Tag Archives: forest

The intimate bond: humans and dirt

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

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

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

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

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It takes a village: the community of lichen

hypogymnia-species-alectoria-samentosa-witchs-hair-lichen-lobaria-pulmonaria-lungwort-Fish-Creek-Hyder-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe farther I went north last summer, the more I found a world full of lichen. It’s everywhere in Alaska, and a dominant species in the arctic tundra. But it’s everywhere else, too, covering 8% of the world’s surface. Lichen holds the desert in place, fills the forests, hangs off branches in cool, damp coastal woods as well as in warm swamps. It’s on the trees in your backyard, slowly covering your grandparents’ tombstones, growing on fence posts, spreading under your feet as you climb mountains.

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Large lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) ‘leaves’ live with a species of Cladonia among the moss and ferns on a tree in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

Lichen is indeed a village: it’s composed of varying forms of fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria living in symbiosis. Strands of fungi weave together to provide housing, which protects the algae and bacteria from environmental challenges like desiccation and UV radiation. The algae and bacteria provide food via sugars formed through photosynthesis. The resulting body, or thallus, lives on its substrate — wood, soil, rock, occasionally air — along with other members of the community, usually moss, often other forms of fungi and algae, and the trees, ferns, flowers, rocks, and animals of whatever environment it’s growing in.

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Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stygia) mixed with snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) in the Yukon tundra

Though I am no lichenologist — identifying the few lichens here that I’ve been able to name was a study in cross-eyed bewilderment — I’ve always been fascinated by them. I went to Denali National Park one day to hike, but, on finding a world covered with lichen, got down on the ground and spent the afternoon with them, in all their variety: tiny, lacy shrubs of one lichen run through with little branchlets of another, next to a large patch of dark brown sheets of felt lichen. A white crustose lichen so completely covered the flange of a tree stump that it wasn’t until I put my hand on it that I realized I was looking at wood, not granite. That white crust was dotted with a pink one. Tiny spires, holding up minute cups, occasionally edged in vivid red, grew all over the rest of the stump, happily embedded in moss.

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A Cladonia species around a tuft of snow lichen (Flavocentrai nivalis)

This plucky, endlessly adaptable, weirdly beautiful, not-plant, not-animal feeds reindeer and caribou. It holds and releases moisture, helpful to the plants that grow with it. It has some medicinal uses, and shows up in Japanese and Korean cuisines. Some are used as dyes, and some in making perfume. But its most important ecological contributions are its ability to take nitrogen from the air and add that essential element to the soil; its ability to live in, stabilize, and form soil in barren landscapes; and its ability to sequester carbon. Lichen, with the mosses and algae they grow among, all tiny and indomitable, take up as much carbon yearly as is released by the burning of forests worldwide. This amounts to 14 billion tons of carbon, as opposed to the 2.2 billion (and falling) tons absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

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A tree stump with an entire village of moss and lichen in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

As hardy and amazingly adaptable as lichens are in their natural habitats, they are threatened by several things, especially air pollution, deforestation, and global warming. The first limits healthy growth, the second habitat, and the third will begin to further limit habitat, as lichens sensitive to temperature will have to go to higher and higher altitudes to survive. Those that cannot will die out.

And here is where the larger questions come in. If you ask people whether they would prefer to drive cars to work or save lichens, most people would ask, “What’s lichen?” It wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would seem obvious that we’re more important than a bunch of fungus and algae mashed together and ruining our wooden fence. We’re letting species go extinct every day. Why would a few little lichen matter?

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Tiny pink splotches of the interestingly named fairy barf lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) in Denali National Park, Alaska

We don’t know why lichen matter. That’s the problem with every extinction. We see the stakes through human eyes. We want to get from place to place in our cars, we love computers, we need homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer. My home is tiny footprint, but I drove it to Alaska and back last year. Would I give up such incredible experiences to preserve the right environment for lichen? A challenging question!

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Brown felt lichen (Peltigera praetextata) with a Cladonia species in Denali National Park, Alaska

We are part of the biome, and we need habitat. There is an infinity of things we can do to reduce our effect on the planet, but even if we do every one of them, humans will still have an outsized footprint. Species will be edged out. Others will hang on, threatened.

We know some of these extinctions will matter. If bees die out, we face a world without fruit, flowers, nuts. If lichen dies out we’ll first lose their ability to sequester carbon, which will be released into an atmosphere already threatened by rising carbon dioxide levels. So temperatures may rise further, endangering more and more species.

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A section of the desert’s biological crust, in Butler Wash near Bluff, Utah

We would also lose a crucial soil producer and stabilizer. It’s hard for us to see, in the brown crusts of the sandy desert, how important a role those tiny, combined elements play in securing nutrients, water, and footing for roots. Hard to imagine the time span taken to break down rock into soil. To us, dirt has always been here, but we’re newcomers on the planet, perhaps even passers-by. The ramifications of such losses spread out like waves. Whatever we do to allow lichen to go extinct might well mean we’ve created a world inhospitable to us.

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Lichen on stone in Butler Wash, near Bluff, Utah

These questions are important, but they are also human-centered, asking of everything how it helps us. Cyanobacteria are 2.5 billion years old, the first photosynthesizers on earth, producers of the oxygen-rich atmosphere that all subsequent biodiversity depends on. The earliest lichen fossils  are 400 million years old.  The earliest human fossil is 2.8 million years old. The forces that created the earth with infinite slowness ticked lichen off the formation list much earlier than humans. Perhaps we’re here to help lichen.

Every form in nature is part of a whole, a web woven together with meticulous evolutionary care. We can only pull so many of those threads out before the fabric begins to weaken. And there may be some combination of threads which, when pulled, will destroy the integrity of the whole. The problem is, we don’t know which ones, leaving us with the great challenge of caring for the entire village on our finite globe.

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Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) along a trail in Stony Hill, Amagansett, New York

Ashes to petals: wildfire and rebirth

wildfire-Dalton-Highway-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOn the way north last summer we were stopped by a wildfire in British Columbia. It had jumped Route 97, and the RV park where we spent the night slowly filled with people who had kept driving and been turned back. The manager warned us that we might be roused from sleep and asked to evacuate further south, but late the next morning we were allowed to drive through, still in a fog of smoke. I’d never seen a forest right after a fire. The pitch black trunks were stark along the road, grayer farther back, where the dense haze softened them. Smoke rose slowly from the still smoldering black ground, rough with burned plants. Nothing green was left. I was longing to stop for a picture, but we were the first in line after the pilot car guiding us, there to keep crazy people from stopping in a still smoldering fire to take pictures. But that vertical black and shifting gray landscape was unforgettable.

wildfire-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMany people associate wildfire with devastation, and it was easy to see why, driving through that suddenly barren and spooky landscape. The power of a forest or wildland fire can be terrifying, the destruction incomprehensible. Easy, also, to see why earlier forest service personnel felt that as many fires should be fought as possible. But we have slowly learned the costly lessons of trying to outflank nature. Without fires, there would eventually be no forest. Fires keep the lands they burn healthy, whether they are forests, meadows, or deserts. A lot of the strength of current wildfires is fueled by centuries of fire suppression — leaving the forest full of flammable material: crowded, aging trees, heaps of fallen branches, dried shrubs, not enough green, succulent growth on the forest floor to slow new fires.

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Fireweed doing what it does best: moving in quickly after a fire

2015 was both the hottest year on record and had the most wildfires. One of our fellow campers that night was returning home to Fairbanks, Alaska. “The whole state is on fire,” she told me. These days, more and more fires are allowed to burn unless they pose a hazard to life or property, and, once in Alaska, we saw plenty of evidence that a lot of the state had burned earlier in the summer. After our arrival in mid-July, the weather grew steadily wetter. But we passed vast stands of black trunks, often interspersed with swathes of lighter trunks from earlier fires, trunks that had shed their burnt bark and were weathering to a silvery gray.

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

A wildfire doesn’t immediately leave behind a pretty landscape. Those blackened trunks can stand for years while the growth around them recovers. It takes decades for trees to grow tall enough to replace the forest. But a fire opens the ground to sun, eliminates competition from tree roots and shrubs, and its ash fills the soil with nutrients. New growth is almost instant. By the time we drove down Route 97 six weeks later, the ground under the burned trunks was a vivid green. Native Americans used controlled fires to create these conditions, because the extra nutritious new grasses and plants attracted wildlife, and made hunting easier.

heart-leaf-arnica-arnica-cordifolia-yellow-hedysarum-hedysarum-sulphurescens-paintbrush-castilleja-miniata-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Yellow flower: heart-leaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia); white flower: yellow hedysarum (Hedysarum sulphurescens), red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

The next arrivals are wildflowers, springing from seeds dormant for years, sometimes decades. In many areas deciduous trees sprout up, growing quickly, racing past the slow evergreens that will eventually outcompete them. During their long maturation, you will have years of glowing wildflowers. Then, depending on where you are, you may have years of aspen turning the mountainsides gold every fall, shimmering vivid green in the spring, their trunks silver above the snow in the winter. The conifers will slowly catch up, and take over, eventually blocking the light from the wildflowers and grasses, which will retreat into dormancy, waiting for the next fire to burn through and release them.

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Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus)

When I was in Banff, Alberta, I went into the visitors’ center to ask where I could find wildflowers. As soon as the friendly young woman said there had been a wildfire at Stanley Glacier in nearby Kootenay National Park, I was ready to go. The flowers accompanying this post are from that hike. Since I was so smitten with the flowers, I never took a picture of the terrain, which was full of three and four foot high lodgepole pines, lushly green and healthy. Around them grew fireweed, of course, mixed with wild orchids, and paintbrush in the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen. Columbine and fleabane were everywhere.

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Harsh paintbrush (Castillleja hispidus)

The fire happened in 2003, so it’s taken that long for the forest to get to 4’. We are used to fixing things quickly. If a house burns down, there can be a new one in months. If a forest burns down, it requires a very different mindset: rebuilding is the work of decades. A house is no good until it’s finished, but each stage of a growing forest is as vital as all the others. The wildflowers growing among the toddler trees at Stanley Glacier are just as much the forest as the trees that succeed them.

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Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

Life on earth is a ceaseless conversation. Growth, death, change, renewal. Fire, flowers, aspens, lodgepole pines, fire. Ashes, petals, bark. Fireweed next to blackened trunks, wild orchids among the baby pines. It’s an ancient dialectic that we interrupt at our peril, because we don’t comprehend the infinity of factors that go into the earth’s forces. It has taken from colonial times until recently to understand that interfering with wildfires damages everything we think we’re saving. We must when houses and people are at stake, but even then, suppression comes at at the cost of making the next fire hotter and more dangerous, the soil more unstable, mudslides more likely. One of the many complex challenges facing us as we assess our footprint on the planet.

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White bog orchid (Plantathera dilatata), paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

 

Songlines

Songlines-mapIn my favorite creation story the world is sung into existence. I first came across this wonderful idea as a child, in one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, where he has his divine embodiment, Aslan the lion, slowly move across a pitch black and featureless void, singing first the stars into the darkness, then the sun, and then on to all the details of the world we love.

Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of higher notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction.

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) at Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

All these decades later I can still feel Polly’s ‘unspeakable thrill’ at the thought of Aslan’s ‘gentle, rippling music’ sending waves of green up the hills he had just sung into existence. While the rest of his creation story is straight out of Genesis, Lewis knew the world’s myths, and perhaps took the singing from its originators, the aboriginal peoples of Australia. This retelling is from Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’:

In the beginning is the land — flat, dark and featureless — until the ancestors went traveling the paths of it. As they travelled they were creating the mountains and the hills and the rocks and the animals, people, places. They did not do it once and for all, they do it still. The paths must be walked. The creation work must be done; the land is forever and the creating of it is forever. The dreaming, singing, dancing, walking goes on and on, forever.

Tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) at Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

The ancestors included humans, landscape features, and the first of certain totem animals, who gathered themselves together from primordial mud and proceeded to sing the rest of the earth into existence. To me this creation story has the keenest intuition into the actual processes that formed the earth — the earliest floating particles and gasses that gravity pulled slowly together into a swirling mass. The billions of years of coalescing, exploding, hardening, cooling. The pushing up of gigantic mountains. The coming and going of vast silent seas. The slow emergence of plants and animals. The millions-of-years-long evolution of human beings.

All this time the ancestors were singing, breathing, dancing the world into form, the landscape into rivers, forests, rocks, flowers, canyons, people, animals, birds, sky, clouds. These songs and stories created songlines, maps to the Australian landscape. If you know them, you can find your way, landmark by landmark, along the line you’re following, through trackless desert, along the ridges of mountains, finding water in the valleys, seeing the quicksand to walk around.

Meadow rue (Thalictrum occidental) at Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

The best part is that, fired by the same forces that shaped us in the first place, we are still singing the earth into creation. The dreaming, singing, dancing, walking goes on and on. What a wonderful task to be given: to sing of all we touch, each person we speak to, every place we visit, everything that opens our hearts. To spin songlines every day of our lives.

Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars in the Idaho National- Forest by Betsey Crawford

The paths must be walked. The photos accompanying this post are from such a singing, along such paths: going with my son, Luke, and my dog, Splash, to Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho. An echo of deep time: the oldest tree there was a seedling in 900 CE.

When I was last in Coeur d’Alene, my friend, Marie Cecile, said something that I took as a beautiful blessing — that as I go from place to place, I’m not only bringing my own energy to that place, but I’m also taking the energy of that place with me, and bringing it to the next place, and so composing an interwoven network. Her words inspired me to create the map of my song lines since leaving on our adventures in 2011. Warm color lines brought us west and south, cool colors north and east. This summer I will be adding brand new ones, tying nature to spirit.

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

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

As I travel these lines I sing of wildflowers, and my love for beauty, for my family and friends, my love for the green sighing of the forests and prairies, the gray mists of the coasts, the hot breath of the deserts, the prickly cacti flaunting their gorgeous, silky flowers, the tiny shooting stars nestled in damp woods. I sing as I walk, as I meet people, as I take pictures. We all do this, singing of the life we love, of the things we’ve lost, the joys we long for, paying attention, bringing life to life, our songlines floating out behind us, like spider’s silk, both gossamer and resilient, reeling from our hearts.