Life Support Systems

Resistance and Resilience through Love, Joy, and Hope

Author’s note: This essay was originally published in the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance.

Many things in the world today seem very dire: species are going extinct, ecosystems are being ruined, humans are waging wars and oppressing each other; all across the globe are signs that the state of the world, everywhere, is terrible.

There are those who look at these events and say that, as our life systems continue to collapse and take our civilizations and other beings with them, now is a time to treat the world as if it has gone into hospice, as if not only our death as a species is certain in the relatively near future, but the rest of the world’s living systems as well.

It is true that things like global warming and its massive side effects will get worse before they can get better (we have not cut global carbon emissions enough yet); many species on the edge of extinction will cross over. Many ecosystems will be changed significantly — permanently, from our human-life-span perspective — into something different from what we have known for centuries.

But we do not have to react to this by falling into despair and hopelessness. And we do not have to tend only to the dead and dying, or to treat every living thing as if our primary concern is to help it pass on.

We can also use our magic, our devotion, and our relationships with spirit allies to help mend the holes in these damaged webs of relationships as best we can, to restore function and resilience.

If magic is making manifest your will in the world, then realizing (in the sense of causing something to become real) positive change– the conditions for further growth and the supporting of life — is a magical act with the intent to keep this going. It is to not let it be crushed by capitalism or kyriarchy or corporate greed, to defy and deny the people and processes that will destroy the life processes of the world, to say through action, “This world you create, dominators, shall not come to pass, it is not coming to pass. Another world is possible; I make it so.”

Life will go on. In abundance and beauty and joyousness.

We must honor and mourn the dead — species, ecosystems small and large, cities, ways of life … giving special care to those brought to wrongful ends by the dominant culture — but we must also build resilience, for us now and for those who will remain after our deaths, that we-and-they can better come through the harder times yet to come. This will take time, it will take care, it will take hard work — but this is a process of love, it is love-in-action, and of hope, and it can be very joyful, as it affirms the value and delight and small triumphs of life where it would otherwise be put down by the obliterators.

Building stronger networks provides not only hope and support for the future, it is an act of resistance against the forces behind our worst current problems. Working together, creating commons, valuing life for itself — these things are antithetical to capitalism, imperialism, to all forms of abuse and power-over that harm human beings and the other beings and life systems we are entangled with.

Resilience is strengthened through reciprocity, maintaining healthy networks of relationships in which members support each other (not necessarily directly:things can be passed on, or through, one member to another). Reciprocity can be viewed as a form of love-in-action – it does not require strong affection for other members of the network, but a desire for the overall network to live and thrive. Doing something beneficial for a person or a river is expressing hope they will benefit from it – and perhaps in turn pass good actions along to others, or back to you, as a consequence of having benefited themselves.

Wild systems (aka “natural” systems) function this way., though it does not appear to be intentional the way human cultural networks have intention built into traditions of gift-giving, mutual aid, reciprocity, etc. The members of a wild ecosystem support and feed each other, and the outcome of these processes, over millennia, has been an ever-expanding diversity of life forms, in configurations that, barring major geological events, tend to be fairly stable for centuries or more. But remove a part of the network, whether it is a plant or an apex consumer like a wolf, or dam a river, and the network becomes less stable, less resilient, more likely to change into a significantly different ecosystem. Some losses cause quick changes throughout the ecosystem; other changes take decades to become apparent. And sometimes a vanished species has its niche filled by another member of the system, but the biodiversity cannot be replaced without many, many more generations of evolution.

The dominant and dominating culture would flatten – is flattening – diversity, both biological and cultural. Anything that cannot be bent to feed capitalism and the kyriarchy is a threat to it, and has been ignored or attacked with intent to be destroyed. This flattening of diversity is the opposite of what life itself will do and has done for millions and millions of years.

We resist the dominant, dominating culture and its processes of obliteration of life’s great diversities by reaffirming the value of life and by supporting life-supporting processes to encourage greater diversity. Among our means of resistance are love and joy and hope.

Love, to act with love, to love as an act, is to direct your energy to the betterment of the recipient of your love (self or other), not to confine or limit, but to encourage growth.

Joy is to find delight in the other, in yourself, in existence, in whatever is here before you and with you right now.

Hope is to see, based on more than wishful thinking, that better is possible and achievable, and to create a way forward.

Love

Love is tricky. Love is an emotion but it is also a verb – to love someone is not just a type of affection, it is to act towards them, or with them, in a way that may not have any connection with how affectionate you feel towards them. It is to treat them with care, with respect, with a sincere desire for their well-being and desires. It is not to seek to dominate them against their will.

To love in this way, to take care with someone (self or other) and work with or for them for their betterment, is to break with the dominant culture and its reinforcement of the “rightness” of dominating and looking for power-over, to be the “victor” in situations defined to only be perceivable as win-lose (some have the potential to provide win-win solutions, if looked at differently). To love does not necessarily mean everyone lives together happily ever after with each other – leaving a harmful situation is being loving to yourself; loving a group or place can require setting boundaries and keeping harmful influences out.

Capitalism, having perverted commerce with its approach of power-over, of power through accumulation of material goods (or symbolic representations of same), both monetizes and weaponizes love.

It preys upon normal human feelings, like the need for reciprocation of feelings, signs of affection, jealousy, feeling like you fit in with others, and so on, and repackages them as symptoms in need of quick fixes, rather than processes we need to come to terms with in a more functional way. Romantic love, long held to a limited resource (one of the few resources the system believes IS finite! O the irony), is particularly targeted: the way to get it and hold onto it is to buy these things for your beloved to “prove” how much you care, so they won’t leave you.

In or outside of romantic partnerships, if you aren’t gaining enough under capitalism’s influence to be able to buy the latest trendy object, then you’re a moral failure, how can you face the rest of the social group without the newest widget? And what will you talk about?? (If you have the means to participate, but choose not to, then you’re another kind of outcast.)

Capitalism also perverts the practice of reciprocity by making gift-giving an excessive obligation that many people do not feel a need to be on the receiving end of, but feel forced into participating in and nobody is happy but the profit-counters; it creates social pressure through marketing techniques , not to help support a healthy social network based on the members’ and group’s true needs or desires or best possible outcomes – but to benefit the producers of the most popular trendy items. Things that will, of course, “need” to be replaced in a year or maybe five; they are made that way. Holidays that are theoretically about family, about strengthening social bonds, things that cannot be bought and sold, have been overtaken to focus on the things bought and sold instead of the people. The few federally-recognized days off in the United States are not days off for retail workers, because these “breaks” from work have become “special sale” days, shopping days, encouraging people to save money rather than go somewhere to relax or see friends.

Exchanges of gifts can be beautiful, wonderful things; this is a legitimate way to act in a loving way towards someone. Thoughtfully done, in the right proportion to the relationship, understanding what is really needed or wanted, it helps strengthen human relationships and networks.

Gift-giving, whether material objects or gifts of time and attention, also strengthens relationships between us and the non-human beings we interact with through devotional practices, devotion being love and love-in-action. We are not alone in this world, and by strengthening our relationships with our Neighbors, we strengthen all parts of our ecosystems, the human-made as well as the wild and the Other.

Caterpillar met crossing a hiking trail; photo by Fjothr
Caterpillar met crossing a hiking trail; photo by Fjothr

Joy

Joy is another form of resistance against the dominant culture, and a vital part of creating resilience to what that culture does to us.

I was depressed for several years, and it was nearly impossible during that time to find anything that brought me more than a temporary bit of joy; it was hard to even remember what that feeling was like previously. While the worst is gone, I know I’m not always that far from the edge of that pit, and some things make the ground tilt towards it. In addition, I have a bad habit of seeing something bad, or potentially bad, and working it up in my head into something that will be absolutely terribly awful, and then there’s the ground pitching towards the void again.

