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Being There can Restore an Eclipse

The moon nibbled away at the sun;

the light turned eerie;

excitement built.

For a few moments, our daily worries and stresses were eclipsed.

Waning sun, silver crescent, day-time dark, mid-morning crickets, the celestial Diamond Ring…

Then waxing, shining arc by expanding shining arc, the sun returned. Our psyches filled to nearly bursting with the thrill of it, and for ten minutes, an hour, a day, we forgot politics; we forgot schedules; we forgot anxiety. We had watched and wondered and felt the majesty of our universe.

We paid attention to the eclipse. We paid attention with our eyes as the light changed, with our ears as day creatures stopped their songs and night creatures commenced their own, with the hairs and pores of our skin as the air cooled and blew; paid also with what? our nervous systems? our hearts? our souls? And we were viscerally moved.

All too often I fail to attend, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. Driving to town, bustling from the car to the grocery store–even out for a walk on a beautiful fall day–my mind fills with the list, the schedule, the regrets or anxieties, and I am blind to the quality of light, the smell of rain or the delight in watching a bird hopping with its mate on and off a curb. Each day, as we race from place to place getting and spending, worrying and planning, blaming and guilting, we eclipse our lives.

Life is too short to be missing so much of it. I want to “be here now,” but I seem to need a crutch. My resolution is to incorporate a regular “Being” session. Just as I exercise my body, I will exercise my attention. With the natural world being indispensable to an animal’s life, including of course that of a human animal, I will begin my practice outside. In order for it not to be a wool-gathering, mind-wandering, obsession session; in order to truly attend, I will record my observations. Many can do that with camera, palette or sketchbook, but I must do it with words.

Still, when I try to pay attention, do I see the essence of the place, or what I must do there? Attending isn’t guilt and it isn’t planning. David and I were away for a couple of weeks and were delighted on our return to find fall color still on the trees–leaves canary yellow, gold, flame-red. But most of autumn’s leaves had accepted the call of wind, gravity and the tree’s physiological clock to lie thick on our driveway. Yet it’s time to attend: No thoughts of raking allowed.

Near the house, the carpet is thick, bronzy, consisting largely of cast oak foliage. Not yet slicked black by tire tracks, the round-lobed Oregon white oak leaves make a rough, nearly monochromatic surface, punctuated now and then by brown-spotted golden spheres of oak gall. An occasional stray leaf rises phoenix-like, doing back-flips with a triple twist, then floats, as with a sigh, back to the ground.

Farther up the drive the carpet thins. Fragments of twigs furred with a mini forest of lichen lie here and there. Clear yellow filbert, cascara, and maple leaves brighten the scattering of white oak. Then a single, scarlet dogwood leaf and some pointy-lobed black oak. As I near leaf banks and piles I inhale in vain, expecting the musky aroma of decay. Too soon perhaps, or too cold?

I turn my attention to clouds in a blue autumn sky. Wispy cirrus clouds remind me of my fly-away hair, always loose and blowing in my face, in my eyes. I admire puffy cumulus clouds and wonder if some of their underbellies are getting denser and darker: Rain is surely not far away. I get thinking about water cycles and about a cloud’s holding capacity. Hmmm. My photographs are stored in the cloud. If I send too many up there, will France and dogs and gardens and grandchildren rain down on our heads? As I pay attention, I try to describe the scene, the moment, the experience. Often that sets off memories or musings, stimulates a tangential thought or sends me to the books to learn more about what I’m observing.

Back in the house, it occurs to me that though the most crucial relationship for all animals is with the natural world, for day-to-day contentment, my most personal relationships weigh at least equally. David stands by the window, the sun glowing on wild hairs I’ve missed when giving him a haircut, he’s missed when trimming his beard. Our eyes are dimming. We miss more and more.

Curly silver mixed with dark blond, the tousle frames his long-familiar, genial face. My husband and I are working on our 60th year of marriage, meaning that more than sixty-years-worth of ways could arise to avoid attending. I could anguish over errors of omission or commission through the decades, mistakes of his or of mine. I could torture the both of us, stressing over the future—its quality, its length, the ideals and the unknowns. Or I could simply go about my other commitments ignoring this, one of my oldest and most cherished relationships. Then poof! That connection, along with my own brief trip across life’s stage, would all be over. Eclipsed by my own negligence.

I raise my arms for the comfort of his strong hug. How good it feels. I embrace the warm wave that washes over me, heightened by the buzz from being outside. Life is water and sunlight and food. Life is trees and leaves, birds and flowers and bugs. Life is pets and babies, friends and loved ones and hugs. Life is being there.

So I’ll invite my mind to join my body in the present. To count my blessings. To write lists and descriptions of qualities, experiences, lessons. If I can strive for a half hour of daily exercise or 10,000 steps each day, surely I can pay close attention to at least a couple of things during the same time period, as well as to the people dear to me. I truly live only when I pay attention. Life is so very brief. Be present. Celebrate.

