Category Archives: Cosmology

Wild abandon: the mystery and glory of plant diversity

Plant diversity: Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (eschscholzia californica) on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (eschscholzia californica)

If I stand on the rocky ledge that is Ring Mountain on a spring day, within sight of San Francisco and bustling, built-up Marin County, I will be surrounded by a staggering variety of life. Wildflowers will be blooming: three different mariposa lilies, orange poppies, pink checkerbloom, blue dicks, yellow and white tidy-tips, pink and white buckwheat, two different wild onions, milkmaids, iris in all shades of purple and white. They will be growing among a mix of grasses, some three inches high, others up to two feet, with narrower and broader leaves, and tight or airy inflorescences. Above their heads, hawks and vultures will be wheeling. Sparrows, thrushes and wrens will be nesting in shrubs edging stands of wind-sculpted live oak. A coyote might emerge from among the rock outcroppings, stop at the sight of me, and choose another direction. A snake will make a quick, sinuous getaway at a movement of my feet.

Plant diversity: Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

Butterflies of varied hues will float by. Different species of bees will be busy with the wildflowers. The dirt at my feet will be filled with billions of microbes, yeast, and fungi. When I aim my camera lens at a flower for a close up, I might find it full of tiny beetles I couldn’t see without magnification. If I raise my eyes to neighboring Mount Tamalpais, I’ll know of lives there that aren’t here: orchids, trillium, houndstongue, varieties of ferns cascading down hillsides. Bobcats are roaming there, and the tapping of woodpeckers softly echoes through the forest. Just a few miles north, the redwoods will start. Three hours east alpine plants and bears are coming to life under the snow in the Sierra Nevadas. Another hour and I’d be among the desert plants of Nevada. Just west, beyond Mt. Tam, I’ll float among whales, dolphins, seals, and the countless fish and plants that make up the life of the Pacific Ocean.

That’s just a tiny sample of what’s living in one tiny area of the world. And an area that is also full of a wide spectrum of humans, along with our buildings, cars and roads. It’s not remotely wild here. And yet the sheer exuberance that has characterized evolution is on full display. It’s estimated that there are between 500 and 600,000 plant species on the earth. We’ve identified about 250,000 of them. More are evolving all the time. A 2011 study postulated that there are 87 million species on the planet, but the fungus crowd immediately disagreed with the study’s parameters, saying that fungus alone could eventually account for 5 million species. 

Plant diversity: Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa) on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa)

In other words, we don’t know. It’s a noble effort to track all of this, and crucial for species preservation in the midst of a frightening rate of extinction. But lists don’t tell us why we have all this exuberant abundance of forms, on an earth that itself offers a wide array of habitats: mountains, ponds, forests, rivers, deserts, savannah, estuaries, rolling hill country, prairie, arctic tundra, valleys, mud flats, rain forest, oceans, canyons. Evolution clearly chose variety as a driving force. There is innate wisdom in diversity; we’re living proof of its benefits. The mammalian world, including us, exists today because tiny mammals survived the meteor impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Plant diversity: Floral diversity: Douglas iris (Iris douglasiuna) on the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata)

Genetic diversity within a species is also a strength, which is why sexual reproduction dominates the planet. Having genes from each parent keeps subtly mixing the gene pool, which makes it more likely that plants will gain resilience so they can prosper in their particular habitats. Combining new genes, generation after generation, allows for mutations that give rise to different colors, shapes and adaptations, leading to a wider variety of species.

But still, I puzzle about this. Why the unbelievable profusion of forms? Why so many sizes, shapes and colors, so many wondrous and sometimes odd variations? I accept the idea that the wildflowers surrounding me on Ring Mountain evolved to compete with each other for resources and pollinators, but that just moves the question laterally. Why are the pollinators so diverse, and why are their tastes — in nectar, color, pollen, approach — so varied? 

Plant diversity: Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) taken in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

Though I’m delighted with the way things worked out, I can imagine an evolution that included less diversity. There are many more yellow flowers than purple, pink or red, implying that yellow has an evolutionary advantage. Why didn’t nature stick to yellow? Pollinators could have evolved to suit an all-yellow-flower world. It’s almost as if the creative forces just couldn’t help themselves. Wide petals! Strappy petals! What’s the oddest shape we can think of? Let’s fill California with orange poppies! Let’s surprise everyone and give luminous, silky flowers to tough, prickly cactus! Let’s perfume the roses!

It’s easy to understand why people for millennia would think all this has been put here for our benefit and joy. But those luminous cactus flowers were there for bees and hummingbirds, for the propagation of more cacti, not for human delight. The ancestors of the wind-blown wildflowers on Ring Mountain, and the tiny, vivid spring orchids on Mount Tam were around for up to 100 million years before we cast our receptive eyes and processing brains on them and found them beautiful.

Plant diversity: Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Carl Sagan and Thomas Berry, among others, have postulated the appealing idea that the universe evolved humans to be able to contemplate itself through those eyes and brains. I love this idea, but I also find it hard to wrap my head around. What kind of a universe would this be?   Humans have long attributed consciousness to the cosmos, called by various names, all under the general category of gods. But our gods have always been a lot like us. The Hebrew bible says that humans were created in God’s image. But in reality, the often temperamental god depicted there shares a lot of traits with a warlord living in the Bronze Age, when the stories were first written.

