Category Archives: Ecology

Blessed Unrest: the Pachamama Alliance

The flying rivers over the Amazon rainforest, a picture from the Pachamama AllianceThe dream shapes the world, the Achuar people told John Perkins on his visits to the Ecuadorian rainforest that forms the headwaters of the great Amazon River. They asked for his help to protect their sacred land — the heart and lungs of the planet — from the dream of the west, with its insatiable hunger for the oil under their feet. John, no stranger to either the depredations of global corporations or the shamanism of the Amazon forests, was pondering this request when he took a group of activists to Guatemala to meet with indigenous people there. Lynne Twist was part of the group. Their experiences included meeting a shaman, who led them into a ritual dream state. 

Lynne dreamed she was a bird, flying over a dense, vividly green forest. Faces with geometric markings and crowns of red and yellow feathers floated above the trees. Back in California, enmeshed as ever in her passionate, decades-long work on world hunger, the images were so persistent they began to interfere with her life. She called John for guidance. He told her that the markings and crowns were the tradition of the Shuar people he had worked with for many years, and the more isolated Achuar people who had recently invited him to help them.

Indigenous man in Amazon rainforest from the Pachamama Alliance

Except where noted, all photos are courtesy of the Pachamama Alliance.

We must change the dream of the modern world, they told John over and over. It is urgent. The dream of a ‘progress’ that destroys the earth, that robs the future, that leaves billions of people — half the world’s population — with less than two dollars a day. They talked of the ancient Mayan prophecy of the condor, the heart, and the eagle, the head. It foretold the arrival of the eagle people at the end of the fifteenth century. It prophesied five hundred years of strife. Now, it was time for the eagle and condor to fly together. 

John and Lynne took another group of activists back to the rainforest to meet with the elusive Achuar. With Lynne’s husband Bill as the third founder, the Pachamama Alliance was born, named with the Quechua word for Mother Earth. The Alliance, which now includes several other indigenous groups in the Amazon headwaters, is dedicated to ‘bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on this planet.’

Members of the Pachamama Alliance

Lynne is in the first row, between the two children.

The title of this essay, the second in a series, is taken from Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. Paul talks about the idea that these millions of people and groups are being called to action by the earth itself, her immune system at work. The Pachamama Alliance is a perfect example. People in one of the earth’s remotest areas put out a call for help. They find someone who is dedicating his life to saving the planet. Once an economic hit man himself, he knows what they are up against. He, in turn, is connected with someone who is receiving messages that are mysterious to her until he recognizes them. This is the soul of the earth in action, the rainforest sending out a new dream, gathering her helpers.

Bill and Lynne, called from other endeavors, had no idea where to start, so they did the simplest thing: they listened. The sophisticated, deeply spiritual, fiercely courageous Achuar didn’t need help with their own lives and traditions. In order to protect those, and the sacred lands they and the rest of the world depend on, they needed help with the things of the west. They needed legal title to their vast lands, sustainable ecotourism to provide an alternative to selling land for oil or mining money, collaborative governing associations to organize their work and negotiate with the world. They needed maps and lawyers, solar-powered radio communication, computers and the skill to use them. They needed help formalizing their language so that educational materials could be written in it, keeping the language alive for the coming generations.

NAE Assembly voting in 2011By listening and responding, the Pachamama Alliance pioneered what has become the most effective strategy for preserving wild lands: working with the indigenous people whose places they are. Now organizations all over the world are following suit. This is one of many reasons to celebrate the Pachamama Alliance at any time. I’m doing so now to follow my previous post, Rights of Nature, because the Alliance was instrumental in getting such rights into the Ecuadorian constitution in 2008. By then they had been working in Ecuador for ten years. The concept of the rights of nature was coming increasingly to the fore. Ecuador was writing a new constitution. 

The Pachamama Alliance is small, with revenue and expenditures of a few million dollars, in contrast to giants like The Nature Conservancy, with a billion-dollar budget. Their size makes them nimble, able to respond quickly to circumstances and inspiration. Fired with the dream of getting rights of nature into the first national constitution in the world, Bill and Lynne moved to Ecuador and swung into action, organizing the indigenous governing bodies, hiring lawyers, firing up a publicity campaign. Other groups promptly joined them. In eighteen months, a nanosecond in governance time, nature’s rights were constitutionally enshrined for the first time.

This didn’t happen without repercussions. As we see daily in our country, there are many forces fighting the new dream. In Central and South America, leaders who have tried to protect the resources of their lands and their people from multinational corporations have fared very badly, and so did then-President Correa. He was not, like a predecessor,  assassinated. But a coup attempt created the effect the corporations wanted: he backed down from protecting his own people. The Fundacion Pachamama, the sister organization in Ecuador, was forcibly closed down, although the U.S. team was allowed to operate. A new president permitted the Fundacion to reopen last year, but the fight against oil and other extractive industries — and their political support — is constant. 

Photo of an Amazon rainforest dwelling from the Pachamama AllianceSo it is a monumental achievement that, twenty years into work on the dream, the Achuar and their neighbors have not lost any land to these corporations. Now, the Pachamama Alliance is fired up to go further. Their Amazon Sacred Headquarters Initiative is designed to create a ‘globally recognized and protected bio-cultural sanctuary for the future of all life.’ It will be governed by the local indigenous people, according to their own vision, for the well-being of the entire world. Sixty million acres of the most biodiverse land on the planet, holding more tree species in one acre than in all of the US and Canada combined. The largest source of fresh water; the largest source of atmospheric moisture; the stabilizer of the earth’s climate; the spiritual home to ancient peoples. Again, the Alliance’s size and agility make it possible to go first, with seed money, enthusiasm, and inspiration. Later, the large organizations will help with the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to bring this dream into being.

While all this has been going on, the Pachamama Alliance has never forgotten the other part of the rainforest’s call: change the dream of the developed world. Without that change, the forces that are already destroying other areas of the rainforest will be unstoppable. My first connection to the Alliance was ten years ago, when I participated in one of their Awakening the Dreamer programs. By the time I took it the information presented wasn’t new to me, but the day itself is unforgettable: a large group of people in a Unitarian Church hall, strangers in the morning, friends by lunch, companions on the journey to a new future by the end of the afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of people in 78 countries have attended these in 16 languages, and then gone on to create Pachamama Communities, and to participate in the eight-week, online Game Changer Intensive. I’m Facebook friends with a woman in Colombia as a result of one of those. I’m now involved in the newest educational program, the Drawdown Initiative, about which I’ll be writing soon.