I am pretty sure this is one of the reasons that, when I’ve been in distress and sought advice for how to handle the situation, the People Upstairs have advised me to focus on things I have in my life right now that bring me joy. It has been a good way to keep away from ground-tilting thoughts, or to pull away from them. It doesn’t directly solve any problems, but it keeps me from over-focusing on my distress and fears, and gives me a greater ability to act on the problems.

I’ve also found the concept of joy an important, powerful thing outside of my personal life. It can be a transgressive act.

In Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside1, she writes,

“The researchers of brainwashing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best. The Turks, for instance … the soldiers who faced their torturers with laughter sometimes survived when others did not. Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves; laughter is by definition heretical, unless used cruelly, turned outwards against an opponent or enemy.”

And in an article on openDemocracy by Michael Edwards, about Sister Megan Rice2 (serving time in jail for breaking into a nuclear weapons plant to protest), he states,

“In the face of bureaucratic authority, the expression of joy can be both powerful and subversive, partly because it is so unexpected. It disarms those in power through an absolute refusal to be provoked or humbled, and it provides great inner strength for the struggles that lie ahead.”

In the broader culture I am familiar with, expressing joy doesn’t really seem to be encouraged (my cultural context is a white American from a basically WASP background). Acting “positive” is, of course, but spontaneous expressions of delight – not so much, though you’re probably okay expressing delight about something among like-minded enthusiasts or friends. But generally, it really isn’t the mature adult thing to do much of, is it? Unless you present it just right, dress it up in the right toned-down language, so it shows you know how to present emotions in a socially-acceptable manner. In addition, there’s a nasty strain running through the culture that says if you’re enjoying something, you’re doing something wrong, not working hard enough, or you’re merely getting your earned time away from “real life.” Because real life isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, I guess, unless you earn your pleasure through drudgery or pain first.3

I’ve seen similar things come up from time to time in discussions of pagan/polytheist practices, since they are embedded within this same context. A lot of people believe that, if you write too much about being happy about what’s going on in your spiritual life, someone will”helpfully” point out to you that this is hard, and it is supposed to be hard and unpleasant. There’s often a sense of an implied “Why aren’t you suffering or struggling more?” and outright statements that if you don’t find the hard painful parts in your spiritual practices, then you’re not getting deep enough into your practice, you won’t get out of it what you ought to, you won’t ever really understand your gods, and so on. As in other parts of life, you risk being met with all kinds of skepticism, nonconstructive criticism, and outright scorn if you express happiness without also describing enough of the right kind of “hard work” and experience of pain.

Of course it is important to understand that life, work, spiritual practices, relationships, etc., will have their ups and downs, and what those might look like in order to be prepared, but the kindest thing I can say to the people who feel obligated to respond to an expression of joy by squashing it is, “Please shut up. Come back later, in a different context, with your helpful advice about how things can be hard.”

Listen: Joy is life affirming.

Lots of things in life hurt and suck. People know this. It is thoughtless if not cruel to respond to expressions of joy – or hope, or love, or other expressions of optimism – with what amounts to the message, “It is wrong for you to feel that, and to make sure you understand it’s wrong to feel that, I’m going to hurt you for admitting you feel that way.” Everyone must toe the cultural party line, or be brought to heel, attacked until forced into the right order.

The dominant culture, the kyriarchy, all the -isms that keep people down, they tell you/us: “You are wrong for being [that], and you are most definitely wrong for feeling joy or pride in being [that] or doing those stereotype-denying things. By the way, you’ll also get put down for enjoying the things associated with the stereotypes.” And so finding joy in life while being [that], in being alive as you are, defining for yourself who you are and what you enjoy, refutes the dominant culture and its abuses – and make no mistake, it is abusive to tell someone, “You are wrong to feel that way.”

The ability to again feel simple joy-at-living, joy in what existed around me, was one of the first gifts I received after converting, and I find it precious beyond words. I thought I had lost that. Around the time I converted, I had gotten out of the worst depression – I felt real motivation and positivity for my future – but I still had no idea how to find that spark, that particular kind of easy delight-of-being again. Finding small moments of joy, reaffirming the goodness in life, now feels so much more important as a result. This excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” expresses something about this:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”

Take pleasure in simple comforts that come from being alive, whether it is good food, a soft place to rest, or the enjoyment of the wind, ocean, trees, or company of others. The basic things around us, things that are part of all animal lives – if there isn’t joy to be found here, among the circumstances in which we evolved, then where? How could an animal evolved to live surrounded by these phenomena not find some of them comforting and enjoyable? And how could finding joy in these things be wrong??

Oliver’s poem concludes:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. “

There are so many amazing things in the world, all around us, all the time, and acknowledging that awesomeness acknowledges their value for simply existing.

Joy is life affirming.

We are surrounded by so many life-denying forces.

Joy is an antidote to their poisons and a reminder that there is more to existence than what they offer.

Fungus and tree; photo by Fjothr
Fungus and tree; photo by Fjothr

Hope

The kind of hope that is wishful thinking is needed to get started – without a desire of some kind, there will be no action – but there is also a kind of hope that is based on seeing proof that things like that which is desired are possible. This provides encouragement to try other things, and a necessary reminder that not all is lost.

We create hope by resisting the dominant culture, by unlearning its lessons of power-over and learning instead what power-with means, and manifesting that in the world. Any change made to undo caused-harm is an act of hope, of enacting hope: “another world IS possible, I-and-we make it so, one action at a time. There can be – there will be – more like this.”

It took decades for industrial, fossil fuel-based culture to create terrible climate problems; it will take a long time to correct the problems, to help heal acres upon acres of strip-mined or chemically-soaked land, to address harms done to colonized peoples and places. To hope under these circumstances is sometimes to take many, many small steps towards something that will not see large results for decades. But this progress also provides hope for others working elsewhere – and some things can change dramatically for the better in a very short time. The Elwha River was dammed for over 100 years, but within a year of the dams’ removal (which came after many decades of political effort), salmon returned, and long-absent sandbars and beach area are returning to the river’s mouth, recreating tidal ecosystems. Many wild systems have a great deal of resilience inherent in them, and will eagerly return to pre-industrial states. Some will need much more, or ongoing, human effort.

Take encouragement from what others have done and are doing – and show others what can be done; mend the holes in the networks that they will be stronger when damaging forces contact them again. Do not focus too much on the harms being done – also find sources that tell you about the healing work, reminders that a better world is being made, and you are not alone. Look to those stories to help find your own way forward and to find other people to work with. Strengthen bonds through reciprocity and loving action, thus creating resilience in your human communities, in your places, and in your own life.

While this work of love and creating hope now and for the future is about webs of relationships, it is vital to not neglect yourself in all this. You are also part of many webs. Love yourself, hope for yourself (find it, make it), find joy in your circumstances.

That does not mean putting aside the harder things: If you need to grieve, grieve. Express your anger at what has been done. We aren’t “supposed to” acknowledge “negative” feelings, either, if they are feelings about things the dominant culture has done, or what it tells us isn’t valuable – wild things, people of the wrong skin color or gender presentation, the ability to find self-worth outside of a “real” job, etc. If we DID really feel those things, and even worse, talk to too many people about it, that would be a threat to the dominator culture–we might start understanding more how desperately it needs to be replaced with something healthier. Really allowing yourself to acknowledge and feel what you really feel, without bottling it up making excuses, or putting it down is resistance. It is resistance to being silenced, resistance to falling quietly and obediently into the power structure, and it can help you become more resilient as well. If you have a handle on your feelings, they will have less power over you, and this is a great act of loving yourself.

Acts of resistance to the dominant, dominating culture that is behind the damage to our living systems and to our diverse cultural heritages are acts of love and of hope. And in the face of this damage we can – and must – look to where joy exists, to support us in this work, to remind us what it’s all for.

Wasp sheltering under salmonberry leaf; photo by Fjothr
Wasp sheltering under salmonberry leaf; photo by Fjothr

Sources/Footnotes

1: Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1987
2: Michael Edwards, “To remain in prison for the rest of my life is the greatest honor you could give me: the story of Sister Megan Rice,” openDemocracy.net
3: Why there is this notion that pleasure must be earned instead of being a birthright is another good question.