I don’t attribute our brand of consciousness to the creative powers that brought us here with infinite slowness and incredibly elegant detail. But to say that we evolved so the universe can contemplate itself implies a mystery of intent that I struggle — happily — to fathom. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by a particular link between our mind and the universe. I find the idea that every rule governing the cosmos can be expressed — and predicted — by mathematical formulas both astonishing and hard to comprehend. But those who understand this language are filled with its beauty. It intrigues me that a cosmos bound by this intricate code eventually used it to evolve a brain capable of understanding it.

Plant diversity: Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

I love all of these questions, but when I’m standing on Ring Mountain — in the middle of a circle that includes ocean, mountain, desert, forest, meadow, rock, sky — I don’t think about math. I celebrate the gifts showering my senses — breeze, color, scent, birdsong. “The most beautiful and deepest experience one can have,” Albert Einstein said in My Credo, “is the sense of the mysterious.” How did I get here, one of millions of manifestations of the surrounding cosmos? Why did this wild abundance come into being?  How did we come to sense all these wonderful things? These delightful mysteries are part of the beauty and joy of this sunlit spring moment.

Plant diversity: Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) at Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia)

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts:

 

 

The intimate bond: humans and dirt

This small (2 light years across) section of a recent (8,00 years ago) supernova is called the Veil Nebula. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

This small (2 light years across) section of a recent (8,000 years ago) supernova is called the Veil Nebula. (Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Every subatomic particle in an apple pie appeared in the first second after the universe expanded into being 13.7 billion years ago. He could have said the same of mud pies, though it wouldn’t have sounded as delicious. But, before apples, and every bite of nourishment that we put in our mouths, the universe needed to invent dirt.

My last two posts, on deep time and on our challenging love of roses, got me thinking about dirt, the devastating loss of it due to current agricultural and extraction practices, and the vast history it has taken to create it. Those first, basic particles were the seeds of the entire universe. But dirt’s— and our — particular possibilities were planted when the great mother stars swung into action a billion years later. These are among my favorite characters in the history of the universe because they are literally our ancestors. Since Carl Sagan first said it, it has become wonderfully commonplace to say that we are made of stardust. Those unimaginably ancient stars are the ones who, in their eventual disintegration, provided the dust.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, Alaska

Water all over the earth grinds rock into ever smaller particles.

The ‘dust’ consists of elements that could only form over billions of years in those massive, seething balls of three-billion-degree fire, among them carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium. These and their fellow elements are the building blocks of all that we know. If you look down at your bare feet, standing on a patch of dirt, you are looking at two versions of the same things, an intuition acknowledged by many creation stories. In Genesis, God takes earth, adamah, and forms the first human. Through Adam he creates Eve, hawwah, the source of life.

Creating beings out of clay and breathing life into them was a story shared by traditions as diverse as the Maori and the Sumerians, who presaged the Genesis story by a thousand years. The Egyptian god Khnum formed the bodies of children from clay, on his potter’s wheel. After the goddess Heket breathed life into them, he placed them in their mothers’ wombs. The ancient Romans’ word for human, homo, came from their word for soil, humus.

These stories reveal a profound, intuitive truth. When our ancestral bacteria first moved out of the volcano-warmed oceans onto land, they began to digest rock, helping to form the mud that gave them the perfect chemical and hydrologic soup to continue to evolve into, ultimately, every living thing, including us. We share our substance with all aspects of life. What differentiates rock from worm from rose from human is the way these substances manifest themselves, determined by a wondrous variety of chemical and physical processes, and the magic of the carbon strands that form our DNA.

Even the tender tips of plant roots help break down rock by Betsey Crawford

The tender tips of plant roots help form dirt, as they find their way into rock, breaking it down, thus expanding their bed of nutrients.

We consider ourselves more advanced because we have evolved to stand up and walk erect, use our hands skillfullly, and ponder all of this. But having handy thumbs and enough prefrontal cortex to invent and manipulate a smartphone doesn’t mean we are not of this earth. Not only are we made of the same elements, but we survive by ingesting more of the same, eating the plants that grow in dirt, siphoning vital chemicals up their stems and into their leaves and fruits, recombining them into even more nutrients. 

We also survive because both dirt itself, along with the plants it grows, keep carbon dioxide and oxygen in the balance we evolved to suit. When we clear a forest, we not only lose the trees that are keeping that balance, but open the forest floor to erosion. We then lose the dirt that makes the whole system possible. This loss is extremely difficult to remedy, at least in our short time span. Dirt is, at bottom, tiny particles of rock. Decaying plants, fungi, lichen and billions of microbes eventually play crucial roles. But first you need enough rocks to break their tight bonds to create the matrix of particles for all that microbial life. 

Lichen covered stone path in Comb Ridge, Blandings, Utah by Betsey CrawfordIt takes a long, long time for rocks to break down. Those archaic bacteria started feeding on them 2.6 billion years ago, and, after all that time, dirt is still a very slight skin — much thinner, in proportion, than our skin — on the surface of the planet. The rock path above is invisible under a subtly colored layer of lichen, which is slowly breaking those molecular bonds. Rain and the splitting action of frost also help. But if I return to Utah hundreds of years from now, I will still be walking on that same rock.