Hiking during a Pachamama Alliance Journey in the Amazon rainforest

Photo by Richard Rogers

Pachamama Alliance Journeys have taken people to the rainforest several times a year since the beginning, and are now including trips to indigenous New Mexico. Every journeyer I’ve met has told me, usually with awe, that they came back transformed. All the programs are designed to help change how we see ourselves and our role in the world, to inspire agency, to provide us with companions, inspiration, energy. And enthusiasm, which abounds. ‘The Pachamama Alliance,’ Lynne said last fall, ‘is a sanctuary for people who are up to something, a place of grace, commitment, intention, power, and most of all, love.’

In heeding the rainforest’s message to reach out and collaborate, the Achuar dream changed, too. Once fiercely isolationist and defensive, given a wide berth by their neighbors, they have taken their formidable warrior energies and become leaders in a larger, cooperative movement. At first, as was their tradition, this work was done by the men. One day, eighteen years ago, a young Shuar woman showed up at a Pachamama Alliance training on legal rights. Such a thing had never happened. She took her seat at the table and stayed there. 

Narcisa Mashiento at the Pachamama Alliance annual luncheon in 2017Narcisa Mashienta went on to co-create the Jungle Mamas program with the Alliance. There was a high maternal and infant mortality rate, along with a great deal of suffering in childbirth among the Achuar, and she felt called to address it. By working with both the men and women of the communities, they were able to respect the traditions they found, and also to introduce safer practices. They trained local women to be Maternal Health Promoters in village after village, flying into remote areas and sometimes walking as much as eight hours from the landing strip.

As happens when women are supported, they, in turn, offer others support, and the whole community feels increasingly empowered. In the Achuar language the Jungle Mamas are Ikiama Nukuri, “Women as Keepers of the Forest.” As the water carriers, the primary food producers, the bearers of the next generation, women are the generative souls of the earth. Now many have taken prominent places in the movement to save their land.

The Jungle Mamas, who are in parnership with the Pachamama Alliance

“We, the indigenous women have had a collective vision. That vision is to grow strong and to protect our children and to protect our future generations, together with protecting our land. It is us, the indigenous women, who live and breathe and take care of the planet. We are the ones who protect our children, who give birth to our children, and from the health of the land we provide for our children to grow into healthy generations.”

Narcisa spoke those words at the Pachamama Alliance luncheon this past fall. She was among the most unforgettable moments of the afternoon, but not the only one. Over and over I was struck by something I’d never seen before at such a gathering: the people on stage — Bill, Lynne, John, most of the staff members who spoke, the fundraising coordinator — were all moved to tears by their descriptions of the work they were doing and the people they were doing it with. Immensely touched, I afterward thought about the world we could create if this became the message we offer our children. Choose a path that will bring you to tears by its grace, its commitment, its love. Choose a dream that knows everything is alive and deeply interconnected. Choose a dream that includes every being on the planet. Choose the dream of the earth.

The Pachamama Alliance is dedicated to saving rainforests and all its creatures, like this red-eyed tree frog

Photo by Jerry Bauer for the USDA, via Creative Commons

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

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Rights of nature

Mountain top in the clouds in Golden, British Columbia by Betsey CrawfordWhen you look at the mountain above, your reaction is likely to be colored by what is most important to you. Skiers may think of the thrill of the trip down, climbers of the trek up. A mining executive of the coal or metals to be found there. A road engineer of the challenge of finding a way through. A photographer of the play of light and dark, soft and hard, mist and mystery. A conservationist or ecologist ponders the preservation of majesty, ecosystems, and access for everyone. Someone steeped in indigenous thinking sees brothers, grandmothers, cousins in the interplay of beings.

The last two ways of seeing are coalescing into a relatively new movement called the Rights of Nature. In 2008, as a result of dedicated activism, Ecuador became the first country in the world to enshrine such rights into its constitution, stating that “Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.” Well-being, defined with both the Spanish buen vivir and the Quechua sumak kawsay, calls for the human community to “enjoy their rights, and exercise responsibilities within the framework of interculturality, respect for their diversity and harmonious cohabitation with nature.”

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

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

In our corporation-dominant, consumption-obsessed economy, this is virtually a laughable concept, even for some who care deeply about the earth. The idea that the mountain is a being, that the rocks that form it, the plants that flank it, the rivers that fall in cascades off its edges are entities who deserve the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we wish for ourselves is inconceivable for many and a steep climb for most. Even with those provisions in their constitution, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador are still fighting an uphill battle against the mining industries, supported by the government, that want to move into their territories.

We have largely thought of rights as belonging to humans, either as individuals or groups, like states and corporations. The earth is seen not as something we are part of, but something we own, a vessel for human activities, a source of products and income. If the mountain is destroyed by, say, blowing its top off to get at its coal, that has so far been regarded as the cost of doing business, not just for the coal company, but for all the people relying on coal to fuel their own industries and salaries. In its present form, most of the world economy depends on the exploitation of a planet that only produces so much clean water, fresh air, rich soil, and biological gain in any given cycle. In our persistent overconsumption of these blessings and the destruction of the ecological systems that produce them, we are robbing the rest of the beings we share the planet with, as well as our own future as a species. 

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

Our current economic model prompts us to think of the earth in terms of its perceived value. A field growing ‘nothing’ but grasses and flowers is a ‘wasteland.’ Restrictions a town places on what can be done with certain parcels of land ‘reduce the value of the property.’ Wetlands, one of the most important of our ecological biomes, are pointless from a development point of view, ripe for filling in for buildable land. Wetlands provide, among many other things, the first line of defense against flooding. But though the line from a filled-in wetland to the costs of rebuilding after a flood is a straight one, it is obscured by other perceptions. Few people trying to rebuild their lives after a devastating flood have the energy to spare for the wetlands that should have been preserved to prevent the loss in the first place. The original developers would likely have been incensed had they been expected to respect the rights of the wetland to “live out its vital cycles” free of landfill.