 

 

 

 

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Pro Life

Pro-life?

You bet!!

Who wouldn’t be pro-life, except the Grim Reaper, maybe?

In spite of our ice-gripped winter, leaf buds unfolded this spring, proving the viability of most of the still-standing trees and shrubs. Some even pushed vertical shoots along trunks toppled horizontal in the storm. Spring’s pale-green fluffs of Douglas-fir baby growth turned to its middle-green grown-up hue in May and June; dogwood bracts and dog-toothed violet petals decayed on the ground as their seed capsules swelled, promising fruits of new life; wild iris splashed purple, blue and violet swathes along the roadside and Oceanspray dangled thin tassels that became ivory-colored plumes, now the burnt-golden tones of old lace.

In garden, woods and meadow, life abounds.

Outside my window, life could hardly be livelier. Four- and five-inch birds, variously with golden capes, scarlet hoods, or gold bellies (finches: American Gold, House and Lesser Gold); flamboyant Evening Grosbeaks and Black-headed Grosbeaks; chickadees, juncos and towhees; all vie for spots on the feeders. They hover and flutter, munch, challenge; retreat to the near-by Ceanothus; stand in line on the trellis, on the porch rail. Scrambling around on the ground more birds–towhee, finch, sparrow, mourning dove–bump shoulders with at least three chipmunks, who gather seeds and disappear into or emerge out of a conveniently-located hole in the ground, each species ignoring the other, all seemingly jockeying for Master-Clean-up certificates.

Surrounded by all this, how could I not be pro-life?

Admittedly, when that expression appears in the media, the focus changes. There, “pro-life” often looks narrowly on the developing cells that will become a fetus. I can think of little more exciting than welcoming a new baby (or grand or great grand baby) into the world. A wanted, loved, child who will be cherished and cared for. But is it really pro-life to bring an infant into a place where there is no food, no food stamps, no health care, no education, no welcome, no love, no care? She might as well be born directly into one of those for-profit prisons.

But I am unabashedly pro-life, pro-love, pro-health and education, pro-laughter and singing and dancing, pro-exploring and climbing trees, pro-empathy and interdependency and a search for cause and effect. I am pro-the life of the natural world—the womb that birthed, nurtures and sustains us. And I am pro-the right to life’s needs: clean water, healthy food, breathable air, a livable climate for humans of all economic levels, races or creeds as for all species.

I am in awe of nature’s cycles and relationships. In nature there is no away—no waste. What masterful engineering! Life continues for a discrete period: a day for a mayfly; more than two-hundred years for a giant tortoise or a bowhead whale; 1500 years for an Antarctic sponge; more than 5000 years for a bristlecone pine. Then the organism dies and is decomposed, its component parts becoming life in other forms. I am fervently pro-life, pro-micro-organisms, pro-decomposition and renewal, pro-respecting and emulating the cycles of the natural world.

But I’m a dedicated equal-opportunity pro-lifer. Life in all of its aspects, through its entire cycle, for all species, for all ecosystems, for the entire biosphere.

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Author Interview: Evelyn Searle Hess

From Gillion Dumas’ Rose City Reader: Saturday, September 12, 2015

After living for 15 years in a tent and trailer in the foothills of southern Oregon’s Coast Range, Evelyn Searle Hess and her husband built a real house on their 20 acres. But they wanted their “better nest” to be off-grid, sustainable, and reflect the personal and community values they had developed during their years of camping life.

Her new book, Building a Better Nest: Living Lightly at Home and in the World, is the story of how they built their house and accomplished their dreams.

Evelyn recently took some time to answer questions for Rose City Reader:

How did you come to write Building a Better Nest?

My earlier book, To the Woods, was the story of our lives during fifteen years of camping. Though of course not without challenges, those years were rewarding in numerous way

s: in new connection to the natural world, in growing self-knowledge, in improved interpersonal relations and, perhaps most importantly, in the kindling of gratitude for gifts of nature such as clean drinking water, that I had formerly taken for granted. When readers seemed to consider simple living a deprivation, I wanted them to know that, rather than a hardship, I found it to be an awakening and a joy. A wish to convey that message was my original impetus for writing Building a Better Nest.

But as I began to tell the story, it grew and branched and meandered like a river. A river and its watershed, because we don’t nest solely between walls. The ecosystem, the community and the planet all contribute, as we and our actions and attitudes also affect them. So that became the driver for the book. What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I be a responsible and effective organism within this tortured and wondrous biosphere? What models do I have in history and in my ancestry? What societal, economic and political roadblocks stymie cooperative sustainable living in each layer of nest? And finally, as climate and other environmental and social issues become increasingly dire, how can we not only lessen the impact, but also learn to live in the most comfortable and satisfying manner in a changing world? Building a Better Nest evolved chasing those questions.

What is your work background? How did it lead you to writing your book?