Each photo in this essay illustrates one of the slow ways in which dirt is formed. The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado has been cutting the canyon below for 160 million years. Some of the eroded particles form the dirt that grows the trees; the rest were carried by the river, deposited over eons in valleys when the river slowed after the rush of spring melts. If enough roots establish themselves in that silt, the dirt will more likely survive subsequent spring floods, creating habitable valleys and deltas. Those are the places our ancestors settled when they turned to agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Dolores Dirt in the making: Dolores river canyon along Route 141, southwest Colorado by Betsey CrawfordDepending on where you live, it’s relatively easy to dig down to solid rock. It might be two feet in some places, 6 feet in others. As you dig, you’ll notice that under the topmost layer of fine particles mixed with plant matter and threaded with fungal mycelium strands, the rock particles get progressively bigger, until just above the solid rock are small boulders. Percolating water, acids from the soil above, changes in temperature — all these work on the rock substrate, breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. 

If this process happens on flat terrain, or gentle slopes, with green matter, worms and microbes available, the dirt has a chance to replenish. If the slope is steep, or there are no roots to hold the dirt in place, it washes away. In the last hundred years — in the name of building, mining, mono-agriculture, manufacturing, meat production — we’ve laid waste to millions upon millions of acres of green, breathing plants. In doing so, we have lost more than a third of our topsoil, leading to a worldwide crisis of desertification.

A fern-filled forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Forests are among the most prolific dirt producers. By Betsey Crawford

A fern-filled forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Forests, with their steady replenishment of decaying plant material, are the most prolific dirt producers on the planet.

We are not going to get the lost topsoil back in short order, but we can stop the devastation and, by replanting and better practices on a multitude of fronts, reclaim some of what has been lost. The technology is neither complicated nor hard to come by. It’s the first step that may be the hardest — to convince ourselves that dirt is even more precious than its compressed cousins, rubies and diamonds. Things are ‘dirt cheap,’ we say, but we are dead wrong. It took 13.7 billion years to get to the thin layer we had 100 years ago, and we risk everything by throwing it away. The only things as valuable as dirt are air and water.

A decaying tree trunk will one day be dirt, helped along by fungi, lichen, and an army of microbes by Betsey Crawford

A forest creating dirt: a decaying tree trunk — helped along by fungi, lichen, and an army of microbes — can take years, but is certainly faster than rock. 

It may be even more challenging to convince ourselves that we are throwing away our own being. From a historical — and especially agricultural — point of view, it’s easier to see that dirt and human culture are entwined. Loss of soil has been the downfall of civilizations. It’s not as easy to see that humans and dirt are facets of a whole that we separate at our peril. Yes, our form is more complex, more ‘brainy.’ But we would not have evolved those traits without the community and innate intelligence of dirt. It’s an integral part of our own bodies, grounding us on the breathing planet at our feet, which in turn links us to the deepest and oldest forces on earth, taking us farther and farther back, through the mother stars, all the way to the invention of the universe.

Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Glaciers grind, erode, and crush rock, and then leave the dirt-filled detritus behind when they withdraw. By Betsey Crawford

Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Glaciers grind, erode, and crush rock, and then leave the dirt-filled detritus behind when they withdraw.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts

Laudate si: wonder and care

The Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

The Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah

Laudate si — Praise be! — are the opening words of each of the verses in Saint Francis’s beautiful Canticle to the Sun, and is also the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical defining the Catholic Church’s doctrines on the care of the earth. A couple of weeks ago, I found out from a blogger friend that September 1 has been chosen as the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. Since I’m always ready to celebrate the earth, I thought I would read the revolutionary encyclical, which covers many topics, all relating to the care of ecosystems, and the belief that all livings things have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity.

Always reflecting Pope Francis’ deep concern for the plight of the poor, the lengthy letter ranges from the devastation of war and the insidious consequences of political corruption, to the dignity and necessity of meaningful work, to the need for orderly and inviting living conditions. He issues a call for new models of development, starting with the cooperative efforts of small villages and extending to complex global treaties involving all the countries of the world. He calls for a release of consumerism. He even takes the time to urge his readers to return to the small celebration of saying grace before meals, and talks about the importance of appreciating beauty, so that we will want to preserve it.

That, naturally, is where I come in. To join in a day meant to contemplate the glories of creation, and our role in caring for them, I’ve interwoven some of Pope Francis’ words with pictures of the great luminous beauty of our world.

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer…convey their message to us. We have no such right.

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stamineus) in Cross Canyon, southwestern Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stamineus) in Cross Canyon, southwestern Colorado

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family.

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) in Peterson Bay, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) in Peterson Bay, Homer, Alaska

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

The sun emerges from under the clouds as it sets in Donald, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

The sun emerges from under the clouds as it sets in Donald, British Columbia

Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that…dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (Genesis 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides) in the Charmlee Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibue, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides) in the Charmlee Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

David Austin rose in the rose garden in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

David Austin rose in the rose garden in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

Baneberry (Actea rubra) in Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars in Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Baneberry (Actea rubra) in Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars in Murray, Idaho

We take these ecosystems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities. So, when we speak of “sustainable use”, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.

Sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

Sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimum) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

Autumn leaves in the orchard at Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Autumn leaves in the orchard at Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.

Cook Inlet from Captain Cook State Park in Kenai, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Cook Inlet from Captain Cook State Park in Kenai, Alaska

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

A land of stone tablets, once again

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs near Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Newspaper Rock, Monticello, Utah

[In Moses in Utah, I described driving into southeastern Utah for the first time with my then 10-year-old son, Luke. Nineteen years later we returned together, and spent a week with the mysterious energies that have such a strong pull for both of us. When I was there last year I celebrated the great beauty and deep wisdom of that unique landscape, and I’m reposting that celebration in honor of our recent visit.]