There are enormous questions and hurdles to contemplate. Does the mountain have the right to exist without being blasted with dynamite for coal or roads? Does the air have the right to be free of the mercury and sulfur in coal smoke, or the carbon dioxide-laden exhaust from burning oil, or the threat of radioactive leaks from nuclear power plants? Do the red rocks of Utah have the right to exist without being mined for uranium? Does the ground under our feet have the right to a life without unnamed chemicals forced into it to frack gas? Does a forest have a right to existence without the threat of being cut to the last tree for lumber? Do rivers have the right to be free-flowing, free of toxic chemicals, a home to fish and plants that in themselves carry the right to exist in peace and plenty? Do animals, including humans, have an inherent right to clean water and air?

Red rock formation in the Valley of the Gods in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Valley of the Gods, Utah

In a world where we struggle to grant people who don’t look or think like us the same rights that we want, what hope is there that we will grant a field of wildflowers a right to live its vital cycles without becoming a parking lot? Yet the rights of nature are intimately tied to the rights of human beings. A series of dams in Brazil is displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon basin. The climate changes from our carbon dioxide-saturated atmosphere are forcing Pacific island communities to leave their flooding homelands while a worldwide backlash against refugees rages. Forced development of lands sacred to indigenous peoples rob those communities not just of their place, but their history and culture, the way they define themselves. Dumping of toxic waste in poor communities because richer ones refuse it causes sickness to skyrocket in those areas. The list is endless.

There are environmental laws worldwide, and in some cases and places they are very strict in protecting endangered ecosystems, plants and animals, and in preventing further damage. But, as we are seeing every day, these laws can be dismissed by the next administration, something that happens from the local to federal levels. It’s not just now, either. Cycles of strengthening and weakening the Environmental Protection Agency — along with other protective authorities and laws — have been a feature of political life since it was created in 1972. 

A borrego in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California by Betsey Crawford

A borrego in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California

If instead, we recognize that nature has rights on her own, their defense changes dramatically. A river, a forest, a panther, an owl, the atmosphere would then have ‘standing’ in court, the ability for a guardian or group to sue on behalf of the entity itself. Without inherent rights, the only people who have standing to sue on behalf of nature are those who are potentially or actively damaged by a policy or an infraction of a law. In practice, this often means that the case is stronger the more damage that has already been done.

Needless to say, this is an enormous challenge, one that I’m looking forward to exploring. It’s a different way of thinking for the many of us caught up in our current economic and human-centric mode of being. Changing perceptions about life on our planet, and our place in it may well be the most formidable of the obstacles we face. If we can move toward seeing ourselves as an intimate part of the web of life, one member among millions of beings and entities, forming a whole that we are completely dependent on, our relationship to the earth and everything that forms it changes. We can then focus our extraordinary ingenuity on what Thomas Berry called The Great Work: creating a world where the human presence fosters and enhances the earth that forms and sustains us.

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

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Celebrating Laudate si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

Laudate si, repictured

Songlines 2017: widening circles

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world

These words, from Rainer Maria Rilke’s exquisite Book of Hours, are slightly paradoxical because this year we traveled less than any of the other years since we set off on our journey in 2011.  My partner George’s health isn’t up to life on the road at this point, so my songlines this year became widening circles around Greenbrae, California, just north of San Francisco, where there is a whole world to explore. California hosts one of the most diverse native plant populations in the country and is home to snow-capped mountains, oceans, deserts, grasslands, coastal forests. Earlier this year I celebrated this extraordinary mix within easy reach in Wild Abandon: the Mystery and Glory of Plant Diversity. 

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

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Californians also care deeply about saving wild places. Half of the state is preserved land, an extraordinary accomplishment. I marvel at the knowledge of native plants and birds I find when meeting lawyers, nurses, teachers, business people on walks and hikes. In May, I joined a bioblitz for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever heard the word. I wrote about the fun we had cataloging every living thing within a small area of Mount Tamalpais in Blessed Unrest: the Bioblitz. It’s a celebration not only of our day but of the millions of people around the world who are taking actions, large and small, to save and repair the world.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hylea lineata) 

Rilke’s quote comes from one of the highlights of the year: spending three days with the ecological and Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy. Her Work that Reconnects helps people to confront their grief at what is happening to the earth, and to renew their commitment to the work they feel called to do. Rilke’s genius has supported her ever since she discovered him when she lived in Germany in her twenties, and her translation of his poetry punctuated our time with her. In The Work that Reconnects: a Weekend with Joanna Macy, I wrote about the extraordinary, moving circle of twenty-eight people, young and old, who gathered to move through Joanna’s spiral of gratitude, grief, and renewal. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) 

Out of the time with Joanna came other circles. There were several landscape designers there, and one of them, Susan Friedman, had a number of native plant gardens on a tour in early May. So, off I went. I described what I found in Retaining Paradise: Gardening with Native Plants, and wrote about a longtime passion: using our gardens to recreate the bird and animal habitat that built-up neighborhoods inevitably destroy. 

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) and bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey CrawfordJoanna’s workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in the heart of Oakland. While we were there, the bees from the beehive swarmed, as they got ready to leave for a new home. This inspired Susan, who’d been thinking about having a hive, to find a class on beekeeping. It had never occurred to me to do such a thing, but when she asked if I was interested, I instantly wrote back, ‘of course.’ I loved our day with the bees, and chronicled it in Treasuring Bees, Saving the World

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordOur life on earth is tied to the health and life of the bees, which can also be said of many things, including dirt. In The Intimate Bond: Humans and Dirt, I treasure its multi-faceted community and innate intelligence, which made it possible for us to evolve and keeps every living thing on earth going. Dirt is not cheap! Much of the urgent need to take care of the thin layer of soil on our planet lies in the endless time frame it takes to form it. Focusing on Utah, where you can literally drive through the planet’s ancient past, I explored its mysteries and consolations in The Solace of Deep TimeBlack crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordIn Greenbrae, I live near a lagoon that attracts a wonderful, shifting community of shorebirds all year. Around Easter an avalanche of ducklings started, family after family of adorableness so acute I was addicted to that walk for three months. This handsome night heron is part of  A Season of Birds, where I describe my happy visits to the vibrant life there — which included an unusual extended family — and honor the necessity and hard work of preserving and reclaiming such lands. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) 

