Why Are We All In This Handbasket?

“Suddenly the crust peels back and all-women are looking into a burning pit of rage.”

From Judith O’Grady

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Initially I was planning to write an essay about the puzzling goodness and badness/ impulse towards Right Action and selfishness/ kindheartedness and meanness that exist in all people. So I was talking it over with my friend, “All people are connected blah blah blah” and he countered that people have various cultures that inform their ethical systems and so different judgements follow in different cultures. “But culture is wholly learned….” I said and then brought that biological truism that we are all descended from Genghis Khan (after all) into the discussion. He declined to be descended from the Pillaging Emperor and so later I looked it up—- of course we’re not ALL descended from him but the Wikipedia designation of some hundreds of wives and further hundreds of children must fall short of his actual begottens by some measure as well. Since we’re all in fact descended from the same Mitochondrial Mother, if not from Genghis, it really makes no never mind.

Leaving that aside for a moment, I do find it strange and puzzling that people are so varyingly kind and mean. Some quite dreadful people will act for the common good with energy and self-sacrifice in some instances and with self-serving brutality in others; even though there are clear and present at-danger innocents in all cases.

I adhere, in a bumbling and non-psychological way, to the teachings of Jung and so can bring his concept of the Self and the Shadow Self into play. Not that the Self is Right Action and the Shadow Self is ‘bad’ by any means——- the Self can be the reasonable fear of personal harm or the worry that one is acting outside accepted practice that pushes one to not commit to the Shadow Self’s bravery. We are inextricably both Selves and the complete person is the integrated Self, not the Shining Knight.

Be that as it may, we must all learn to act as the common descendants of the One Mother and stop the pillaging of the Earth. Because another of my beliefs is that She is just about to declare humankind as a failed evolutionary experiment unable to rise above our greed for luxury and blink us all out. The only way we can stay the execution is to all share exactly as if we are all one people, to all live simpler lives of commonality, to make sure everybody has enough. Or else we will find ourselves all jumbled up in that proverbial hand-basket and bound for ‘hell’ (or in my belief system doomed to never again reincarnate as humans or perhaps at all).

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So I reported back to my friend “sbna of humankind are related to Genghis Kahn.”

“Well, good! Because those children of rape would be affected by it, right?”

As is obvious, he’s a fairly black/white thinker no matter how much the shades of grey keep irrefutably intruding. Firstly, I pointed out that some of Genghis’ approved wives (as opposed to the spoils of war) might have been moderately pleased with their position—— history reports him as enjoying and valuing his sons and presumably their mothers. On the Other Hand, the children who were the product of rape are an army in their own right, Genghis aside.

On the Gripping Hand, Jung-On-Toast!! Yes, those children DO change humankind. Another of Jung’s precepts is that of the Collective Unconscious— roughly that we all tap into a deep well of previous-people’s lives that inform our own unconscious. We ‘remember’ backwards to that First Mother and the shadows the fire cast on the cave walls. This is a new and unpleasant idea; that not just half of the Speakers in the Collective Unconscious (the raped women, hand of the Goddess over them) but all of everybody (AND their children) has nightmare rememberings.

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Secondarily, there is evidence that hardship, particularly disruptive hardship (being a non-combatant in the path of war, being unhomed and made a refugee, living through a famine, being raped and losing your place in your society by it), leaves an imprint on the mother’s DNA—- the children born in the wake of those disruptions are different than those who are not. Biology supports Jung; the cruelty of man creates larger damage in the world than just the sum of their acts.

So when we look further at what is going on in today’s World Emotional Flux it seems to me that there are not one but two inflammatory decision cruxes going on all at once.

The Great Mother Earth will, if we don’t act fast to clean up our lifestyle as well as start behaving as if we all sink or swim together, flick us away with Her fingernail. There are no more new frontiers of resources and land, there are no more Empire-building plans to gradually educate the others into Proper Whiteness being accepted, there are no more excuses that we were just acting according to our nature and that the blame really lies in the actions of the victims that will be allowed. It’s the End Times for us.
What is true in small is true in large: when I used to be testifying inside the conservative small-town system I would ask the women who had just, at the coffee klatch or the Tupperware party, identified their husband as ‘treating them well’, “When you all go out as a family and have a day of adventure together, who drops into a chair with a sigh of relief when you get home and who goes and starts dinner?” Once you see it you can never again unsee it. Further, if you see the imbalance of one act/attitude/ bigoted belief you may suddenly see it all.

“He works hard…..”

“And you don’t?”

Unpaid work suddenly slides into the other side of the balance and measures itself against wage-earners. Suddenly something besides dollars earned has to be used as balance-weight. Hours worked? Tasks completed? Value of the ‘job’ balanced against the enculturation of the next generation?

But that’s true of the whole system just as it is true of each individual action; once all-women say #metoo,

“Why can’t men just treat us as people, treat us as they treat other men?”

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Suddenly the crust peels back and all-women are looking into a burning pit of rage.From the troublesome memories of yesterday right back to sexual dimorphism taking away the female proto-human’s right of no, there has never been a good reason for treating one sex or some people as inherently less than the other sex or some other people. Only the ‘better’ group getting away with it is what permits it.

This is a tricky moment ‘cause that man who just has to get over it and give up his privilege and that woman who is finding a shaky solidarity with all woman-kind must ALSO immediately, no time for putting it off, drop everything and get to it, learn sharing and consideration and give up capitalism and resource extortion. We have to successfully work as a team with those exploiters and with those unappealing (for whatever specious reason) others and with those people with unjustifiable beliefs…..

Starting NOW.

 


Judith O’Grady

image1is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).

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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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!

 

 

 

Things with Feathers: Living with our winged urban neighbors

I’ve been finding this series difficult to write in a way I hadn’t expected. Finding information to write about is fairly easy. Being excited about it is also easy. But I have to restrain myself from writing it up and adding “but” statements to it all. The thoughts come up: “Here is this awesome thing BUT isn’t it awful how we came to a state where this needs to be done” or “here is this thing which is great BUT so much still needs to be done” and/or “BUT here are ways in which these aspects of it could go wrong.”

And I want to focus on just the positive aspects of what some people are doing to make the world a better place. It is really hard. Due to a combination of learned social behavior, my own critical tendencies, and a desire to present a full picture of a situation, it is really hard to JUST be happy about things instead of downplaying them; it is hard to focus on just the potential in them and recognize them as indications that things can be even better than they are. Finding the not-so-great among the good is really tiring. I can prevent myself from writing the critical statements; I wish I could convince my mental habits to let it go, too.

Well. With that out of the way (this kind of hope is hard), here are this month’s examples of positive trends in the world.

Fastest animal in the world making a comeback – in cities, no less

Early last week, during a lunchtime walk, I heard some rapid, high-pitched chirping sounds, begging sounds, and trying to locate the bird, saw what I hoped might be a falcon. It was too far off for me to be quite certain, but . . . it could be. The flight pattern didn’t match other birds I know I’ve seen here. There were two of them, near the big bridge carrying the interstate across the river. Could it be a peregrine falcon youngster and a parent? Oh, I hoped! Peregrines have nested on the bridges here in Portland since the 1990s; I’ve known this for a while, but (frustratingly) never sighted any.

The next day, I again saw a bird shaped much like those, flying much closer – smaller than I expected, but with the right shape to be a falcon; it headed off towards the bridge and seemed to fly under it and then slightly upwards. After that sighting, I felt more confident believing I had finally seen one of the inhabitants of the local bridges.

Peregrines  – which are relatively small, about the size of a crow – can reach 200 mph when they dive on prey, making them the fastest animal in the world. Like many other predatory birds, their populations were devastated by DDT – which lingers in the environment, and still causes eggshell thinning and other problems. By the 1970s, they were all but gone in the United States.

The banning of DDT and captive breeding programs, to boost the wild populations, started to pay off in the 1980s, when wild pairs were seen nesting successfully in Oregon. They ignored nest boxes, however, but in the 1990s, they started rearing young on bridges in Portland. They’ve been quite successful – on average, more successful than parents out in the wild: “Portland’s nests appear to be more productive than average nests statewide and nationwide, with an average of 2.3 chicks a season. Elsewhere, nests produce 1.6 to 1.8 chicks on average. ” (Read the source of the quote for more great Portland peregrine facts.)

They do face hazards that birds outside the city do not: falls from a bridge nest can land a juvenile in the river, or on a busy street, or onto railroad tracks, or in front of a bicyclist. Human activity of various kinds can also upset nesting parents enough that they’ll abandon a nest. Audubon and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started a program called the Portland Peregrine Watch Program. Members of the program not only monitored the nest activity, but helped keep people from disturbing the nesting falcons (which might cause them to abandon it), protected just fledged young when they are on the ground learning to fly, and provided rescues for birds in need. Many fledglings have ended up needing medical care and rehabilitation, before being released. (For more, see Audubon’s pages on Portland peregrines.)

Look at that face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge - Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)
Look at that cute face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge – Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)

Since 1999, the peregrines are no longer on the Federal endangered species list in 1999; they were removed from the State of Oregon’s list in 2007. Last week, officials in Illinois announced they had removed the birds from their state list, too. In Chicago, peregrines have found success nesting on high-rises and bridges, and dining on the ample supply of pigeons.

Aid for butterflies and bees

Another winged creature that was thought gone for good in Portland is the monarch butterfly. With little to no source of their larval food, milkweed, there have been few if any sightings for long enough that the common wisdom was that you shouldn’t even bother planting it, since the butterflies won’t come.

