An Easter of memory and anticipation

Celebrating Laudate si: checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

I was planning to write about transformation for Easter. I’ve been working on a series of essays exploring cosmologist Brian Swimme’s eleven powers of the universe, and what we can learn from these great cosmic energies. So far, I’ve done radiance, centration, and transmutation. Easter and this very welcome spring seemed like the perfect time to explore the power of transformation. However, before I could write a word, she came knocking at my door.

As a result, for the first time in almost eight years, I’m moving from the RV that has carried me to so many wonderful adventures to an apartment. It’s a very nice apartment, full of light, a balcony for flower pots, lots of green out the window, great hiking trails right off the property. It’s even in a town named after a wildflower — Larkspur. And it’s time. My partner, George, has been too frail for the roving life, so we’ve been settled in Marin, just north of San Francisco, for a couple of years. Though I love my compact little space, the trailer is 10 years old and needs work it doesn’t make sense for me to do at this point.

I’m both looking forward to the move and filled with poignance at the end of a wondrous chapter in my life. So for Easter, I thought I would collect a celebratory bouquet of flowers from our adventures and share some memories. I’ve included a few from the trails near my new home, since happy anticipation is always worth celebrating.

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada

I still marvel at the chutzpah it took to get behind the wheel of a big pickup truck and haul a 33′ trailer to the end of my driveway, turn left, and head out into the unknown. By the time we got to the gorgeous Canadian Maritimes I was beginning to adjust. The Canadians are so nice they didn’t honk at my careful pace. We meant to spend three weeks. It was so stunning we spent six, always camped within sight of the sea. I didn’t start this website until 2015, but this gorgeous sunflower, one in a sunlit field of them, was featured in One big happy family: the Asteraceae, and is included, along with many other happy relatives, in the gallery Asteraceae.

Because my son, Luke, lives there, I’ve spent lots of time in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This photo of fairy bells is from the spring of 2012, when there was a northern super bloom of wildflowers. I was in heaven, and had one of those blessed epiphanies when everything you love comes together. I wrote about it in Life, tilted on another visit in 2015. Last year was another super bloom, and I updated the Idaho wildflowers gallery.

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) taken at Cougar Bay, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) Cougar Bay, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

I have lots of pictures of the beauty we found along the roads we traveled. I included landscapes in Wayside beauty, but this lily reminds me of the hidden magic along the road. I was heading to the Waterton Wildflower Festival in Alberta in 2015, driving through a forest. I pulled into a roadside stop and while walking my dog, Splash, found a hidden glade filled to glowing with orange lilies.

Columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia

Speaking of heaven, when I wrote about Waterton Lakes National Park in Latitude 49º 6′ 33.63″, Longitude -113º 50′ 58.92″ I announced that I had discovered its exact location. There are even gates, looking remarkably like Canadian national park entry kiosks. There were so many beautiful flowers, but this one has a slight edge as my favorite. It reminds me of poet Robert Haas’s line ‘The light in summer is very young and wholly unsupervised.” The Waterton Lakes gallery is full of other favorites.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

The greatest adventure of all was Alaska, where we drove through endless sublime landscapes and watched grizzlies (from the truck!) twenty feet away. Since this is a bouquet, I’m sticking to flowers, like this monkshood from the Wynn Nature Center in Homer.  In love in Homer, Alaska described my love-at-first-sight relationship with that town. But just driving across the state line seemed to alter things, especially all sense of time.  I had one of the profound experiences of my life listening to the earth’s heartbeat in The Place Where You Go To Listen at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. And another drifting through Denali. Bears and caribou and landscapes can be found in the Alaskan landscapes gallery, and lots more flowers in Alaska wildflowers.

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

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

At the southern end of the country, we spent a fair amount of time in one desert or another. A favorite place was the Anza Borrego Desert, and I finally did a gallery of flowers from that magical place after a visit last year. This vivid scarlet cholla was found in Arizona and has lots of company in the Cactus flowers gallery.

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

Southern Utah is one of my favorite places on earth. As many who have spent time in the desert have found, it fills me with both awe and introspection. That led to Moses in Utah, my most personal essay. And while I had Moses on my mind, I wrote A land of stone tablets, an early essay on what the earth teaches us about living on and with her. Those awe-inspiring vistas found their way into a Utah landscapes gallery. 

We met wonderful people everywhere we went. This glowing yellow cactus was blooming along a trail to Corona Arch, outside of Moab, Utah. I started at the same time as a family: a man, his mother, wife, and daughter, and sister-in-law and niece. I walked faster than they did but kept stopping to take pictures, so we stayed relatively together though without much talk. At the end, getting to the arch requires climbing a rock wall that has holes drilled in it for your feet and rope ‘rails’. Then you have to climb a ladder embedded into another rock wall, but which doesn’t quite meet the top. So you stand at the top of the ladder, past the handholds, and scramble over the ledge.

Desert prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacantha) Corona Arch Trail, Moab, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Desert prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacantha) Corona Arch Trail, Moab, Utah

Once I’d done all that I found the family spread out on the rocks, recuperating. “I’m going back with you guys,” I said, only partially joking. From that point they took me under their wing, letting me know when they were leaving, helping me down some slippery rock, and down those treacherous ladders. They started pointing out wildflowers they thought I’d like, and we had a great time. They were from Long Island, New York, as I am, celebrating the young women’s graduations from college. Oddly enough, at least a fourth, if not a third, of the people I’ve met on the road started life on Long Island.

In 2016 I drove to the prairies. I found them where I expected them: in Kansas at Smoky Valley Ranch in the west and the tall grass prairie in the center of the state. And I found them where I didn’t expect them: the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeast Colorado and spread out all over southern Missouri. Missouri was a particularly joyful time because of the people I met there. I even met an adventurous baby bird. I was so ecstatic at what I found I made galleries for each place.

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

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

In California, we spent several early stretches on the coast in Malibu. We have family in Los Angeles, and George had health problems we dealt with in Santa Monica. So I got to spend time in the Santa Monica Mountains. There are many wonderful flowers there, which I used in an essay on a weekend spent with Joanna Macy. I’ll do a gallery one day. In the meantime, this Dr. Seuss-like character, covered with pink fuzz, particularly enchanted me.

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

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

Which brings me back to Marin County and my new apartment. Southern Marin is presided over by Mount Tamalpais. A woman from Australia told me that she had heard there that everyone who lives in this area has been called here by the queen herself. A lovely, mysterious idea. If true, she has now called me even closer, to live on her wooded flank. There are great wonders there, like the fritillaria at the top of the page, blooming on one of my favorite trails. And this tender trillium, in full bloom in early February. Wildflowers start blooming here before New Years, which makes me very happy.

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

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

There are tiny orchids on Mount Tam, and stately iris, a plant I particularly love. Neither of these is rare, but Marin is what’s called a rarity hotspot, partly due to the difficult chemicals in a lot of its rocks. There is so much life here, it inspired 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)

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

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

So I have been and will remain surrounded by beautiful beings on all sides. Among them are many people actively working on saving our magnificent planet. My journey is now with them all: the flowers, the forest, the sea, the people. I’ll keep reporting on whatever it is that Mount Tam has in mind.

Mount Tamalpais, Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new posts.

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The geography of hope: saving half the earth

Western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) Smoky Valley Ranch, Nature Conservancy, Kansas by Betsey CrawfordOn spring mornings thirty years ago I woke to a dawn chorus of birdsong so loud and rambunctious and beautiful that it filled me with joy, day after day. The birds had a lot to say as they flew by my windows, building nests, feeding young, fending off whatever they took to be threats. Some simply perched on branches and sang the day into existence. In late May martins, those largest of blue-black swallows, would join the choir. They filled my martin house and spent their days nabbing mosquitos as they swooped over the meadow and the marsh.