And, of course, I spent the year celebrating flowers. For a few weeks each spring, California is an iris addict’s paradise. I wrote about my feelings for these bewitching flowers in Elegant, Wild, Mysterious: Loving Iris, and suggested that flowers’ ability to inspire love may help save the planet. I discussed the complications of our gorgeous roses in Passion and Poison: the Thorn in the Rose. In early August I explored one of the most joyful flower families on earth in One Big Happy Family: the Asteraceae, and created a gallery to show their beauty and wide diversity
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford
Then, later in August, on a trip to New York, I was able to do something I can’t do in California: stand in a sea of goldenrod. Naturally, that called for celebrating the way this extraordinary explosion of luminous yellow connects us to the heart of nature in The Gold Rush: the Joyful Power of Goldenrod. I also visited an early childhood home, set in a magical green world. I wove my memories and my realization about how deeply that time affected the life I’ve lived into A Girl in the Garden of Eden.

For Halloween I thought choosing ghostly white flowers for Happy Halloween: Ghosts in the Landscape would be fun, and it was. To my surprise, the fun turned out to be exploring why we have white flowers at all, and how their chemistry is related to ours. That post, too, inspired a gallery: Luminous Whites.

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica)

The only essay I didn’t write was written by Pope Francis. Laudate Si Repictured is an interweaving of words from his eloquent encyclical on the care of the earth with pictures of our beautiful planet. One of the quotes encapsulates the message I kept finding on my circling songlines this year:

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.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, AlaskaLoving the place we find ourselves will give us the strength and vitality to preserve it. Damage to the world and its people will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings of which we are a part.  A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world– the idea that we are the planet, not on the planet — is a gift we give both the earth and ourselves. 

I wish you all a new year of love, commitment, and beauty.

Celebrating Laudate si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

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

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Laudate si, repictured

A Rocky Mountain peak south of Lake Louise, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

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. Last year I discovered that September 1 had 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 read the revolutionary encyclical, and chose excerpts which I am presenting again this year, with a new selection of pictures of the great luminous beauty of our world. 

Always reflecting Pope Francis’ deep concern for the plight of the poor, the lengthy letter 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. The encyclical 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. Francis 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 the easing of consumerism, and even takes the time to urge his readers to return to the small celebration of saying grace before meals. He talks about the importance of appreciating beauty, so that we will want to preserve it. That, naturally, is where I come in, combining Pope Francis’ words and photos of our gorgeous earth.

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.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

It is not enough…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.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Mushroom after a rainy winter 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.

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California

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.

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

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

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, 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.

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

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.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

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.

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

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

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.

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

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.

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

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.

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

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

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York

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A season of birds

Ducklings in Corte Madera Marsh in Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordSpring began with a small avalanche of ducklings. Next door in Marin is the Corte Madera Marsh, a remnant of a vast area of marsh, estuary, and mudflats that once formed the margins of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. For the most part, these wetlands now hold houses, Route 101, schools, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers. But over 1,000 acres have been preserved along the eastern edge of the city of Corte Madera.

An old railroad bed maintained as a dike to prevent flooding creates a lagoon that is a haven for shorebirds. The dike has a wide gravel trail on top, so you walk right into the heart of their world. Ducks and geese are regulars, as are egrets, especially in the fall, when pelicans also show up. Black-necked stilts wade the edges on their long, jagged legs. An oystercatcher flies by occasionally.

A season of birds-white pelicans in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordThere are great blue herons, though I’m more likely to see one taking off then standing in the marsh. Endangered rails breed here, but I didn’t see any this year. Hawks hover and dive. Dark sparrows flit along the edges of the paths. Red-wing blackbirds announce spring from the tops of reeds.

The first family of ducks showed up before Easter and were quickly followed by another, and another. There were at least ten broods as the season progressed. The sheer adorableness of this cascade of ducklings was so addicting that I began to walk along the lagoon almost every day. As the earlier-born grew to adolescence, a new, tiny bunch would be zipping across the water like bugs, coming to a screeching halt, turning around and zipping back to their mother. When not moving at top speed, they were constantly flipping themselves over. Practice, I assumed, for their later bottoms-up feeding. 

A season of birds-black necked stilt with four eggs in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black necked stilt, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

They preferred the narrow canal that leads off the lagoon, so they were close at hand. There was one goose family, but it stayed in the larger pond, and could only be seen clearly with binoculars. Later in the season, black-necked stilts suddenly began squawking and dive-bombing me as I passed. So I knew that they, too, had babies to protect. Sure enough, tiny balls of feathers on minute sticks of legs were investigating the edges of small pools, tucked away from the other bird families. Stilt parents are far fiercer than ducks, but they have a harder, chancier job. They have fewer babies at once, and their eggs, laid on the gravel on the edge of the water, are precarious. The only two stilt families I saw close at hand had one and two chicks.

A season of birds-black necked stilt chick in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black necked stilt chick, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

Without a population of predators like fox or snapping turtles, the duck families prospered. They lost some babies to hawks, one family getting down to five from a start of twelve. Their mother seemed to have disappeared, and I worried about them until they grew up. All families lost some little ones, except for one, which had a goose attached. From the time they were bits of fluff until they were fully grown, I never saw them without their goose. She clearly saw herself as a guardian. It was she who hung back for the wayward duckling — and there is always a wayward duckling — when the others moved on with their mother. She even shepherded a duckling from another family, who, lost and madly chirping, realized it had been left behind. The goose made sure all was well before rejoining her brood. 

 

I was fascinated by this menage, which seemed to be a great success. If I had any doubt about the efficacy of having a goose as part of a duck family, it disappeared one evening when the whole feather armada was softly gliding by me. Mother ducks have a quiet flow of chirps and clucks when they want to warn their family. The goose, however, when spooked by someone walking on the other side of the canal, honked like mad. All thirteen ducklings instantly scooted ahead, seeming to skim right across the top of the water, each leaving a wake.

