Sustainability and Resilience

lemmings

Overthinking…it’s what I do. 🙂

Sustainability and Resilience:

I like these two words very much but I fear they are on the verge of being overused. When words are repeated too many times they become meaningless. Consider what has happened to “friend” and “like”. Or “happiness” or “freedom”. Say “friendfriendfriend” over and over and it becomes just noise. It stops meaning a familiar person with whom one shares an affinity, holds in regard and even affection, a companion along life’s path. Or worse, it becomes a buzzword and is loaded with one agenda or another.

It’s too bad such things can happen to words. Language has its limitations.

So I want to consider sustainability and resilience before they fall off the cliff of overuse.

What I like about sustainability is the long-term implications. Sustain has a Latin root, meaning to hold up from under. To sustain is to keep from sinking or failing, to uphold and support. I picture a solid foundation—whether it is constructed with stone or sound concepts. Perhaps a well-built bridge, sturdily attached to both sides of a chasm and designed to bear a load. Or a bridge from one idea to another, explained in such a way that a listener can follow the reasoning. We hear about sustainable economies, sustainable energy, sustainable landscapes, even sustainable trails. But nobody ever gets into the details of what sustainability means and what it might look like. Too often sustainability implies a dream of steady funding for whatever we hope will persist into the future–an economy that doesn’t go up and down on whims, or an endless free energy supply, or a trail that holds up without maintenance. But without a solid foundation, sustainability is just wishful thinking.

I’ve been thinking about sustainable trails because that’s my day job. I’ve done some reading of my agency’s glossy propaganda and even attended a webinar. There are a lot of words and cheerful thoughts that leave me scratching my head in bafflement. Sustainability is a nice idea if you are building a trail system from scratch. You can design it for the kind of use it will get, avoid the sensitive soils, plants and animals, and construct it so that it will require minimal maintenance by unskilled volunteers. In other words, you can design a trail based on a solid foundation. On the other hand, you can try to retrofit an existing trail system that was built for entirely different kinds of uses than it receives today, that was never meant for the volume of use it gets, that responds to human and natural agents of change in the environment, all in a time when the legislative body is unwilling to invest in an amenity that many members of the public value. Sustainability becomes much more challenging in the absence of a foundation. For example, I have come to wonder if bridges across backcountry streams are unsustainable. Trail bridges have a lifespan of 30 or 40 years. They can decay or be washed away or the ground holding them up can be undercut by the stream. In the 1970s, timbers and even entire bridges were flown into the wilderness by helicopter. As those bridges fail, no one (or at least me and the people I hang out with) imagines that money will be spent in such a way again in our lifetimes.

Which brings me to resilience. Resilience also has a Latin root, meaning to leap back. A thing regains its original shape after being stretched or compressed. Elastic comes to mind. Or a tethered balloon that returns to its place after being bounced and bobbed around. We hear about resilient landscapes, perhaps forests that quickly return to health and productivity after a disturbance such as fire. And resilient employees, who keep chugging along in a chaotic and rapidly-changing workplace. Resilience is the ability to recoil undamaged and unchanged after pressure or shock. I wonder what makes a thing resilient? It doesn’t seem to be a permanent state. My experience of elastic indicates that it works as designed for awhile, but after so much stretching it eventually wears out and your pants fall down. A tethered balloon bounces back until it has been hit so many times that it deflates or pops. So I expect that resilience is dependent on the repetition of pressure and shock as well as the forces involved. And entropy, that state of increasing disorder in the absence of infusions of energy. In other words, stuff wears out unless you work at keeping it going.

So a thoughtful reflection on sustainability and resilience leads me to the conclusion that these words have important meanings and shouldn’t be lightly tossed around. Both words indicate to me that some effort is required to truly be sustainable and resilient. There must be a firm foundation supporting that which we want to keep from collapsing. And resilience must be tended or it will wear out. Where will we put our attention and energies?

I’ll be watching for these words to go over the edge. And be sad to see them go.

Wonder

Today is the vernal equinox and my 58th birthday.

I have spent the past few days trying to get my head around being 58 and it’s discombobulating. I suppose I had vague expectations about what it would be like. When I was 25, I anticipated that my pigtails would have turned white by now. But they have not. My hair has lost its red-gold brightness, and is a few shades darker and duller. Curly white hairs are liberally threaded through, and there are silvery streaks at my temples and hairline. When I was 40, I figured I would end up leathery-faced with interesting lines from many seasons of fieldwork. But thirty-five years of consistent moisturizer and sunscreen use have saved me from complete leatheriness. There are fine lines around my eyes, the flesh of my cheeks and jawline have sagged, my mouth has thinned, but there are still freckles. I recognize me as me. There are other symptoms of wear and tear that modern medicine has been able to repair–that floppy ankle that had rolled too many times, cataract surgery which made it possible for me to do close work without glasses, a thumb tendon that is just now healing from a minor fix. Being post-menopausal means I’m no longer lean and muscular, but there is still strength and stamina under a comfortable layer of fat. At least that’s what they tell me when I go to the gym. I am “highly functional” for my age.

Nope, what’s weird about being 58 is putting a number on how I feel. I’ve been throwing away mailings from AARP for years, because I don’t see myself and my concerns reflected in their magazine and website. I can’t afford to retire. It’s strange to think that I qualify for the senior discount at places that offer senior discounts. Me, a senior? How can that be?

But there’s evidence–I have decades of memories of being an adult. Decades of perspective on the living that I’ve made and the work that I’ve done. I’ve learned some hard lessons, integrated some hard experiences. I’ve watched other people’s children grow from infants to adulthood. Most people seem younger than me now. I’ve been in Ramekin Cottage for thirteen years. Henry the big gray cat is twelve and a half. I’ve been divorced for almost as long as I was married and have no regrets at all.

What the hell did I expect? Maybe that’s the thing–I was so busy living that I forgot to have specific expectations of being an “old” person. Perhaps age is relative.

What I do know is that today is the first day of spring. It has been a beautiful warm sunny day. There are just a few scraps of snow lingering in the shady part of my garden. Crocuses are blooming. As I poke around in the flowerbeds, I see all sorts of shoots and sprouts including some beloved old friends. Winter is over and it’s time to clear the fog from my brain. Overcome the inertia that has settled upon me. Thinking about being 58 helped me to realize that I’ve stopped doing a lot of things that stimulate my mind, give me joy, help me feel connected to myself and the way I want to live. I stopped writing this blog. I stopped drawing and I rarely paint. I let my job suck my soul dry, and I stopped going to the woods on my own time because it reminded me of being at work and having to face masses of people as a uniformed ranger. I have been hiding in plain sight.

I don’t like how I feel. Sour, resentful, fat and sloppy. Where is my zest for life? What happened to my sense of wonder? What happened to gratitude? Is this how I want to spend the rest of whatever time I’ve got?

The answer is a resounding NO. I have decided: this blog will be revived as a way to document a renewed quest for wonder in every day life. There will be more small expeditions with sketchbook and camera in hand. There will be more noticing and less numbness. There will be observation and reflection on the human condition, as in “I wonder why…”

Today was a tiny start. It was a perfect day for sorting the beehive–rotate the brood boxes, scrape the burr comb off frames, clean out the honey super, add the queen excluder. I saw that many of the foragers were packing pollen back to the hive. Wonder where they’re finding that? It’s a good sign, since pollen provides the protein the queen needs to lay eggs and increase the colony. I had big plans for a hike, but by the time I finished with the bees it was too late to go to the place I had in mind. So I grabbed a small sketchbook and drove to a place where I knew I would find a few spring wildflowers. I left all digital devices in the truck and walked up the hill, stopping to look at the shiny yellow petals of sagebrush buttercups and the whiskered faces of sagebrush violets. Meadowlarks sang, my first hearing of their clear notes this year. When I saw the elk on the skyline I stopped and went to ground. We were all taking advantage of the mild day to soak up some sunshine on a south-facing slope. I idled for awhile, peering at small leaves emerging from the soil and the rounded stones left by the glacier that created this ridge. Wondered if the ticks are out and felt slightly crawly under my clothes. The sound of the interstate washed over me and I separated myself from the irritation I feel at the fossil-fueled busyness and noise of life in the 21st century. If I looked up, I could see the light blinking on top of a nearby cell tower and the spinning white blades of wind turbines. If the elk could exist with all that human junk, I reckoned I could too. On the way down I stopped to sketch one violet flower, really giving it my full attention and falling into the familiarity of making marks on paper. It was fine. I can do this.

This is the start of the “Wonder Challenge”, which will last one year. I will post on the blog at least once a week to document what I discover. I don’t know how this will turn out. But I have to try.

Happy Spring!