I’m still wandering the desert with Moses. He’d be very used to this, but, though I love it, I’m positive I’d find forty years a few decades too many. Well, of course, he would say, with the air of a man who has come to grips with doing what his god says, no matter how capricious, no matter what the cost. I thought I was going out there for a few months.

Presumably, when you’re leading your people out of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. It’s not as if Moses were thinking, I could be a CEO earning $13,000 an hour if I didn’t have this stiff-necked tribe to deal with, and this ornery God handing me stone tablets. Options were few, and they were, after all, going to another dry and rocky place. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years before finding the sign to their promised land, which turned out to be a swamp. So there are a number of demanding gods out there.

Geological formations along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordWe’re walking on a day when the sky is a blue so deep and incandescent that it could easily burst into flames at any moment, and start raining stone tablets. As it apparently has been doing for eons. The tablets are everywhere. They have our history written on them. It’s even color coded, if a bit disorganized in every other way, after being pushed and shoved by millions of years of geologic upheaval.

The great tales of long tribal wanderings speak of our own slow evolution as a human race, and also as individuals. So many of us yearn for instructions to manage our lives in this often wild and inexplicable existence. We have the most basic questions: Why? What?  How? We long for clarity. We want stone tablets with the rules for living on them.

And here they are. They’re everywhere, not just in Utah, though they’re more spectacular here than many places. They have the simplest of commandments. Tread lightly, they say.

Biological crust in Butler Wash, outside of Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe sandy soil to the side of the path is covered with a dark brown layer — made up of broken down moss, lichen, cyanobacteria, microfungi, and other microorganisms — called a biological crust. It prevents erosion, provides nutrients to sandy soil, holds water, enables rootlets to find secure footing. If I step on it in this dry environment, it won’t recover for 250 years.

Lichen covered stone path in Butler Wash, near Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordDon’t waste. Here is a rock path where you can see no rock at all. It’s a beautiful lichen painting. The lichen are slowly detaching the bonds that hold the rock together, one facet of the complex, millions-of-years-long process that creates the living soil our planet depends on.  Dirt is not cheap.

Dry wash in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordExcept for a few hours a year, washes and streams are dry expanses of tumbled rock. Respect limits, the tablets say. If you put golf courses, shopping centers, houses in the desert, one day you will run out of water.

Dinosaur footprints in Buterl Wash, near Blanding, Utah, by Betsey CrawfordBe humble. A three-toed dinosaur walked through this mud-turned-stone 150,000,000 years ago. They were the big shots of their day.

Petroglyphs at Sand Island State Park, Bluff, Utah by Betsey CrawfordMake art. Celebrate life.

Don’t use too much, take care of all breathing things, sustain all the non-breathing things we depend on. We think it’s complicated, but it’s not. We make it complicated by what, to me, are two of the most damaging legacies of the Old Testament: that certain people are chosen, and that humans have been given dominion over the earth. These ideas weren’t new with the Israelites, but the bible helped codify them.

The stones around me hold the history of the cosmos, as do I, as does my dog, Splash, patiently sitting in the shade while I take pictures of wildflowers. In the first moments of the big bang every particle that will ever exist in our universe was already created. They proceeded to meld and blend and be forged in the three-billion-degree heat of the earliest stars, eventually forming the elements that make up this rock, that course through my veins, that hold up the stem of the flower.

Orange globe mallow (Spheralcea munroana) in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Whatever we call the force that exploded every bit of us into being, we are ongoing manifestations of it. The same energy, expressed differently, now a rock face  200,000,000 years old, now a woman of sixty-four, a dog of fourteen, a days-old flower glowing orange against the rocks.

This means we are made of exactly the same particles as everything else. When I really think about this miraculous, inherent relatedness, it makes it harder to feel superior because we have iPhones, Starbucks, jets, guns. Our path of evolution has given us the opportunity to reflect on our connection to everything in the cosmos. Instead we use it to fight over literal surface differences. We have made our form of consciousness a god, and have created a covenant with that god, to choose us over all other forms on the earth.

It’s not sustainable, and we all know it. Perhaps not in our vaunted consciousness. But our earthy bodies know we are part of the dirt, the plants, the stars. each other. Bodies that long for reconnection, that know separation is death. We, too, are tablets with the instructions we long for.

Red rock formation in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Eostre and the universe story

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California

Humans are story making animals. We have a story for everything, and many, many stories for the same things, depending on where and with whom we found ourselves when we arrived in this life. Our tales explain where we came from, how we got here, why we’re here at all, how to behave now that we are here. As science expands our knowledge of how the universe, and our tiny piece of it, came into being, how our DNA links us, how we migrated out of Africa, we create new stories, layering evidence on metaphor, while still cherishing the old and familiar ones.

Easter connects me to many stories, especially those of my childhood tradition of Catholicism, where the ancient lore of fertility goddesses, ushering in light and renewed growth, became entwined with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose last days were embedded in the story of the Passover, which was in turn embedded in the story of how a tribe became a nation, one of thousands of stories about how tribes cohered, and how that made them special in the eyes of their gods.

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) King Mountain, Larkspur, California. The individual flowers would barely cover your thumbnail.