Ducklings grow up satisfyingly slowly, by bird standards. But by the beginning of July, they were all grown up. I was somewhat consoled by the stilt babies, though they, in contrast, grew much faster. As I was mourning my loss, black-crowned night herons suddenly showed up, standing stock still at the end of the canal, silent and brooding, apparently unafraid of humans. They breed in a small pond across the highway, so perhaps these were the young beginning their exploration of the world. Several egrets seemed to settle in for the summer, picking their way in slow motion along the shore, stopping, making a lightning jab into the water, and coming up with a small fish held in their beak.

A season of birds-black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black crowned night heron, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

That I could enjoy living among these birds is a testament to conservation efforts. These marshes have been under assault since the gold rush and early lumbering days, which drove tons of sediment down rivers, into the bays. As with many things in our rush to control and build on top of nature, we didn’t understand the importance of wetlands until we realized — often too late — their role in absorbing flood waters, in providing the bottom elements of the food chain for fish, in buffering inland areas from the constant flux at the edges of large bodies of water, in the life cycle of birds. 

In the nineteenth century, pioneers used to marvel at something the Native Americans had known for millennia: spring and fall skies darkened by the numbers of migrating birds. Flying from forest to forest, meadow to meadow, marsh to marsh, millions of birds would make their way north and south along great flyways for breeding and wintering. At the farthest ends of their range, in the Arctic and in Patagonia, for examples, wild, open spaces still abound. But along the way, their stopping places have lost ground to houses and offices, been broken up by roads and parking lots. Forests have been cut down. Marshes have been filled to make them buildable.

A season of birds-Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordBird populations are in decline without their familiar habitat. In the 1980s, when I first moved into my house at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, the springtime calling and singing of birds would wake me at five AM with delightful, uproarious bedlam. By the time I left twenty-eight years later, that had ceased.

In the Corte Madera Marsh, however, the breeding population is larger than it was a century ago, when egrets and herons were hunted so their feathers could decorate hats, the wetlands were already being filled in for buildings, and the railroad had cut through it. Designed for wildlife and flood protection, the restoration of my bird-filled marsh was the result of a trade made when a local shopping center was constructed. Once a dredge spoil dump for the Army Corps of Engineers, the restored pond not only houses birds that have nested there historically, but new ones, like stilts and the occasional tern, have started breeding there. 

A season of birds-egret, Corte Madera Marsh flying over the Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Egret, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

While restoration can’t recreate the original complexity of an ecosystem millions of years in the making, and is no substitute for preservation, it has a crucial role in fostering the health of our earth and its creatures, including us. Even — perhaps especially — in the midst of urban areas, where we tend to be cut off from both the solace and importance of the natural world. When I took the picture below, Route 101 was buzzing with commuter traffic at my back. Just south of where I stood is a shopping center. At night, in the preserve across the pond, homeless people take shelter. Human life, in all its complexity, is teeming here. 

Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordThe lagoon matters. I stopped to speak to a maintenance man at the pump that lowers the water level when storms are expected. “People call and complain,” he said, “if the water stays low too long.” He was resigned, but I was delighted. It means that the people rushing by are noticing, relishing the links to the larger natural world the preserve supplies.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of blue sky reflecting in still water, birds floating and flying, the marsh and pond are fed by far vaster forces: the ebb and flow of the bay, the power of the rivers flowing into it, the cold depths of the great ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to their immediate visual delight, the birds, descendants of dinosaurs, connect us to the mysteries of deep time, as do the plants on the edge of the pond, evolving through eons to clean the water, create breathable air, feed the birds. These are the wider gifts of preservation and restoration, and the rewards of the work we do to ensure them.

A season of birds-black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black-crowned night heron, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

Bees love tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) shown with a bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm. 

This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about. 

Bees love prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas

Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world. 

Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them. 

Bees love camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.

Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.

Beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower right are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae. You can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups at the bottom right are for drones. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Bees on a beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower leftt are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae, from which will emerge adult bees. At the top center, you can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups along the left hand frame are for drones.

The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.

All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.

Bees love wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

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

Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860. 

Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.

Bees love western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.

Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.

Bees love red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.

Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.

Bees love smooth aster (Aster laevis) taken at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Smooth aster (Aster laevis) at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin

Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us. 

Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise

Bees love strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado. There is a bee dedicated to pollinating cactus flowers.

In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.

Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.

Bees love blue wild iris (Iris missouriensis) taken in Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

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Blessed unrest: the bioblitz

Silver puffs (Uropappus lindleyi) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Silver puffs (Uropappus lindleyi) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I’d never seen the word bioblitz until I got my first invitation to one. It had instant appeal: join a group of volunteers to survey a specific area, in an effort to catalog every species you find. Being on the ground taking photos of plants and bugs is one of my favorite things to do. Doing it to gather information for organizations who protect these lands made it even more appealing. And doing it with a group of people made it fun. So off I went.

And it was just like that. Sponsored by the Marin County Parks Department and an organization called One Tam, volunteers met at Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve and divided into four groups. Ours went to a meadow and immediately began photographing and discussing grasses, seed heads, insects, leaves, flowers. For the most part, we took photos with our phones, because as we went we were uploading our observations to an app called iNaturalist.

California brome (Bromus californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California

California brome (Bromus californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Even though the point of the photos is information, not aesthetics, I’m used to photographing slowly, and the app was new to me. The group spread out, leaving me happily immersed in grasses since the wildflowers had largely finished in that dry meadow. I enjoyed the chatter drifting back as my fellow blitzers debated the finer points of identification. This went on for about three hours, and then we went to a local library to have lunch, continue plant identification, and upload observations to iNaturalist.

In the short time since, the word bioblitz keeps popping up. Memories of my wonderful time in Missouri came back when I received the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s newsletter, announcing an upcoming bioblitz. I looked up others in Marin, and there have been plenty. It’s a popular project with schools. The one I went to was One Tam’s third this season. I don’t know where I’ve been, since the word has been around since the 1990’s, first used by the National Park Service, who do one in a different park every year. Last year they had a burst of them to celebrate the park service’s centennial. They happen all over the world.