I have worked a variety of jobs, but primarily within the world of plants. For twenty years my husband and I owned a plant nursery and I designed gardens and often installed and maintained them. I managed commercial greenhouses, and for ten years ran the teaching and research greenhouses at the University of Oregon, where I also taught plant propagation. Watching plants grow, seeing their response to their environment and understanding their natural cycles and interactions with other organisms, all were important fodder for exploring wider connections in the natural world and our place in it.

Building a Better Nest is as much your memoirs as it is about building a sustainable, off-grid house in the woods – did you have any qualms about sharing so much?

I got through my qualms during the writing of To the Woods. That required a big psychological shift. Once I acknowledged that telling the story required an honest look within, the processing helped me accept my own flawed self. After making that leap, I didn’t mind sharing

Your book is beautiful, philosophical, and somewhat practical, but not technical. Who is your audience?

The audience is anyone who sees depleted resources, endangered species, economic disparities and the frightening potential effects of climate change; recognizes that society must change course, and that there’s no superhero to do it for us. Rather than being a manual (I’m no expert!) I hope Building a Better Nest will inspire discussion that may guide readers to find their own paths to building their personal and cooperative best nests.

Can you recommend any other books about personal home construction or living off the grid? Are any of them personal account like yours?

Charles Goodrich’s Practice of Home and William Sullivan’s Cabin Fever. I wouldn’t say they were either like mine or like each other’s, but both share personal stories within the framework of house-building, and both are definitely well worth reading.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

There were many surprises: that borax is anathema to ants; that a gopher snake with a body diameter of more than an inch could thoroughly enmesh itself in the three-quarter-inch grid of bird netting; that people were already arguing the necessity of sacrificing the environment to benefit the economy in the nineteenth century; that the brain is elastic and can continue to form new synapses and learn new emotional responses well into old age. But most surprising to me was my personal change through the research, observation and analysis, followed by the synthesis of writing.

Can you give us an example or two of advice you wished you had before you started to build your own house?

I’m afraid that likely advice would have been along the lines of, “You’re too old.” Or “You don’t have enough money.” Or “You’re not clever, organized or hard-working enough.” And though those statements may be true, I’m grateful we didn’t hear them. Sometimes the only way forward is on unfounded hope. But I do wish that I had picked up carpentry skills at some earlier point of life.

What were you least prepared for when you moved to the Oregon Coast Range, before you built your house?

In a practical vein, the necessity of driving more than we would prefer. When we lived in town, we mostly biked and walked. In a deeper—perhaps spiritual—vein, I was completely unprepared to face my duplicitous (or at least divided) attitude. On one hand, I considered myself a self-confident person happily turning her back on convention, on the other hand, I had to acknowledge that I had confided in almost no one about my new life. Intellectually dedicated, I apparently harbored a sub-conscious germ of society’s condemnation of the appearance of poverty. I desperately feared—and rejected the idea of—pity.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now? 

I tend toward non-fiction, but my taste is eclectic. I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’sThe Lacuna, preceded by two novels by local friends, Deb Mohr’s Great Day in the Morning and Chris Scofield’s The Shark Curtain. I am currently reading The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal.

What is the best thing about being a writer? 

Exploring the questions constantly running in my head.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

Tell the truth—the deep truth, which sometime requires some probing. Be specific, but don’t use the first description that pops into your head.

What’s next? What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of long essays concerning environmental issues addressed cooperatively by diverse, sometimes even historically combative groups. Exploring how people find common ground has been exciting. I’m also cautiously exploring the art of the short story.

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Happy New Year?

“Do you think we’ll have an apocalypse?” my seventeen-year-old granddaughter asked.

“The way we’re going, we just may.” was my grim response.

That reply haunted me for weeks, as the facts that informed it have for much longer. I kept wondering if I could soften it, while still being honest.

In November, David and I visited a portion of the Summer 2013 Douglas Fire Complex, nearly 50,000 acres that burned for over a month near the southern Oregon towns of Glendale and Riddle. It was a shocking scene–desolation, as far as the eye could see. The soil, tree trunks, shrub and tree branches, all were blackened: It was a scorched and surreal forest. Hades, rendered in black and gray. But before I gave in to despair, tufts of green caught my eye. New bracken fern waved triumphant fronds above the charred earth. Then I examined an emerald sprout at the base of a twisted and carbonized clump to discover a cluster of madrone leaves emerging tight against the burned trunk. Looking carefully now, we spied more and more verdant patches: manzanita, huckleberry, buckbrush, Oregon grape, close to nearly every ebony cluster. Amazingly, this superficially hellish landscape was capable of conceiving life from below the ground.

As my spirits revived along with the forest, I remembered the thrill of seeing life regenerate on Mt St. Helens after her 1980 eruption. And I just read about an ocean cove where a diverse and healthy coral reef thrives in water far more acidic than thought possible for coral life, holding species that perhaps will populate the reefs of the future, as excessive CO2 continues to raise the pH of the sea. We mustn’t underestimate Mother Nature. She can bounce back from disasters, adapt to change and even transform to new systems when necessary. Short of the sun burning out, or Earth’s being hit by a mega-mile-wide asteroid, the biosphere will find a way to carry on, whatever we throw at it. Various species however, including Homo sapiens, might not be so fortunate, as we continue to consume, pollute, and disrupt the systems and resources we require for life.