Things with Feathers: “Freedom farming” and Lazarus species

I found a couple articles recently about farmers taking a non-dominating approach to growing crops. Neither article mentioned terms like permaculture or biodynamic farming; these folks are coming from (apparently) different perspectives, or at least not using that terminology to describe their farming practices.

What they have in common is a desire to grow crops in a manner that takes their local ecosystem into consideration, and work within its constraints to deal with weeds, insects, and – in one case – breed crops best suited for the local ecosystem.

One article, Meet This Third-Generation Farmer Who Converted His 1,400 Acres to Growing Organic Food, is about a farming family who switched to organic production primarily for financial reasons, despite experts saying this wasn’t a good idea.

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For 20 years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. He put them on properly. He carefully recorded the results. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop; they decided to go completely organic all at once.

“We weren’t making a good living on our farm,” Klaas said. “Sad to say but quite often my profit was entirely in subsidy money that I was getting. I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it was not likely to be profitable but we were going to get enough subsidy to make up the difference.”

Klaas and Mary-Howell had been toying with organic practices on a few test acres for a few years, intending to gradually convert a little more land each year. Then one day they saw an ad in the newspaper offering $6 a bushel for organic wheat, twice the conventional rate.

They found there were local markets for most crops they wanted to grow, but agriculture experts told them that going organic didn’t make sense for a farm their size. However, Klaas had another reason besides the finances to want to switch: after years of using herbicides, he’d had a terrible reaction, and didn’t want to get sick again, or ask anyone else to on his behalf.

In the course of learning how to grow organically,

. . . Klaas came across a quote by a German agricultural researcher that completely stumped him but completely changed his way of thinking:

Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control. Various other means should be regarded as auxiliary only. — Bernard Rademacher

“Until then, I was used to thinking that whenever you have a problem you react to it,” Klaas admitted. He was used to asking the conventional question: how do I control this? “Well this quote turned that thinking around,” he said. “It asked: What caused this problem? Why is this weed here? And once you start thinking like this, you can derive a holistic plan for what you’re going to do about it.”

The answer was not to fight against the weeds but to understand them. Completely and fully, within the context of everything else around them.

The article describes the natural succession of plants on a plot that has been taken out of agricultural production – how different species come in after others have first prepared the way. So Klaas farms in a way that takes that process into consideration. He grows a variety of crops, and grows them in rotation. Over several years, this practice meant he saw a pest plant become smaller, less and less of a problem, and then get attacked by disease and insects while nothing else was affected. (His neighbors continued to have problems with the same plant.)

“Everything that grows in soil changes the soil,” Klaas said. “It makes the soil the best environment for something else.”

. . .

“The weed that bothered us the most was velvet leaf,” he said. “It seemed unstoppable. But within six years of changing our farm, our rotations and our inputs, velvet leaf started getting smaller and smaller every year. And we started seeing a disease on it.” The velvet leaf was being attacked by fungus and virus and insect. “And yet the crop wasn’t being affected.”

After 15 years, he feels they are “only getting started as an organic farm,” and still have a great deal to learn, including what crops are the right rotation, and how to best bring in nutrients to make up for what is removed when the harvest is sold.

This is the 10,000-year old problem of agriculture that every farmer simultaneously contributes to and contends with: farming changes the environment. It changes the soil. Period. As long as we’re committed to domesticating and growing the food we eat, we’re also committed to altering the very earth that provides it.

This is why we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we feed ourselves. Because the question we automatically ask is: How do we reduce human impact on the Earth? But when it comes to farming, the better question might be: How do we produce the most constructive and sustainable human impact possible?

In The Rise, Fall, And Almost Rise Of The Caviar Of Cantaloupe, we are introduced to Ken Taylor, a farmer and (now retired) chemistry professor, who practices a low-intervention method of farming, and was asked to see if he could bring back the “Montreal melon” from virtual extinction. The fruit was extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 20th century, but urbanization had a detrimental impact on some of the areas it was grown, and the plant’s needs weren’t a good fit for industrialization:

It wasn’t an easy melon. It required a fair amount of coddling: watering, syringing, ventilating, lifting with a flat stone or shingle to prevent cracking or rot, and turning every few days to ensure uniformity of shape, color, netting, and ripening.

They also didn’t transport well over long distances, and by the mid-1950s, it was no longer offered in Burpee’s widely-sold seed catalogs, the first catalog in which they’d been sold after Burpee’s founder encountered them in 1880.

After a food journalist named Barry Lazar learned about the melons and wrote about them in the Montreal Gazette in 1991, another reporter for the Gazette, Mark Abley, became intrigued.

He wondered how such a popular fruit could have disappeared so completely.

Abley had researched endangered species before. He knew about a stick insect, long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific; a fish that had been known only from its fossil record until 1938, when it was dredged up in the Indian Ocean by an angler; and a bird that was thought to have vanished from Bermuda shortly after British sailors arrived in the 1600s but was rediscovered in 1951 and is now the country’s national bird. “There’s even a particular name for this,” he says. “Lazarus species.”

He thought it was possible someone might have saved some seeds, and if they had, he had an idea who in Montreal might be able to bring the melon back: Ken Taylor, who has a serious interest in crop diversity, and growing crops suited for the local environment.

Though Taylor took on farming simply because he wanted to grow his own food, it has evolved into a mission. He sells seeds, seedlings, and rootstock on the Green Barn Farm website, urging growers to “protect our Canadian genetic heritage.”

. . .

Working with perennial plants, which require minimal upkeep and don’t need to be replanted every year, he has bred and selected varieties of fruits, nuts, and berries that resist the brutal Canadian winters. And he thinks other Canadian farmers ought to be doing the same.

“Planting seeds and pounding the soil and annually preparing it and fertilizing it and watering it and fighting whatever short-term disease you may have so that you can finish everything up in three months is not a very earth-friendly or sustainable food production system,” says Taylor. “But that’s basically all we do in Canada.”

Part of the problem, according to Taylor, is that the country’s agricultural system is designed for exports, not for local markets. In 2012, Canada became the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter — and spent $32.3 billion bringing in agricultural and agri-food items from 190 other countries.

“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”

The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease.

His approach, which he calls “freedom farming,” is a very, very low-human-intervention approach, letting the natural systems direct what grows and what does not.

His philosophy is simple: Tread lightly. Let the land do what it wants and outsmart any pests, animals, or diseases that might threaten the yield. He doesn’t try to make his land conform to his desires; he wants to see what the land desires, what will thrive on it. That means interfering with it as little as possible: no effortful weeding, no spraying. No watering, even. If a crop doesn’t grow, well, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Weeds are not the enemy. They bring rich nutrients to the ground, and they’re useful near vine crops to prevent crows from having a place to land near his fruit.

Freedom farming, he says, is “the ultimate opposite of control.” He’ll do small things — like use plastic mulch to increase the heat when his vine crops are young, personally squash worms that are eating his leaves, or begin his crops indoors if the weather is too cold. But mainly he sees his role as introducing new genetics.

He doesn’t mean “introducing new genetics” in the Monsanto sense of altering an organism’s DNA and creating a new species of tomato or carrot. He means bringing in or crossing existing species with the larger goal of increasing biodiversity and food security. “I aid and abet some of the natural selection that would go on by bringing in new genetics all the time from all over the world. And if nature doesn’t want it there, it doesn’t grow.”

His efforts to get the Montreal melon back have met with mixed success. He did successfully grow it some years, and the seeds are back in circulation among multiple sources, but after enough frustration with it, he stopped working with it to focus on crops that are better suited to the land. Lack of pollinators has been one problem; most of the farmland in the area holds conventional crops that are sprayed. Problems with rain and fungal infection also prevented the melons from growing well.