A clover seedhead in the Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

A clover seedhead in the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

There have always been species studies of various kinds. Some are strictly academic, with areas carefully plotted and divided by stakes, then monitored over seasons and years. There are other community species counts, like the Christmas bird counts held in many places. One of the things I loved about my bioblitz was its casual seriousness. The surveys are important for the care and planning of these areas, and some of the people were very knowledgeable. But anyone can come, learn, be part of taking care of the natural world. The more experienced people helped me navigate iNaturalist and identify plants. And I helped one man, who, seeing that I’d switched to my SLR camera with its telephoto lens, came up with a bug on his arm.

On that warm, windy Saturday, out under the blue sky, counting living things, we were one of the millions of threads that Paul Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. One Tam is the Tamalpais Lands Collaborative, an environmental organization created in 2014 to help coordinate the work of five other groups for the benefit of Mount Tamalpais, its parks, and watershed. Their job is to pool the expertise and resources, and coordinate the efforts of the National Park Service, California State Parks, Marin County Parks, Marin Municipal Water District, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

California oat grass (Danthonia californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

California oat grass (Danthonia californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I heard about the bioblitz via Marin’s chapter of the California Native Plant Society, a real force for knowledge about and preservation of native plants throughout the state. Such groups rely on ardent volunteers for help, and often for their existence. More occasional volunteers show up for days of species counting and cataloging, removing weeds, planting natives.

iNaturalist, which started in 2008 as a graduate project, is now connecting naturalists, professional and casual, all over the world. It has almost 500,000 active users. In the week before my bioblitz, 5,497 of us signed up. My 29 observations were a tiny fraction of the 15,000 that were added in the twenty-four hours between May 20 and 21. A worldwide endeavor to create “a living record of life on earth,” iNat itself, now part of the California Academy of Sciences, feeds its data to other organizations, like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Thus, once home after the bioblitz, and uploading observations to iNaturalist, I was connected to ever more threads in a widening community. I listed my observations on my own page,  and added them to the One Tam Gary Giacomini Bioblitz project. The next thing I knew people in the iNatualist community were filling in missing identifiers. That prompted me to keep exploring to get closer to the actual species. After looking at caterpillars online until my eyes crossed, I remembered that another member of our group had pointed out the one above, so went to see how he identified his photo. He had a question mark on his find, but I kept checking and went with it. The second I typed in ‘white-lined sphinx moth,’ iNat’s Identotron popped up with a page of taxonomy. Then a group called ‘Moths of California’ picked it up.

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist's Identotron

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist’s Identotron

This was very addicting. I began to look at bugs. I searched online for ‘gray metallic beetle’, then added ‘insect’ when I got a lot of Volkswagens. The closest one I could find landed me on BugGuide.net. I signed up and posted a bug ID request for the beetle below. Almost immediately someone came back with metallic wood boring beetle, in the family Buprestidae. Since there are almost 400,000 species of beetles, this was close enough to make me perfectly happy. Delighted with that experience, I did another bug, and located its family.

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

I’ve written before about how much comfort I take in the millions of people Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest. At a time when so much seems to be unraveling, the idea that a simple bug identification request can link me to an insect lover somewhere in the world, promises something else. The bioblitz I did is connected to all other such days and the people who participate in them. The preserve I was in is named after a county superintendent who was instrumental in land preservation. The network of groups that sponsored the day represents thousands of dedicated public servants and volunteers, who donate serious amounts of time and money. The North American Native Plant Society has located at least one native plant group in every US state and Canadian province. The California Native Plant Society is a conservation powerhouse with 35 chapters. All that was connected to this one small bioblitz in one small area of the world.

Slender clarkia (Clarkia gracilis) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Slender clarkia (Clarkia gracilis) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Our earth is at great risk from actions and inactions on many layers — governance, corporate, private. Our definition of economic progress includes seeing the world as a resource to be despoiled for profit. Countering that are millions of people weaving a net both by their individual actions and by their work as part of a community or organization. We are the embodiment of the beautiful Hindu image of Indra’s net, the web stretched across the heavens by the great god, reaching into infinity.

At every intersection of the threads, he set a glittering jewel, each reflecting every other in the vast expanse. Nothing exists alone. Everything we do radiates from one gem to another, ad infinitum. Action works both ways: every thread that is destroyed echoes through the whole. But every thread that is woven or rewoven also resonates throughout. I like to think of the net in constant motion, like a jeweled spider web in a soft breeze, moving gently but persistently with the steady reverberations of our blessed unrest.

Unidentified grass in the Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Unidentified grass in the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

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Retaining paradise: gardening with native plants

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) San Ramon, California

As a landscape designer, I specialized in native plants. When I first started my business in the 1980s, the workers at a local wholesale nursery called me ‘the weed lady.’ I was always asking for plants that everyone else was pulling out. Even clients attracted by my natural landscaping approach would propose that first ‘we get rid of all these weeds.’ I would gently point out that those were the plants that made the landscape natural. I gave lots of lectures about native plants, back in slide-show days, with pictures of the glories all around us. Why, I would ask, live in a house in an area of distinct beauty, and then make it look like everywhere else? By the time I retired, attitudes had shifted enough that local nurseries were competing with each other for the largest stock of indigenous plants, and several were growing them from local seed. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) orange native plants, El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California

With a few exceptions, I didn’t use natives exclusively. In southern New York, at the far eastern end of Long Island, there were too few native perennials to create lush, all-summer-bloom gardens. And the browsing hordes of deer meant that unfenced gardens needed deer-resistant plants, which were not necessarily native. My own property bordered on a preserve, so I had my fill of the beauties of native Long Island: switchgrass, little bluestem, bayberry, blueberry, shad, cedar, wild roses. Before the deer decided to include them on their menu, the early summer meadow was dotted with butterfly weed, and the fall meadow would be filled with goldenrod and asters.

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) yellow flowered native plants in San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) San Ramon, California

But near the house, where I wanted a summer full of scent and color, I stayed with the aromatic Mediterranean plants that deer don’t like: sages, lavender, catmint. I mixed these with grasses and deer resistant shrubs. This was an approach that worked with any open, sunny, deer-prone property. But even without deer, people understandably want to be able to enjoy the beauty of a blooming summer. On Long Island that meant non-natives in garden beds. So I looked for plants that behaved like natives: didn’t need lots of water during the heat waves, could cope with wet feet in the winter, and didn’t need to be sprayed for bugs. Most importantly, for the sake of the nitrate-susceptible waters surrounding us and the aquifer below, plants that weren’t dependent on fertilizer. 

