(The following is a memoir piece I’ve been working on off and on for several years about my family’s annual camping trips to Yosemite in the late 1950s and 1960s)
In August, my middle class family packed up our ’56 Chevy Bel Air red and white station wagon and left our suburban L.A. home to camp among the cool pines of the Yosemite Valley. We left in the wee hours of the morning to avoid driving in the oppressive Central Valley heat. My older brother, Steve, and I would occupy the “way back,” converted into a bed with layers of soft quilts. This functioned as our sleeping and play area. Seat belts were not even thought of back then. There was no digital world in the late 1950s and early 1960s so upon awakening we would occupy ourselves by reading our stash of comic books and Mad Magazines. We would play endless card games of War. When we were tired of that we would sing folk songs in lively two-part harmony, our parents joining in on “I’ve been working on the Railroad, Suwanee River, Clementine, or our favorite, “the Titanic ”.
It’s been a very cool spring – even by NW Oregon standards. April set a record for the wettest ever recorded so native plants planted in late February & Early March have been slow to emmerge. Still, it’s been thrilling to watch the ferns unfurl and various flowers to reveal themselves in my native plant garden. I’ve been adding some artistic touches with some old sculptures of mine scattered about the garden.
One great find at “Hortlandia” was a little table made of scrap wood for a top and legs of thick curly willow. I added two small benches cut from the stump of an old walnut tree that was taken out a few years ago. and sorely missed. Now I have benches to remember it by This area is my fairy tea spot.
I’m trying really hard to stay positive as the news gets grimmer and grimmer. The Delta variant and now Afhanistan on top of everything else. A good friend of mine gave me the prompt “unprecedented” to write about. We’ve been hearing a lot of that word lately. Here’s my take….
We were driving back from a blissful writing workshop up in a remote area in E. Oregon when we came back into cell service. I’ll never forget my friend, Linda saying “Oh my god- there’s this thing called a heat dome that’s moving into the Pacific NW. It’s going to get up to 116 degrees F!” Seriously I thought she was joking until she insisted it was true.
We live in a place where occasionally we will experience triple-digit temperatures in the low hundreds but not this. These are Death Valley or Phoenix temps.- not Oregon. Another blow- last year it was the forest fires and now in late June extreme heat. Add to that the pandemic, politics and it’s beyond cataclysmic.
My house has no AC. There have been few times we have needed it as it is well insulated. This time, however, since it only dropped into the high 80s at night the house would not cool off and remained at 89 degrees inside. This was intolerable- especially for me as I am highly sensitive to the heat and can get ill.
In the 28 years I’ve lived in my home I’ve watched the surrounding hills logged acre by acre making way to vineyard land. I used to live out in the country. Now I say I live in the “wine country” to add a reference point to the location. To some this is no big deal, but for me losing our forests is a tragic loss of shady walks, natural habitat, and carbon storage. We shame the loss of tropical rainforests but turn a blind eye to the logging of our own temperate forests.
When this happens nothing is left for wildlife, no corridors for migrating birds for deer, or any of our native species to survive on. Where do all the creatures go that made those forests home? Most die. It’s all for human profit now. This collateral damage is met with barely a shrug. Add to that the recent catastrophic wildfires in Oregon have left thousands of acres of forest graveyards. I was heartsick on a recent camping trip to the Cascade Range where we drove through miles of blackened mountains, burnt towns, and majestic forests turned to black matchsticks. This was once verdant scenery. Rampant salvage logging is only making matters worse for long-term recovery.
I have written letters to editors, congresspeople, and blogged about the environmental issues at hand but reciprocity to nature is not a concept our culture embraces. It’s about profit. There is a total disconnect in our relationship to the earth and the long-term consequences of our consumerism. We take without giving back and that will be our ultimate demise. I’ve realized through all this the only real power we have is through our actions and not those of governments or corporations. This includes our own piece of ground.
So in an act of defiance, I am bringing nature home to my one little acre in Oregon. I am starting the slow process to convert my land into a tiny nature sanctuary by planting native plants and creating a wildlife friendly habitat. Until recently I landscaped my yard the way everybody does-by what would look nice. That meant planting common cultivars from Asia without a thought to what nutrition and cover they would provide to native species including pollinators, butterflies, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Will this make a difference? Well to me it does! To future furred and feathered visitors it will, and if enough other homeowners join in it will make a huge difference. All I know is that when we recently planted a big leaf maple in our yard and planted my overgrown planter barrel by the porch entrance with milkweed, and native wildflowers I felt empowered. If you would like to join me on my radical gardening journey, tune into my other blog, One Sweet Earth where I will be sharing my process bit by bit.
On this, the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, consider this…
Most of us are taught when we are young:
It is better to give than to receive
Don’t be greedy – leave some for others
Be a good neighbor
These principles seem to apply except when it comes to the earth we live on. Our culture looks to nature as something to devour rather than something to honor and celebrate. Consider the term “natural resources” rather than “natural gifts.” As our society has lost its connection to the land, the messages we are given now are:
Profit trumps sustainability and the well being of our fellow species
Increasing consumption not thinking about environmental consequences
Gross national product vs gross national happiness & health
We shrug our shoulders about Climate Change, the great garbage patches in the ocean, microplastics in the water supply, mass extinctions of species, loss of our forests, clean air, and clean water. It’s uncomfortable to think about. It’s too big. Someone else will take care of it. Actually no and for certain, apathy will not.
Now, why would I want to do that to myself? Like building and maintaining a blog with almost weekly posts isn’t enough of a responsibility? The short answer is that I have more to say about an entirely different subject than this blog on my personal meanderings can handle. My new genre is on how to take action to preserve the health of the planet in the age of climate change and other environmental degradation. This form of activism is by making small lifestyle changes.