He knew what he could have done for a better outcome. “I would have had to put a row cover on,” he said. “I would have had to give it some sort of seaweed coating or some intervention of some kind. I have some kale and clay there. I could have sprayed that on, maybe beat back the fungus a bit.” But he didn’t want to do it. He’s a freedom farmer.

“You know, why bang your head against nature? The reason the Montreal melon died out is not just because it’s big and it’s hard to grow. The climate has changed. And I’m sure the climate was changing back 60-70 years ago as well and caused a lot of people to say, ‘The hell, I can grow an easier melon!’ That cantaloupe melon that everybody buys that’s salmon-color flesh? You throw a seed in, and it’ll grow.”

Taylor didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious what he was thinking: Perhaps the Montreal melon no longer belongs in Montreal.

While the melon may no longer be happy growing in its place of origin, he does consider it a success, as an achievement of one of his primary goals: to increase genetic diversity among crops.

And remember the list of other “Lazarus species” mentioned? This article came my way today, and I almost cried reading it: Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years

That’s the stick insect, “long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific,” that one of the reporters knew about. It’s known as a “tree lobster” (it’s very large for an insect) or the “Lord Howe stick insect,” presumed extinct since 1960 and not sighted since 1920. The insect was named for the only place it was known to exist, “Lord Howe Island.” Rats landed in 1918 after leaving a ship that ran aground, and hunted the insects to extinction. Some people who’d climbed the small, very very steep island called Ball’s Pyramid several miles south reported seeing stick insect corpses in the 1960s, but that was apparently it for the species. Since stick insects are nocturnal, no one felt strongly inclined to go look, because that would require climbing the very very steep mountain in the dark, and so the insect was classified as extinct.

But in 2001, two Australian scientists decided to go looking. They found fresh droppings of some large insect on one bush, went back in the dark, and found a small population of the long-unseen Lord Howe stick insect. A more extensive search later indicated that small population was it for the entire island.

After years of meetings and studies, government officials agreed that a very small number of the insects could be removed from Ball’s Pyramid, to see if they could be bred in captivity. Some of the removed insects died, and after another near-death, a population in the hundreds is established – in captivity.

Whether or not they can ever be reintroduced to their original home is unknown – the rats that wiped out the population on Lord Howe Island have continued to breed and inhabit that place, and the human inhabitants would have to agree to any plan to kill all the rats and bring back the very large insects. The stick insects are harmless, but you know, lots of humans find insects, especially very large insects, kind of creepy. I think they’re pretty adorable, and they have some pair-bonding behavior (unusual for insects) that might help others find them somewhat more charming than the average crawly.

At any rate, where’s there’s life, there’s hope.

Things with Feathers: Happy seasonal holiday edition

Three things make a post, goes the old wisdom, so I bring you three things:

  1. A small fish native to desert creeks of Southern Oregon and Northern California, called the Modoc sucker, has been taken off the endangered species list, after 30 years of work to keep it from extinction.
  2. Baby tortoises!! Spotted for the first time in 100 years on the Galapogos Island of Pinzon. Not only a positive sign for their species, they are really cute, too.
  3. A lot of awful things happened this past year, but this article lists 11 positive signs of progress, including improvements in education worldwide, polio being nearly eradicated, and child mortality rates continuing to drop.
  4. Bonus article, because ’tis the season for sharing good things, and the gift contains within it another. This is a letter to the editor, about the importance of joy: “Anybody want to start a movement? #YouCantHaveMyJoy.” The poem quoted within is absolutely worth reading in its entirety.

Things with Feathers: Elwha and Keystone XL updates

The Victories of the Keystone XL Effort

So recently, TransCanada asked the US State Department to hold off on making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline, in a move that was widely viewed as a blatant attempt to avoid being rejected by the current administration, so that TransCanada could just wait a couple years, when perhaps a more fossil fuel friendly President would be in office, and they could quickly get permission to build the rest of the pipeline.

The State Department denied the request, and shortly thereafter, President Obama rejected the project, which has been widely – and rightly – seen as a victory for all those who had been working for years to prevent it being built.

Many pipelines have been built (including a portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that is entirely within the US and was approved by President Obama; see item 6 here), regardless of the protests of environmental activists and people who will be directly impacted by those pipelines. Keystone XL was also assumed to be a project that would just get approved and be built, like all those others. In the past, tarsands oil had a lot of support from the Canadian government, and the previous US administration (under President G. W. Bush) was also very positive towards fossil fuels. In late 2011, after over 1,200 people were arrested protesting the pipeline, the State Department (now under President Obama) issued an environmental impact statement that looked very favorable to the project.

The inside story of how the Keystone fight was won” goes into the background and story of the various people and groups involved in protesting this pipeline, and the various political forces affecting its rejection. What I think makes this a story about victories is not just the victory in halting the pipeline’s progress – and in having the President speak out against it and the problem of climate change – but the victories of having many people from diverse places working together against it.

     In 2011, when 350.org, the climate action group that would become widely identified with the anti-KXL campaign, glommed onto the issue, there were two groups of activists already working on it: locals from affected communities along the proposed pipeline route, such as ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans, and environmental wonks in Washington, D.C.

The local people had been working against the pipeline since it was first proposed in 2008, which included tribal councils passing resolutions against it, and then taking their concerns directly to the President in 2011. In 2014, after the State Department issued another impact statement, again looking favorable towards the pipeline, the entire coalition held another protest event in Washington D.C.

     The theme was “Cowboys and Indians,” after the ranchers and Native Americans who both joined in. The Native American groups put up tepees where visitors could stop in and be educated about the issue. The week culminated in a rally and march with real-life cowboys and Indians riding horses. “That was the first time the White House acknowledged our work,” Kleeb wryly remembers. “I got an email from the White House saying, ‘OK, you’ve got our attention.’ They literally said that.”

     The cowboy and Indian alliance was not just cobbled together for that event. It had grown out of a Native American summit about a year earlier. “I was at an event at the casino on the Rosebud reservation [in South Dakota] in early 2013,” Kleeb recalls. “It was a community forum where everyone was sharing information. One of the elders talked about the cowboy and Indian alliance that stopped uranium mining in the ‘80s. So I went to tribal leaders and said we should revive the cowboy and Indian alliance and do events along the pipeline route. We did a concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and ‘Reject and Protect’ on the Mall.”

     The collaboration between historical antagonists, both icons of the American West, gave the opposition to KXL a broader national political appeal. “Those faces are not the image you usually have of the environmental movement,” says Kleeb. “We were helping the White House understand that there was political space [to] reject it.”

The full story is much more complex, and includes delights like the Republicans’ focus on it backfiring, and the importance of it being an issue of climate change, which also gave the President what he needed to reject it. I recommend reading it in full.

Bonus hopeful climate change article: How We’re Winning the Climate Fight, One Community at a Time

Growth in the Elwha River

Here is a photo taken last month at the mouth of the Elwha River, where the new beach and estuary being created by free sediment, and a free-flowing river, continue to expand.

From the Facebook post that contained this image:

     The day after the weekend rain event during which the Elwha flows jumped from 2000 to over 12000 cfs in less than 8 hours. Flows then dropped back to pre-storm cfs overnight. Classic Elwha. The high flow combined with fall high tide and the entire Elwha west estuary (not blocked by a dike) was reactivated. The result? Juvenile steelhead, coho, and Chinook were abundant. Also, (for the first time in over a decade of sampling), we caught a number of large, powerful, adult chum in our sets. Once the second most abundant run in the Elwha chum numbers plummeted to a few hundred fish after the dams went in. We’ve said it before: Large, and packed with marine nutrients, chum are absolutely critical for the restoration of the watershed ecosystem.

     We have many significant challenges left to address in the Elwha nearshore. Today was a heart lifting moment to just experience the forceful hope unfolding in the Elwha, and a clear affirmation of what happens when you restore ecosystem processes.

Chum salmon are not the only fish starting to return and restore overall ecosystem health; some of the forage fish in the area are coming back, too (Source):

     Following complete removal of the last dam from the Elwha River it appears that the nearshore food webs have begun to repair themselves.  During a recent lower river and estuary seining, the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI) documented, for the first time, hundreds of gravid and spent eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus- a federally listed river spawning smelt (watch a video of the field observation here).