California wild rose (Rosa California) pink flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California wild rose (Rosa California) Novato, California

It’s in the larger plants that Long Island natives excel, and I planted a lot of native shrubs. Loathing the ubiquitous walls of privet hedge that close off the landscape, I loved to create thickets of native trees and shrubs that would bloom in spring, produce bird-enticing berries all summer, and beautiful leaf color in the fall. Planted thickly enough, this approach produces plenty of privacy. Even better, whether on the property or passing by it, you were looking at Long Island, and not any prosperous suburb anywhere in the country.

During my wonderful weekend with Joanna Macy in early April, I was one of several people in the landscaping business. Susan Friedman, a landscape architect, told me that four of her native plant gardens were on a garden tour on May 7. So, off I went to see the California approach, on that tour and another the following week.

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), purple flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), Novato, California

California has far more native perennials and grasses than New York, so it’s easier to create entirely native gardens. The biggest issue, once the winter rains are finished, is water. Natives are ideally suited for the dry months, since that’s exactly what they evolved to cope with. None of Susan’s clients wanted thirsty lawns, so stonework became an important part of the design: paths, a patio area around a pool, striking boulders set among the plants. Dry stream beds thread through the gardens. They are not only natural design elements — the California coastal hills are very rocky — but act as catch basins, absorbing runoff from winter downpours. This keeps water in the ground longer, protects the soil, and prevents downhill streams from erosive flooding. Among the rocks were the glorious, thriving plants, echoing the hills beyond.

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus 'Butter Yellow') yellow-flowering native plants, in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus “Butter Yellow’) in Novato, California

Why plant natives? In a neighborhood stripped of its natural vegetation and already filled with the artificial environment of buildings and roads, does it really matter what we put in our gardens? As long as we forgo plants that require poisons or scarce water to survive, and choose among the vast array that can be grown organically, what harm are we doing by enjoying plants that are native to Japan, or the Mediterranean, or Eurasia? In many cases, there is no harm, if that’s our criteria. I loved my blue-flowered, fragrant Mediterranean plants, which made bees very happy and were perfectly content to prosper with little water and a yearly dose of compost. I welcome daffodils and tulips in the spring. I’m delighted to catch the scent of luscious peonies in flowery cottage gardens, behind fences covered with hardy roses.

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea), pink-flowering native plants in El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea) El Sobrante, California

But there is a serious danger, and it’s often too late once the harm is discovered. Purple loosestrife was a popular garden plant, a Eurasian import introduced in the 1800s. It took generations before it was obvious that it was a rampant pest, choking lakes and river banks, and destroying marshes in so many places that it’s banned in over thirty states. Tall, handsome pampas grass from South America seemed an ideal addition to dry California landscapes; now it’s spreading onto coastal hillsides and taking over wetlands. Privet, from China, seemed to be such an ideal hedge you can find it boxing off properties from coast to coast, but it’s filling forest understories in every southeastern state. Autumn olive, an Asian import planted widely for erosion control, was prized for its quick growth and soft, silvery foliage. Now, among many other places, it’s infesting the great river canyons in Utah. 

There’s a long list of noxious garden escapees that are crowding out indigenous species. Nearly half of our at-risk natives and 20% of the endangered ones are threatened by non-native invaders. So, if we prize our natural landscapes, exotics of any kind are a potential threat. In a world full of flower lovers, served by a nursery trade dependent on offering new, tempting varieties each year, this is a complicated problem. We are bucking evolution when we move plants from one part of the world to another, whether for gardening or agriculture. The factors that control invasive behavior in one place — birds, bugs, soil chemistry, climate — may not be there in another. Interactions are unpredictable, even when all seems well for many years.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) purple flowered native plants, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Novato, California

Using native plants in gardens is one solution to this multi-layered problem, but it isn’t the only reason to plant for the place we’re in. Reducing our use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water is another compelling reason. As gardeners and homeowners, our vast numbers put us in the forefront of efforts to keep our groundwater, air, and soil healthy. Offering birds, butterflies, and bees the plants they have evolved with protects their habitat and numbers. One gardener on the tour hosts 46 species of birds, 12 species of butterflies, and more than 200 species of insects. If all the homes in a neighborhood created native plant landscapes, it would form a greenbelt of food and nesting sources. Add on more neighborhoods taking the same approach, and you’re knitting together significant territory for wildlife, who leave areas that get too chopped up.  

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata 'Mt. Garland'), magenta-flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata ‘Mt. Garland’) Novato, California.

These are wonderful reasons for planting natives. And there’s more. For me, preserving the natural landscape is as much a spiritual question as a practical one. Native plants are the soul of their place. The hills surrounding me right now, with their coast oaks, manzanitas, sages, buckwheats, mariposa lilies, sweeps of goldfields, purple needle grass, and hosts of other drought-tolerant, hardy, beautiful plants, speak to me of the spirit of the northern coast of California. Their language is very distinct from the oak/hickory forests, full of mountain laurel, sweet pepperbush and swamp azaleas, or the rolling dunes white with blooming beach plum that I knew on coastal Long Island. And both are utterly unlike the blowing grasses, coneflowers, rudbeckias, and sand lilies of the open prairies. Those plants, in turn, speak a different dialect than those in the deserts of the southwest, or the canyons of Utah, or the mountains of Alberta.

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) white flowered native plants, El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) El Sobrante, California

When we replace these varied and specific languages with another, often generic one, we detach ourselves from the spirit of the land we are part of. I was blessed to live for many years in a place of great and wild beauty. Traveling for the past few years has brought me through one paradise after another. The way we have arranged our towns and cities has created far too many dead landscapes, cutting us off from feeling an intimate bond with the unbounded beauty and energy of the earth that created us. This is a great loss because loving the place we find ourselves gives us the courage and vitality to preserve it. Connecting to the plants that are the life of native landscapes literally roots us in the ground of our being.