I started chipping away on the concept of my new blog “One Sweet Earth” in late 2019 with the hopes of a New Year’s launch. That was wishful thinking as I forgot how daunting building a new blog can be. Selecting the right theme, how to build a menu with categories and pages is daunting enough without wrestling with WordPress’s new block editor. Then there’s writing content and in this case illustrating it. A good portion of “One Sweet Earth” is in my sketchbook.
Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.Mary Oliver
I was never much of a noticer until I took Glen Moffat’s Natural history class in my sophomore year of college. Until that time most birds other than gulls, jays, & hawks were all little brown things that flit about in the trees. Wildflowers were all pretty. Trees were either pines with needles or trees with leaves.
We wore hiking boots to that class. Armed with binoculars and magnifying glasses off we went on various field trips up into the Bay Area hills and beaches. Mr. Moffat was a short middle-aged guy with the exuberance of a young golden retriever. His enthusiasm was infectious. Suddenly all those little brown birds were visual wonders with names. Among the many were wrens, bluebirds, flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, and sparrows with all manner of coloring, beaks, and feet. Ducks were not ducks any more but dabblers and divers, shovelers, canvasbacks, and scoters. There were actually five types of gulls I could identify: Ring-billed, California, Herring, Glaucus, and Western. I began to recognize the calls of birds. The wildflowers took on identities of their own and I learned to tell them apart, asters, shooting stars, goldenrod. There were differences in the shrubs, gooseberry, goat’s beard, California buckeye. The pine trees became firs, hemlock, cedar, red, yellow, and white pines.
My fear of science dissipated to the point that when I transferred as a junior to a university I changed my major from Art to Natural History, an interdisciplinary study of botany, ecology, zoology, and geology. My studies of botany turned more intimate. I peered into dissecting scopes and marveled at the inner structures of flowers, algae, lichens, and fungi. Slime molds had designs that were worthy of a display in an art museum. I was introduced to the world of lichens, mosses, algae, & liverworts. I learned that most fungi were not mushrooms but rather molds and yeast. Mushrooms were merely the fruiting bodies of the spidery white webs of mycelia living underground or in rotting material. Latin names swam about in my psyche. Now everywhere I walked was a treasure hunt of natural wonders.
Eventually, I became so adept at plant ID that as a junior I was hired on a botanical study to map rare and endangered plant species in a potential wilderness area. The plants we found, among them, a sundew (a small insectivorous plant) eventually converted the land into a protected natural area. After graduation, I worked in Alaska for a forest fire ecologist, cataloged sea life with NOAA, and mapped vegetation types with the US Forest Service. I walked the sandy barrier island off the coast of Prudhoe Bay identifying sea birds on a study with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and counting the abandoned but ever warm downy nests of eiders.
Those years of scientific study are long behind me but I am still an observer always looking for acquaintances in the natural world around me. I know the name of the birds about my yard and their calls. I don’t have to worry about filling the hummingbird feeder so full as I noticed that their skinny tongues are over two inches long. I noticed that the little myotis bats that darted about on warm summer nights have all but vanished as with the
warblers, the tanagers, swallows, cedar waxwings and other seasonal migrants. This troubles me. Some years back after the neighbors sprayed the brambles on the fence line, the quail disappeared. The red wind blackbirds still pass through winter and springs filling the air with their songs. This year, the aphids did not show on my kale!
When I learned to notice nature, my life changed radically to the point I made a career out of it. Science became my friend rather than something to be afraid of. The environment became something to enjoy and protect. It is not necessary to go to the extremes I did but it is important to be aware of the natural world that surrounds us. It can form and direct us. We humans as the decades pass are losing our connection to the earth as we retreat further and further into technology. But it is important to remember that our so-called civilized lives are built on the back of nature from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials in our house, cars, devices, and the fuel in our vehicles. Without a connection to the earth, we continue to degrade the planet to the point it will be unable to sustain a quality of life for ourselves or its other inhabitants. It’s happening now with climate change, pollution, and degradation of the land and oceans.
One way to keep that connection is to learn the names of the birds, animals, and plants that inhabit your environment. Even in the city, there are species that have learned to cohabitate with humans. If you look closely, you may see there is more than one type of squirrel, & brown bird. Watch the crows going about their day. There are communities in the sky conducting business you are not savvy to.
By naming the plants and creatures we encounter, we offer them respect and become aware that the earth does not just belong to us. We become advocates for our environment rather than just exploiters. Give your children binoculars and magnifying glasses rather than devices to rob their minds. Give yourself some too. Look up and around you and learn to notice the magnificent gifts that this planet has to offer.
The world take note..we have a new spokesperson for the planet…
I had been ignorant of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl who has thundered on the world stage as a climate activist, that is until last week when I tuned into her Ted Talk. I was awestruck by her composure, her knowledge, and her willingness to cut to the truth of what is happening to our planet and then chastising our complacency to take real action in spite of the scientific facts. Greta’s intensity is riveting as she speaks.
Greta at age 8 heard about climate change, fell into a deep depression, and went mute. This resulted in her diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome (a high functioning form of autism), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and selective mutism. She started pulling out of her depression when she began to formulate an action plan for climate change. First she wrote essays. Then inspired by Parkland students, she decided to organize a school strike. Since no one else would join her she started striking from school alone sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament for three weeks handing out leaflets. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Eventually, through social media and the press, her fame began to spread. Since then, she’s inspired school strikes around the world and has become the hero of thousands of school children as well as adults. Greta speaks globally about the importance of action to solve climate change. Time magazine featured her on the cover of their May 27th issue and she has made the list of the 100 most influential people of 2019