It is clear that if we wish to maintain the relationship to the natural world that we have come to expect, society must have a major shift in attitude and behavior. We need to acknowledge that the biosphere is a finite system and to consider how our acquisition of wealth or conveniences might affect other inhabitants of the planet. Yet, throughout our lives we have heard, “You can’t change human nature. We are programmed to look out for number one.”

Greed, fear and suspicion served our ancient ancestors well as they watched for marauding tribes or hungry tigers. Getting to the goodies first, gathering the most, and not allowing anyone near, helped early hominids survive long enough to procreate. Had they been more mellow, they probably would have been eaten, and we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. But today the world population is over seven billion and if that successful caveman stores up too many goodies, there won’t be enough to go around.

Currently, 780 million people—a number equal to two and a half times the population of the United States—lack access to clean water. In the United States, a country of plenty comparatively speaking, 60 percent of the lakes are too toxic for drinking or swimming because of runoff from industrial farmlands, intensive livestock operations, and of industrial weed killers. The water in over a third of our rivers and streams is too dangerous for fishing or drinking. Thinking primarily of “number one” may have worked in pre-industrial times, but in the twenty-first century, it’s time to re-evaluate. Empathy, compassion and community will serve us better today.

Until fairly recently, habits, thought patterns, and even the brain itself were considered to be relatively static. It was generally believed that you had all of the brain cells you would ever have by your young adulthood when, cell by cell, they began dying. But it turns out that, like our environment, human brains also are resilient, are able to adapt, and even to transform. Not in ways that can do without clean air and water, but in ways that can change our attitudes, responses, and behavior. Scientists have discovered remarkable plasticity in the human brain. Not only can we develop new neural pathways throughout life, but the brain configuration actually changes as we develop new ways of thinking. This new understanding of neuroplasticity is a godsend for people suffering brain trauma or illness, but also has exciting application for developing constructive relationships. If we understood the importance of our common goals, we could learn to work together. And what is more important to work on cooperatively than saving our life-support systems?

But relating, marriage and family therapist Linda Graham says, is the most complex thing that humans do. And, observing activities of governments, as well as many businesses, corporations, community groups, even marriages, we see relating is often not done well. So where is the hope that our species can cooperate for the good of our planet and of each other? For me, it lies in the multitudes of caring people that I know and read about, and in the awareness that change is indeed possible. New learning and experiences can re-wire the brain. It is possible to control the fear that can motivate aggressive, grasping, controlling behavior. Empathy actually increases the size and function of the pre-frontal cortex, which can then grow neurons that connect to the limbic system (the lizard brain, or fear-fight-flight system) to remove the fear response and replace it with a feeling of well-being. So the more secure we are, the more compassion we can feel, and the more empathy we practice, the more we are capable of. We feel more secure as our support groups, along with our pre-frontal cortex, grow, continuing the cycle.

Pepperdine psychology professor Louis Cozolino predicts “survival of the nurtured.” New attitudes and choices, reinforced through consistent practice with attention and passion, can change even a brain that has been injured, traumatized, or developed in a hostile environment. Though once responding with fear or anger, if we care enough, we can learn to feel compassion and work for the common good. We are capable of doing great things.

So I don’t need merely to soften my grim answer to my granddaughter, I need to believe in both the resilience of natural systems and in the possibilities for learning and change in the human brain. With compassion for other people and other species, and with the understanding that this planet sustains us all; if we are brave enough to do the work we are capable of doing, we can turn things around. Inspired by our grandchildren and all the children of the future, may we understand the effects of our actions, join together, and learn to live in a way so that the generations to follow us may enjoy lives that we would want for ourselves.

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Sunsets

The last glow of sun splashes puddles of orange and purple sky that shimmer through tree trunks at my in-laws’ place on Hood Canal. The canal’s milky sheen shifts to shades of pink, and beyond the water, jagged blue of the Olympic Mountains edge the scene. As the colors begin to fade, clouds part, exposing the highest peaks just in time for their snowfields to be brushed with the palest pink. I drink in the color, feeling fuller and fuller. And then it is gone.

There is a sadness in the fading lights of a sunset. This solstice day has been as lovely as the first day of summer by rights ought to be, but now, as our part of the world turns its back on the sun, it leaves us with only its memory.

