Pursuing mystery: how we found out lichen has a third partner and is saving the earth

Mixed lichen and moss on a stick Mount Tamalpais, California by Betsey-CrawfordFor 150 years lichen has been known to be a combination of two life forms. The outside is a fungal matrix, rather like the crust of a baguette,  which gives structure and protection to the softer, more filamentous inside, formed by one of the algae family, or occasionally a cyanobacteria. These latter two provide nutrients for themselves and the protective fungus via photosynthesis. The word symbiosis (Greek for ‘living with’) was coined in 1868 specifically to describe lichen’s interrelationships. When I wrote my first post about lichen two years ago, this is where our knowledge stood. A few months later, that changed. A hidden partner had been found, and the story of that discovery is wonderful. 

As is appropriate to its subject, the entire project was a symbiosis. Montana lichenologist Toby Spribille was inspired by an essay by British Columbia lichenologist Trevor Goward. Trailing like long strands of hair from the branches of Pacific Northwest trees are two lichens formed by exactly the same fungus and alga. But they are different colors. Tortured horsehair lichen (Bryoria tortuosa) is greenish yellow, a result of the production of toxic vulpinic acid. Edible horsehair lichen (Bryoria fremontii), also called wila, is dark brown, does not produce a toxin, and was an important food for indigenous northwest peoples. They were thought to be different until genetic testing came along, so we need to include the genome pioneers in the team.

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Growing up in Montana, Spribille had always been fascinated by the forests of hanging lichen. But he may well never have been in a position to explore them. Despite his yearning to study science, he was home-schooled in a family that didn’t believe in it, so he couldn’t do so until he left home. Then he was faced with the hurdles of finding a university he could afford that would accept him without a formal high school degree. He heard that European schools are more open to people like him. Since his family spoke the language, he went to Germany, where the University of Gottingen took him in.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Graz in Austria, Spribille showed up at the McCutcheon Lab at the University of Montana, which specializes in symbiosis. ‘I study lichens,’ he said, and was warmly welcomed by John McCutcheon, who urged him to study genomics, as well. Genetic analysis was crucial to his discovery since scientists have spent many years probing lichens under powerful microscopes without seeing the hidden partner. Inspired by Goward’s query, he began poking around in the Bryoria genome to see what caused the two seemingly identical lichens to be different.

A lichen called tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska

Even with genetics on his side, and the McCutcheon team to brainstorm with, Spribille couldn’t find anything new until he decided to expand his search. The fungi long associated with lichen are from the Ascomycota family, and he looked for their genes first. Then he decided to look more broadly at the whole fungal kingdom and discovered genes from the Basidiomycota family, home of the types of mushrooms we’re used to eating. Excited but doubtful, the team wondered if they’d stumbled on a passing impurity or an infection. It wasn’t until he took the basidiomycetes data out of his calculations that he saw that the production of vulpinic acid went, too. That, he says, was the eureka moment.

Actually seeing the fungus cells involved high tech genetic tagging with fluorescent colors to visually separate the alga and the two fungi. It also involved — my favorite detail — a very low tech trip to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent. The basidiomycetes were under a crust of polysaccharides on the surface of the lichen, and Spribille used the soap to dissolve the coating. That enabled him to tag the newly found yeast cells with their own color and to see that they surround the lichen, embedded in the outer cortex. The yellow Bryoria tortuosa had lots more of the yeast than the edible brown fremontii, which is what enables the former to produce vulpinic acid. 

Old man's beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Old man’s beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Soon after he hit his eureka moment, scientists all over the world got involved, and it was quickly found, now that they knew what to look for, that varieties of the newly discovered Cyphobasidium yeasts showed up in 52 other genera on six continents. As with the Bryoria, their presence helps explain differences in appearance in genetically similar lichen. The team expands, the search continues, and the lichen world is forever changed. 

I’ve planned for a while to update my lichen post. What got me thinking about it now is my fascination with the origins of Project Drawdown, which I wrote about in my last post. It started with Paul Hawken asking a question no one else was asking. In his case, it was ‘what are we already doing that can actually reverse global warming?’ It seems like such an obvious thing to ask, and yet brilliant scientists and policymakers weren’t doing so. Like Isaac Newton wondering why the apples in his orchard fell downward and not sideways, many seemingly simple questions, asked by people who then proceed to pursue the mystery, revolutionize our knowledge and perceptions. 

Snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Photo by Betsey Crawford

White snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Note the light and dark lichen on the rock.

Surprises in the lichen world are rare enough that the story made headlines. The more attention, the better, since lichens are crucial to the health of our planet. We know this because another team pursued a question no one had asked. Climate researchers have long studied the amount of carbon held in oceans and forests. But it wasn’t until 2012 that scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany wondered about the carbon impact of cryptograms, which are photosynthesizers that don’t flower, like mosses, algae, and lichen. 