By the time I left in 2011, that thrilling symphony was long gone. One spring the martins didn’t come back. The number of songbirds dwindled year by year. There were still birds, especially crows and blue jays. I love their cheekiness and brilliance, but their increasing presence was a sign that the songbirds had largely abandoned the area to them.

Nothing about the surrounding area had changed. The same houses flanked mine, the protected land behind remained wide open. There were acres of trees and shrubs for nests and cover. But the birds’ winter homes in Central and South America were dwindling. Along the Atlantic flyway that supported their migration more and more wetlands were being filled in. Trees felled for houses. Meadows paved for parking lots and malls. Gardens filled with exotic plants that didn’t provide the food the birds had evolved with.

Saving half earth: Emerald Lake, Yolo National Park, British Columbia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Emerald Lake, Yolo National Park, British Columbia, Canada

The same story can be told about many species: wolves, bears, salamanders, owls, frogs, butterflies. The list is long and sad. Biodiversity needs space, and lots of it. Animals need room to roam and migrate. All species need large areas of the world still filled with the plants that have nourished them for eons. They need habitat that provides the shelter they look for. Without room to meet their evolutionary and biological needs, species dwindle in numbers. Isolated, smaller populations court extinction. The disappearance of species destroys ecosystems. Our shared planet, entirely made up of ecosystems, degrades. Voices and visions earth will never encounter again vanish.

Biologist E.O. Wilson has a radical proposal: save half the planet. That’s what it will take to stem the drastic rate of current extinctions, and to provide enough room to preserve the earth’s biodiversity. His Half-Earth Project, “with science at its core and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart…is working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” 

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

In one sense, the proposal is wonderfully simple. There are still vast reaches of northern boreal forests, tropical rainforests, oceans, coastal mangroves, coral reefs, mountain ranges. It seems you could handily find half the earth to save. But, of course, it’s much more complex. In the first place, although every country on the globe has set aside preserves, only 15% of the earth’s land surface and 5% of the ocean is already protected. A third of those preserves are under pressure from human activities, often sanctioned by the same government that supposedly protected them. Some countries contain areas of more biodiversity than others. In asking them to protect a higher percentage of their land for the good of all, other nations would need to consider compensation.

A profound complication is that we don’t know that much about the beings we share the earth with. Wilson points out that we’ve only identified and named about 2 million species. Of those, a handful has been studied in depth. The fungus crowd advises us to expect 5 million fungal species alone. Estimates for the total species on earth — bugs, bacteria, fungus, lichen, plants, animals — range as high as 100 million. We discover new species all the time. From the current rate of extinction, we can assume many are blinking out before we ever know them. The International Union of Conservation of Nature has assessed a mere 96,500 species. Of those, over 27,000 are on their Red List of species threatened with extinction.

Saving half earth: a wildflower meadow in Glacier National Park, Montana

A wildflower meadow in Glacier National Park, Montana

Knowing our neighbors and where they live will help us decide which areas to save. Yet, while our need to know grows more crucial every day, on-the-ground biological studies are losing students and funding. Thus we understand very little about ecosystems, a science that has been defined for less than a hundred years. We are badly in need of experts in the natural sciences, Wilson says. Their numbers are shrinking in relation to technology and engineering. We are abandoning the wider living environment in favor of the human environment.

Despite political and educational inertia, there are groups and places that are moving forward. Wilson expressed guarded optimism in a 2016 interview on the publication of his book, Half-Earth. We can build, he said, on what is already in good shape: much of the rainforest in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and New Guinea. Grasslands in the Serengeti and South America’s El Cerrado. South Africa is an especially diverse area. Wilson compares the enormous and teeming Lake Baikal in Siberia to the Galapagos. They are both sanctuaries for diversity and cradles of evolution. Every area of the world still has ecosystems, sometimes vast, that are functioning well.

Wildlife overpasses, like this magnificent one in the Netherlands, allows roaming and migrating animals to get to all areas of their territory. Thanks to photographer Siebe Svart, who holds the copyright.

Wildlife overpasses, like this magnificent one in the Netherlands, allows roaming and migrating animals to get to all areas of their territory safely. Thanks to photographer Siebe Svart, (©Siebe Svart)

We can also connect land already preserved, a vital step. Preserves separated by roads, industry, or private property prevent animals from migrating to their accustomed places. Or to new areas if climate disruption means their traditional homelands can no longer sustain them. Even cutting a small dirt road through a preserve can mean the introduction of non-native plants. With no natural controls and rapid life spans, they can displace native plants and wreak havoc quickly. On Wilson’s list of the most important places to protect is such a corridor: the pine and oak forests extending through the US southwest into the Cordilleras of Central America. This ancient ecosystem is home to a quarter of Mexico’s native plants and winter quarters for the monarch butterfly.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is working on a corridor from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming northward along the Rocky Mountains to the vast Peel watershed in the Yukon. There are many magnificent national parks and wildlands in this 2,000-mile stretch. Connecting them will protect one of the last intact mountain ecosystems in the world. The maps below show the progress, in yellow, in Y2Y’s first twenty years. The landscape photos accompanying this post are all from this corridor.

Saving half the earth: these maps, courtesy of Y2Y.net, show progress made in their first twenty years

Maps courtesy of Y2Y.net

To give an idea of what it takes to manage such a feat, Y2Y, starting in 1993, has enlisted over 300 partners. They include Native American groups, conservation organizations, landowners, mining and lumber companies, government agencies in both the US and Canada, and donors. They recognize that land preservation has to work as well as it can for as many of the stakeholders as possible. Ways have to be found to work with ranchers so the burgeoning number of grizzlies in a preserve isn’t an ever-increasing threat to the cattle’s calves. A major mining company agreed to spend 19 million dollars on land to augment the Y2Y corridor. Land planners are brought into the circle to provide wildlife with ways to cross roads and migrate through settled valleys. Convincing a developer to set aside an extra 300 feet can make or break a usable wildlife corridor. 

So, it’s complicated. All that negotiating and planning by one group, operating in one area of the world. But it’s doable. Such groups are on the ground and tireless. Half of California — a state closing in on 40 million inhabitants, with the world’s fifth largest economy — is protected land. There are fifteen national parks and recreation areas. The Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in the country, and one of 300 in the state. Towns of every size actively acquire open space for preserves and parks. An hour north of me a cross-state corridor is being created to connect protected land in the Coast Mountain Range. The California Native Plant Society is a political and environmental powerhouse. But it’s a never-ending task to make sure what is preserved is actually protected.

Saving half earth: Map from California Protected Areas Database

Map from California Protected Areas Database

That’s because setting aside half the earth for our fellow species is half of the solution. Actually protecting that land involves thinking differently about the other half. How do we house and transport people? Grow and provide healthy food? Create a just and meaningful economy? Mitigate climate disruption? Ensure clean air and water? Create ways to live sustainably? Plan cities that regenerate the way forests do? The world is on track to build the equivalent of Manhattan every 35 days to accommodate the expected 10 billion people by 2100. China pours as much concrete in four years as the US did in the entire twentieth century. The challenges are both staggering and wonderful. There is so much scope for creatively rethinking how we operate.

In his 1984 book, Biophilia, E.O. Wilson posited that humans have evolved an innate love for life and the living process. But we have lost touch with it by lack of contact with nature. In Half-Earth he is calling for a shift in our moral reasoning. I agree, but, echoing Thomas Berry, I would instead say that we need a new story, because our morals arise from our stories.

