation into a bottle and I return the CO2 tank for a refill after several months of bubbles.

Not only is solving these small challenges practical, the pursuit keeps me busy and entertained. No need to spend a lot of time on social media because I need distraction. No need to consume much other media either. But I do worry about the digital transformation. Data may live in a virtual cloud, but that is powered by electrically-powered servers humming away somewhere. We may have gone paperless, but information accessed on phones and tablets still consumes energy, rare earths and metals used to manufacture phones and tablets. You don’t get something from nothing. It’s all connected, and as long as we live in this galaxy we can’t escape the laws of thermodynamics.

The good old Second Law states that “Closed systems tend toward entropy.” If I have a favorite, it’s this one. My house gets messier unless I infuse energy into it to fight the inevitable chaos.

We humans have a dilemma as we relate to the laws of thermodynamics. How do we transform a finite amount of energy (and a finite planet) into the best possible outcome to reduce entropy and chaos so that Earth remains habitable for humans and others? Coming to consensus—if we are able—will probably go on past my lifetime, but I’m willing to be surprised if it happens sooner. In the meantime, we can all start where we are and make small changes to make our material lives simpler by thinking circular. And be able to live with ourselves.

I have more to say on this, but I’m a slow thinker. My mind is like a compost pile and my brain is full of microorganisms chewing away on inputs and thoughts. It takes awhile for all of it to ferment into words and actions.