The Easter stories of death and resurrection, and their ties to the seasonal changes from birth to fruition to death to rebirth, go back to our earliest records: those on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumer. Inanna, Queen of the World in the Sumerian pantheon, traveled to the underworld, was stripped of her clothing, tortured, crucified, while the world above shriveled in response. Though she was rescued in three days, her ordeal was just the beginning of a journey to explore the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The embodiment of the planet Venus, Inanna became the Babylonian Ishtar, and in turn the Canaanite Astarte. Her spirit eventually metamorphosed into the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, perhaps the Germanic Eostre, who may or may not have presided over the celebration that bears her name. The lineages are not pure and direct; many stories and energies are merged and scattered among them, and traits are bestowed and then changed. Ishtar was also the goddess of war. By Aphrodite’s time that title belonged to Ares, and Hera had become the queen of the Greek pantheon.

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) King Mountain, Larkspur, California, another tiny, dainty flower

The hints we have of Eostre don’t suggest the mighty energies of Inanna. She is most likely representative of any number of fertility goddesses, bringing with them light and fecundity, heralding the spring avalanche of green growth, renewing the promise of survival. She may be related to Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn.  The etymology of the word Easter is traced through the Proto-Germanic word for dawn, ‘austron-,’ but is only used in German and English. Most other European languages derive their word for Easter from paschas, or passover.

I love all of this: the layers of meaning, the tellings and retellings of the same basic human tales, the bequeathing of characters from one civilization or culture to another. These interweavings speak of the depths of our connection to other human beings, even those living many thousands of years ago. To me, it doesn’t challenge the Christian belief in the teachings of a holy man named Jesus to know that his story was couched in literary structures inherited from venerated traditions. The idea that our great narratives are echoes of more ancient ones isn’t a limitation to me. It’s a sign of the universality of our fears, our longings, our loves.

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are about an inch long.

Our stories provide us with energy and motivation. They place our feet on the ground of our culture. They entertain and explain and nourish. But our love of story also has a long history of darkness. There has been a lot of carnage over whose story is the ‘real’ one, and many stories to justify the mayhem: that one group is chosen and another not, that we can never have enough, that the earth is ours to use up, that my story justifies killing people with a different one. A narrative can burn a forest, enslave a people, destroy a planet. So often it’s only after protracted battles that we wearily sit down and listen to the shared longing under the destruction: I want to be safe. I want to be loved. I’m afraid of my vulnerability. I want the comfort of abundance. I’m afraid of death. I want my life to be meaningful. I want my children to be happy. I want the light to return after a stretch of darkness.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

One of the reasons I am so drawn to Thomas Berry’s work is his call for a new story. His is a way to see the world around us, and including us, not as an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but as a constantly evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, beings perched on a planet put here for our disposal. We are one of many, many manifestations of this continual, billions-year-old generativity, beings emerged from the earth itself. Related by the very elements of our cells to all the other forms that have developed with us. Connected in the profoundest way to the living landscapes we walk among.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California

Though Berry’s Universe Story is grounded in the advancing science of the history of the cosmos, he saw its connection to many indigenous creation stories, where beings — animal, plant, rock — rise from the soil of their sacred places. Not long ago, we were all indigenous to a place we held sacred, but by the time I was hunting Easter eggs in suburban New York in the 1950’s, there was barely a shadow of that connection left. I sensed it in my love of the wind, of the violets growing in the cracks of a rough patch of sidewalk, the smell of our neighbor’s lilacs. I felt it in the tunnel my father cut through a massive tangle of honeysuckle, allowing us a home among the branches and roots. I once sat in awe at a mysterious jack-in-the-pulpit that showed up in the tiny woodland separating our house from our neighbor. These wisps were among the many threads of love and longing that Berry’s message wove together for me, connecting me to a story that places my feet and my heart securely on the planet that created me.

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Transcendence on the headlands

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

One of the most transcendent moments of my life happened on the Marin headlands, within view of the glittering city of San Francisco and the elegant curve of the Golden Gate bridge. It was March 9, 2014, and the wildflower season had started. I had been hiking and photographing them for three hours, working my way uphill, out of sight of the ocean. I’d come through a variety of landscapes: the mostly dry meadows at the beginning of the hike, full of California poppies, cut through by a stream that gave willows a foothold. Then the rocky ups and downs of the even drier hills, their gravelly trails edged with pockets of shooting stars and milk maids. As I got closer to the juncture with the coastal trail, chaparral gradually took over, filling the air with the pungent smell of sagebrush.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey-Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

By the time I got to the top of the headland, tired, ready to head downhill and find my car, it was dusk. The Pacific, living up to its name, lay serene and luminous ahead of me. In memory, the city isn’t there. It was all silver light, on the rolling hills behind me, the pale gray twilit leaves, the stone escarpment in front of me, on the  sea, in the air. The warm spice of the feathery sage filled me, contrasting with the cool light.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) taken at Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California. Each flower is about the size of a quarter.

As I began to move again, I was suddenly overcome with the wildness of the place, and my place in it. Completely aware of this living, breathing convergence of life — the soft wind off the shimmering ocean, the ancient rocks, the growing dark, the scent from the ghostly plants, the woman walking. I was both dissolved into it and moving, whole, embodied, through it, a wild creature myself. I felt a great, exultant love for every pulsing molecule around me, and equally for the feeling of being in it, part of it, the part that could move through itself, through the lingering heat and the cooling breeze. That could feel the silver light work its way through my cells.