Saving half the earth: Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

The western story, which has seeped into all corners of the earth, is one of ‘heroic’ conquest. Once by rulers and individuals, now largely by corporations and their political enablers. The wild world that we arose from, filled with our close kin, isn’t part of the story, except to celebrate mastery over it. The cultural shift comes when, for example, we choose the living forest over the board feet of lumber it supplies. But the shift is not just in loving the forest. It’s also in designing new ways to make everything from buildings to toilet paper to allow forests to live their full lives undisturbed.

What that gorgeous birdsong told me thirty years ago was that I belong to the larger order of beings. The birds whose voices we hear today have been singing in the dawn for 65 million years. Their passionate daily celebration reminded me that I’m part of the continuing creative energies of the universe. Their loss taught me how fragile the fabric of life can be. Birds can disappear. Lots of species are disappearing. But I find courage in the idea that Nature didn’t form us over eons with exquisite care and creativity so that we could turn around and destroy her. She is rising in us now, calling to each of us. There are those who can’t hear yet. But the many who can are adding their voices to the chorus, working to safeguard the nest.

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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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Biomimicry: designing with nature’s 3.8 billion years of research

Biomimicry: abalone shell interior by Betsey CrawfordThe first time I heard about biomimicry, it was the kingfisher’s eyelid that grabbed me. The largest hydroelectric dam in the world had problems with changing water levels. Nothing could grow well on the surrounding soil, so erosion was rampant. The down-flowing dirt and dead, decaying plants were causing water pollution. Four young designers decided to ask nature how she would handle such a situation. Their questions led them to spider webbing and kingfishers’ eyelids.

To see their prey underwater, diving birds have evolved a third eyelid. This almost transparent layer emerges to protect the eyes — but not block vision — underwater. The team designed domes that are pushed closed by rising water and open as it falls. The domes are embedded in a mesh system inspired by the Namibian dancing white lady spider. She spins a dense web inside her desert tunnels to keep sand grains from falling. The mesh for the dam holds the soil and secures plant roots.

The kingfisher inspired another design: the long, pointed nose on modern high-speed trains. As trains got faster, their rounded fronts created air-pressured sonic booms as they emerged from tunnels. A designer pondering this problem took a break at a local bird sanctuary. He found himself contemplating the kingfisher, whose beak and head are so sleek that they don’t make a splash when they hit water. Now fast trains share that design, and the tunnel noise is gone.

500 Series Shinkansen in Kyoto Station; photo by Sam Doshi via Flickr and Creative Commons

500 Series Shinkansen in Kyoto Station; photo by Sam Doshi via Flickr and Creative Commons

The photosynthesizing prowess and adaptability of kelp fronds and rain forests. The energy management of prairie dog burrows and termite mounds. The filtering capabilities of mollusks and peacock worms. The ability of the Saharan silver ant to reflect light. We are surrounded by geniuses, and the emerging science of biomimicry is open to them all. Nature has had billions of years to design her systems. Where better to find answers?

“Living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future.” 

That’s Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry and c0-founder of the Biomimicry Institute. If not the mother of this particular invention, she named it and has been its greatest organizer and promoter. Humans have long been adept at harnessing nature. That, after all, is what agriculture is. In fact, nature has been good at using herself since life began. The first one-celled beings took advantage of the murky warmth of underwater volcanos.

But it is one thing to harness nature. We can put sails on boats, convince bees to live in accessible hives, use bacteria to clean oil spills. It’s another to mimic her processes, which far outstrip our own in skill and products. We have yet to create a ceramic as tough as the gorgeous abalone shell in the top photo. Or a power source to match photosynthesis. Or an approach to agriculture that creates the ecosystem of self-sustaining prairies. No steel cable can match the inherent tensile strength of spider silk.

Biomimicry: A banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) shows off two different kinds of silk, which, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel. Photo by Arnie Battaglene

A banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) shows off two different kinds of silk, which, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel. Photo by Arnie Battaglene, arniebattaglenephotography.com

When we do create products, we rely heavily on petroleum, high heat, toxic chemicals. Waste is rampant. We take raw materials and harass them into the shapes we want. Nature builds from within, at the ambient temperature, even underwater. An abalone shell forms by first creating a matrix of proteins and sugars. This structure allows minerals in seawater to crystallize into ‘bricks’, layer by layer. The soft body of the abalone assembles its shell around itself by secreting the needed ingredients.

Then it stops. Abalone shells, as big as they are, are self-limiting in size. Another protein slows the growth. Benyus describes bringing a group of sanitation engineers to the Galapagos Islands. There to study natural processes, they were polite but uninterested. During a walk on the beach, she asked them what their greatest problem was. Scale, they said, citing the mineral accretion inside pipes that narrows them. They hated using the toxic chemicals it took to dissolve it. She picked up a handful of shells. This is calcium carbonate, she said, naming the mineral that plagues the engineers. What makes it stop growing, she suggested, was their answer. From then on, she could hardly get them to stop exploring long enough to eat meals.

There are many crucial reasons to move beyond petroleum. Among them: toxic pollution, climate disruption, global politics, the fast diminishing supply. The same applies to blasting mountain tops for coal, another harsh polluter and climate disrupter. Mining of all kinds rips apart the earth in ways that endanger the people doing it and the planet we live on. We are using our resources in problem-creating rather than problem-solving ways, leaving wreckage in our wake.

Biomimicry: Blue mussels waiting for the tide to bring food, when they will float on tethers held by a glue that works on irregular surfaces and underwater. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Blue mussels waiting for the tide to bring food, when they will float on tethers held by a glue that works on irregular surfaces and underwater.

Instead, we could look at the mussel.  She does several things we’d like to be good at. She feeds herself as she filters water. She creates her own materials and builds her house around her. She takes only the room she needs. She has a leg-like foot that can tether itself to rocks or wooden piers. It then secretes proteins which create an adhesive that works in water. To protect this anchor she secretes specialized hardening proteins around the glue. From this tiny but sturdy base, more proteins form a thread-like link to the mussel so she can float and filter. All that takes a few minutes, so in a short time she has as many tethers as she needs to withstand any tidal force. No toxic chemicals, no heat, readily available materials, underwater. 

We can do none of these things. The chemistry of creating a mussel’s water-tolerant, stick-to-anything adhesive is still being explored. That’s largely due to a scientist Herbert Waite’s fascination with and dedication to them. Wes Jackson’s Land Institute is one of a handful of places trying to bring prairie ecology to agriculture. Another handful has been working on using our over-abundant carbon dioxide instead of toxic silicon in computer chips. Others are studying eggshells, beetle chitin, the bouncing abilities of hedgehogs. None of these explorers are getting widespread help.

My nephew graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology last year. The school is among the top fifty “Colleges that create futures” in the Princeton Review. Ira has a degree in engineering and a graduate certificate in sustainable engineering. But, he said, there wasn’t a single class that looked to nature for its design principles. I went to the Stevens website and typed ‘biology’ into the search tab. A curt ‘No results found’ showed up. Economist Kate Raworth noted this phenomenon in her revolutionary Doughnut Economics. The top schools are looking into the future with the same old eyes.

Biomimicry: Birds have so much to teach us from their eyelids to their talons. Their lightness of bones, the superb engineering of their skulls. Their tracking skills. And of course, flight. Photo by Ray Hennessey via Unsplash.

Birds have so much to teach us, from their eyelids to their talons. Their lightness of bones, the superb engineering of their skulls. Their tracking skills. And, of course, flight. Tern photo by Ray Hennessey via Unsplash.

Companies spend fortunes on research and development. Scientists and engineers are continually inventing amazing and life-enhancing products and methods. But by and large, we have ignored the 3.8 billion years of R and D that the earth has already gifted us with. Some of this stems from the lack of ability to peer closely enough into nature. Analyzing the bricks of a shell, the chemistry of mussel glue, or the DNA of spider silk had to wait for electron microscopes and genome sequencing. But you don’t need such tools to notice that grasslands and rainforests have learned to flourish without toxic imports. The Three Gorges Dam designers didn’t need fancy equipment to watch spiders weaving close webs or kingfishers’ eyes closing. They needed patience, curiosity, attention, an interest in biology.

What they lacked was hubris. It appears that it’s the rare human who can walk by a cluster of mussels and wonder what these geniuses have to teach us. As Benyus points out, every fish is a desalinization plant. Every leaf is an engine. Every tree is a water distribution system. The colors in peacock feathers are a result of structure, not pigment. The list of wonders is endless, the ideas they could inspire even longer.

Benyus wrote Biomimicry in the 1990s when the research was getting underway. In a 2015 video, she describes some of the companies that have based their work on designing with nature. They’re mostly small and new. One is producing a paint called Lotusin based on lotus leaves’ ability to self-clean, also a structural trait. Encycle designed a linked, energy-saving information system among appliances based on the way bees and ants communicateInspired by coral reefs, Blue Planet is making limestone out of carbon dioxide. Carbon is the universe’s most abundant building block. Limestone is the main aggregate in cement. Now buildings can actually sequester carbon rather than contribute concrete’s current 8% of global warming

Biomimicry: White clover (Trifolium reopens) belongs to the important Fabaceae family, which has the knack of taking atmospheric nitrogen and transforming it into crucial nitrogen fertilizer in the soil. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

White clover (Trifolium reopens) belongs to the important Fabaceae family, which has the knack of taking atmospheric nitrogen and transforming it into crucial nitrogen fertilizer in the soil.

Some large companies have come on board. Benyus’ newest project, sister to the Institute, is Biomimicry 3.8, focusing on consulting and training. Clients include already-green Patagonia, as well as giants like GE, Shell and the Environmental Protection Agency. The University of Ohio in Akron is the first school to offer a Ph.D. in biomimicry. Biomimics in northeast Ohio, once home to rivers so polluted they caught fire, are hoping to create the Silicon Valley of biomimicry there. These are a few among the many millions of companies, schools, and agencies in the world, but that’s how nature starts.

A few unicellular organisms in those hot vents became every living thing on earth. On the way, they rewarded diversity and cooperation. Understood their limits and grew into their opportunities. Kept their footprint small. Used readily available energy. Used a handful of proteins and elements for every function of their lives. Reabsorbed waste into the system. If they couldn’t sustain themselves and keep their environment favorable to life, they’re not still here to inspire us.
 
There are as many as 100 million species on our planet. They are our elders by up to 3.8 billion years. Become their apprentices, Benyus urges us.  Model our cities on the regenerative wisdom of forests. Nurture our agricultural land with the teeming cooperation of prairies. Power our lives with the chemical genius of chloroplasts. Biomimicry opens up endless possibilities. By embarking on this exciting, intensely creative, and limitless quest we are doing the first thing these elders teach us: creating life that creates life.
 
Biomimicry: a spreading tree in the Pepperwood Preserve, Santa Rosa, California by Betsey Crawford

Free of motors and pumps, trees are master water distributors. Their growth patterns build in resilience and adaptability. They are adept at communicating with the trees around them and the fungus growing at their feet.

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The patient genius of transmutation

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is an emission nebula located 8 000 light-years away. This stunning new image was observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate its 26th year in space.

“All is flux,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said 2500 years ago. “Nothing stays still.” He offered us a perfect description of transmutation, one of the great powers that cosmologist Brian Swimme ascribes to the universe. This is the third of those powers that I have explored, and one of the most intriguing. Since the first flaring forth 13.7 billion years ago, not one iota of the universe has ever been still or remained the same. The first particles became atoms, the atoms coalesced into galaxies of stars. The stars burned elements into existence. When those early stars exploded the elements flew out and gathered into masses that became more stars, planets, mountains, rivers, trees, animals, birds, us.

On our own planet great plates move, meet, push up mountains, pleat valleys into existence. Ever-moving rivers wear canyons into stone. Winds blow, clouds form and dissipate, rain falls. Plants grow. Animals roam and help create the changing landscapes. Stillness is always an illusion since even the longest lasting phenomenon is on a planet whirling around its axis, racing along an orbit around the sun at 68,000 miles per hour. The solar system is flinging itself toward the Hercules constellation at 720 miles a minute. Our whole galaxy is swirling toward Andromeda at two million miles a day. The universe is still expanding from the force of its birth. 

A tall purple fleabane (Ergieron peregrinus) with two butteries in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

All of the visible details on this purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrines) are flowers. The center disk flowers are yellow, the ray flowers are lavender. The vast Asteraceae family has been able to dominate the planet by evolving an abundance of readily available nectar and pollen, enough to feed two butterflies at once. These beauties will fly off and pollinate other fleabanes.

Despite all this drama, transmutation takes its time. From the first unicellular life on our planet to a being with a brain to contemplate it all took 3.5 billion years. There’s perhaps no better example of the power of transmutation than the slow, steady evolution of the many life forms on earth. Darwin called his first draft “The Transmutation of Species.” Going from simple to nucleated cells took the first two billion of those years. Cells joined together to create increasingly complex and diverging forms, constantly adapting to changing circumstances. Beaks adjusting to crack newly evolved seeds. Spines adapting to walking through grasslands after eons in trees. Flowers and pollinators working out their cooperative ventures.

Because of other powers, like cataclysm and transformation, the ride has not been smooth. There have been five major extinctions. But despite those, transmutation has kept steadily on, endlessly and artfully adapting each new and surviving species to the evolving world around them. Some adaptations take 100 generations, others happen swiftly. Most important, they are happening all the time. The Finch Unit on the Galapagos Islands, under the aegis of Rosemary and Peter Grant, discovered in the 1980s that after just a few years of intense drought followed by flooding, certain of the surviving finches began to exhibit adaptive changes. Plants can develop resistance to biocides within a couple of growing seasons. Some bacteria evolve to survive antibiotics almost immediately.

This brings us to Brian’s take on transmutation: that it is a process not only of change but also of responding to constraints. ‘When we look at the way in which life moves from one form to another,’ he says, ‘one of the things we notice is that it uses a form of judgment, of constraint, even rejection. These are powerful processes that enable transmutation to take place.’ He uses the continental plates as an example. When they meet one another their engagement constrains each of them. ‘The resistance, the opposition, is what brings forth the mountain ranges.’

Ocotillo (Fouquieria spendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

Flowers are constrained by the imprudence of pollinating themselves, which weakens their offspring. So they have, like the ocotillo above, developed characteristics —  red, tubular flowers — to work with specific pollinators. Hummingbirds, whose long beaks are perfect for reaching deep into such petals, have also evolved to see red preferentially. Desert plants have been constrained by dryness to evolve leaves into thorns, which hold a layer of protective air against the skin of the stem. Constraint, then, becomes a launching platform for creative, evolutionary solutions. A way that Nature exercises judgment, ‘that leads to excellence of form, or we might say beauty.’

It also leads to intimacy: the hummingbird and the ocotillo are intimates. The Galapagos finches with beaks to match their preferred seeds have an intimate relationship with the plants that produce those seeds. The cactus finches eat cactus flowers, pollen, and seeds. They drink cactus nectar. They mate, nest and sleep in cactus. In return, they pollinate it. They are deeply and inextricably linked. One day changes may create constraints that break those bonds, and further evolution will happen.

Adaptation: whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station by Betsey Crawford

Intimately related: whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

This is the profoundly creative process that forms ecosystems, entire biomes with endless interdependent living threads. We emerged from this process, we live in it, and we are threatening it. We have set up many constraints: laws, customs, traditions, religions. But these all address human interpersonal behavior, taking ‘for granted that the fundamental focus is the human.’ We have acknowledged few constraints on our relationship to the planet we depend on, and all of nature is suffering from our lack of judgment about and intimacy with our home. 

Only in the last fifty years have we begun to protect air, water, animals. Even so, these laws are under constant attack. This in itself is transmutation. Changes start and stop. Nature experiments, changes her mind, starts again. Constraints arise and must be worked with. Resistance is part of our process of cultural evolution. For all the incessant flux we live among, we are reluctant to change. The great stress of this moment in our history is that we feel we have too little time to make major changes in the way we think and act before irreparable damage is done.

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, a painted schinia (Schinia volupia). Blanket flowers host the larvae of the schinia, and they hang out on the flowers once they emerge. Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

But that stress itself will spur the change in consciousness that we need, just as the urgency of an oxygen-toxic atmosphere spurred the evolution of mitochondria that could use the oxygen to fuel life. That burst of available energy led to the great Cambrian explosion of living forms 541 million years ago. This vast, ever-adapting diversity assures us that we live on a planet dedicated to life. Transmutation aims for success, for better adaptations, for prospering ecosystems. That’s its whole point. This doesn’t mean it’s an orderly process, or that all life survives. Far from it. The ones that can’t adapt to new conditions don’t make it. That’s our fear. 

As a culture, we are facing constraints we haven’t faced before. They’ve always been there. But for the last 10,000 years we’ve had an accelerating, expansionist vision of human society: more land, more power, more things. Consumerism is the present toxic crisis. We’re operating out of a tragically limited view of ourselves as human beings. ’Why is the planet withering?’ Brian asks. ‘Primarily because humans have accepted a context that is much too small.’

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

The transmutation of color to match the environment is the difference between life and death for many tasty creatures. A Great Plains toad (Anaxyrus cognates) hides in plain sight in the Konza Prairie Preserve in Manhattan, Kansas

All of these powers work through us. We are saturated with them. Every molecule, every cell, every organ of our body has come to this point through the patient genius of transmutation. We are our present as well as our lineage, every change that has taken place to allow us to arrive at this moment. And we face further changes, as well as the need to make them swiftly. ‘We’re asked to move to a larger context, a planetary level.’ No one on earth wants a withering planet, but such a shift will require what look like sacrifices in our limited context. ‘What aspects of ourselves are we asked to relinquish’ to reach this more expansive vision? One that sees our legacy flowing into all generations to come. 

From here we enter into the heart of the power of transmutation itself. We become this force, as we choose how to change what we value, how we act on our values, how we bring these great powers to bear on our moment. When we step into the larger consciousness of the universe, we are co-creating the evolution of those who will come long after us. ‘We are attempting to become beings that enable the whole to flourish, guided by the moments of beauty in the past, and the visions of beauty in the future.’ This is the Great Work, in Thomas Berry’s words, as we become not only forces for the universe, but enter into our reality as the universe itself.

A flower made for a bee, who enters the beautifully designed portal, where the filaments of the beard rub pollen off the underside of the bee, which the pale blue 'shelf' scrapes it off the back. The bee drinks nectar, and as it backs out the white pollen on the stamen drops onto its back, but the scraper doesn't work in that direction. A bearded iris in Manito Gardens, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

A flower made for a bee, who enters the beautifully designed portal. The filaments of the beard rub pollen off her underside, while the pale blue ‘shelf’ scrapes it off her back. The bee drinks nectar, and as she backs out the white pollen on the stamen drops onto her. Handily, the scraper doesn’t work in that direction, so off she flies, loaded with pollen. A bearded iris in Manito Gardens, Spokane, Washington

[I love the top image because it looks like earth coalescing. It’s the Bubble Nebula, an emission nebula located 8,000 light-years away, captured by the Hubble telescope. Thanks to ESA/Hubble, via Creative Commons.]

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Songlines 2018: beauty and action

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) on Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey CrawfordFinding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we love.
Terry Tempest Williams

I treasure finding beauty everywhere I go. And having it find me. The chocolate lily above is my favorite picture of 2018. I love both the flower itself and the spray of gold light behind it. It also comes from a May trip to Coeur d’Alene, where my son Luke lives, so that means it was blooming in a favorite place. As soon as I got there the wildflowers literally burst into flower. My nine days were a nonstop thrill, both to be with Luke and to have thousands of gorgeous flowers happening at once. They inspired a new gallery of Idaho wildflowers. My friend Sube, also a photographer, accompanied me one day so you can see me in the best place on earth: on the ground with wildflowers.

Betsey Craword photographing wildflowers on Tubbs Hill

Photo by Susan Beard

The best place on earth, luckily, is wherever I can do that. In March, my partner, George, and I went to the Anza Borrego desert, inspiring a gallery of flowers from that amazing place. I started The Soul of the Earth in the AB desert in 2015 and updated one of my early pieces on the mysterious beings we walk among when we’re there. On our rather circuitous route, we also went to Death Valley, which was a first, and met one of those mysteries on the way in. 

Coyote resting under creosote bush outside of Death Valley, California by Betsey CrawfordAfter Coeur d’Alene, I joined a friend in Vancouver, and we explored the stunning fjord that runs north from that city to Whistler. Then, on the way home, I stopped to hike in the Hoh rainforest on the Washington coast. There were exquisite wildflowers there, but the moss and lichen-draped trees stole the show.

Moss and lichen covered tree in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington by Betsey CrawfordOutside of those two 3-week bursts of traveling, all other action has been local to Greenbrae, California. It was a jumping year in this neck of the woods, especially in September, when San Francisco hosted the Global Climate Summit. But it started for me in January, when I began a Drawdown Project workshop at the Pachamama Alliance offices just over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d known about Drawdown, a program to reverse global warming, since the book came out in 2016, and love its visionary practicality. So I was delighted. Our lively and engaged group met six times, going deeper and deeper into the 100 solutions the project proposes. At the sixth session, we presented our final projects. Mine involved this unusually orderly version of my refrigerator.

For Project Drawdown: a refrigerator full of food illustrates how many solutions an everyday appliance involves. Photo by Betsey CrawfordI love to make connections and realized that 36 solutions involve owning and filling a refrigerator. So that’s what I wrote about in Project Drawdown: reversing global warming. As part of my Blessed Unrest series, I also wrote about the Pachamama Alliance itself, with its literally magical beginnings and its powerful vision. They have a great approach to involvement: express enthusiasm and the next thing you know you’re part of the team. That’s how I ended up helping to teach the Drawdown workshop this past fall.

I was drawn to Pachamama because of their involvement in an issue close to my heart: the rights of nature. In 2008, they were instrumental in getting a rights of nature plank into the new Ecuadoran constitution. I attended their Global Gathering at the end of May, which left hundreds of us full of happy zeal. The same was true of the Climate Summit in September. The official events were invitation only, but there were hundreds of ancillary events, and I went to a bunch of them. Then there was the annual Bioneers Conference in October, a great way to hear and be inspired by a wide variety of activists.

Gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) in my ‘backyard’ on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

In between doing all these wonderful things, my love for the plant world had me exploring the amazing process of turning light into food in Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis. The surprising results of asking questions no one else thought to ask inspired Pursuing mystery: how we found out lichen has a third partner and is saving the earth. 

Then, in the fall, I became transfixed by seeds. I thought it would be one essay, The brilliance of seeds, about the profound knowledge found in these tiny beings. But I ended that one by saying I’d be continuing. I wanted to explore the layers of a crucial story of our time in The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds. I couldn’t leave it on that harrowing note, so in Saving seeds I wrote about the people and organizations fighting to keep our 12,000-year agricultural heritage available to all.

Creosote (Larrea dentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Creosote (Larrea dentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

My essay on Rights of Nature had me wondering how we change our thinking to encompass ideas about the rights of rivers, trees, ecosystems, the atmosphere. Inspired by a series of talks cosmologist Brian Swimme gave on the powers of the universe, I decided to study each of his eleven powers to see what the cosmos teaches us about proceeding into a livable and just world. I started with Radiance, which is, among other things, the power of the heart and our capacity to love. Radiance in flowers is so abundant that I created a gallery of luminous photos. My second power was Centration: the Universe and the Doughnut, looking at what we can learn about economics from the cosmos’ methods of organization. The patient genius of transmutation is up next.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria spendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

On many levels, 2018 has been an incredibly difficult year for the whole planet and every being on it. The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year is ‘toxic.’  There was a 45% rise in the number of times it was looked up. It was a year of waking up to toxic and heartbreaking news every day. But I found immense comfort and joy in spending so much time with inspiring people, and in dwelling with the beauties of the world. To paraphrase one of those inspiring people, theologian Ilia Delio, the only way we can strip the world of goodness is by not loving it. 

In loving it, we join ourselves to the forces that brought us here, the great powers that operate with such patience and care. Living and acting within those energies sustains and inspires us. They’re animating and exhilarating, flowing into us, forming us, connecting us, creating the future through us.

I wish you a new year filled with those boundless energies, bringing you beauty, joy, and the excitement of action.

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California by Betsey Crawford

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California

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Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

Season of Creation

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) with California poppy (eschscholzia california) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Native plants: the genius of their place

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

Sowing seeds into the whirlwind

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

Cactus lingerie

 

Saving seeds

Bags of seeds by RawpixelThere are legendary people and places in the drive to save seed diversity, and then there’s the legend. Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian plant geneticist who was active in the 1920s and 30s. Urbane and erudite, full of charm and curiosity, Vavilov made friends with everyone from local farmers to government officials. On a quest to prevent the periodic devastating famines that had plagued Russia for centuries, he traveled the world, collecting seeds. The seed bank that now bears his name grew to 400,000 seeds as a result of his vision and energy. 

A fascinating aspect of our agricultural history is that planting seeds to grow food happened in several disconnected areas 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Like an evolutionary radiation, it was a sudden burst of activity across widely separated groups of humans. It was Vavilov’s genius to recognize the importance of discovering these cradles of cultivation. He was an avid explorer, with a love for the endless fieldwork his quests entailed, and adept at picking up languages and dialects. He rightly guessed that the areas where food plant species first flourished would be deep repositories of genetic diversity. His five areas were China, Ethiopia, the Andes region of Central America, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Mountainous regions are particularly lush with biodiversity because they contain so many different ecosystems, each with their own genetic variants. 

His life ended tragically. Once the highly respected leader of Soviet agricultural science, he ended up in Stalin’s gulag for promoting the ‘bourgeois science’ of evolution and for the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of his international connections. There, Vavilov died of the starvation he spent his life trying to prevent.

But even Stalin knew not to destroy his seed bank. It survived the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in World War II because Vavilov’s employees locked themselves in the building. Despite having no heat or running water, and dying of starvation themselves, the survivors protected the seeds until the siege was over. That same deep understanding and love for what seeds bring us from their long genetic history inspire all kinds of seed activism today. 

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Creative Commons

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Wikimedia Commons

There are the ‘doomsday’ seed banks like Svalbard in Norway, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, and the Millennium Seedbank in England. The United Nations has nine banks around the world. Many countries store their heritage seeds in national vaults. Hundreds of smaller banks often hold seeds of less commercially important plants. Their genes may prove crucial to the continuing vitality of agriculture, and thus to our existence as a species. Innumerable seed saving groups and exchanges keep heirloom seeds in circulation. Seed libraries allow you to check out seeds in spring and return in the fall with seeds from your harvest. 

Heroes are still with us, like the Iraqis who rescued seeds from an important Abu Ghraib bank before the building was destroyed by a bomb. The seeds, with genes from the beginning of agriculture, were taken to one of the United Nations banks, near Aleppo, in Syria. Later, as the Syrian war intensified, they were packed again and driven to Lebanon on the last open road. Some have now made it to Svalbard.

Organizations large and small have their own legends, like Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Feisty and inexhaustible, Kimbrell spends his life taking corporations and government agencies to court to protect food, farmers, consumers, and the planet. We owe the fact that DNA itself cannot be patented to litigation by the Center for Food Safety. It was their series of lawsuits and collaborative campaigns that prevented the USDA from watering down organic standards. Last year they added a Global Seed Network to their existing Save Our Seeds program. The network provides a platform to connect smaller groups and individuals.

Citrus fruit colors by Edgar Castrejon

Nature loves diversity. Photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

Navdanya (‘Nine seeds’) was founded in India by another legend, Vandana Shiva, a force of nature and environmental warrior worldwide. Navdanya’s mission is to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed.”  Dedicated to community resilience and social justice, Navdanya works locally throughout India. In the past twenty years, nine million farmers have been trained in sustainable farming and seed sovereignty. They have established 122 seed banks, and their own farm is a teaching center. Crucially, they are in the forefront on issues of biopiracy. International treaties guarantee national sovereignty over genetic resources. But it’s a constant, underfunded battle to protect native seeds and plants from corporate predators.

Once a seed has been patented it can no longer be used to create other crop varieties. To reduce competition for their genetically modified products corporations buy seed companies to take traditional seeds off the market. Modeled on the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative was created to “free the seed.” Seed growing and breeding partners commit to keeping OSSI-pledged seeds, their derivatives, and information about them available to all.

Vavilov’s solution to famine lay in seed diversity, which yields crop diversity. Farmers need a deep pool of traits to choose from. Then, as conditions change, they and their crops can adapt. At the best of times, there are changes in populations of beneficial and harmful insects. New plant diseases evolve. Rainfall and temperature vary. But global warming has made diversity a worldwide challenge. Warmer, drier climate not only makes drought more likely but brings changes in insect populations and diseases. Every change ripples through the ecosystem.

Vietnam market by Stephan Valentin

Vietnam market. Photo by Stéphan Valentin via Unsplash

The nature of Nature is variety. There are 400,000 species of beetles! But evolution takes time and needs available traits to work with. Right now we’re creating a dangerous bottleneck in the diversity of food species because corporate control has restricted access to 90% of our crop seeds. Seeds need to be planted and harvested to keep the gene lines mingling and flourishing, reacting to the conditions they’re grown in.  Limiting the gene pool makes no sense outside of corporate boardrooms. Local government agents urged farmers in Mexico’s Chihuahuan highlands to switch from their native corn to a white variety that produces more ears with larger seeds. But the white corn lacks the anthocyanins that turn the native corn blue. Not only do those polyphenols make the blue corn more nutritious, but they evolved to protect the seedlings from cold in that mountainous area. 

By the time we figure out these mistakes — and they are worldwide — we could lose precious genetic information forever. Seed banks are not the answer. They offer protection against catastrophic loss, but they are vulnerable. Svalbard was put inside a mountain in the Arctic so the permafrost would keep the seeds cold and prevent flooding. But the permafrost is melting, and water got to the door in 2017. Even if we could keep every seed in every bank safe, they exist in suspended animation. They’re kept viable, but the viability they inherited may not suit the growing conditions they meet in the future. Seeds in circulation and actively growing will adapt as circumstances change. 

Array of tomato varieties by Reseal Apacionado

Photo by Rezel Apacionado via Unsplash

The venerable Seed Savers Exchange is ensuring just that. Started in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy, the organization has preserved over 25,000 heirloom seeds. SSE runs the largest non-government seed bank in the world and also stores seeds at Svalbard. But their mission is to continually grow out seeds on an 890-acre farm to keep plant genes ever renewing and mingling. Through what they call participatory preservation, gardeners worldwide grow with them, adapting plants to a wide variety of conditions. The resulting seeds are shared with Seed Savers and offered on the site’s Seed Exchange. 

The Italian agronomist Salvatore Ceccarelli is creating a similar movement with farmers: participatory plant breeding. He spent most of his career in the Mideast, working with cereal grain farmers in those dry conditions. When he had to leave during the Syrian war, he brought seeds with him to Italy to develop grains suitable for global warming. He works with farmers collectively to breed seeds that work best not only for their local environment but for all grain growing areas in a drier world.

Photo by Alfred Schrock via Unsplash

Genetic diversity is extremely subtle. Look at the fascinating array of our fellow humans. All those variations come from less than one percent of our genes. For the rest, we’re basically identical. So keeping a gene line pure while at the same time fostering its adaptive abilities is a delicate task. One that Native Seeds/Search has taken on. Their specialty is indigenous seeds of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico. They have a small bank and farm to protect, regenerate and supply 1900 seeds. Most are for food but some are from plants used for dyes, medicines, and shelter. Native Seeds’ mission is to keep the heritage seeds of local tribes pure and flourishing in the face of threats to their culture, ecology, and traditional farming practices.

Ultimately, all seed saving is cultural. Crop seeds evolved in intimate relation to the peoples who planted them. Whether saving Navaho corn, Syrian wheat, or Ethiopian teff, we are preserving the history of a region. It’s the story of our ancestors and their patient labor over the last 12,000 years. Blessedly, there are millions of seed savers all over the world. From card tables at farmers markets, backyard sheds, community exchanges, banks large and small, our heritage seeds are moving, growing, adapting. Will this stem the corporate juggernaut? Only by growing the movement not just to save seeds, but to grow community empowerment and activism. Corporate profits depend on our not understanding what’s happening to our inheritance.

By saving seeds we are keeping alive millions and millions of conversations. Between the soil and the seed, the farmer and the land, the earth and its beings. If we lose this priceless genetic history, we’re not only losing the brilliance of seeds but the ancestral genius that worked with them over millennia to create the foods we love and rely on. Men and women who noticed that this seed yielded sweeter berries, that one survived late spring frost, this one thrived despite a dry season. Who built on that knowledge, shared it, passed it down to us. Who sat down daily to meals we are still eating amid traditions we still cherish. Through this profound and nourishing legacy seeds become a door into what it means to be human.

Bowl of seeds by Joshua Newton

Photo by Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Photo at top by rawpixel via Unsplash

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The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds

Farmer harvesting hay in British Columbia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordThe most public debate on the use of genetically modified seeds concerns their safety: whether they are safe for the environment and safe for human consumption. These are crucial questions, arguably the most important. But they are accompanied by a host of other very important issues: democracy, public versus corporate control, the rights of communities and individuals, the control of the food supply, the future of plant genetics, the future itself. Issues of culture, sovereignty, heritage, and spirit are involved. Who we are as inhabitants of our mother planet underlies all these issues.

Genetic manipulations can sound promising: rice with beta-carotene to prevent blindness in vitamin A starved children. Spinach that survives frost. Cotton and potatoes that resist their most pernicious beetle pests. Farming is hard and risky. Anything that makes it easier and more predictable is surely worth a look. Drought resistant wheat? Great idea! Especially in the face of global warming.

It was such a great idea that our ancestors started developing drought-tolerant wheat 10,000 years ago. Cereal grain cultivation originated in the middle east, where there was plenty of reason to foster plants that naturally weathered dry seasons. Grasses are wind pollinated, so the different species could mix easily, blending genes, creating desirable traits that were then chosen, grown, and treasured. Some of these ancient grains are in use around the world today, including in our own midwest, helping farmers cope with the effects of warmer, drier climate.

Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is pictured with its modern progeny. Photos by Matt Levin and CSKK

Teosinte photo by Matt Lavin; corn photo by CSKK. Both via Flickr/Creative Commons

The choosing and mixing of beneficial traits in plants of all kinds brought us most of the food seeds that we had 100 years ago. Farmers who never heard the words genetics or evolution nevertheless were part of those processes. We know from genetic analysis that corn developed from an unassuming grass, teosinte, when we began planting it nine thousand years ago. Slowly and carefully, operating on knowledge acquired from intimacy with seeds and plants, locale and weather, farmers developed plants with the prominent cobs and seeds that became a staple food of what is now North and South America. The other two staples — beans and squash — were developed with the same patient wisdom.

The indigenous people of the Americas planted their three sisters together, starting with a few corn seeds set into a mound of soil. The corn stalks created a pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans are in the legume family, which pulls the crucial nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. The large squash leaves shaded the ground, discouraging weeds, conserving water and preventing the sun from baking the soil. Coastal tribes planted a fish in each mound for fertilizer. 

A bowl of jewel-like beans from seedambassadors.org

Photo from Seed Ambassadors

One hundred years ago, after thousands of years of such careful nurture and thoughtful husbandry, there were 307 varieties of commercially available corn seeds. As of the last count in 1983, there were twelve. Monsanto is everyone’s culprit, with good reason, but they didn’t begin it, and they’re not alone. Early in the twentieth-century corporations realized that there was money to be made in creating seeds that had to be bought anew each year, instead of the ancient practice of collecting them at harvest. This led to F1 hybrids, which dominated farm staples such as corn, sugar beets and vegetables. F1 hybrids are genetic crosses designed to use the desirable dominant traits of each parent. However, in the next generation recessive genes can activate, and so the crop is less predictable and likely weaker. 

So, farmers purchased new seeds every year, on the surface a reasonable tradeoff for a reliably hardy crop. But only reasonable if they had a choice, which diminished rapidly. The hybrid breeders didn’t want competition from traditional seeds, so they began to buy up seed companies, something that has accelerated in the last twenty years. The three major chemical corporations heavily involved in GMO seeds have bought 20,000 seed companies among them. In addition, Monsanto is notorious for going into traditional farming regions and buying stored seeds from farmers as they introduce their altered seeds. By refusing to sell the traditional seeds they now own, corporations force farmers to buy their genetically engineered products.

Wheat field in South Dakota by Betsey Crawford

Wheat field in South Dakota

When they want to convince the public of the safety of GMO foods, genetic modifiers say that their work is a continuation and sophistication of the process of hybridization that has been in place since farming began. But all previous combinations, including the F1 hybrids, combined genes of the same or closely related species, using the methods of pollination the plants had used for millions of years. The insertion of flounder and trout genes in tomatoes and spinach, along with viral catalysts and a bacterial signature to identify the corporate owner, is entirely new. Which is exactly what those same modifiers say when they apply for patents.

In 1980 the United State Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. This gives Monsanto and other companies the right to alter a single gene in a seed, claim the patent, and sue anyone who uses that seed for intellectual property theft, even if the use of that seed is unsought and unwanted. There are many examples of farmers whose crops were wind pollinated by nearby GMO seeds and ended up being sued for damages. In addition, and literally caught in the crosswinds, organic farmers can lose tens of thousands of dollars of value when their crops are contaminated.

Given its 117 year history of producing deadly poisons — DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs — and creating endless toxic sites, there is apparently no amount of damage that Monsanto is unwilling to do. It has also, ever since helping make bombs in both world wars, had close ties to the U.S. government. In every administration from Reagan through Trump, Monsanto lawyers and executives have held positions in the FDA, the USDA, and the Supreme Court. Next to the corporations, the U.S. government is the biggest booster of GMO crops, even to the point, during famines, of forcing supplies of GMO grain on African countries that don’t want them.