Orange California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with purple blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium vellum) native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) Novato, California

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

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The Work that Reconnects: a weekend with Joanna Macy

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I did something recently that I’ve been putting off for a long time: I joined Joanna Macy and twenty-eight other people for a weekend of the Work that Reconnects, workshops she has been developing and offering since the 1970s. I knew of Joanna as a philosopher of both ecology and Buddhism, full of wisdom and deep practice on both fronts. Over the years I would see opportunities to join her. I’d carefully read the description, which always included confronting our deep pain about what is happening with the earth. It sounded profound; it sounded like something I should do; it sounded very painful. I would decide to do it another time. 

There were several threads that went into joining Joanna this spring. I am in Marin for now, just across the San Francisco Bay from her home in Berkeley. She is in her mid-eighties, and I wanted to be able to work with her before she completely passes the baton to others. I listened to an interview with her which made me realize how delightful she is, so I could assume delight would be part of the workshop. And I was in such pain at the drastic backward lurch we took with last fall’s election, that I figured I couldn’t feel any worse. I might even see my way to some clarity and faith, since the weekend was called, after her book of the same title, “Active Hope: how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy.” 

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) taken in Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

As with many things we dread, it wasn’t what I feared. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend. The work was even familiar, similar to practices I’d done some years ago at my beloved Genesis Farm, a spiritual and ecological center in New Jersey. There, as here, I sat in circles large and small, paired up, went off alone, all to explore not only what I felt, but where such feelings could lead me, how to operate with them and beyond them. Once again, with Joanna’s group, I learned how much I share with others, and how much comfort their presence on the journey gives me.

There is, sadly, an unending amount of pain and anger to be felt when we are alive to what’s happening on our planet: the loss of habitat, the rate of extinction, the pollution of oceans and rivers, the unraveling of polar integrity as the climate warms, the struggles of species, including our own. The list is literally endless. Though I spend a lot of my time in continual concern about and celebration of plants, when I answered prompts that asked for my worst fears or deepest hopes, my first response was often about the suffering of people:  hungry children, trapped women, exploited workers, refugees with nowhere to go, indigenous people losing their homes and sacred places. The thinking behind the devastation of the natural world is the same thinking that exploits and degrades humans.

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

This heightened awareness led to one of the most memorable moments of the weekend. I’ve always assumed that the earth could survive us better than we can survive each other. That, if necessary, she would eventually shrug us off her beautiful shoulders and get on with her very long life. Animals and plants are resilient. Cities would eventually crumble, plants would take root in the rubble, creatures would spread out into their ancient habitats. Other life forms would eventually evolve. There was a certain grief-filled comfort in this. 

Then Joanna led an exercise called ‘milling,’ where we walked around our space aimlessly until she had us stop. We took the hands of the person nearest us and looked into his or her eyes while Joanna spoke of the profound beauty of seeing this unique and precious being, the only one that will ever be. Then we moved on. After about five encounters, we stopped.

Later that day, in another context, a young, radiant rabbi, pregnant with her first child, said that she, too, had always thought the earth would be fine without us. “But,” she said, “when we were milling, I realized that the earth loves us.” 

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) taken in the Charmlee Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I was very moved by her, and by everyone there, especially the young people, finding their way. There were heart-rending moments. A man in his mid-twenties wept at the speed of the earth’s losses, and the despair that he can do anything to stop them. Several of his contemporaries wondered if they should bring children into this world. A young woman whose baby had just turned one talked about how much she feels mothers are shamed in our society. Our rabbi spoke of having to be strong for her congregation, who are terrified of the anti-semitism unleashed in the last year.  One woman is afraid the ocean will be dead by the time her 12-year-old daughter, who wants to be a marine biologist, is ready. Another young man talked about trying to resist the lure of violent protest.

Anguish and rage can rise easily when we let them. But we are often afraid to give them space because we have no idea what to do with their force. By closing difficult emotions off, we risk numbing our ability to respond to the urgencies of this time. Or we can be all too willing to feel them, but not to release them, and then be immobilized by a tangle of despair and fury. The constant barrage of things to feel bad about is overwhelming and deeply dispiriting. No matter how much we want to help, we feel like hummingbirds taking a drop of water to a wildfire

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Joanna has been a Buddhist since the 1960s, when she went to India for the Peace Corps, with her husband and children. Her work took her among newly arrived refugees from Tibet: the young Dalai Lama and the monks that had fled Chinese occupation. Inspired by the peaceful good humor radiating from them, despite all they had been through, she began to study Buddhism, and eventually became a teacher.

So it would be natural that her solution to the problem of pain is simple, ancient and very challenging: be present. Allow it. Breathe it into our hearts and give it room, give it time. Let ourselves mourn and rage. No matter how large or overwhelming, grant whatever comes the space it asks for. And then, breathing out, release it. In all, a process that might require a lot of steady breathing.

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I loved being with Joanna. She is an embodiment of the work she offered us — by turns joyful, angry, full of grief, impish, wise, questioning, organizing, open to the flow. She’s a living version of The Guest House, Rumi’s poem about embracing everything. 

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

That was the steadily opening heart of the weekend: embrace it all, accord whatever comes its place, release it back into the flow, carry on with your thread in the fabric. These difficult emotions arise from our greatest gift as humans: compassion. Joanna moved us through an ever-renewing spiral, from gratitude, to honoring our pain, to renewing our vision, to going forth with the part of the work that we have chosen, or that has chosen us. “Our approach,’ she says in her book, Active Hope, ‘is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness.”

The pictures chosen for this essay come from a time when my only choice was to live with pain. My partner, George, was dangerously ill with kidney failure, from a reaction to blood pressure medication. There was no possibility of fending off the dread and heartache. I could only do exactly as Joanna said: allow it. I would walk into the Santa Monica Mountains and feel one emotion after another: sadness, fear, anger, love, pity. And, with all of that, transcendence. It was spring, wildflowers were blooming, and they were my solace. Grief, which rose from loving, could also be comforted by loving. 

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Damage to the world and its people, which comes from greed and obliviousness, will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings that we are a part of. This is no simple, ‘love, sweet love’ invocation. The kind of love we need is complex, educated, dedicated to human and more-than-human community.

To rethink the way we do things, we need to rethink what we treasure. We need to re-embed our wisp of human history into the long, deep time of earth history. A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world is the most nourishing gift we can give both the earth and ourselves. If it’s clear that we are the planet, instead of on the planet, our choices — and our courage to make them — will change dramatically. 

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

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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.

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