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) King Mountain, Tiburon, California, by Betsey Crawford

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

I would love to live in that state of open-souled awe every moment of my life. All sorts of things — grocery store lines, traffic, dentist appointments, the grief at a loved one’s illness —  work against such a possibility. I am often, in the poet Wordsworth’s words, surprised by joy; but after opening his poem with that line,  the rest speaks only of loss. Transcendence routinely rises, and is swept away by the mundane. The memories — I still remember another night of silvery, windy light under a full moon when I was 18 — can stay a long time. And there are many small, seemingly inconsequential moments of joy — a sleepy child’s arms around your neck, sunlight filling a winter room,  the sudden call of cicadas, telling you midsummer has arrived. But feeling completely dissolved into the natural world I love so much is rare, and I have been hugging that moment since.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Though perfectly happy to feel transcendence without figuring out why we have this wonderful ability, as a lover of all things DNA I am intrigued by philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that awe has been chosen by evolution to more firmly attach us to life on this earth. The more delight we take in living, the more we will strive to survive and reproduce. He feels that our pleasure in being alive and connected to the beauty and enchantment around us is the basis for an innate spirituality, something we knew long before we created religions to explain it.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’m a little resistant to reducing awe to the biological imperative to reproduce, though I love the idea that evolution would choose something so entrancing to ground us to our planet. I prefer the thought — echoing cultural ecologist Thomas Berry, Buddhist Alan Watts, cosmologist Carl Sagan — that consciousness is the result of the long, slow evolution of the universe’s ability to contemplate itself, to turn eyes on its wildflowers and silver seas, ears to its birdsong and rushing water, skin to the feel of stone, of bark.

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are the size of a dime.

But even this lovely thought doesn’t quite reflect what I felt that evening on the Marin headlands. I didn’t feel that I was the universe reflecting on itself, I felt like I was the universe. And not merely one infinitesimal expression of it. And not — though I love this fact — that I and the radiant molecules around me were all made of the same elements, descended from the same stars. I felt, briefly and gloriously, that there was no distinction between me and the vast, wild, perilous, gorgeous cosmos.

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Spruce family planning

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOne of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

The female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree.

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Every few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counter example was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden got more and more lush, and even unusually deep in color.

east-hampton-garden-designed-photographed-by-Betsey-CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-dens-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

I love all this, because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Samhain in New Jersey

autumn-woods-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford-2I didn’t know I was going to a place I love in New Jersey until two weeks before I went, and had no idea I’d be celebrating Samhain there. But it’s the sort of place where that happens, so I might have guessed.

Miriam McGillis is a friend, mentor, teacher. She started Genesis Farm, an ecological and spiritual center in western New Jersey, 35 years ago. I heard her speak in 2000 at a native plant conference in Pennsylvania. She, petite and indomitable, stood in the center of an enormous auditorium and held hundreds of us tree huggers spellbound as she quietly wove together nature, the cosmos, the path of evolution, and our place in this great rush of creative energy. Dozens of us mobbed her at the end. I told her I’d been waiting all my life to hear what she had said.

common-milkweed-seedhead-asclepias-syriaca-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus)

Not everyone’s experience in the Catholic Church was the same, but mine had no place for nature, no place for me to be in nature. It was the ‘other’ — outside of us, unimportant except as it could be of use, largely hostile, something to be endured on the way to, one devoutly hoped, heaven. I don’t remember ever hearing a word about the world around us from anyone connected to the church or the Catholic schools of my childhood.

autumn-peach-leaves-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Peach leaves in the Orchard of the Ancestors, Genesis Farm

So it’s interesting and ironic that the lure of Genesis Farm and the work done there is grounded in the thinking of Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest, who saw, in the growing knowledge of the origins of the universe, a new way of looking at our place in it, a new genesis: the universe itself as an ever-expanding (literally) creation story. An energy that has manifested itself for 13.7 billion years, from seemingly nothing to inchoate matter, to stars, to elements, to more stars, to planets around the stars, to seas, to mountains, to the first cells, to the first beings, plant and animal, to an endless array of beings, coming, not finally, but for now, to us, on this one planet among billions of planets, with their infinite manifestations that remain profound mysteries.

winterberry-ilex-verticillata-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

By the time I heard Miriam I’d been a landscape designer and an environmental activist for years, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t found a place in nature, or hadn’t become its champion in my own way. The strings that her vision tied together were there to be gathered, and led me through a door to my place in the whole, grounded on the earth not only by my presence here and my love for its astounding beauty, but by the fact that the building blocks of the soil under my feet are the same as the building blocks of my body.

farm-field-sky-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

The main farm field, Genesis Farm

She represented a turning point in my life, though it was not a time when my life could turn. I had a child in school, a mate, a business to run. Genesis Farm’s Earth Literacy courses took up to 12 weeks, so that made them out of my reach until Luke graduated from high school. At that point, 25 years in, the programs changed to shorter, more intense courses, and I took several of those for three years, which was a great blessing, because, after 28 years, the enormous energy to create and run the Genesis Farms programs had run its course, and the mission began to change.

cattail-typha-angustifolia-seedhead-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Cattail (Typha angustifolia)

At the beginning of October Miriam asked me if I would help her with a project she has in mind. A few days after I arrived, we celebrated Samhain (pronounced sah-win), the ancient Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season that falls at the midway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.

grass-autumn-seedheads-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-CrawfordIt was a time of coming death and dormancy,  when the veil between the underworld and the living world felt thinned, and the ever-present ancestors were honored, along with their connection to the primordial chaos and fertility of the dark world. The sheep and cows were brought down from the pastures where they’d spent the warmer season grazing. Fires were kindled against the gathering dark, and people dressed in costumes and traveled from house to house, where they were given food from the Samhain feasts.

autumn-woods-pond-reflections-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Christianity, as was its custom, adopted these ancient rites, and so we have All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day. But, in a world where Halloween is a $7.4 billion dollar industry and a heavily rhinestoned Elvis costume can cost $1400, the original reason to celebrate Samhain has largely gotten lost, which is also true for its three counterparts: Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassad.