My husband David and I are here on the canal to empty my in-laws’ house-where neither of David’s parents have lived for years-to help get the house ready to sell. We look and sort, admire and assign: the bed with the turned spindles goes to Celina, the French Provincial dresser to Erika, the old hand bell that used to sit by the fireplace, to Jeff. We are emptying the house we helped build one summer when Erika was a toddler and Jeff still in a playpen, one summer some fifty-plus years ago. I think of that summer, and summers after: our children running down the driveway hill to surprise their grandparents before our old Datsun or VW Beetle announced our arrival; all of us picking our way down the steep precarious bank to the beach to gather oysters for breakfast; later, the thrill of descending in the neighbor’s outdoor elevator, to deposit us farther up the same beach. As I look out the window, I remember Grammy’s little poodle Tinker Bell, sitting on a daybed bought just for her, looking out this same window toward the water like those wives who pace their widow’s walks, waiting for their fisher-husbands to come home. In this house and view lie a half-century of memories.

But it is not only memories that fill the house, and of the more solid things, we must decide what to bring home and what to do with the rest. I have my eye on a chest, hand hewn by David’s great grandfather, William, to carry supplies on the long wagon trip from Kentucky to Oregon. In September of 1867, their wagon rumbling over mountain rocks and racing the early snows, William’s wife Priscilla gave birth to a baby boy who they named Samuel Barlow in honor of his birth on Barlow Pass, a gap on the south slope of Mt Hood. This Samuel Barlow eventually fathered Ray, the father of my husband.

I admire a grand piano, bought for the brother of my mother-in-law’s father. The brother was a storybook boy, not only talented but good, and beloved by all. And like many such storybook boys, he died young, devastating his family and friends. The piano needs some repair, but its tone is magnificent. I look at it longingly: I’d love to have a piano. But I’d have to build an addition on the house to have this one.

Our grandson-in-law, Geoffrey, spots a 30-inch-diameter round saw blade hanging on the garage wall. David explains that it was the blade of a towable community wood saw, its body made out of old car parts. The men turned a crank to start its four-cylinder Star engine. David remembers that the radiator leaked, and you had to keep a hose in the top of it, running at a trickle. We go on looking, sorting, remembering.

 

Joining us here is our old granddog, Homer. When Homer first came to our son’s house, seventeen or more years ago, he was a dark-eyed bundle of wrinkles, the abandoned pup bred of Shar-pei and Anatolian Shepherd parents. He has been with us on and off through his long life, but now, that life is nearing its end. The sweet old boy spends most of the time on his bed, his staccato bark informing us when he needs help getting up for fluid exchange—to drink or to pee—or when either of us strays too far from the flock for this shepherd’s comfort. His gait is stiff and wobbly, his rear end sometimes collapsing, and when he falls down, he often can’t get back up. But his spirit remains strong. If he can manage it, he’ll be right behind us as we go about our work. Sometimes, disdaining help, he even succeeds getting his failing frame up and down the low stairs, and I can almost hear a two-year-old’s “do it myself!” One night, body and spirit colluded to take him on an adventure that scared the bejabbers out of us when we couldn’t find him, with David eventually picking him up at the local Humane Society. But mostly he sleeps, eating little besides a bit of soup, unless someone scares up some chicken fat. It’s clear his life is fading, but it’s been a good life and one that has given us great pleasure.

 

Kathryn, my mother-in-law, would have still been fifty that summer when David and I and our little ones came to help on the house, her August birthday a month or more away. David’s dad would have recently become fifty-three. He built the house with the care and precision expected of his engineer’s nature, and boasted a full and active shop and a garden with broccoli as big as your head. But little more than a decade later, he would be gone, felled by a heart attack as he was getting the mail, with only Tinker Bell to deliver the message back home.

Now it is early July of 2013, and in a little over a month David’s mother will be 103. She left the house for an apartment at a senior center less than twenty years ago, but stayed active physically and mentally. After a couple of recent frightening falls, she consented to using a walker, though initially she fought the idea, proud of her independence. Her appetite is small now. Dinner consists mostly of a cup of soup, though she does still enjoy her desserts. Both her sight and her hearing are poor, but her memory remains sharp. Over a century of living makes for volumes of wonderful stories, and she tells them with gusto and with love.

As I sort through things in the house, I look for those stories. Here is Kathryn’s hope chest; here are pictures of the tent house where they spent the first year of their marriage, when Ray was working on Crater Lake’s Rim Road. Here is a picture of Kathryn’s great Aunt Clara, a story by herself.  In 1900 Clara Barck (later Clara Barck Welles) founded Chicago’s Kalo Silversmith Shop, a business lasting seventy years. The Kalo Shop was a leader in the Arts and Crafts Movement and probably the most important silver company producing handcrafted work in the Midwest. As impressive to me as the quality of the work and the success of her business, was her advocacy for women’s participation in the arts. She began the business with six other women, all design graduates of the Chicago Art Institute, and continued to support women artists throughout Kalo Shop’s long life, this in a time when few women were active independently, but rather were defined only by the men in their lives.

Then, taking my mind away from the impressive New Women of the early 1900s, I come upon David’s grandfather’s mustache cup, a pretty white china cup decorated with purple iris and white pansies, and embellished inside with horizontal china batwings, a guard to protect his mustache from the sloshing liquids.