Eulachon are a small, very fatty fish, also known as “candlefish” because they can be dried and then burned like a candle. They’ve been an important food for indigenous peoples as well as the other members of the ecosystem, and the undamming of this river is helping the population by providing the kind of sediment they need. They had been nearly absent for 60 years, and now, about a year after the last dam was removed, they are returning in abundance.

The Coastal Watershed Institute has also documented two kinds of smelt (also forage fish) near the Elwha now that the nearshore environment is being repaired by sediment flowing from the river. All species of forage fish are vital for the overall health of the ecosystems they are a part of, as a very wide range of larger animals – fish, mammals, birds – rely on them as a major part of their diets, so protecting these fishes from overfishing, and ensuring the habitat they need is protected and restored, is critical. It is exciting to see that they can start to return so quickly to an area that had been inhospitable to them for so long.


Bonus tree-on-a-rock image:

Life finds ways. (Tree on sea stack, Rialto Beach. Fjothr Lokakvan, 2015)
Life finds ways. (Tree on sea stack, Rialto Beach. Fjothr Lokakvan, 2015)

Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.

Things with Feathers: News about amphibians and Shell

I’ve read some exciting news since last month, some of it about the rather small and some (which you’ve probably heard), about much bigger things.

“Extinct” toad rediscovered

The Azuay stubfoot toad of Ecuador, believed to be extinct earlier this century, has been found alive. The toads were once abundant, but were later the first species in Central and South America confirmed to have the chytrid fungus, which has devastated amphibian populations worldwide. It was assumed the fungus lead to their extinction, but the toads found recently show no signs of the infection.

Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping (via National Geographic)
Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping (via National Geographic article)

The article also briefly mentions a number of other amphibian species that have been rediscovered after being declared extinct, including frogs and salamanders in South America, Africa, and Haiti. The other articles about rediscoveries are also great reading!

Royal Dutch Shell leaves Arctic

And the big news: As widely reported last month, Shell has given up on drilling for oil in the Arctic; they didn’t find enough in their test drill to convince them it would be financially feasible to remain (this despite being SO CERTAIN, for YEARS that there was plenty of oil up there).

It’s been interesting reading different news/blogs’ takes on this: the more environmentally-leaning authors/sites paint this as a victory for the environmental activist movement, whereas more “conservative” authors play that down and focus on the economics of it.

Of course, the economics ARE a major factor; there’s no doubt about that. However, it’s been curious to see the “it’s really just about the money” sources not really addressing Shell’s official statement in full, especially the last bit of it:

“Shell will now cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future. This decision reflects both the Burger J well result, the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” (source)

Right, “the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.”

What about that? What happened recently? Neither of the two major Democratic candidates for President are in favor of drilling in the Arctic; if either of them gets elected, that person could end Shell’s (or anyone’s) access. Oregon Senator Merkley introduced a bill back in July that would prevent any future leases to drill in the Arctic, and, in addition, not renew current leases (it is cosponsored by Sen. Sanders, among others); the House bill was introduced in September by Rep. Huffman from California.

While I believe some of these politicians would hold these views regardless of popular opinion, these actions did not just come about in a vacuum. Playing down the role of thousands and thousands of people protesting Arctic drilling, Keystone XL, other fossil fuel extraction efforts, and asking for more ecological conscious alternatives, is slanted journalism.

It’s also worth keeping in mind what Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis say (in a lengthy interview, very worth reading), and particularly about the divestment in fossil fuels, which has become a really big effort (bolding added by me):

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what just happened in the Arctic—I think, to many people’s shock? You had the kayaktivists, the environmentalists converging along—all through the Northwest to try to stop Shell from drilling. You have President Obama, the first sitting president of the United States to go to the Arctic, giving some of the best climate change speeches ever. And yet, right before he went, he approved drilling in the Arctic. And then Shell announces they won’t be doing it, though he had given them permission?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, and though they had spent, I think, $7 billion on this adventure over the years. You know, it’s remarkable. And one of the things that I think one has to understand is that the fossil fuel industry will go to great lengths not to credit activism as being a contributor to a decision like this, because—

AVI LEWIS: Well, think what they could encourage, if they did.

NAOMI KLEIN: They don’t want to encourage us, yes. But I believe that this is a victory that absolutely should be claimed by this remarkable movement of those daring climbers on bridges, you know, climbing up—also climbing up the rig itself, the Polar Pioneer. I had a wonderful conversation with a 21-year-old named Zoe. When she was at the very top of the Polar Pioneer for seven days, I spoke to her on her satellite phone. But also the millions of people who signed the petition—I think it’s something like 7 million people signed the petition asking Shell not to go to the Arctic. So this was certainly a factor. We know that the price is down for oil, and there were concerns about whether this was even going to be economic. So, I think it was a combination of factors, that the profit margins are going down because the price is down, and this is a very expensive form of drilling, and then the cost to a brand when you have this type of mobilization, obviously, is something that their shareholders are concerned about.

But there’s something else, too, and I was talking about this with a colleague of mine, KC Golden, who’s from Seattle, and he’s the chair of the 350 board of directors. And he was saying, well, it’s something—it’s more than that. And what that is, is that this was always a long-term play. Shell always said, you know, “It’s going to take us a couple of decades before this becomes productive.” And KC’s point, and I think it’s a valid one, is that they’re no longer sure there is a long-term play, because of all of this cumulative impact of divestment, you know, of the fact that this movement is really a movement on a roll, that we are starting to see some significant policies. So, this whole idea of, “Well, we’ll do this in 20, 30 years,” investors are going, “Are you sure we’re going to be around for that long?” And so, I think that, on that level, it should also be claimed as a victory.

I’m going to quote another small bit from that interview, showing that even some of the individuals making their money directly from fossil fuels would prefer an alternative:

AVI LEWIS: It is complicated. And people in Alberta, who live next to that biggest industrial project on Earth, have been very anxious about the pace of development and the costs of that project for a long time. And, you know, the oil and gas industry is a very conformist culture. And if you speak about renewable energy, you really get slapped down. It’s like a—there’s a bit of a locker room thing happening there. But the number of workers who told us off camera that they would rather be building wind turbines and putting up—installing solar panels was remarkable. They wouldn’t say it on camera, except for this one amazing guy in the film who’s a boilermaker named Lliam Hildebrand, who started an organization called Iron and Earth, where he’s organizing tar sands workers in support of renewable energy. And he’s building support fast. And there’s a huge constituency up there, especially now that the oil industry is laying off thousands and thousands of people, of workers in that industry who would rather go home and tell their kids what they did that day and feel proud of it.

Activism matters. Individual actions matter; they add up. Economics does not exist independent of social behavior, and the sources who ignore the activism, and the efforts to change the status quo, are probably pushing an agenda.

NO-shell-arctic-drilling-rig
Original unedited photograph by Daniella Beccaria/AP; edits by me.

Keep up the good work!

 

 

 

A ritual for the Extinct

In the northern hemisphere, it is now autumn, getting close to traditional times to remember the Dead. Samhain/Halloween arrives at the end of the month, and November 30th is Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

The following is an outline of a ritual I did last year to mourn and remember extinct species, which I offer to provide a general framework for anyone else who may wish to do something like this.

I wanted to accomplish two things: create a space for myself to really grieve some of these losses, and the fact of human-caused extinctions more generally, as well as to formally acknowledge that my species has done this, and apologize, as a member of that species.

Preparations

Time:

Block out 90 minutes to a couple hours for the ritual itself. You might not need it all, but I ended up using at least a couple hours, though some of that was me figuring things out as I went.