In an agrarian world, intimately tied to the the subtlest changes of the seasons, these were important dates, and had their own individual rituals, varying by region across Eurasia, revolving around the preparation, sowing, tending and harvesting of fields, the care of flocks, and both celebration and preparation for the season to come.

witchhazel-hamamelis-virginiana-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

In our present day, living in cities and towns, far from the production of food, these dates may seem unimportant. But every one of us has centuries of ancestors who grew food, and epigenetics is now teaching us what cultures who reverence their ancestors have long intuited — we carry with us changes in our DNA expression created by our forebears’ reactions to their lives.

autumn-woods-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe rituals they performed at Samhain, and similar festivals across the world, celebrated the harvest that would see them through to the next growing season. They lit bonfires, prepared meals, and played games to express gratitude for the harvest and to stave off the gathering dark, rites that are still alive in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. These holidays may look like they’ve morphed into several months of shopping, but the old traditions live on in gatherings of friends and family, extra light against the dark, feasting, singing and music, and even trick or treating on Halloween.

autumn-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

Not only are we not separate from the ground we walk on, we’re not separate from the people who walked it before us. We carry them in our cells, hitching rides on our DNA. We reenact their customs, even when we’ve lost their beginnings in the intervening centuries. We feel anxious with the dying of the light, and stronger by banding together in the face of it. We remember our dead, and ask for their presence and guidance. If we’re lucky, we get to stand on a sunny hill at the end of October and open the portal to Samhain, carrying all the richness of our ancestors, flowing through us into the future.

autumn-woods-pond-reflections-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts: 

The Place Where You Go to Listen

Cook Inlet from Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

Cook Inlet from Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

At some point in the recent past I realized that daylight has a different sound than night does. Not the usual distinctions, like birdsong, crickets, traffic. When the sun rises, I hear a difference in the world, a tone — very, very subtle — with more vibrance in sunlight than the velvety sound of night.

I haven’t found an explanation for this. I wasn’t aware of it in my childhood, in a home of five noisy children waking up and getting ready for school, or in my many years of getting up via alarm clock to get both my son and me started on our days. But, once I had the leisure of waking up on my own time, and in a quiet place, I was able, over time, to hear the difference. It both delights and mystifies me. I love the idea that the universe has its own music, available to us if we quiet ourselves enough to hear it.

Coastal Indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

Coastal Indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

So when, in Alaska, someone told me that there was a place in Fairbanks called The Place Where You Go to Listen, where the music was composed to reflect a constant stream of information from seismic shifts, geomagnetic changes, and the flow of time and weather, I instantly decided to go. I hadn’t even planned on including Fairbanks in the trip until then.

raven-dalton-highway-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe Place Where You Go to Listen is named for Naaliagiagvik, on the Arctic Ocean, home to a legend about an Inupiak woman who went there to listen to the earth speaking to her, through birds, whales, water, wind. It’s a small room in the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska. On one wall are five glass panels in a row, glowing with light, whose depth and color depend on the time of day. There’s a bench in the middle of the room. From all around you comes the music of the world, composed by John Luther Adams. Because I went in the well-lit evening of an Alaskan August, the panels were yellow and blue, and unchanging. What I was listening to did change, subtly, into a range of vibrant, light tones, the Daylight Choir, which, infinitely more vivid than the tiny change I hear, was startlingly lovely to listen to.

Matanuska Glacier, Alaska

Matanuska Glacier

Underneath the daylight music are resonant bass tones, and these do change, minute by minute, with seismic activity in the earth. There were no earthquakes while I was there, but the bass swelled and ebbed as the world below me went about the business of being the earth. At a couple of points the sound was strong enough to make the details in the walls — speakers, vents, frames — vibrate into noise themselves. The aurora borealis, invisible in the daylight, was just strong enough to send occasional, delicate bell tones across the ceiling.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

I was unspeakably thrilled with all this. Alone in the room, I lay down on the bench, my head on my folded sweater, and gave myself completely to the singing of the earth. It lulled me into a trance, though the swelling bass would lure me out of it, then settle me back as the sound calmed. It was one of the most profound meditations I’ve ever experienced.

Muskeg along the Cook Inlet, Kenai, Alaska

Muskeg along the Cook Inlet, Kenai, Alaska

What made it so moving wasn’t just the beauty of the tones Adams chose to convey the glittering daylight, but the effect of the living earth on the music itself. I could listen as the subtlest of moves under my back changed the resonance around me. There are lots of wonderful sounds on the earth’s surface — thunder, rain, crickets, birdsong, rushing water, wild wind, the icy whisper of snow — but this was the planet itself swelling our human notes in real time. This is the grace of the best of art, to take apart the texture of life and piece it back together in ways that change our perceptions forever.