I want to hang on a little longer to the colors of the sunset, to Granddad Hess and Boppa’s Aunt Clara and Tinker Bell, to learn these stories and make the house’s memories my own. Among these things are people I have known and loved, and people I have never known. And in our little troupe of workers are some of those I love today, both human and canine. Together we work, enjoying the moment, looking back on yesterday. Looking back on years lived, lives touched and setting suns.

It has been a lovely day.

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Contemplating Water, Contemplating Change

Our shuttle bus rumbled through the dark up Interstate 17. The hundred-plus miles north from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona, is a prototypical ecocline–a gradient of ecosystems—first, saguaro cactus and teddy-bear cholla, then red-rock cliff country, and finally into Ponderosa pine forest. Though I couldn’t see out into the night, I knew what was there both from memory and from the feel in the air, so different from just a few hours earlier, in Eugene, Oregon.

I left Eugene in mid-April, before our crazy premature summer had arrived. It had been uncommonly dry all winter, but that day was a typical Pacific Northwest rainy-sunny-windy smorgasbord of a day. I had watched hail gathering in our house gutters before we left. Then winds blew the pile of gray clouds, exposing a sky of robin’s-egg blue. On the way to the airport I donned dark glasses against the brilliance of chartreuse big-leaf maple flowers; willows, maple and ash trees in spring green foliage; and emerald meadows, all glowing in the sun. Grass was already nearly knee-high; the entire valley, verdant and lush. Before we reached the airport, swishing windshield wipers whispered the return of the rain.

The flight to Portland was in a little prop plane, with a motor that sounded like a sewing machine. We flew among solid-looking flat-bottomed clouds—a flying fish among a school of flying whales. Four hours later, in a much larger plane, I descended toward Phoenix at sunset. The cloudless deep-blue bowl of sky, growing deeper still, was banded by a long, curved, vibrant sash beginning with the faintest touch of green blending into yellow, the yellow growing more fiery to orange and then an intense scarlet at the horizon. Below was a carpet of soft black. Dropping near the city, I was delighted to see lidded city lights illuminating the streets and sidewalks with minimal trespass into the night sky.

Then at midnight, I stepped out of the bus into Flagstaff’s twenty-degree star-studded night with the feeling that I’d emerged instead from a dehydrator, my nasal passages, lips and skin sucked dry. But the air was clean, cold, and lovely to breathe.

Erika and Bob, our daughter and son-in-law, and our granddaughters, Tasha and Camila, live next to national forestland. When the girls are in school and Erika and Bob are off to their University jobs, I snuff up some saline nasal spray, slather on moisturizing lotion, grab brimmed hat, sunglasses, and water bottle, call the dogs and head out. In my snobby northwestern way I once expected a forest to be dark with trees, and mountains to be topped with snow year around. But I’ve long since learned to appreciate the spare beauty that is a northern Arizona national forest, and though I’m loathe to call it a mountain, I love to explore the immense boulders that make up Mt. Elden, a dacitic lava dome, just a few hundred meters from the back door.

To my eyes, trained in shades of green, the ground initially looks bare. But though it is tan, dusty and rocky, green shoots emerge from centers of dry grass clumps and scatterings of ground-hugging herbaceous plants promise flowers in another month or two. Ancient junipers, their alligator bark interrupted by branches of smooth, silvered dead wood, testify to the trees’ adaptability through long, hard lives.

Old Juniper

Nearby, colonies of twisted silver stems look lifeless. But looking closely, I see swelling buds that will be oak leaves, or sprouts of small, leathery, dark green leaves of mountain mahogany, or on yet another group of silver stems, smatterings of green along with remnants of the flowers of a cliff-rose. A few ponderosa pines tower above it all along with as many barkless snags. Young conifers sprout between boulders where enough dust and debris has seeped to give a seed a nursery bed.

Finding a Home

I marvel at the toughness of all of these survivors—the tenacity, the adaptability these plants must have to live long and well in their dry world. I love it here: Love to gaze at the boulders, imagining their formation as the slow-moving, silica-rich magma accumulated; love to sit on a dead log and watch the squirrels, listen to a woodpecker, admire a two thousand-year-old juniper. But as I snort a bit more saline solution and take a swig from my water bottle, I wonder how long I could survive.

Channels show where water occasionally cuts through the soil, mostly snowmelt from the boulder buttes, but now those channels are dusty dry.  Plants here conserve water of necessity. The healthiest of them are widely spaced, not infringing on their neighbor’s water rights. Few and scattered plants gave me my early impression of “barren.” But in fact there is much life here. They just know how to make it work.

Yet people flock to this dry climate, mostly to the Phoenix area, where it is on average thirty degrees warmer than Flagstaff, and much drier. How will they, who, unlike the plants, do not favor wide spacing, compete for water?

Eugene’s average temperatures are between Flagstaff’s and Phoenix, though closer to Flag’s. Our average rainfall, at over four feet, is more than double Flagstaff’s, which is in turn about three times Phoenix’s seven-plus inches. Phoenix has, on average, 167 days above ninety degrees. And people like that?!