Supplies:

  • 10 tealights or votives or similar sized tapers
  • Papers with the names and biographical information of the Extinct
  • A shoe box or similar sized box or container (big enough to hold 9 rolls of paper)
  • String to tie 9 rolls of paper
  • Kleenex or a handkerchief or five

Gathering the names:

Collect the names and biographical information of the extinct plants and animals you wish to remember. I tried to find names representing species from every continent, as well as names for each of the following groups (I do not think the order they are arranged in is important):

  • Mammals
  • Fish (freshwater and oceanic)
  • Birds
  • Reptiles
  • Amphibians
  • Plants and fungi
  • Arthropods (invertebrates with exoskeletons)
  • Molluscs and other invertebrates without exoskeletons

This may not be the most taxonomically-correct way to group lifeforms on our planet, but it is one I understand, and it kept the groups to a manageable number – and it worked out aesthetically nicely, too, which I feel is important for a ritual.

The IUCN Red List is considered the authoritative list of extinct species, but it is not 100% accurate; when I did further research into some of the animals I found listed there as extinct, I found newer information that some of them had been found alive. I limited my search to animals and plants driven to extinction within the last 200-300 years – those that suffered the worst from industrialization.

Preparing brief biographies – something about their habitat or ways of living – is a nice way to remember these beings as more than simply a name, when they were last observed alive, and what was the cause of their extinction – though for creatures like snails, there may be little recorded other than where the snail lived. I also could not find any fungi on the Red List, which was distressing, as I know there must be extinct fungi, but it isn’t well recorded.

I also asked online if anyone wanted particular animals or plants mentioned; I did the ritual alone, but I felt others might like to participate in some fashion.

Write or print out your lists so that each of the eight groups above has its own paper(s).

Also get one blank sheet of paper, to represent all those species that have gone extinct that we never knew or recorded; they have the 9th candle.

Setup:

Arrange your altar or altars.

The main altar is for the Extinct.

I had a secondary altar for the Elements (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water), Who I hailed as Ancestors of us all (the living and the Extinct alike). Including an altar for a deity of Death may be appropriate depending on your tradition; I have an altar for Hela normally, so I did not set up an additional space for Her.

On the main altar, I laid a white cloth, and arranged 3 groups of 3 candles each, with the 10th candle centered in front. I set them up on stone samples discarded by an architecture firm; plates would work fine, too, or you could simply arrange the 9 candles in a single line or arc, with the 10th centered in front.

The 10th candle is for Remembrance.

Place offerings as appropriate.

Ritual:

Cleanse, ward, etc., the space and yourself/others as appropriate to your tradition.

Hail the Elements as Ancestors, to bear witness, and thank Them for Their gifts – and/or Whoever you feel would be appropriate to invite.

Hail the god(s) of Death you honor.

I spoke some words about purpose and intent at this point.

Light the Remembrance candle.

Light the first candle for the Extinct, and read the names and biographies associated with it. (How you order the groups is up to you, but the Unknown should be last.)

When you finish each group, place the paper(s) on the altar and say, “May you be remembered.” Be mindful of where the flames are! (I placed the papers under the stone tiles, so that they were closely grouped with their respective candles.)

Repeat for the next 7 groups. Allow time between names and between groups to grieve and take your time; this is when the handkerchief may be necessary.

When you get to the Unknown, acknowledge their loss as well, but do not finish with “May you be remembered.” Last year, I said, “May your loss be mourned,” and some other words I did not record.

At this point, you may need another chunk of time to grieve or sit in silence or attend to whatever comes up.

Closing:

I blew out candles on the Elements’ and Hela’s altars before the altar for the Extinct.

When you are ready, but before the candles burn down, blow each out in turn, saying, “May it be long before your surviving kin join you.” Blow out the candle for Remembrance last. The wax remaining in the candles on the primary altar has a significance to me of hope remaining for the surviving kin of the Extinct, as well as that those who are gone will be remembered in some way.

When the wax has cooled, wrap each candle in the appropriate paper, tie it, and seal it the knot with wax from the Remembrance candle (if you can; I found it tricky to drip wax from a tealight, and used a taper I lit from the Remembrance candle). Place all the rolls and the Remembrance candle in the shoe box and store it somewhere safe. (I actually did this the next morning, because I did the ritual in my living room and could leave the altars overnight – and I didn’t actually figure out what to do to finish until I got up the next day. I haven’t yet figured out what to do in the long run with the scrolls.)

Another round of cleansing and/or grounding may definitely be in order at this point; I found the experience emotionally and spiritually very intense and draining, though it was also cathartic.

Afterwards (optional):

It was an important part of my process last year to share the ritual publicly – primarily to share the names and biographies of the extinct animals and plants I specifically named. I do not know that this is a necessary or required part of this ritual more generally.

Resources:

Remembrance Day for Lost Species

The Life Cairn Project

IUCN Red List

My main post from last year, which contains most of the text I spoke during the ritual, as well as a bunch of experiential stuff

Review of a book on grief (The Wild Edge of Sorrow) with some relevant commentary

Things with Feathers: A fishy return and a victory for trees

Stories from the United Kingdom and my city this month.

A slithery return after 200 years

lamprey_theguardian
From The Guardian; photograph by Handout

Lamprey, a very ancient fish with an eel-like appearance, have returned to multiple places in the UK where, in some cases, conditions were too terrible for them for 200 years. Pollution and blockages across the rivers had kept them away, but with cleaner water, and the removal of dams and other barriers, they are coming back.

“Now that water quality has improved and some of these barriers have been removed we are seeing lampreys return to the upper reaches of rivers such as the Ouse, Trent, and Derwent, where they were absent as recently as 30 years ago.”

An Environment Agency spokeswoman added that the eel-like creatures are returning “to their old slithering grounds”.

. . .

Several objects, such as weirs which block the fish’s passage, have been removed by the Environment Agency in England and innovations have been introduced to help them get past other structures, such as at Buttercrambe Weir on the River Derwent in Yorkshire where special ‘lamprey tiles’ have been laid.

Some species of lamprey are parasitic on other fish as adults, but in their larval form, they live and feed in the muck in the bottom of rivers. In the region I live, they were an important food, along with salmon, for many of the indigenous peoples; in the UK, they also played a traditional role, which may again some day be able to incorporate UK-local fish:

It was traditional for Gloucester to send a Christmas lamprey pie to the English and later the British monarch until 1836 when the practice was discontinued, except for coronations and jubilees. In 2012 a pie was sent to the Queen to mark the Diamond Jubilee but numbers of UK lampreys were so low that they had to be imported from the Great Lakes of North America.

The sequoias in Eastmoreland

There’s a neighborhood a bit south of where I live where two lots were bought earlier this year by a developer, who planned to build a couple of large new homes. On one of those lots were three very tall sequoias that were apparently planted in the mid-1800s.

The city made some changes in code recently that made it easier for developers to cut down trees, including really big, healthy, old trees – and the developer planned to do just that.

The neighborhood was upset. They tried to work out a deal with the developer, to buy the property from him – he asked for $900,000, $250,000 more than he’d paid for the properties. The neighborhood tried to come up with it, or at least some of it, but things weren’t looking so great.

Last week, it looked like the trees were finally going to be taken down, but people showed up, and police to “control the crowd” if necessary, and news trucks showed up, and then things calmed down, and then started up again when the developer fenced off the whole lot . . . and then a guy climbed one of the trees, with supplies and support to stay a while (I swear this really happened, this was not an episode of “Portlandia”), and so of course lots of police, along with private security, showed up, and one of the co-creators of “South Park” helped out financially, and there was lots of news and etc. and then finally the mayor (who lives in Eastmoreland) got the developer and some neighborhood people together to work out a deal that would stick. Here’s a decent summary (I’ve been following it via various media for the last week or two including a busy FB page).

Found on the "Save the Portland Redwoods" Facebook group; (c) Rhianna Lakin
Found on the “Save the Portland Redwoods” Facebook group; (c) Rhianna Lakin

So the current plan as I understand it is the trees are safe, though the neighborhood is working to raise money to pay off loans people are taking out to save them; the trees’ lot will become a park, and a different developer is going to build something on the other lot.

I weighed whether or not to write about this here – it is, after all, only 3 trees, in one of Portland’s wealthier neighborhoods, and it felt self-indulgent to write about something so local to me – but then I reread this article by one of the neighbors of the trees, written earlier this summer, and was reminded of a few things (emphasis added):

A friend who runs a portable sawmill heard about our fundraising efforts and said, “Spending that much money on saving three trees sounds nuts to me.” He pointed out that giant sequoias aren’t even native to this area. “Think of how many acres of native oak forest that money could save.”

I had struggled with this myself. Imagine all the other things one could do with that kind of money? But I give money to any number of causes about which the same criticism could be leveled—Kickstarter campaigns for films, animal rescue, etc. It would be a pretty self-defeating world if we didn’t try to solve smaller problems just because bigger ones are more deserving of our attention.

Still, what kind of solution was this? Who were we to try to pay off this developer? A story on OregonLive.com was littered with disparaging remarks about wealthy Eastmoreland residents throwing their money away. I could honestly see both sides. Why did these trees matter so much anyway? Their previous owners, who lived on the property for more than 60 years, didn’t seem to mind seeing them cut down, so who were we to complain?

But hold on, have you seen these frickin’ trees? Come take a look at them, please. Come over and tell me we’d all be better off if they were cut down to make room for a maximum-sized, Tudor-style house.

And it’s true: the “small” local victories are important, especially for the people most immediately affected by them, but I also find encouragement in them, as indications that people DO care, and care A LOT about their immediate environment, and the beings they share that space with, and I figure those folks are also probably involved in other, bigger-picture things, not just small, super-local actions that are easy for people to criticize (to say nothing of the local children who know and love these trees, who will grow up having seen a place saved).

(An interesting thing about the giant sequoias, and their not being native to Portland, is that in their native habitat, biologists are concerned they might not do well with climate change making things warmer and drier. Some conservationists have suggested that to save the species, it might be necessary to start intentionally planting them farther north than where they are in California, to places that will be more likely to provide them the moisture they need. So Portland might be a good place . . .)

Near the end of the article, the author writes:

In the middle of all this, Everett Custom Homes proudly announced it had received a “2015 Green Home Builder Award” from Earth Advantage Institute. At what point can we no longer greenwash away our footprints? What if those three giant sequoias represent a line in the sand in this rapidly transforming city?

The last question may be answered in part by the reaction of some people in city government:

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and the Bureau of Parks and Recreation, said the city’s tree ordinance is broken and needs to be fixed.

On Monday, Fritz said she has asked city staff to propose an emergency fix to halt what she considers an urgent problem. The tree code adopted in January after years of deliberation made it easier to cut trees, rather than preserving them as city officials intended, she said.

During one of the weeks the protest over the sequoias was happening, another was happening elsewhere in town over three old Douglas-firs being cut/threatened with cutting by the same developer involved (I don’t know where things are with those trees).

So it appears that these two very local actions (and, I am certain, calls and letters to the city from people in other neighborhoods) helped draw attention to problems with the new code, which Commissioner Fritz says she would like to see a longer-term fix for, which will help other neighborhoods throughout the city, some of which have already seen big old trees cut this year due to the “broken” new code (some by the same developer).

“She was unstoppable. Not because she did not have failures or doubts, but because she continued on despite them.”
Beau Taplin

To the Ocean, for the Arctic (a prayer)

Hail Aegir, Ocean, great Lord of the seas, generous host of the Aesir!

Hail Ran, Robber, great Lady of storms!

Hail the Undines, the Billows Maidens, great Ladies of the waves!

Thank You for Your myriad blessings:

The bounty of fish, invertebrates, and seaweeds which feed us

The seas which grant us passage to distant lands

The soothing waves and waters that heal us

The beauty and terror which have inspired us

The waters in which we swim and play and challenge ourselves

The vast waters that sustain our climate and create our weather, and in which our far-distant ancestors first found life

We have been deeply blessed by Your generosity, in more ways than I can count.

Please hear my petition and grant the aid I seek:

I ask that You withdraw Your hospitality from one person, for their violations of Your hospitality past, present, and intended; they have forgotten that guests owe respect and good treatment to their hosts, just as hosts are obligated to guests.

This person, known as the corporation Royal Dutch Shell, violates, again, the sea bed in some of Your coldest waters, killing small creatures to do so, and causing distress to many others through their actions, with their ultimate goal being to profit from many years of oil extraction.

The last time they intruded upon Your Arctic waters, they sent a malfunctioning ship and negligent crew, polluting the sea around them, in violation of good manners and our human laws – and despite being found guilty, they have been permitted by human agencies to return to those same waters, with that same ship, the Noble Discoverer. They have shown carelessness again this year, causing damage to another ship, the Fennica, part of this year’s Arctic drilling fleet.

Their work all along has been harmful to Your domain, as the burning of their oil contributes to the warming and acidification of the ocean, and plastics made from that oil are found in horrific quantities throughout global waters, killing sea life from the tiniest plankton to the great whales.

They know they are contributing to these problems, but they will not desist.

They know there is a 75% chance of a major oil spill in the decades they hope to be extracting oil in the Arctic, but they will not desist.

They will not desist as long as the governments of the world permit them – and the government that has legal authority to permit their Arctic drilling has allowed this. That government, mine, does NOT speak for me or for many, many others of its people, it does NOT speak for the many peoples affected by this who are not of this nation, and thousands and thousands of us have tried to stop this Arctic drilling.

Royal Dutch Shell cannot be allowed to succeed.

It is not only Royal Dutch Shell that has contributed to these global harms, but if they are successful in finding oil in the Arctic, other companies will follow their example, and make the disasters of climate change, and despoiling of the sea and land and air, even greater.

Great Hosts of the Seas, they benefited from Your gentler side before, as they benefit now: the waters are calm enough for them to proceed at all. And even when their previous trespassing ended with the wrecking of their drilling rig, the Kulluk, in stormy weather, it was only that vessel that was lost; every human made it safely home.

They will never pay You proper weregild for the lives of Your waters their actions have taken: the turtles strangled, the seabirds choked, the salmon overheated, too many others to count. But they should pay nonetheless.

Ran, Great Lady of Storms, Robber Queen: Seafarers in centuries past carried gold to earn Your favor, if they thought they might end up with You. As these will make You no such offerings, I think it only fair if You took from them what they value as gold now: their ships and their chances to make further profits in Your domain. But set Your net aside, I pray, and send them back to shore, do not take them to Your hall.

Undines, Great Ladies of the Waves, playful, fierce, and terrifying: Royal Dutch Shell has brought many toys into the Arctic to toss about in the waves and dispose of when You tire. Like other boorish, entitled guests, they will not go on their own, so throw them out the door, cast them up on the beach like You do so many other empty shells.

Aegir, Master of the Hall of the Ocean: I beg You, please, take action where we have failed, and where our government has failed us, and evict from Your waters the people and the vessels of Royal Dutch Shell. Send them home, permanently, to the surface land that Homo sapiens is evolved for. Teach them that ill-mannered guests lose not only rights of visitation, but material benefits accrued through their stay.

Great Powers of the Sea, show them no more and no less mercy than was shown the Kulluk and the Kulluk‘s crew.

Things with Feathers: Sometimes hope is green

Tree cutting
Tree cutting (credit: Gary Howe, from Scientific American article)

I have just one topic to cover this month, because it is a big one – well, it is about big things, some of the biggest living things there are.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has a mission to clone trees and plant them, to help restore forests with these cloned trees, and to maintain a genetic archive. The trees they are making the clones from are what they consider “champion trees,” being among the largest, and sometimes oldest, members of their species.

The man who started this project, David Milarch, grew up as the son of a nurseryman, and became one himself as an adult. His focus on cloning the big, old trees, however, came after a near-death experience in which he was told he had to come back, because he had work to do – and another, later visitation by beings who told him that this, cloning the champion trees, was what he had to do.

Many plants can be propagated – cloned – by taking cuttings. Many houseplants can be grown this way, a stem cut and placed in a glass of water, to develop new roots and become an entirely new plant that is a genetic clone of the original. Many trees can be cloned, too. Some plants need the cut end of the stem dipped in something that stimulates root growth, as water alone, or damp growth media won’t be quite enough (if you are DIYing, try adding a freshly cut willow branch to the water – willows are readily clonable with cuttings, and they produce root growth hormones that stimulate other plants, too).

However, while many biologists believed that cloning these trees was a good idea for genetic reasons, they also felt the big OLD trees were so difficult to clone it wasn’t practical: while they may still flower and produce fruit, old trees are very difficult to clone through cuttings.

Milarch set out to try anyway, because the power of the vision/encounter he had was so profound (he came out of the “visit” with 10 pages of hand-written notes and a powerful sense that this was the right thing to do) and over the years he and collaborators have had enough success to keep going, with 1,000s of saplings resulting.

Some of the logic is this: the really old trees are survivors. They have lived through hundreds, even thousands, of years on this planet. They did not succumb to insects, virus or fungal infection, or any previous climate fluctuation. And in the past 200 years, we have cut down absolutely MASSIVE numbers of old growth trees, reducing genetics that had survived for centuries, and had been contributing to the regrowth of the forests around them.

There is a very great deal we do not understand about trees or forests, and if these last old growth trees died, we would lose the ability to learn from their genetics – as well as their ability to keep contributing to the genetic pool. So in addition to making clones to help rebuild forests, by adding more sources of these genes back in, the project also functions as a living archive of genetic material.

I have lost track of what got me pointed toward this work originally, but at any rate, Jim Robbins, who writes for the New York Times, wrote an article on Milarch’s work in 2001, and then later found out the unusual back story motivating him. This later led to a book, The Man Who Planted Trees (Amazon link).

There’s a little Q&A with Robbins at the Amazon page, which includes this:

Q Why are trees important?
Milarch has often said that trees are more important than we know. And as I talked to scientists and read papers they confirmed that notion: we have underestimated the trees, vastly. They are a kind of eco-technology that sustains our lives here on the planet and that humans can’t duplicate. There is a whole range of ecosystem services provided by trees and forests that many people don’t know about. They filter our water and can clean up the nastiest kinds of toxic wastes. They soak up greenhouse gasses to mitigate climate change, protect us from harsh UV rays, and are a heat shield and natural air-conditioner for cities and suburbs. David Milarch talks about them as the filters of the planet. As we all know, when you take the filter out of your aquarium, the fish die.

I picked up the book recently, and it was really a remarkable read. There is a lot of really fascinating information in there about trees and forests – and a LOT of really incredible mystical goings-on and lucky meetings and synchronicities as well, not just with Milarch, but a number of people he has met and worked with on this work.

One of the things that struck me most were the sections talking about the chemicals trees (and other plants) emit into the air, and what the many impacts of those are, which includes the above-mentioned UV-protection. The tiny tiny particles of these vapors are sufficient to help block sunlight. The other impacts this mix of chemicals has on the rest of the ecosystem is little understood – but keeping in mind for how long we and everything else evolved in a rich mix of plant-emitted vapors, and how much of that has been changed so quickly, and it is a little frightening.

A lot of work in this field has been done by a botanist named Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who believes the role of the chemicals emitted by trees is overlooked and poorly understood. One of her books came to the attention of David Milarch’s wife, Kerry, who then passed it to him; they later met and she joined his project. One of Beresford-Kroeger’s beliefs is that the clouds of aerosols emitted by forests help to disinfect the air, in addition to passing on protective benefits to wildlife that come into contact with them. We know a small amount about how plants communicate to each other via airborne chemicals, but almost nothing about the impacts on us of these chemicals.

The impact trees have on water quality, and the creatures living in the water, is also important. Their importance for shading water, and filtering it through taking it up from theirs roots, is relatively well-known, but what trees put into the water can also be very important. From the book:

. . . Experiments have proven that [phytoplankton’s] numbers are greatly enhanced when iron is added to the ocean.

The importance of iron led one path-breaking scientist to make a unique connection. The Erimo Peninsula on the north coast of Japan saw its forests clear-cut and its hills turned into pasture long ago. The change drove off the schools of fish that once teemed there, and caused a decline in oyster populations. Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a Japanese marine chemist, spent years studying the relationships between forests and oceans. His key finding is that even where iron is abundant in parts of the ocean, it is oxygenated, which means it is not readily available for the tiny creatures. What can make iron available to phytoplankton to perform photosynthesis, however, is fulvic acid, one of several humic acids that comes from the decay of leaves and other organic matter. The ongoing, natural decomposition of centuries of tree leaves and other material on the forest floor, and the leaking, leaching, and washing of this chemical stew into the ocean, is vital to increasing coastal phytoplankton, and thus the things that eat them, and those that eat them, from oysters all the way to whales.

And forest restoration projects in this and other areas of Japan did lead to significant restoration of fish populations (here is a scientific paper about some of that work).

There are many great examples throughout the book about how trees can and are being used to help clean up waste and restore ecosystems, but what I found most incredible were the tree-saving stories. Among the more emotionally powerful things I read about, here are two.

In the old growth forests in California and Oregon, there are some massive stumps. The biggest trees white settlers found were highly targeted for lumber. Or to cut and take around and show people as a novelty. Some of those stumps were once extraordinarily large redwoods. Many trees, including redwoods, will clone themselves by sending up “suckers” from their bases. While the cut trees will never regain their previous size or strength, these stumps are not actually dead. Collaborating with a man who is really into finding big trees, some of the Archangel crew went to the Fieldbrook Stump, the remains of the oldest coastal redwood ever known, took cuttings, and were able to successfully clone it, along with several other redwoods – trees that were cut down in the 1890s, with diameters of 30 feet or more.

Sequoias are another species under threat; there are only about 10,000 trees, in not very many places. Sequoias like to be in moist conditions. Increasing drought, like we are likely to see more of due to global warming, is a threat to their species. In this book and in other places, I’ve read about about the debate about what to do about (and for) them in the future: Water them? Start planting them other places? Or leave them alone to adapt or die, because we may have to make tough choices like that?

There is a subdivision in California that was once a logging operation; it started in the 1940s, and the family cut pine, fir, and cedar. However, they never touched a sequoia on those 670 acres. (When Robbins asked the son of the original owner why, “he just smiled and said he didn’t know.”)

The Rouch family still owns over five hundred acres of the land, though, including a man-made lake that Sonny built himself and what David Milarch referred to as the Lost Grove of sequoias, which is right where it shouldn’t be, not below the tree line but at the very top of the mountain. . .

This grove is critical to the Ancient Tree Archive mission. “Sequoias like moist feet,” says Milarch, “but these trees are high and dry. They have adapted to dry conditions without much moisture and at the southern end of their range.” In other words, they could be a critical genotype for life on a hotter and drier planet.

So they took cuttings here, and from the Waterfall Tree, the 3,000 year old largest-diameter single-stem tree in the world and fifth-largest (by volume) sequoia, and after three months of careful work and prayer, got some of their clones to sprout.

The original old growth forests are effectively gone from many parts of the world; in the United States, they have been reduced to about 2% of their original size. But we can stop cutting them – and their family lines can keep going.

Milarch’s work started in the United States, but now collections of big tree genetics are occurring in Ireland (which has also seen massive destruction of its old growth forest), and there are plans to collect genetics from big old trees in many other places as well.

This effort is, to me, one of the most incredible examples of hope I have come across. It is a huge undertaking, with a lot of uncertainty involved (cloning success for the old trees is about 4%), and the results will not be truly understood for many, many decades, if not centuries. In the meantime, it is encouraging a deepening understanding of our biosphere and the intricacies of the ecosystems we live in, preserving life that could otherwise have been lost, and helping to provide for a better future for those who come after us.

(Want more? Here’s an article that is largely an interview with Milarch.)