Last month, I found an article that disproves that common wisdom: Monarchs reappear in Portland, reinforce need for milkweed

Experts say Portlanders shouldn’t bother planting milkweed – the monarch butterflies won’t come. But one woman found 30 eggs on her two plants this month, and she’s urging others: “If you plant it, they will come.”

. . .

Patti Farris, 58, incorporated milkweeds in front of her house three years ago. She hoped monarchs would appear, but didn’t exactly expect it.

On June 4, she noticed a butterfly circling her plants. Generally a monarch will lay one or two eggs per plant. This one laid 30 between two.

Tom Landis, a retired nursery specialist from the U.S. Forest Service, called this unusual.

. . .

Using his knowledge of native plants, the Medford resident said he began growing milkweed and raising monarch caterpillars. He now travels all over the region and gives workshops on caring for the plants and bugs.

Landis said he considered leading a workshop in Portland, but local experts told him it was a lost cause.

Farris found Landis online, and taking Landis’ warning about the low survival rate of eggs to adult (5%), Farris took in the leaves with eggs, raising the caterpillars in an enclosure (and keeping them well-supplied with milkweed) to keep them from becoming dinner for something else. As of the article’s publication, the caterpillars were pupating, possibly to return next year to the milkweed they grew up on.

There have been several other monarch sightings in the northwest recently, which has surprised a number of people, due to general loss of milkweed in the region. But apparently it doesn’t take much to encourage them to show up after all! (Plant more native milkweed! The Xerces Society can help you determine what species is best for your area.)

On the other side of the world, the city of Oslo is taking a city-sized approach to helping out bees, by creating a series of green spaces filled with habitat and food (via Oslo creates world’s first ‘highway’ to protect endangered bees.):

“We are constantly reshaping our environment to meet our needs, forgetting that other species also live in it,” Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of the Bybi, an environmental group supporting urban bees, which is leading the project.

“To correct that we need to return places to them to live and feed,” she explained, sitting on a bench in a lush city centre square bursting with early Nordic summer growth.

. . .

Oslo’s “bee highway” aims to give the insects a safe passage through the city, lined with relays providing food and shelter – the first such system in the world, according to the organisers.

Government groups, private companies, and individuals are among the people working to create the bee highway, which includes replacing some areas of grass with flowers, increasing green roofs, as well as adding bee hives in some areas.

The mass destruction of bee populations around the world has already forced farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan to pollinate plants by hand, and in the US some farmers are left with no choice but to rent hives transported cross-country by truck to pollinate crops.

But in Abel’s Garden in Oslo, Agnes Lyche Melvaer says she has faith in the “butterfly effect”.

“If we manage to solve a global problem locally it’s conceivable that this local solution will work elsewhere too.”

That about wraps it up for this month, evidence that with some careful thought, and with intentions of care, wecan have cities that are good habitat for other animals, too.

Bonus feature: Biodiversity in cities

This isn’t so much “look at how we’re doing things to make the world better” as “LOOK AT THIS COOL THING,” but it’s also about insects in cities, soooo I’m going to stuff it in here.

Via the awesome BiodiverSeed blog, a quote from Stephen Fry (QI, G-series, Episode 1 “Gardens”):

Now where’s the best place in the world to discover an entirely new species?

Basically, your own garden. You may say, “Ah ha, there won’t be anything in my garden that hasn’t been discovered.” You would be amazed. In 1971, Jennifer Owen, a biologist, did a very long-term study of her ordinary garden in a suburban house in Leicester. She discovered 533 species of ichneumon wasp, just that family of parasitic wasp. Fifteen of these had never been recorded in Britain; four of them were completely new to science. In a suburban garden. So, in your garden, if you have a garden, there will be things.

Gilbert White, the naturalist, said that nature is so full and so varied that if you want to find the place with the most variety, it’s the place you most study. It almost doesn’t matter: Just take a piece of land and look at it hard enough.

This one’s much more recent:

In 2013, Brian Brown, the curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told one of the museum’s trustees that he could find a new species of insect practically anywhere he looked. Her cynical response was, “Can you find one in my back yard?” Brown accepted the challenge, setting up a large, tent-like Malaise trap—named not for the emotion on which certain bugs seem to thrive but for the Swede who invented it—in the trustee’s Brentwood garden. After a few weeks, he brought his haul back to the museum, where he began by examining the phorids, a large family of tiny, humpbacked flies that he has spent much of his career studying. The very first one that Brown put under a microscope turned out to be previously unknown to science.

Since then, with a larger and more organized effort, they’ve found another 30 suspected new species of phorids. (That’s what they were focused on – what if they broadened their search??!?!?)

It seems to me like most of the talk about biodiversity talks about remote forests – how much more is out there to discover and get to know? And much closer to what is home for most of us? A lot! And it’s so exciting!

Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. –Herman Hesse, from Narcissus and Goldmund

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!