By the time I returned to Eugene, it seemed to have forgotten how to rain. We are now fifteen inches behind the average precipitation for the year to date. Skies are sunny and blue almost daily. Will people begin migrating to our beautiful climate? Will they live close together and fight over water? Will the grass turn brown and the trees begin to die?

Given my choice, I’d rather visit Flagstaff, and welcome the rain in Eugene.

 

 

 

 

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In Appreciation

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. feeling trapped, half-breathless and nearly crushed by the weight of anxiety. The day before, in a far different mood, I had come upon rosy bells hanging in a dense veil on a flowering currant that I hadn’t known was on our property, and later, gazed in awe at glittering points spangling the night’s slate sky, with silhouetted black spires of firs and a still-leafless Oregon white oak in the foreground. But at that three o’clock hour of torment, I could conjure no such felicitous visions. Rather, what flashed before my eyes were scenes of despair: bleached and dying coral reefs, ancient forests leveled; fish, salamanders and insects lying dead and stinking beside murky fetid waters; mountain tops blasted off, mined, heavy trucks rumbling where once hikers trod and birds sang. I imagined animals crying out, the last of their species, or wailing ghosts of those already gone.

I wanted to blot it out. Shake it off. Truly wake from this non-sleeping nightmare. But how? What to do? I vote, sign petitions, write letters. Still, I feel helpless. Desperate. How can we fight the fabulously wealthy corporations and individuals who buy legislation that allows them to rape the Earth for their own profit?

A few hours later, still feeling swollen-head groggy, I stumbled to the computer and, breaking through my black fog, there was an answer!

“VICTORY!” the message said. “McKenzie River Protected. We won!”

This was a message from WELC, the Western Environmental Law Center. WELC, representing Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands, had succeeded in stopping the Goose timber sale, 2100 acres of forestland near the community of McKenzie Bridge, thereby protecting domestic water supplies pumped from the McKenzie’s clear waters and preserving sensitive wildlife habitat and a potential wilderness area.

So that is exactly how we can fight the vested interests, and their money and power. We do it with our passion, with our knowledge of what is in the common good, and with the help of dedicated, informed professionals.

This is my open thank-you letter to WELC. (Here I excerpt liberally from their website at www.westernlaw.org/) WELC combines legal skills with conservation biology and environmental science to address major environmental issues in the West. A public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for its services, but rather relies on charitable gifts from individuals, families and foundations. WELC uses the power of law to protect wild places for all of us and for our progeny, giving a voice to all of the West’s creatures.  WELC fights dirty energy and promotes clean energy; protects endangered wildlife such as salmon, Sierra amphibians, pronghorn, gray wolf, lynx, and spotted owl; preserves wilderness and wildlife corridors.

WELC is the reason that I should not despair in those dark hours of the morning. Working closely with communities and relevant stakeholders, they are powerful and effective in Court, giving all of the West–humans, non-humans and the land, air and water that sustains us all–a voice. They are proof positive (to once again borrow  from their website) that a small group of committed individuals can change the world.

Thank you WELC. Thank you for your knowledge, your hard work, your dedication, your passion. Thank you for giving me a reason to be able to sleep more comfortably, perhaps even past 3:00 a.m., and to dream more hopeful dreams. You allow me once again to visualize flowering-currant blossoms and nights of stars with a reason to believe that the birds, bugs and furry creatures, along with my great  grandchildren, may be able to enjoy them as well.

 

 

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The Future

The entire world and its systems—social, economic, political, technological, ecological—are in the midst of unprecedented change that our “ice-age minds” struggle to grasp, says Al Gore. Medical, technological and social changes have the potential for positive outcomes; but inequality, hunger, war and climate change threaten any changes for the good. What is essential, Gore says in his new book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, is to connect the dots. Recognize the drivers of change in diverse systems, and steer them to benefit the Earth and all of her children.

Gore maintains that the United States would be the logical leader to help the world respond creatively, but he worries that our political system is not up to the challenge. “American democracy has been hacked,” he says. And he’s not talking about Chinese cyber attacks: Rather, the “hacking” comes from within. If we had a functioning democracy, the leaders would be able to focus on doing the right thing, or the people could insist on it. But “the U.S. Congress is not capable of passing laws without permission from corporate lobbies and other special interests.”

The exponential rise in corporate power and influence began in the early 1970s when Lewis Powell, then an attorney for the tobacco industries, came up with the odd idea that money was speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Concerned that government had the ability to restrict corporations, he set out a program to consolidate corporate power. He organized several conservative think tanks, stressed the importance of having a sympathetic and activist judiciary, and then was himself appointed to the Supreme Court by President Nixon. His plan, well carried out by business and political groups and financed by vested interests, culminated in 2010’s Citizen United, granting corporations the right to make unlimited political contributions.