Beautiful Lettuce


This is Red Iceberg. It wintered over as a seedling in the plastic garden tunnel, and erupted into life once the warm sun hit it. I transplanted several frost-blasted lettuce seedlings into a newly prepared bed containing soil amendments and my secret proprietary blend of organic fertilizer. Then I watered regularly. A crisp green heart is forming, surrounded by these lavish bronze leaves.

Most gardeners of my acquaintance have preferences–certain plants they really like to grow. I confess that lettuce is one of mine. I love garden catalogs that feature pages of lettuce varieties. I read about them all, heirlooms and new cultivars. Some do best during cool weather, and others adapt to hot weather without bolting. Some have wacky names like “Flashy Trout’s Back” and others have plain names like “Green Salad Bowl”. Some lettuces form heads, others stay leafy. Compared to store-bought lettuce, homegrown actually tastes like something. The Red Iceberg is nothing like that anemic stuff from the supermarket. It has crisp texture and a noticeable flavor. Why would you not grow lettuce? Spring and summer are the perfect time for salads.

Knowing that I would write about my fondness for lettuce, I did some research. Lettuce was known in antiquity, originating in the Near East. The Romans served it at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite. The Egyptians associated lettuce with male fertility since the plant grows upright and exudes a milky liquid. (You can Google the history of lettuce yourself if you don’t believe me.) Lettuce traveled northward into Europe and evolved into French and Italian varieties, German and Dutch and English. Lettuce migrated to North America along with settlers from these countries. My parents always planted a row of red leaf lettuce, and my mom would make a warm dressing from bacon and cider vinegar that was poured over the fresh leaves, slightly wilting them. You had to eat this right away. I think it is a recipe from our German heritage.

I stagger plantings of lettuce through the season until it is too hot for it to germinate. When there is a surplus, I give bags of washed lettuce leaves to friends. I wallow in salads of green, red, bronze and speckled all summer long, first with crunchy radishes and later with ripe tomatoes and tender cucumbers. Lettuce is loaded with vitamins and minerals. I would grow it year round if I could. Instead, I sow a late planting, knowing that some will get started, freeze, then take off again in early spring. Now, it even seeds itself around the garden and I find volunteer lettuces everywhere. It pleases me to move them around and nurture them until they are ready to eat.

Right now I am awash in beautiful lettuce, with more to come.

After a Long Winter


Spring has been slow to arrive this year, which makes winter feel all the longer. To alleviate impatience and cabin fever, a person has to go looking for spring.

I followed a convoluted route along backroads of the Kittitas Valley to the foothills. These roads make their way past farms and ranches and pastures and fields and housing developments, crossing swollen creeks and irrigation ditches. Horses and mules are still shaggy with rough winter coats, standing with their backsides toward the wind. A few deer look up from nibbling on fresh green grass. When I park and open the truck door, the sound of rushing water fills the air as Naneum Creek bustles past with its load of snowmelt. My nose catches a faint whiff of honey from the cottonwood leaves unfurling along the stream. I cross on a culvert and start climbing. The flowers appear right away, sagebrush buttercups and Lithophragma sp., the prairie star. The soil is moist and lichens on the basalt outcrops are fluffed up from recent rain. I hear the distant call of a meadowlark, and the quiet soft whistle of a bluebird. Insects blur the air in front of my face, startling me. It’s been months since I waved a bug away. I’m completely hooked now,and compelled to keep climbing the hill to see what else is blooming. I want to greet all my flower friends.

The desire to go walking to look at wildflowers goes back to childhood. By this point in my life, it has taken on the feel of a ritual. Something I must do or feel incomplete. Perhaps it all started with my grandmothers. Both of them lived near patches of forest in western Washington. I have distinct memories of walking with both of them, being shown flowers and introduced to them by name. Soon I knew to look for skunk cabbage and trilliums around Easter time. After being cooped up all winter, trapped in the house, the classroom and school bus by days of cold pelting rain, now there were times when it was possible to go out in coat and rubber boots. It was still cold and damp but the woods were different. Green shoots appeared on the forest floor amid the tangles of salal and blackberry briars. Everything uncurled, unfurled, untwisted, emerged from the wet earth. Birds sang. As I grew older, I made the pilgrimage by myself. Silently I would say hello to johnny jump-up’s cheerful yellow face and the gracious form of pink spring beauty. When I went to work in the woods as a young woman, I kept doing this. When I moved to a dry place in the rainshadow of the Cascades, I transferred my spring ritual to the shrub steppe.