Siberian aster (Aster Sibericus)

Siberian aster (Aster Sibericus)

Western columbine bud and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa)

Western columbine bud and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa)

I loved it. I stayed a long time, often alone, sometimes not. At the end I was joined by a young couple. After I left, the woman came out while I was still standing at the top of the stairs, and we talked about our experience. She had just graduated from art school, and had come all the way from Oregon to be in that room. “I’d heard that there was a place in Fairbanks where you could hear the world breathe,” she said, and so she and two companions had driven up in an old VW bus.

Lying in that room, held by the subtly shifting music of daylight, and the sonorous sounds of the ground deep under me — recording its stretching, contracting, breathing, living — once again brought home something I love to contemplate: that we and the earth around and under us are one. We grew out of its waters, rocks and mud.  This is the great gift, and challenge, of hearing the earth breathe: to know it’s alive, a being in its own right, that its seas and mountains, forests and plains, its atmosphere and the great plates floating over its surface, its unfathomable depths, are all manifestations of the same creative energy that continually brings us all into being. This isn’t a planet we are on, it’s the planet that we are.

A large gull and a small human share the beach in Kenai, Alaska

A large gull and a small human share the beach in Kenai, Alaska

A land of stone tablets

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs near Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Newspaper Rock, Monticello, Utah

I’m still wandering the Utah desert with Moses. He’d be very used to this, but, though I love it, I’m positive I’d find forty years a few decades too many. Well, of course, he would say, with the air of a man who has come to grips with doing what his god says, no matter how capricious, no matter what the cost. I thought I was going out there for a few months.

Presumably, when you’re leading your people out of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. It’s not as if Moses were thinking, I could be a CEO earning $13,000 an hour if I didn’t have this stiff-necked tribe to deal with, and this ornery God handing me stone tablets. Options were few, and they were, after all, going to another dry and rocky place. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years before finding the sign to their promised land, which turned out to be a swamp, so there are a number of demanding gods out there.

We’re walking on a day when the sky is a blue so deep and incandescent that it could easily burst into flames at any moment, and start raining stone tablets, as it apparently has been doing for eons. The tablets are everywhere. They have our history written on them. It’s even color coded, if a bit disorganized in every other way, after being pushed and shoved by millions of years of geologic upheaval.

 

Geological formations along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe great tales of long tribal wanderings speak of our own slow evolution as a human race, and also as individuals. So many of us yearn for instructions to manage our lives in this often wild and inexplicable existence. We have the most basic questions: Why? What?  How? We long for clarity. We want stone tablets with the rules for living on them.

And here they are. They’re everywhere, not just in Utah, though they’re more spectacular here than many places. They have the simplest of commandments. Tread lightly, they say.

Biological crust in Butler Wash, outside of Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe sandy soil to the side of the path is covered with a dark brown layer, made up of broken down moss, lichen, cyanobacteria, microfungi, and other microorganisms. It’s called a biological crust, and it prevents erosion, provides nutrients to sandy soil, holds water, enables rootlets to find secure footing. If I step on it in this dry environment, it won’t recover for 250 years.

Lichen covered stone path in Butler Wash, near Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordDon’t waste. Here is a rock path where you can see no rock at all. It’s a beautiful lichen painting. The lichen are slowly detaching the bonds that hold the rock together, one facet of the complex, millions-of-years-long process that creates the living soil our planet depends on.  Dirt is not cheap.

Dry wash in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordExcept for a few hours a year, washes and streams are dry expanses of tumbled rock. Respect limits, the tablets say. If you put golf courses, shopping centers, houses in the desert, one day you will run out of water.

Dinosaur footprints in Buterl Wash, near Blanding, Utah, by Betsey CrawfordBe humble. A three-toed dinosaur walked through this mud-turned-stone 150,000,000 years ago. They were the big shots of their day.

 

Petroglyphs at Sand Island State Park, Bluff, Utah by Betsey CrawfordMake art. Celebrate life.

Don’t use too much, take care of all breathing things, sustain all the non-breathing things we depend on. We think it’s complicated, but it’s not. We make it complicated by what, to me, are two of the most damaging legacies of the Old Testament: that certain people are chosen, and that humans have been given dominion over the earth. These ideas weren’t new with the Israelites, but the bible helped codify them.

The stones around me hold the history of the cosmos, as do I, as does my dog, Splash, patiently sitting in the shade while I take pictures of wildflowers. In the first moments of the big bang every particle that will ever exist in our universe was already created, to meld and blend and be forged in the three billion degree heat of the earliest stars into the elements that make up this rock, that course through my veins, that hold up the stem of the flower.

Orange globe mallow (Spheralcea munroana) in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordWhatever we call the force that exploded every bit of us into being, we are ongoing manifestations of it, the same energy, expressed differently, now a rock face  200,000,000 years old, now a woman of sixty-four, a dog of fourteen, a days-old flower glowing orange against the rocks.

This means we are made of exactly the same particles as everything else. When I really think about this miraculous, inherent relatedness, it makes it harder to feel superior because we have iPhones, Starbucks, jets, guns. Our path of evolution has given us the opportunity to reflect on our connection to everything in the cosmos, but we use it instead to fight over literal surface differences. We have made our form of consciousness a god, and have created a covenant with that god, to choose us over all other forms on the earth.

It’s not sustainable, and we all know it. Perhaps not in our vaunted consciousness, but in our earthy bodies, that know we are part of the dirt, the plants, the stars. each other. Bodies that long for reconnection, that know separation is death. We, too, are tablets with the instructions we long for.Red rock formation in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford