Things With Feathers: Bringing things back

Hello, dear readers.

So it’s been an intense few weeks! For me, personally, I had a series of deeply unpleasant emotional events, followed shortly by some truly wonderful (but also intense) new spiritual understandings, which collided quite spectacularly just a few days before the election. So that was fun timing. I also started taking an incredible permaculture course, which is full of brilliant people who want to improve the state of our cities and landscapes, and I cannot wait to see how that unfolds (I hope to share some of that here, too). So with all that, my head has hardly had time to stop spinning so that I can process everything. I’m really exhausted, excited to see how the things I’ve been learning will play out, and also terrified about the kind of world they will be playing out in.

I have also been heartened to see the way people are coming together, reaching out to one another, and speaking out against oppression, from my friends and family to state and city governments – and to keep reading news about progress that has already been made.

I don’t post these things to say “gosh don’t look at the bad things, don’t be so ~negative~” but as reminders that things are not all bad, that progress has been made and will be made, to remind myself (and you!) of a tiny sampling of things that are good in the world, that we are working to preserve and improve – and to provide a break from focusing on those things that are exhausting and terrible. It is so important to give yourself time to rest and enjoy something; our minds and emotions and bodies need breaks from stress. I do not want to lose any of you to despair at the immensity of the truly terrible things we are facing.

So! I’ve been filing away a bunch of positive stories to share.

But before I move on to those, here are links to two other essays I’ve written that seem appropriate to bring up again. One is “Life Support Systems,” about hope, joy, and love as forms of resistance and sources of resilience.

Joy is life affirming.

The other is “Why Hope?” – about the value not of “wishful thinking,” but the hope that comes from reminding ourselves of previous victories, and the serious necessity of doing that.

. . . Feeling problems are overwhelming and vast, and no solution has been come up with, creates despair and depression, states in which people feel like taking action is pointless; therefore, remembering similar efforts that have succeeded – and sharing those memories – is a vital antidote to that despair, which provides impetus (hope) to keep going and working towards the specific as-yet unachieved goals.

And now onward to the good news! Here are some things to celebrate, to find joy and new energy in.

From the “Even Walls Fall Down” department:

Taking Down Dams and Letting the Fish Flow. I’ve written previously about the removal of the dams on the Elwha River in Washington; this is about the removal of two of three dams on the Penobscot River in Maine. First erected in the 1830s, they caused populations of migratory fish to nearly collapse. Two of those dams were removed in 2012 and 2013, and despite the massive loss of population and blockage of close to two centuries, the fish are returning in impressive numbers. Along with the fish, of course, come other species, including osprey, eagles, and many less noticeable species. Even wild systems that look severely degraded can turn out to be very resilient.

From the “Rebuilding it Better” department:

Kansas Town Decimated by Tornado Now Runs on 100% Renewable Energy, Should Be Model for Frack-Happy State. In 2007, the town of Greensburg, Kansas, population 1,500, was leveled by an E-5 tornado. Half its population left permanently, but the town has rebuilt itself – and rebuilt itself as a city fully powered by renewable energy sources (Kansas is very rich in wind, for one). Further, the city provides “curbside recycling and conserves water with low flow fixtures and collects rainwater for irrigation and grey water in toilets,” making them a model for other cities to follow.

And closing with two items from the “Cute Animals” department:

Resurrected From Dead, Oryx Returns to the Wild. Thirty years after being driven to extinction in the wild, a small herd of scimitar-horned oryx – the successful results of a captive breeding program – has been released to their native land in Chad. The people behind this program hope to release 500 oryx over the next five years, to create a self-sustaining wild population that will also help restore the ecosystem they live in.
A group of scimitar oryx at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, Great Britain
A group of scimitar oryx at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, Great Britain. From Wikipedia; photo by “The Land” CC BY-SA 3.0
Via birdhism on Facebook: The world’s fastest parrot lives in Australia, and is critically endangered. Habitat destruction was part of the problem, but then people learned the population was also being heavily decimated by a predator: the sugar glider. However, the swift parrot is now “having breeding success on Bruny Island where they are free from their introduced predator, the sugar glider.” A campaign to raise money to install nesting boxes for the birds, combined with arborists carving little hollows for them into trees, has helped the birds raise new families by providing ample nesting spaces in the predator-free forest (source).
Swift parrot baby, via birdhism's Facebook page
Swift parrot baby, via birdhism’s Facebook page
 May your days ahead be filled with similar successes.

Fjothr Lokakvan

fyothrFjothr is an environmentalist, Lokean, and bioregional animist living in Cascadia, with a great many Norse Giants present in her life. Her spiritual practices are focused on her relationship with her primary god and building relationships with the local Powers and place. She keeps houseplants, spends almost too much time on Tumblr, and is inordinately fond of birds. She also writes at Rebalancing Acts and is on the board of Gods&Radicals


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Weekly Update: July 31

We are thrilled that A Beautiful Resistance #2, The Fire is Here, has been arriving in the hands of those who have already placed orders! If you are not one of those folks, you can still get a copy here. And here is a review of the issue (already!).

Coming to your web reader of choice this week, writing on G&R includes an interview by guest author William Hawes with Richard Oxman, a review of Pagan Leadership Anthology (from yours truly), a poem and essay about harvest and connection to the land from Linda Boeckhout, and an essay on how religion and politics intertwine from Yvonne Aburrow.

Various and Sundry

The second Many Gods West polytheist gathering in Olympia, Washington, is starting in less than a week; online pre-registration will end on Monday, August 1, but registration will still be taken at the door (for details see this Facebook post).

A spot of good news for watersheds, especially for those inhabiting areas immediately adjacent to large rivers: Popularity of Big Hydropower Projects Diminishes Around the World. Large dams are destructive to ecosystems and human communities, especially indigenous or poorer communities, and costly, often far exceeding their original budgets. Other forms of renewable energy (like solar and wind) are faster to build, less expensive, and less destructive to their locations. There are still big hydropower projects in process, but “the level of investment in big water-powered electricity projects has been flat for much of the last decade, and is now being overwhelmed by financing for renewable energy, led by wind and solar power.”

Moving to a much smaller scale, here is a short video and some text about the efforts being made on a 20-acre island in Illinois to restore the population of a species of plant that grows nowhere else. The Kankakee mallow is one of the rarest species of plants in the United States, and has had problems with invasive species crowding it out; the lack of wildfire in its habitat has contributed to the problem. The “READ MORE” link at the link goes into more history about the restoration of the plant, which – fortunately – has seed that can hang out in the soil for years, until the right conditions, including fire, are brought back.

Traditional approaches to work and relationships provide numerous benefits over new technologies. The “Cats at Work” program in the city of Chicago provides feral cats, considered “unadoptable,” with “work” in one of the most traditional cat professions there is: keeping rodents. In return, the cats are provided secure housing, food, and other care overseen by the shelter running the program. The program has been running for over a decade and, in addition to reducing ineffective methods of rat control (like poison), it provides beneficial emotional relationships for the humans hosting or living near their local “working cats.”

Lastly, if 2016 is getting you down too much, take a quick scroll through this list of positive things that have happened as a reminder that it isn’t all bad all the time – or maybe file it away to read a little bit at a time while we finish out the year.

Weekly Update: Solstice Edition

Well, here we are: at the end of a terribly rough week, nearly halfway through a year that has already seemed unusually bad. Part of what has helped me cope with it all has been the good company I’ve been in in my pagan circles, which includes the writing I find here.

On the schedule for the next week are posts from G&R regulars Rhyd Wildermuth, Sable Aradia, James Lindenschmidt, Linda Boeckhout, and Sophia Burns. Their topics will cover such things as finding gods “in the dumpster,” spiritual activism, capitalism, the commons, and the Orlando shooting.

Additionally, on Tuesday the 21st — in honor of the Solstice by all its names — we have Wayne Martin Mellinger with his first piece for Gods & Radicals: Nature Religions and Revolutionary Social Change: Advancing a Practical Theology for Spiritual Activism. This is a longer piece for us, but it’s worth the investment since it gives a nice topography of the spiritual-activism space and will be of value to our communities.

beautifulfirefrontcoverThe Digital Edition of A Beautiful Resistance 2: The Fire Is Here is now available! Order your copy here. Those of you waiting for the print edition do not have much longer to wait…. it should begin shipping soon. Watch this space for updates.

Other Things

From my collection of “things people who read this website might appreciate”:

We have put together a ritual to commemorate the dead of Orlando. We suggest that it be performed after the solstice but before the end of June. It can be performed alone or with your group. We have tried to make it adaptable to any Pagan or polytheist practice. Also available in Italian.

Editor Commentary

I didn’t understand that “bisexual” was an option when I was a teenager in a rural high school in the 90s. I only knew from how some of my classmates slandered others as “gay” or “lesbian” – and it was always, always meant as an insult – that there were dangerous ways to be. Very few of my friends were openly supportive of the idea of being queer, even if they also disliked some of the homophobic laws being proposed in my state. So I didn’t acknowledge my sexuality to myself until I was in my 20s, and felt for a long time I didn’t really belong in the queer community.

My social circles since my mid-20s have been matter-of-factly queer-friendly and included a lot of out folk. My pagan social circles, which are my social circles these days, seem to be majority LGBTQIA/MOGAI/QUILTBAG/queer/etc., and that has been fantastic. I can talk about my ex-girlfriend and talking to gods in the same conversation and no one bats an eye!

The last week has been so, so terrible; I’m simply heartbroken over the homophobic murders and attempted murders at Pulse. Learning more about who was actually there that night has just made it worse: It was Latinx Night; the headlining performers were trans; people of color are already victims of homophobic and transphobic violence more than white people. A lot of people were from other countries, and some are/were undocumented, and this makes it even harder for them and/or their families . . .

I’ve seen some very good thoughtful writing and some very powerful emotional writing about all of this, but I am kind of at a loss to add to that now.

Take care of yourselves, okay? Take care of each other. Keep on loving.

Things with Feathers: The Elwha River; California condors

By Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul.
And sings the tune
Without the words,
and never stops at all.

–Emily Dickinson

One of the things that helps keep me motivated, reminds me that not everything is terrible, and it is not a waste of my time to try and improve what I can, is finding stories about other people doing things to improve the world. This provides a kind of hope that is not merely wishful thinking, but a hope that is based in evidence that things can be better than they are now.

I’ve been saving those things for myself in a “hopes” tag, because sometimes I need to go back through it and remind myself that there’s more to life than Shell moving to drilling in the Arctic, and I’m planning on making a post every month here with two or three items. (It’s exciting! There are a lot of cool things going on!)

Here are a couple of my favorites from the last year or so:

The Elwha River dam removal

From 2011 to late 2014, the largest dam removal project in history took place: freeing the Elwha River in Washington from two hydroelectric dams, one that had been in place for 100 years.

The project has been done slowly, so that the sediment trapped behind the dams would move into the river, and then out to sea, in a somewhat controlled fashion – too much sediment in water is bad for the health of fish and other creatures, and there was massive amount of sediment trapped behind the dams. The changes taking place are going to be closely watched, to see how the watershed recovers, which will probably affect decisions about future dam removal projects in other places. It is already apparent that rivers and their associated watersheds can recover at some of their “lost” functions quite quickly once dams are gone:

So much sediment, once trapped in reservoirs behind two hydroelectric dams, has flowed downstream that it has dramatically reshaped the river’s mouth, replenished eroding beaches and created new habitat for marine creatures not observed there in years.

Meanwhile, Chinook salmon and steelhead have been streaming into stretches of the Elwha River and its tributaries previously blocked by the Elwha Dam, which stood for nearly a century before it came down in 2012.

With the first dam gone, the ocean-migrating fish have been swimming as far upriver as they can. Scientists have observed them at the base of the second 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam about 13 miles upstream, as if they want to continue on.

As they move into areas previously blocked, salmon and steelhead are acting as a fertilizer for the ecosystem, delivering marine nutrients to river otters and other wildlife.

. . .

Just three years into dam removal, scientists say they’ve been surprised at how quickly changes are happening.

The most stunning change is taking place at the river’s mouth. Millions of cubic yards of sediment held behind the dams have flowed downriver and pushed the estuary out about a quarter mile. A once rocky, cobblestone scene is now sandy beach — ideal for forage fish, juvenile salmon and shellfish.

“New estuary is literally being created. It’s wild to watch,” said Anne Shaffer, marine biologist with the Coastal Watershed Institute in Port Angeles. “Fish are using this freshly formed habitat, and they’re using it with such abundance.”

Marine creatures such as eulachon, or candlefish, and Dungeness crab have been documented in the estuary for the first time in decades.

“I was surprised by a lot of things, but I was stunned by how fast the estuary has expanded,” said Robert Elofson, river restoration director with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The tribe is a partner with the National Park Service in the $325 million river-restoration project.

The mouth of the river, with new land being formed by sediment. (photo from OPB article)

Trees and other plants are recolonizing the land that was once the bottom of the “lakes” formed behind the dams, and additional work is being done by people to restore trees and plants along the river. While the dams were in place, the water held behind them was warmer than the river in its wild state was, which is another harm done to fish like salmon and steelhead, which cannot survive if water temperatures rise too high.

Before the dams were built, the Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great natural resources, hosting steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon: sockeye, coho, chum, pink, and the legendary Elwha chinook, which commonly reached 100 pounds. Ten salmon runs — each genetically adapted to a specific seasonal migration — meant that the Elwha was full of migrating fish year-round, some 400,000 annually. . .

But the Elwha dam put a stop to that. Despite official warnings, the builder violated an 1890 law requiring fish ladders on dams, substituting a hatchery instead. Other dam builders followed suit, blocking salmon runs throughout the Northwest. That end-run determined state policies for decades, giving rise to a hatchery-dependent fishery during the hydroelectric boom of the 1920s to 1960s. . .

These declines, along with a 1910 prohibition against fishing, deprived the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a key food source and cultural touchstone. After their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe objected to licensing the dams, citing their impact on the salmon fishery and a poor safety report predicting the Elwha dam might fail during high flood conditions. (source)

So, once their fishing rights were restored in the 1970s, the tribe pushed for the dams’ removal. They were joined by conservation groups, and in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. This gave the Interiors Department the authority to buy the dams and remove them if salmon restoration needed it. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a plan to help with the dam removal that involved managing sediment so fish would survive its release, and in 2011, the actual removal began.

When I look at the timelines here, some of it is kind of daunting. It took, what, 15-20 years to get legal approval to take the necessary steps, and then another 19 years before the first dam removal started.

But when I look at what has happened since that started? How quickly fish and plants and other wildlife are returning, now that one “wrong” element in their landscape is gone?? It gives me such hope for other places.

 The king in feathers

I remember when I was a child or young teenager, reading some magazine article about the efforts being made to save the California condor from extinction. There were photos of the condor chicks, being raised by humans, who put condor-shaped puppets over their hands, so the chicks would see condor shape and color when being fed, and not imprint on the humans.

As much as I am a freak about birds, I didn’t give the condors much thought for quite a long time. Occasionally I’d hear something about it – the efforts were having some success! – but it wasn’t really on my radar.

Last summer, I made it to the Oregon Zoo; I’d been meaning to since moving back to Portland, but hadn’t gotten around to it. There were articles in the news earlier in the year about how the new condor exhibit was finally open. Well, I sure wasn’t going to go and NOT look the condors! They’re birds after all, how could I pass that up?

I was not expecting to be instantly overwhelmed with emotion when I caught sight of the first one in the enclosure (if I’d had the zoo to myself, I would have just sat down and sobbed). I stayed and watched him for quite a while, while he most certainly watched us, and I have honestly never felt such presence from a bird before. Or any other animal. Condors are big, but it wasn’t just his size. He was intelligent. He spent a lot of time up against the fence, reaching through it to pull at plants outside (which were just like the plants inside the enclosure), but he also had a perch that positioned him to be viewed very well from inside one of the exhibit shelters – and I think he knew he is an impressive, commanding bird. There were two other condors in the enclosure, but they hung out on some tall perches near the back the entire time I was there.

California condor at the Oregon Zoo. (photo by Fjothr)
Lord of the aviary. (photo by Fjothr)

The basic story goes like this: Condors once ranged all up and down the western part of what is now the United States. They were native to Oregon, among other places. But they died because they’d eat animals that had either been poisoned (like big predators that early settlers didn’t want around) or killed with lead shot (still a threat to today’s wild-flying condors), or because they were just outright killed. DDT and ingestion of bits plastic were other threats to their survival (plastic is still a problem).

They suffered such harm that by the mid-1980s, there were only 22 left in the wild.

They were all captured and put into captive breeding programs. These programs have done well enough that over 200 have been released into the wild again, in some very small areas, with another nearly-200 in captivity. Here’s more about the condors from the Oregon Zoo.

There is a long way to go before it’s likely they will soar over the skies they did 150 years ago, but the fact that it is possible to help a population on the verge of going extinct from crossing that boundary is a good thing.

Progress can happen. It just takes time.

That’s what I’ve got for this month. Please share additional examples in the comments!