Together these tiny life forms cover 30% of the earth’s plant-bearing soil surfaces. Lichen alone covers 8% of the planet, which closes in on 16 million square miles. The team found that cryptograms sequester about 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s 12.7 gigatons, which is the measurement used in Drawdown. The number one solution there is estimated to make a difference of 89.74 gigatons between now and 2050. Using simple multiplication (though I suspect it’s more complicated than that) lichen and its cohorts could sequester over 400 gigatons by then.

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California

The carbon cycle is the most widely studied and reported aspect of global warming. Also crucial is the nitrogen cycle, which, now wildly out of balance, is producing another dangerous greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. There, too, the cryptograms shine, by taking close to 50 million tons of nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil each year, where it’s a crucial nutrient. This is part of another important role they play: breaking down rock and creating and stabilizing soil in barren landscapes. 

Given all it provides for the stability of the earth’s fragile atmosphere, it’s ironic, and tragic, that global warming is itself the biggest threat to lichen’s existence. Though most of us rarely think about these life forms, we depend on them. But that shouldn’t surprise us. The slow wisdom of evolution put lichen in place 400 million years ago. DNA analysis shows us that the newly discovered yeasts joined forces with the original partners 100 million years ago. The cyanobacteria that sometimes takes the place of algae in the mix has been here for 2.5 billion years. They were the first photosynthesizers on the planet, creating the oxygen-rich world everything has depended on since.

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first human fossils are a mere 2.8 million years old. Our possibility lay in the same possibility of all the beings we share the planet with: cycles of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, water, soil building, plate tectonics and temperature regulation. These forces create and maintain the thin crust and surrounding atmosphere that provide our delicate envelope of life. Lichen’s carbon and nitrogen regulating abilities aren’t evolutionary accidents. They are traits carefully evolved to provide a living, breathing world for themselves and each subsequently evolving being. 

In a culture where embracing interconnections within our own species is a huge challenge, it may be hard to fathom how deeply our existence is interwoven with a being that is itself created by an interweaving of beings. All of earth’s forms, including ourselves, are both presence and possibility on our paths through existence. The whole planet is a symbiont, a network of intimately and intricately related parts, each evolving detail generating deepening possibilities for the whole.

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. All the white on the ground in this picture from the Tombstone Mountains in Yukon is a leafy lichen. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Here snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) lives up to its name in Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon.

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Project Drawdown: reversing global warming

A refrigerator full of vegetables incorporates 36 Project Drawdown solutions. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThis photo of my refrigerator, filled with its usual groceries, though much more attractively arranged than usual, represents some of the best and most exciting news I’ve ever heard. It goes back to a question environmentalist Paul Hawken posed: what can we do to reverse global warming? The standard research is devoted to ways to slow it down. But, Paul reasoned, if you’re on the wrong road, what’s the point of just slowing down? When he found that no one could answer his question, he began assembling a team to spearhead the research themselves. Project Drawdown expanded into a worldwide coalition of scientists and other experts who started gathering data and designing the system to analyze it. They came up with eighty things we can do today, and twenty that are still in the design stage. There were jaw-dropping surprises.

At bottom, there are only two things you can do with the excess airborne carbon and the other related chemicals causing global warming: prevent their emissions or sequester them. Sequestering means pulling carbon from the air into the ground. To prevent emissions, we need to rethink many of the ways we conduct the business of agriculture, land use, waste management, transportation, energy production, and building. Project Drawdown addresses all of this.

The solutions are ranked from one to one hundred, in order of the amount of atmospheric carbon each reduces or prevents. Costs and savings are measured against estimates for business as usual for the next thirty years. They aren’t ranked in the order of importance, because they are all crucial steps that need to be taken. And they upend a lot of presuppositions. After all, who knew? No one was asking.

Educating girls and providing access to birth control would be the number one Project Drawdown solution if combined. They are numbers 5 and 6. Photo by Les Anderson via Unsplash.

Educating girls and providing access to birth control would be the number one solution if combined. They are numbers 5 and 6. Photo by Les Anderson via Unsplash.

I would suspect most of us would think transportation — cars, trucks, airplanes, shipping — would rank among the top ten. Not at all. They start in the thirties. To everyone’s amazement, refrigerant management was number one. “We were so disappointed,” Paul says. “So unsexy!” Which could also be said of reducing food waste, coming in at number three. Another huge surprise was that educating girls and providing widespread access to family planning are numbers five and six, and would be number one if combined. There are sixteen solutions that pertain to food. Together, especially if you add in transport, they would dwarf the rest in the amount of carbon reduced.

Which brings us back to my refrigerator. A plant-rich diet is #4. Managed grazing (milk, eggs) is #19. Indigenous land use and tropical forests (shade grown coffee, fair trade chocolate, heritage grains like quinoa) are #39 and #5.  Growing food among trees shows up in four solutions. New approaches to rice farming cover two. In fact, this refrigerator connects so many solutions, I made a map: 

What we do with our refrigerators involves 36 Project Drawdown solutions. Graphic by Betsey CrawfordThirty-six solutions, almost half of the eighty available today, are involved simply by our possession of a common household item and what we put in it. What we eat, how we grow our food, how we transport it, whether or not we waste it. How we power our refrigerator, how we get rid of it when it no longer works. The plastic we use when we buy our groceries. Whether we recycle and compost. Whether our population will outpace our ability to care for it. Our relationship with our refrigerator is so important that the top ten solutions, marked by the small hot pink ovals, are all there.

All these interconnections in something so simple and common represent one of the things that I love about Project Drawdown. The solutions aren’t complex and esoteric. They are all within our reach and some, like solar and wind power, are well underway. In fact, all of them are happening to some extent somewhere in the world. That was one of the guiding principles behind the research: what’s happening now? What do we already know? Scaling up is a doable challenge. Convincing ourselves, our representatives and the companies we deal with to move in these directions is a more complex challenge.

Onshore wind farms are the number two Project Drawdown solution. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Onshore wind turbines like these in southern California are the #2 solution, offshore is #22.

The Pachamama Alliance and Project Drawdown are teaming up to create a network of communities to spread the word. In March, I finished a five-session course given by the Alliance. Like the Drawdown website and book, the course was beautifully done and full of enthusiasm. I was delighted to find that things that make my eyes glaze over, like refrigerant management and green cement, fire other people up. Being a plant person, I immediately gravitated to agricultural and land use issues. But they all connect in so many ways that every solution will eventually meet at one intersection or another.

The passionate excitement around the project is a huge blessing. According to Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and economist, thirty years of scary, hard-to-fathom scientific evidence for climate disruption have actually driven people to lose the interest and faith many had in the 1980s and 90s. People feel helpless and resistant when faced with apocalyptic framing. It’s important to know that installing solar panels, supporting organic farmers, especially local ones, buying LED lights, composting and recycling are all important things every one of us can do. Promoting causes like educating girls, saving forests, and preserving indigenous land really makes a difference.

Women grow 70% of the food worldwide, mostly on small farms. But women smallholders don't have the same access to resources and rights. With that access, their yield would rise by up to 30%, limiting the drive for deforestation for more land. Photo by Annie Sprat.

Women grow 70% of the food worldwide, mostly on small farms. But women smallholders (solution #62) don’t have the same access to resources and rights as men do. With that access, their yield would rise by up to 30%, limiting the drive for deforestation for more land. Photo by Annie Sprat via Unsplash.

These solutions are also important social justice issues and therein lie more connections. As we rethink the way we operate in the present, for the sake of the future, we will redress very profound injuries done to the earth and many of its people: the abrogation of rights, lands, and cultures; the dumping of toxic waste, especially in poor areas; the contamination of air, water and soil; the decimation of forests and wetlands; the sky-rocketing extinction of species. 

A wonderful bonus of all these interconnections is that we can all find something that matters to us, and in helping further one cause, help further many more. We literally have a ready-made to-do list. In our class of sixteen, each of us chose a solution to pursue, and none overlapped. One man is taking a green cement proposal to his local school district, which has a building plan in the works. A chef is working with a landscape designer on a concept called agrihoods. One woman is pursuing tropical forests and regenerative agriculture. Another is planning to raise money for girls’ education. One of my plans is to pursue the various threads involving trees. I’m also planning to keep in touch with John about agrihoods, explore local farms with Justine, and donate money to the organization Ruth sets up. This is the profound blessing of gathering in community, which is central to the mission of the Pachamama Alliance.

Managed grazing is Project Drawdown solution #19. Here portable chicken coops are moved to an area recently grazed by cows. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Managed grazing is #19. Here portable chicken coops (solar powered!) are moved to an area recently grazed by cows whose pats attract bugs for the chickens to eat. The chickens are mostly uninterested in grass, so it has a chance to regrow after the cow’s recent grazing. Both fertilize the soil.

I’ve been a fan of Paul Hawken since I bought the perfect shovel from the Smith and Hawken catalog thirty years ago. He was a pioneering green entrepreneur, and I admired what he was trying to do with his business. His research into the millions of organizations worldwide working to save the planet has consoled and inspired me for a decade. He’s well known in the environmental and green business world, but he heads no large, clout-bearing organization. The first Drawdown office was the Zoom internet conference app. 

A tiny team with a tiny amount of money sent out word to academics the world over to see if anyone was interested in the project. They were inundated with responses and chose seventy highly trained Project Drawdown fellows from twenty-two countries who will continue to explore and refine their projections. As the information started to come in, they expanded the community with a 128-member Advisory Board to review it, so the science behind the recommendations would be impeccable. 

Preserving and restoring forests are major Project Drawdown land use solutions. Here is preserved forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Preserving and restoring forests are major land use solutions. This regenerating forest is in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I usually do my best not to keep using the same word over and over, but I find, despite dozens of suggestions in the thesaurus, that there is no adequate substitute for community, an excellent metaphor for life in general. One man with a question no one else is asking becomes a small community. They reach out and add seventy more. Soon over two hundred people are involved. Other whole communities — organizations like the Pachamama Alliance, businesses, universities, governing bodies — come on board and their members reach out to create communities. That’s exactly what I’m doing now, hoping you will bring the news to your communities. Together we can transform an existential crisis into an opportunity to reimagine how we want to preserve and share the beauties and bounties of the earth.

Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey is full of Project Drawdown solutions, including the array of solar panels in the lower right. Photo by Betsey Crawford


Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey is full of Drawdown solutions, starting with the array of solar panels in the lower right. Others include organic farming, forest preservation, recycling, water saving, plant-rich diet and composting.

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Eostre and the Universe Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mysteries at my feet

Mysterious linear tracks f desert wildlife at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordThe lines showed up one morning, on a section of my walk where the sand, driven over by a tractor, is unusually soft and easily shows imprints of desert wildlife. Lizard tails, I thought. I checked carefully for signs of tiny lizard feet but didn’t see any indentations along the lines. About a mile on, they showed up again, this time in the dry desert sand. So it had to be something with enough weight to mark that crustier sand. Still no footprints. Snakes, I thought, and, when I saw that several lines converged at a hole in the desert floor, I took that as confirmation.

Mystery tracks of desert wildlife at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordMore lines showed up each day. They kept converging on holes. They often led to the base of bushes. They hadn’t shown up until it was pretty hot. All that pointed to snakes, who like the warm weather, though coil themselves in the shade of desert shrubs when it’s too hot. They live in holes in the desert floor, protection from both too much heat and too much cold.

Then I remembered that snakes move in curves. I checked. They can move in straight lines, by straightening their scales and scooping themselves forward. That sounded exhausting; something a snake would only occasionally do. So I was back to lizards. I took my pictures to a ranger at the Anza Borrego State Park office, and she went through the same line of reasoning I did: lizards, then snakes, back to lizards. Except where were the feet? The cluster of lines around the hole made her think it might be a family of snakes.

Desert wildlife--raven tracks at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI showed her other lines. Ravens walking in the same soft sand. Something with small, round footprints that, she said, might be a young coyote.

Desert wildlife--young coyote footprints at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI don’t see a large variety of desert wildlife on those acres. Tiny lizards occasionally zip by. I hear coyotes calling and yipping at night, but seldom see them. Vultures sail overhead on wide, dark wings.

Desert wildlife--an ant carrying a seed head in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordThere are lots of roomy anthills, with armies of industrious ants, like this one, who, with a dozen compatriots, was taking seed heads from one place to another. I saw one rattlesnake but would have missed it if it hadn’t given me a mild rattle to keep me in my place. I’ve only seen one lizard I thought big enough to make lines in the crustier sand — a handsome white one, eighteen inches long, with a sculpted head and back, regally crossing the street one hot afternoon.

Desert wildife--a rattlesnake at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert By Betsey CrawfordWhite-winged doves coo and forage, two ravens perch on a utility pole on a semi-permanent basis, hummingbirds routinely buzz the back of the trailer and then disappear. Speckled beetles move swiftly in varied directions. These are profound energies that I walk among — lizard, coyote, raven, snake, hummingbird — acknowledged by their long and deeply held roots in many cultures’ lore. The ancient sage, the trickster, the magician, the great mother, the call of joy. Though I don’t always see my companions, I see the lines they leave, weaving their lives with mine, our song lines intersecting as we pass through the sun and shadow of the desert.

Desert wildlife--various footprints in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordWe are woven together by more than our interlacing footprints. Evolution holds us all in its patient embrace. I share 85% of my DNA with the coyote whose call heralds the desert night. Though my ancestors and the lizards’ ancestors parted evolutionary ways a few hundred million years ago, we are still tied by many strands of DNA, governing the most basic elements of our mingled lives.

Coyote resting under creosote bush in the southern California desert by Betsey CrawfordOn my last evening in the desert, while looking for photos for this post, I found this one of a desert thoroughfare: Siegfried’s tractor, my footprints, my dog Splash’s paw prints, some other small round footprint on the lower right. Lots of lines.

Desert wildlife--a variety of animal and human tracks in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordStudying them, I realized that the lines on the mid and upper right do have feet on either side of them. So I was back to lizards. But there are many that don’t look like that, so snakes are still a possibility. Or both. Or something I haven’t thought of yet. It’s a mystery.

And will remain so. I went out on my last morning to check again for footprints along the lines. But another profound energy had swept in: a 35 mile-an-hour wind. All lines and footprints had been softened into gentle undulations in the sand, all distinctions erased.

Desert mountains in Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI’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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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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The gold rush: the joyful power of goldenrod

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Joy Pye weed (Euchotrichum maculate) Westport, New York by Betsey CrawfordOne of the blessings of a visit to New York late last summer was seeing something I miss in California: a world awash in goldenrod. A member of the vast and happy Asteraceae family, Solidago canadensis, one of a hundred species of native goldenrods in the US, overflowed fields and banked roadsides near my sister’s house in the Adirondacks. Filled with tiny yellow daisy-like flowers up close, looking like an explosion of yellow fireworks from a near distance, and like a sea of sparkling yellow foam from a greater distance, goldenrod is the late August and September wildflower in most of the country, along with its aster companions.

In her passionately wise and luminous book, Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of her first interview with her advisor at the State University of New York’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry. Why, he asked, did she want to study botany. She had her answer ready: she wanted to know why goldenrod and asters look so beautiful together. His answer was crushing. That, he said, was not a valid reason to study botany. Such considerations belonged to art, not science. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

Luckily for us, she was, though daunted, not discouraged, and later found other, more sympathetic teachers and mentors. But for a while, she left the indigenous knowing of her heritage behind while studying science as it was presented in her courses. It wasn’t until she was studying for her Ph.D. in Wisconsin that she found herself at a gathering of native elders who could speak of the depths of plants in ways her botany classes had not: their relationships to other plants, to the places where they grew, to the animals, birds and humans in their midst. The stories of their origins and names. The wisdom they have to share. 

And their beauty. As an artist, I would have happily explained (as artist friends did) that yellow and purple look so beautiful together because they are complementary colors. Each primary color, in this case yellow, has a complement composed of the other two primaries, here red and blue, creating purple. Complementary colors have a powerful synergy, both making the other zing, creating a combination more electric than, for example, pink and purple. However lovely the latter combination, it will always be less exciting to our brains than pairing purple and yellow, or orange and blue, or red and green. These are not the combinations you’d think of for a meditation garden. But if you want to look at a field of scintillating color, or add excitement to your garden, your painting or your wardrobe, interweaving complements is a surefire way to do it.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Other than red flowers against green leaves, nature hasn’t gone out of her way to combine complementary colors. And red flowers are relatively rare, orange even rarer, and true blue almost nonexistent. Purple is fairly common, and yellow abundant. All are dwarfed by the numbers of white flowers, which offer no opportunity for complementary drama. So it’s especially striking when nature has not only combined complements but thrown them about with as much abandon as she has goldenrod and asters. Robin Wall Kimmerer was talking specifically about New England asters, with their deep purple petals and deeper-than-goldenrod yellow centers. The stronger the purple, the more scintillating the combination, though with the many lighter asters, and with the pink-purple thistle shown here, the combination is still electric. 

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

But I agree with her about goldenrod and New England asters: their combined gorgeousness is a perfectly good reason to want to study botany. And while it may be true that aesthetics are not the province of science, there’s fascinating science connected to beauty, starting with the exquisitely sensitive cones nestled in our retinas. Millions of neurons, waiting to encode for our brains the light waves bouncing off the world around us. Two-thirds of our cones are dedicated to the longer wavelengths of the warmer colors — like the yellows of goldenrod. Another third is devoted to the seeing their green leaves. Only 2% of our cones are reading the purple aster petals, which reflect back the shortest wavelengths of light. 

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York by Betsey Crawford

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York

Why yellow and purple? Carotenoids in the goldenrod and aster centers, and anthocyanins in the aster petals. Chemicals that reflect those colors back to us, and, among other things, protect the flowers from too much of the ultraviolet light we can’t see, and that burns both our skin and the petals’. To bees, who can see in the ultraviolet spectrum,  goldenrod’s yellow is even more incandescent than it is to us. But they hardly need the pizazz. There are so many solidagos, with so many individual flowers per plant, in so many places that they can’t be missed. Bees abound in those fields, picking up the sticky, heavy pollen and bringing it back to the hive to make bee bread for the winter.

I think it’s the sheer exuberance of the solidago phenomenon that I love so much. This is nature at her most joyful, maybe even her whackiest. Why not throw millions of luminous yellow flowers out there as most other flowers fade? Throw in some purple for dazzle! Turn the neighboring leaves vivid red and orange! Provide winter food for thousands of tiny creatures who return the favor by pollinating the flowers. Create larger creatures to stand in the fields, with carefully crafted eyes connected to brains capable of awe. Fill them with wonder at what has been wrought. Those wildly yellow early autumn fields are a sign of a creation that can’t be stopped. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

I take a lot of comfort in this vast energy. Although such fields are plowed and bulldozed daily for grazing or agriculture, houses or parking lots, this sheer vibrancy tells me nature is far from fragile in the face of her heedless humans. Another essay in Braiding Sweetgrass details the destruction of Lake Onondaga, sacred to the Onondaga people of upstate New York. After more than a century of pumping industrial waste up to sixty feet deep into and around the lake, along with the sewage of the growing city of Syracuse, it’s now a Superfund site. In fact, nine Superfund sites. Long gone are the wetlands, the trees, the oxygen-generating plants, the moss, the birds, the frogs, the once crystal clear water.

The same story can be told of countless places. The details vary, the heartbreak is painfully similar. There is a lot of restoration going on, even if grudgingly on the part of the corporations and governments that caused the destruction. People the world over are pulling beloved, damaged places back from the brink. The same is happening with Lake Onondaga. There are attempts, some good, some bad, to restore a semblance of natural life to this dead landscape. Of the ones described in the essay, my favorite is the work being done by nature herself, who sent the ‘oldest and most effective of land healers…the plants themselves.’

Seeds of trees took root in the white, gluey sludge and slowly grew. Birds landed in their branches and dropped the seeds of berrying shrubs. Clovers and other legumes, among the most important of our plant allies, arrived and began pulling nitrogen into the muck. The endlessly adaptable grass family moved in. Their roots add humus, and the first glimmering of soil making can be seen. 

It’s a slow process of enormous strength, and one we can trust. That’s where I take comfort. Of course, we should be doing everything in our power to stop the destruction and repair the damage. Nature should be able to rely on us, too. But as she asks, she also inspires.  When we need courage, and ardor, and zeal for this work, she invites us to stoke those fires by standing in the midst of a sea of goldenrod as it pulses with energy, radiating her vibrant, enduring, indomitable heart. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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Happy Halloween: ghosts in the landscape

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

When I first thought of the title for this Halloween post, I had fun in mind — white flowers that have ghostly or skeletal effects — and there are those, like the cotton grass above and the trillium and others below. But the more I thought about white flowers, the more questions I had. How did they become white? Is it a loss of pigment or a color of its own? Why are there so many of them? Depending on the region, they can far outnumber flowers in the blue to red to orange range, and outstrip the numerous species of yellow flowers. Studies show that pollinators, given a choice, will gravitate to colors. So what’s the evolutionary advantage of white? Is there one? It turns out that white flowers are full of mystery. Which is, indeed, fun.

White flowers: Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California by Betsey Crawford

The very ghostly newborn petals of Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California

The earliest angiosperms, more than 100 million years ago, are thought to have been white, cream or pale green. Since Darwin, people — including me — have been happily saying that the more vivid colors slowly evolved to attract pollinators, whose vision long predated the flowers. And that appears to be true. Or, at least, there’s no strong body of evidence saying it’s not true. But, as it turns out, there’s no strong body of empirical evidence saying it is true. Empirical evidence implies that we can see something happen in real time, and it’s hard to see an evolutionary process in our brief lifespan. 

White flowers: Ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

This one is actually called ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There are studies that show, for example, flowers becoming redder in as little as a single generation as more hummingbirds pollinate them. Further studies show that when given choices, pollinators will choose colors over white flowers, though that may be because the colorful ones stand out more vividly against green foliage. Finding flowers efficiently is crucial to the success of both flower and pollinator, so the easier the flower is to see, the better. Very important, the stronger the relationship a pollinator has with a specific color, the more likely it is to bring matching pollen from one flower to fertilize another in the same species.

White flowers: Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

So, we know that pollinators have an intimate relationship with flower color. Or, more accurately, with the color’s wavelength, since the purple we see is not what the pollinator sees. But, with the explosion of genetic information in recent years, there’s also a growing appreciation for other factors that are at play, especially in how white flowers have evolved. Flowers in the blue to purple to red range use anthocyanins to create their color, the chemicals that make foods like grapes and raspberries so good for us. If the dominant anthocyanin is delphinidin, the flower is purple, if pelargonidin, red, if cyanidin, magenta to lavender. Other flavonoids, such as anthoxanthins, along with a variety of carotenoids, create yellows and oranges. 

White flowers: Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

In the course of mutations that alter the expression of specific enzyme and protein pathways, the amounts of these color-inducing chemicals can vary, changing the color of the flower. Mutations may also cause the pathways to stop working altogether. The resulting loss of function can return the flower to its primordial white, a state that’s likely to be irreversible since it would take a series of very specific mutations for those particular pathways to work again. 

White flowers: Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

There is a widely accepted division of flower/pollinator relationships: bees prefer flowers in the blue range, while hummingbirds gravitate to red, butterflies to pink, moths and beetles to white. And studies do back up these general preferences. But there’s a lot of variation. If bees weren’t interested in pollinating white flowers, we wouldn’t have almonds, apples, plums or any number of other fruits in the Rosaceae family. Thus, other factors are apparently important, among them scent, availability, abundance, learned behavior, competition, as well as the match of plant shapes to pollinator characteristics. It also may be that the subtle pinks that make white apple blossoms so poignantly beautiful to us are neon signs to bees. More mysteries. As every study says, ‘more research is needed.’

White flowers: Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California

As fascinating as I find all this, I’m somewhat resistant to the idea that the gorgeous hues of reds, purples and lavenders I love so much are a result of ‘the number of hydroxyl groups attached to the B-ring of the molecule,’ or that tender, luminous whites are due to the functional failure of these groups. Reducing something as magical as color to the action or loss of enzyme and protein pathways seems like a comedown. On the other hand, my seeing and treasuring these colors is possible only because my body relies on similar pathways. Which brings another mysterious dimension forward: the fact that flowers and I share biological functions and genes, and, in sharing them, share each other.

White flowers: white thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta

Not only that, but without a strong connection to a variety of pollinating animals and insects, and the biology and genetics we have in common with them, neither flowers nor I would be here to begin with. All those pathways need constant nourishment. Like me, the pollinators depend on flowers for nutrition and survival. Flowers depend on these friendly forces, which can include me, for reproduction. We all depend on a huge array of microbes and fungi to create the nutrients we thrive on from the soil at our feet. We depend on the movements of air currents, the hydrology of water, the minerals released from rocks. 

Sitting among flowers on a forest path, or the desert floor, or out in a meadow, we’re held in a vast array of interlinking pathways, beating our hearts, feeding our cells; moving water, air, nutrients; creating color, vision, scent. All mysteriously designed to keep every one of us — flower, leaf, dirt, human, bee, bird, beetle — alive and blossoming. 

White flowers: White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta

More beautiful white flowers can be found in the gallery Luminous Whites.

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A girl in the Garden of Eden

Yellow butterfly at Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordWhat I remember most vividly is how green it was. I was tiny then, close to the green grass, eyes level with the leafy shrubs, awestruck by the green-dappled blue showing among rustling leaves that seemed as far above me as the sky. The tree trunks were enormous, rough under my little fingers, brown and gray, sometimes greenish, the same colors as the dirt, the rocks, the branches that arched way over my head. We were surrounded by woods, and I ran through them, touching bark, jumping over roots, shushing through crisp, fallen colors in the fall, on the ground with mushrooms and moss, a daughter of the trees. 

We were above trees, too, as the land went down below the sloping garden, full of roses and azaleas. We ran through grass paths, to a semicircle of trees with a stone fireplace, never used, but endlessly interesting. Beyond the sloping trees, far in the distance, we could see the silver, glittery Hudson River, whose bridges lit up with sparkles at night. We saw all the way down the river to New York City. The tiny Empire State building rose from a pale blue haze, like a distant tower in a storybook.

Pink flowered legume in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordI remember glowing, silky flowers. One cool spring day, I decorated my tricycle with the tulips that grew in a bed of little green leaves, shiny, with blue flowers. My mother told me how beautiful it looked, but gently suggested that flowers were happier in gardens. Along the front of the house were bushes with tiny, spiky needles, dark green, with translucent red berries that squirted if you pressed them. At their feet was dirt, surrounded by stones. In the summer, we would add water from the hose and play in the cool mud.

The house backed onto a hill with a rock ledge that we could climb up easily. A little brown building stood among the trees. We weren’t supposed to go near it, which convinced me an ogre lived there. The upper hill continued down the driveway, which was so long that you couldn’t see the end. There were trees going up on one side, sloping away on the other, a vast tunnel of green. 

A road through the woods in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordOn the opposite side from the driveway was a brown path through the woods, which took us over a falling-down stone wall, to an enormous, gray rock, the size of a hill. Huge cracks made openings and ledges that turned the rock into houses and forts. ‘We’ were my brother Perry and I, until one day a voice commanded us to “get off our rock.” We searched for the voice, mystified. It turned out to be a girl even smaller than I was. “It’s our rock,” we said. 

We obviously settled it amicably, because she and her brother and the two of us became inseparable. That brought me to other lands. A meadow of tall, rustling grasses that filled the air with warm, spicy sweetness when mowed. A small, rickety, screened summer house where we found two rusted beds. We would lie on the flat metal springs, even though sharp pieces poked into us. They had wonderfully mucky water along their driveway. It had a name, Kaplan’s Pond, as mysterious as anything else about it. We would occasionally try fishing, and I once caught a sunny. But I preferred following dragonflies and butterflies along the muddy edge. An old man and woman lived near the pond, in a tiny house in the woods, like people in a fairy tale. They were artists and we would paint with them occasionally.

A dragon fly on Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordMy sister, Susan, was a newborn when we first moved there, but by the time she was three she was part of our adventures. One day she and I found a beetle on a tree. It was well above our heads, and enormous, the length of my hand, shiny black with orange pincers as long as its body. We were transfixed, and could hardly tear ourselves away, waiting for our father to come home and rescue us. The beetle barely stirred all afternoon, but any movement had us running inside to report to my mother. When my dad finally arrived we dragged him to the tree. He got a ladder and a jar and captured it briefly so we could see it up close. I was fascinated by the pincers, but the beetle in the jar couldn’t compare to the delicious terror of the beetle on the tree.

It was paradise. I lived there for five years, from age two to seven. Despite everything that has happened in the sixty years since, that vivid sprite, trailing leaves and flowers and dirt, is still with me. Things were happening even then. For all the vibrant, green heaven surrounding us, inside the house my mother was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. I was beginning the sad, fruitless task of trying to be a good enough girl to bring back the happy mother I’d known.

I remember not wanting to move, but I don’t remember being unhappy when we did. I was too young to know that not every place was full of deep magic. My sister Connie was already two, and my mother, with four young children in a tiny house tucked away in the woods, was very glad to be moving. At that point, her happiness mattered the most to me. Our new home was much roomier, but on a hill so steep there was no yard to play in. It was a quiet street in an old suburban neighborhood, with lots of big trees. 

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Big Reed Pond, Montauk, New York by Betsey Crawford

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and violets (Viola laboridorica) from another land of enchantment: Big Reed Pond in Montauk, New York

There was a still-unbuilt lot nearby with a sliver of woods, where we found wild grapes in the fall. My father cut us a curving, fragrant tunnel through the wild tangle of honeysuckle between our house and our neighbor’s. One spring a jack-in-the-pulpit showed up mysteriously among the trees separating us from the house in back. Violets grew in profusion where tree roots had heaved up the sidewalk. One neighbor had a hedge of mountain laurel which bloomed in cascades of tiny white and pink cups every June. Another had one of lilacs that smelled heavenly in May. 

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in Hither Woods State Park, Montauk, New York by Betsey Crawford

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) from another magical place: Hither Woods in Montauk, New York

Perhaps I would have learned to love the natural world just as much in that neighborhood. I have my doubts. I feel sure the deep, mystical connection I have with nature was born in the Eden I lived in earlier. I went back to see it this summer, on a trip to New York. I’d visited many years ago, when the house was still the same one we lived in, and marveled at how small everything was compared to the expansiveness of my memories. Now, the only vista that remains the same is the driveway. The big rock has a house on it. Kaplan’s Pond has been cleaned up and gentrified, though its edges are still full of dragonflies. The view of the river is blocked by trees getting ever taller. It’s still a wonderful place, and I was warmly welcomed by the present owner, but it’s not my paradise.

Kaplan's Pond in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey Crawford

A very elegant incarnation of the Kaplan’s Pond I knew

It doesn’t need to be, since I have been carrying that paradise inside me for all these years. In that, I have been extremely blessed. Today, even children in rural communities don’t necessarily have the kind of experiences that were so important to me. There are many reasons for this, starting with the fact that tightly-scheduled children don’t have the leisure we enjoyed. They are more likely to spend what they do have indoors, especially on the computer. The belief in free, unstructured play has diminished, as have the places hospitable to it. Parents are fearful of risk — from insects, strangers, falls, drowning — and angry when risks prove dangerous. According to Richard Louv, the author of  The Last Child in the Woods, the fear of lawsuits if a child gets hurt is haunting everyone from private homeowners to the Boy and Girl Scouts to the national parks.

Lack of access to nature is a world-wide issue, and worsening despite a growing body of information about the necessity of outdoor play in green settings for mental and physical health. The more stress in a child’s life, the more crucial this has proven to be. Louv details studies showing that children with ADHD, in particular, thrive when learning in natural environments.

It makes perfect sense. We evolved with plants and trees, not concrete. Our ability to sense, to learn, to make connections, to pay attention was, not long ago, done entirely within the framework of the natural world. Our calendar was set by the turning of the earth and the cycles of the moon. The sun was our clock. Children are not meant to be still and quiet for hours. Evolution didn’t prepare us to sit at desks all day, or to stare at a screen, to be indoors, to work in cubicles, or play only in designated, asphalt-covered, chain-link-surrounded playgrounds.

Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park, designed by Erect Architecture in London, England

Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park, designed by Erect Architecture in London, England (photo by Erect Architecture)

Amidst a growing reverence for information at the expense of sensory experience, in a world increasingly urban, children and nature are often left behind. Planning — what there is of it — emphasizes traffic patterns, safety, housing density, commuter issues. With 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas, playgrounds are often a child’s only contact with nature, and their design has been slow to evolve. The enchanting adventure playground above, designed by Erect Architecture in London, built among the trees of an old arboretum, is still rare in its embrace of the way children actually play. From a street near me in Marin, the fountains and cascading pools in the photo below look like the ornamental feature fountains usually are. But these are sited right next to another well-designed playground. You can see from the little footprints everywhere that children flock to the rocks and pools.

Lagoon Park Playground in San Rafael, California by Betsey Crawford

Lagoon Park Playground in San Rafael, California

But even the best playgrounds are no substitute for the preservation and protection of natural areas in urban and suburban settings. Louv named the loss of this essential connection ‘nature deficit disorder.’ Studies show it leads to higher crime, increased depression, more learning disabilities. The presence of nature in children’s lives and activities boosts many things we say we value: test scores, cooperation, self-esteem, thinking, happiness. Crucially, children who cherish birds and flowers grow up wanting more of them. Where, he asks, will the future environmentalists come from? “If children do not attach to the land, they will not reap the psychological and spiritual benefits they can glean from nature, nor will they feel a long-term commitment to the environment, to the place.”

Pink garden flower in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordThinking about my own early life among the trees, I thought at first I would call this essay ‘Paradise lost’. Though I was blessed to spend many years living in another magical place, there has been a thread of poignant loss ever since leaving that deep green world. But I also feel profoundly grateful for those years in the Garden of Eden, which prepared me to create other Edens as a landscape designer, and to be able to re-find that joy in so many ways and places all my life. As I get older, and the roles and tasks of the intervening decades fall away, the call of that wild green girl gets more and more vivid. 

She lives, I now realize, at the core of my being. Through her I am rooted in the natural world I love so much. With her I lie on the ground with luminous flowers, or sit on pine needles that smell of the ever-rising sap of trees. With her I walk on rocks that form the bedrock of my life on the earth that created me. This is my oldest and deepest essence, a gift given to me by Nature herself, just for being there, open and ready, willing to share my delight, my curiosity, my joy, as well as my confusion and grief. I lived in a landscape as alive to me as I was. That enduring faith has been the greatest gift of all.Betsey at 3 or 4, painting

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