It amazes me that people can be so passionate about their right to personal armories, granted to citizens by the Second Amendment so we might resist the tyranny of government, yet seem unconcerned about tyrannical corporations. If money-dominated media can brainwash citizens, if legislators and votes are for sale, where is democracy?  Where is government of, by, and for the people?

The American Revolution freed the colonists not only from England’s rule, but also from the control of her corporations. Our founders held a healthy distrust of any concentrated center of power. Thomas Jefferson was wary of the “aristocracy of moneyed corporations,” of banks, and all those moved by “the selfish spirit of commerce (that) knows no country and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.” But one hundred years or so into our nation’s history, corporations had begun to break loose from the founders’ tight controls.

Now in the driver’s seat, powerful corporations and special interests are steering the world’s changes and resources toward their own gain, the biosphere be damned. If America is to lead a global response that will harness the potential of technological and scientific innovations and at the same time address social inequities and the assault on earth’s systems, the people must reclaim their power. Either we must quickly change our laws, or, with organization and passion, use social media to accomplish en masse what our legislature seems incapable of accomplishing.

While Gore notes a worldwide radical disruption of the relationship between humans and ecosystems, he sees a common connection in all of the areas of extreme  change. To me, this would indicate that they could be fixable with insightful, well-informed, unselfish, global cooperation. All of the great movements—women’s voting rights, civil rights, gay rights in-the-making—have come about by groundswells from the people. We must wait no longer to put together the next great movement: Global Rights. Saving ecosystems, air, water, soil, species–including our own. Giving the earth, and us, a decent future.

 

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Tending Fire

I push and prod the black sticks, turn them over, glowing side up, tip one, letting more air in, bank red coals close under and against black edges. This is not a rational exercise: No guru taught the fine art of fire maintenance. Rather, I feel guided by some ancient inner knowing. When I question the logic of a move—some rearrangement of the smoldering wood—a flame pale as grain leaps as if to mock my doubt. Then another from behind the log; another midway along its length.

What is this urge, this fascination, this pleasure? As lovely—and important—as it is to be warm, this speaks to something beyond physical comforts–something deeper. My mind sails back in time. What must it have been like those million or more years ago when fire was first recognized as gift, then eventually brought home? I can picture a band of early hominids coming upon a recently burned-out forest. Here were roasted roots, small baked rodents and nestlings. Hesitant hands reach out. Mmmmm. It smells good. A cautious bite, then ravenous creatures feast, and remember. They scratch around for what else they can find. A bright red ember under a burned log radiates warmth, but it burns investigating fingers.

With the other beings, two-legged, four-legged and winged, this band flees when the next fire rages, but later they return to the still-smoking edges. Searching, scratching, examining, feasting, fingers and feet and body hair singed, smarting and smelling. One day a woman cups glowing coals in layers of green leaves and runs furtively back to her cave. She lays them in a nest of rocks, and feeds the precious things dried leaves and twigs. She and her family can now see well into the night. They keep warm and dry and safe from roaming predators. They add to their menus new foods they had never before considered. Their extended family and neighbors join them around the fire in the evenings. And so do I.

Then back to my shiny blue cast-iron stove. I give one last look, one poke and prod to the hot and living, maybe magical, force within. I damp the fire down, and, sending waves of gratitude to that ancient grandmother, leave it for the night.

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Spring, Spring-a-Linga

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) on snow-downed oak branchScouting in the woods, we get a little rush seeing what looks like cultivation under second-growth Douglas firs. This is one of the first signs that days are getting longer: Squirrels scrabble in the soil for fragrant truffles that fruit close underground. And I breathe a soft “thank you” to licorice ferns, which grow gloriously before, during and beyond the winter, as well as to seasonally-changing but year-around companions, like this beautiful “Methuselah’s beard,” Usnea longissima, festooned on young maple trees.

Down by the pond, a long willow branch grows horizontally, bent low near the water’s surface by the heavy snow that fell last March. Here it invites local bobcats to perch and claw its bark. Side-shoots sprouting upright from the scratching bar flaunt fuzzy silver buds.

Pussy willows ushering in SpringOn the edges of the woods, osoberry flower stems unfurl farther each day and soon will hang down in clusters of creamy bells. Scattered through the woods, catkins of native filberts stretch, a good month behind their European cousins, but no less welcome.

As their pollen prepares to fly, look for tiny ruby-red female flowers, yearning to receive those fertile goodies. I spotted my first of the season February 24. Tantalizing leaf buds swell on flowering currants. In just a few weeks, dangling vermillion flowers will seduce returning Rufous Hummingbirds to their nectaries.

 

Filbert catkins awaiting the ladiesThe groundhog notwithstanding, everywhere I look, signs of Spring make my heart sing, sing-a ling-a. If you feel bored or blue, or weary of days short, dark or wet, Dr. Evelyn’s prescription is to head outside with pen, paintbrush or camera and celebrate the arrival of swelling, growing, twitching, flowing omnipresent life.

 

 

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