Now I have the best of both worlds. I can start my flower visits in the low dry country almost as soon as the snow melts. As spring progresses, I follow the blossoms through the yellow pine woods until it is June and the snow is melting in the conifer forests on the mountain slopes. There I will find my old friend trillium, and the calypso orchid that my Gramma Mueller called lady slipper. To her it was a rare and precious creature, to be carefully revered. Now I know of places where they turn the ground under the cedars pink with their exotic flowers. No matter how many times I see them, I still feel that little twinge of magic in my chest. A goodly chunk of my heart is rooted in childhood wonder, carried for years like a flame that refuses to be stomped out.

I am not finished with my walk. I keep climbing up the hill above Naneum Creek. Here are clumps of ferny foliage that will produce the bright yellow disks of Hooker’s balsamroot, the spreading stems of big-headed clover, strange reddish fuzz with the beginnings of prairie smoke buds. Mats of creeping phlox, already beginning to show a few flowers. Larkspur leaves. At last I find what I truly long for–a patch of lithosol lavishly scattered with coyote tears. There are so many that they turn the hills golden. Under the stiff sage, the sagebrush violet blooms. I hunker down for a close look at the blue-green lobed leaves, the two-tone purple flowers with the whiskery stripes leading to the center. I smile. Hello, violets. Hello.

Inside of me, things fall into place. The yearly ritual has been observed. It is not what is blooming, but who. As I grow older, I find my point of view shifting away from an objective world toward a more animistic and perhaps native perspective. My world is populated with a lot of whats, but also a lot of whos. The life forms around me are characters and I have grown familiar with many of them. It helps to have learned their names, but it’s not necessary. The feeling of connection and belonging are necessary.

Spring really is underway. There are more hellos to say–I am looking forward to the return of the thrushes.

Equinox and Happiness

The book is Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durston. This morning I opened it at random as I sometimes do, and this is what I read– “I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for body and mind.” Albert Einstein said that. On the opposite page is a quote from the Dalai Lama–“If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital: satisfaction with just enough food, clothing, and shelter to protect yourself from the elements. And finally, there is intense delight in abandoning faulty states of mind and in cultivating helpful ones in meditation.”

Wow. And then during my morning internet reading session came the news that today is the International Day of Happiness. I had no idea there was such a thing. It’s already a good day, being the vernal equinox and my birthday–the one day of the year when I feel I can be most self-indulgent. To contemplate happiness on top of that makes for a potent combination.

If I have a philosophy of life, it would have to be described as wabi-sabi. It’s an untranslatable Japanese term, an aesthetic notion that evolved with the tea ceremony. It has come to refer to that which is imperfect and unfinished, maybe tarnished with age and a little melancholy, like the sound of geese flying over in the autumn. Wabi-sabi prefers the natural and organic, so anything that is made by human hands should reflect the natural world. Wabi-sabi has time; it is the opposite of hurrying. Wabi-sabi pays attention to the small and insignificant. Wabi-sabi does not differentiate between the material and the spiritual. This approach is a source of contentment as I go about my life. The secret to happiness was revealed to me in a flash of insight a couple years ago when I realized that all I had to do was abandon faulty states of mind. I could be happy simply by making up my mind that I am happy.

There are plenty of things in the world to be unhappy about. Ignorance, greed and injustice are not reasons to rejoice. However, enough snow has melted to reveal snowdrops. I am happy to see them. They remind me of my gramma, who urged me to dig a clump of the bulbs from her garden. A sad poignancy rises in my chest to remember her–she was one of my greatest friends and teachers. But I also remember the unassuming simplicity of her life and her generosity, and I aspire to live the same way. So I cherish the snowdrops. It is spring and I have everything I need.

Whom To Revile

These are immigrants. The photo was taken around 1888 at a new house built in a German community near Puyallup, Washington. The young boy with his hand on his father’s arm was the father of my grandfather.

They came from a place called Stöckse, Neidersachsen which is in the northwest corner of Germany near the border with the Netherlands. My great-great grandfather was a forester for a Saxon baron and cared for the trees on a large estate. Because of this, he was recruited to work on for a German sugar company in Hawaii (then a sovereign kingdom). They were looking to improve sugar cane production with irrigation, and the idea was that trees would hold the water from the rain and release it slowly. The family made the decision to move. The fact that boys could be conscripted into the army at age 14 certainly was a consideration. With three sons, it was likely that some or all of them would be cannon fodder in Kaiser Wilhelm’s wars. Also, the story goes, an old aunt advised them that they would never have anything in Germany so they might as well leave. They could also never have anything in Hawaii since haoles couldn’t own land, but the west coast of the United States was not far away. There was hope of building a new life there.

So in 1881, several German families departed Hamburg on the small barkentine Ceder to sail halfway around the world to Kauai. My great-grandfather was six months old, and his diapers were washed in salt water for many weeks. The passage around Cape Horn was rough, and the Pacific Ocean is wide and empty. By the time the people disembarked at Lihue, Kauai, they were weak from lack of food and water and perhaps loss of hope.

The family of Friederich Mueller stayed seven years. They helped build a small community on a hill adjacent to the cane fields and a Lutheran church reminiscent of the ones they had left in Saxony. Then the eldest son was sent to Washington Territory to buy land and build a house. When this was done, the rest of the family came. They became naturalized citizens of the United States. A strong German community existed into the early 20th century, where people spoke their language, attended their church, kept their customs, intermarried, and slowly wove their lives into the fabric of America.

When World War One broke out, there was deep distrust of Germans. Slurs and vandalism were directed at German Americans. Some were suspected of being spies and collaborators. I can imagine that the immigrants wanted to mind their own business and get on with their lives in a new land–after all, that’s why they came here. But they were reviled anyway. Same thing happened during World War Two. When the government came for my great-grandfather, he was shocked to learn that he was not a naturalized citizen, having come when he was so young. He immediately applied for citizenship and it was granted. My Grampa said that it was one of the proudest days of his father’s life, when he officially became an American.

There are millions of family stories like this in our country if you go back far enough and look. And there has been plenty of reviling of immigrants, and discrimination. No Irish Need Apply. No Jews. No Catholics. Yellow Peril. Some immigrants came here unwillingly and were put to work for masters who thought they were less than human. For every American immigrant success story, there is also one about cruelty and misunderstanding. There is a slur for every race, every nationality.

I am writing this because I have trouble swallowing hypocrisy. America for Americans? And who are the Americans? Perhaps they are the ones who were here first, even though anthropologists tell us that they also emigrated here. Do you have to be descended from the families that crossed on the Mayflower? Fought in the Revolutionary or Civil wars? Or perhaps those who fled famine in Ireland or pogroms in Europe? Do you have to be white? All of us come from families that came to this continent from another place, with the hope of creating a better life, living in a world where children can grow up to be whatever they want, where there is freedom of worship and freedom from oppression.

History is a lens, which can be clear or distorted. We can look at history to identify patterns and pitfalls, with the hope that we can avoid repeating mistakes and injustices. The stories we tell ourselves as a nation can help or harm. These days I hear a lot of harm coming from the mouths of people who should know better, and from the people who listen to them and hear what they want to hear. I see mistakes and injustices repeating.

Looking at my German heritage is humbling. I cannot imagine having to submit to the aristocracy, or have no hope of bettering myself. I cannot imagine months on a cold wet ship or stumbling out onto a tropical island feeling a hell of a long way from home. I cannot imagine being called horrible names because of who I am. While I may long to know more about the German culture that produced me, I understand the need to assimilate and get along. I understand the part of me that was taught to be German–hard-working, stubborn, sober, competent with my hands, connected to the land. I also understand the part of me that is American, that longs to be different from what I’ve always thought of as a narrow point of view. I’ve always been curious about other countries and cultures. The sameness of being a white person in a white community, of growing up on meat and potatoes, of a Protestant work ethic–boring! For me, entry into other cultures is through food. When I was young, I thought tacos were exotic. Spaghetti was Italian food. I never had Chinese food till I was a teenager. I loved all of it! Curiosity about food leads to an interest in the culture that creates it, the history, the language, the arts. Now I live in a place where I can find Mexican food cooked by Mexicans, and delicious aromatic Thai dishes cooked by an Asian woman. The internet brings me recipes from around the world, and one of my favorite winter soups comes from a traditional African dish. While potatoes, sauerkraut and sausage is still my German comfort food, I will never go back to straight meat and potatoes.

I find that I am unable to revile immigrants. I find nothing to fear from them. A woman I know left Cambodia as a child. When the family was running from the Khmer Rouge, she remembers hunting for frogs to eat. Or having nothing to eat at all. I have always had enough to eat–why would I deny that to anyone based on our differences? Under our skin, we are all human. And that is the thing about the United States–even though we are told stories about scarcity, they are not true. There is great wealth here, in spite of the uneven distribution and incredible waste. We can afford to be generous and open to other human beings.

Spaghetti is American food. Hummus and naan and sushi are too. I want to hear more helpful stories.