Corn field in western Kansas by Betsey CrawfordI can’t know for sure how the farmer of the field above treats his land. But the state of the soil — dry, sandy, colorless — suggests that he first drenched the ground with biocides to kill the microbial life. Then another biocide to arm the seeds and seedlings against insects whose predators may well have been killed in the first round. Since there are no weeds sprouting between the corn stalks, he likely applied another biocide, probably glyphosate, to kill them. This is the chemical in Monsanto’s Round Up. Handily, Monsanto’s Round Up Ready seeds are bred to grow into plants that aren’t killed by glyphosate. After seeding the farmer can keep spraying Round Up all season. To feed the plants growing in this sterile soil, repeated applications of petroleum-based fertilizer can be added to the list.

If this were a potato field, he would have followed the same path, adding fungicides, but instead used the eyes of potatoes with the inserted genes of Bacillus thuringensis, or BT. Eating the leaves would then be lethal to the notorious potato beetle. These thrive in monocultures of the potato bred, for example, to provide perfect french fries at McDonald’s. This leaves us with sterile soil, sick pollinators, poisons in the air and water, eating a potato that is, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules, technically an insecticide.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78. Photo by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

Earlier this year Monsanto merged with German chemical giant, Bayer, another company with a grim history. They join two other recent mergers: Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and Chem-China. These are chemical companies foremost, and what they want to sell are chemicals and seeds modified to grow into plants that can sustain repeated barrages of their chemicals. Journalist Mark Shapiro, in his book Seeds of Resistance, quotes a Monsanto executive who describes the ’stacking’ of as many as six different genes into a seed to create resistance to six different pesticides. “We work,” she said blandly, “to uncouple the farm from the environment around it.”

As Shapiro says, this is “a pretty succinct description of the industrial agriculture paradigm…that treats the seed as a foreign entity to be inserted into a chemically reconstituted environment.” It’s also insanity: trying to create life by killing everything around it. A thriving earth means one lively ecological niche after another. A seed and its environment are among the most crucially linked life forms on the planet; they are an ecosystem, intimate bonds that hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of both seed and soil, have created. Every breathing being on the planet has evolved because this relationship evolved first: a soil alive with microbial and fungal life, a brilliant seed, and the plant they produce. 

Soil should be full of life: dark, crumbly, full of decaying plant matter and fungi.

Soil should be full of life: dark and crumbly because it has lots of decaying plant matter, showing signs that fungi are thriving.  Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Unsplash.

Evolution is going to have its way. There are already superweeds that survive Round Up. BT, an important tool used sparingly in organic farming, quickly met its first BT resistant caterpillar in genetically engineered cotton. The companies will invent more chemicals. The organic farmers will be devastated. Thus it isn’t only about safety. There are layers and layers of complications. Pollution, health, farmers’ sovereignty over their own land. The ability to access and trust good science, and the education to understand it. A community’s right to say no to corporate demands. State and federal laws protecting corporations at the expense of those communities.

People assume there have been studies on the safety of GMOs for humans. But there haven’t been. Negative research exists but has been suppressed and ridiculed. The chemical companies say it’s not their business to determine the safety of their products, it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s job. The FDA is peppered with biotech industry insiders. One Monsanto executive went from writing the paper to gain approval for bovine growth hormone to being the FDA appointee who approved it. 

Will there be a safe role for transgenic organisms in medicine and food? We don’t know. It’s being ‘studied’ in real time. We, along with our children and grandchildren, are the long-term epidemiological experiment that may give us the answer. We may not know for generations. The same is true of the environment. There have been recent articles by one-time GMO skeptics who say they are now converts since we’ve been using them since 1994 and they “seem safe.” But twenty-four years doesn’t even register in the scale of human and plant evolution. If every word in this essay represents 500,000 of the one billion years since the first photosynthesizing eukaryotes showed up, homo sapiens’ 200,000-year history would be the last two letters. 

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27.

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27. Photo by Lance Grandahl via Unsplash.

Monsanto’s slogan is ‘Feeding the World.’ Well-meaning people and organizations believe genetically engineered seeds are the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of hunger, especially as the population explodes to a projected 10 billion people. But recent studies show that the combination of genetically engineered seeds and their companion chemicals actually produce lower yields than traditional methods. In the meantime, debt-burdened farmers the world over are trapped into a cycle of needing chemicals to produce high yields to pay for the chemicals. The companies and their stockholders are the only identifiable beneficiaries. 

People aren’t hungry because there aren’t enough vast agricultural monocultures being showered with poison. They’re hungry because our methods of growing and distributing food leave them out. The farm workers in California’s Central Valley work among the most abundant vegetable and fruit fields in the world. But they can’t afford the products they raise because they’re not paid enough, a worldwide problem.

We know so little, despite our brilliance. We’ve been here such a short time. The seeds we’re risking for the profits of a few people are our elders by hundreds of millions of years. We’re a young and rambunctious species, dazzled by our capabilities. But we have no idea what we don’t know. Too many have lost a once deep understanding that we are embedded in a vast fabric of being. Lost the knowledge, to borrow from Thomas Berry, that the earth is not made of objects, but interconnected subjects full of life, power, and wisdom. To the Mayans, corn was a goddess. Among those who remember such reverence, there’s a growing movement to save seeds. That’s what I will celebrate in the third part of this seed series.

A farm field on Prince Edward Island, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Prince Edward Island, Canada

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The brilliance of seeds

Micro images of seeds by Alexander KlepnevThese gorgeous seeds and their vast number of relations are the foundation of life. Certainly for the plants that grow from them. And for the entire animal kingdom, which is completely dependent on them for food. Herbivores eat their plants and the seeds themselves. Carnivores eat animals that eat plants. We human animals have a special relationship with seeds. First, as eaters. If you had oatmeal or toast for breakfast you ate crushed seeds. Coffee? Ground seeds containing the energizing alkaloid caffeine, which creates a mild addiction we share with bees. Raspberry jam? Fruit containing seeds. Hummus for lunch? Crushed protein-rich seeds from legumes. Walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack? Seeds themselves, packed with nutritious oil. Some chocolate with that? Seeds filled with luscious fat. String beans for dinner? Pods containing ripening seeds. Spicy salsa on the side? That the heat of capsaicin-containing pepper seeds.

Vivid peppers at the San Rafael farmers market, San Rafael, California by Betsey CrawfordOur whole life is one seed after another. But that doesn’t separate us from our non-human kin. What distinguishes us is that we consciously plant them, and the discovery that we could do that changed everything. Once we found out how to create a reliable source of food by cooperating with seeds, we changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to settled communities. We were launched on a revolution we are still living today. Our 10,000-year history with seeds, and what has happened to this most interdependent of relationships in the last hundred years will be part two of this essay. In part one, I want to celebrate their brilliance.

Here are some of the things that seeds know: they know that the twelve hours of daylight in early April in the northern hemisphere means it’s time to germinate, whereas the twelve hours of daylight in late September means it’s time to disperse themselves away from their mother plant. They know it’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. 

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) seeds splitting out of their red pods in Stewart, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

As the ripe pods of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) split open, they curve away from the center, pulling tiny seeds with them, ready to be airborne.

Having waited in dormancy all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, they know how to measure the right mix of light, water, and oxygen. They know a passing shower is not the rainy season they’re waiting for. They know the forest they’ve lain dormant in for decades has burned and nutritious ash and volatile organic compounds have been made available, along with enough light to sprout and grow. When a drought ends, or a road is cut through, or a field plowed seeds know to grab their chance in the sun and air, take in water, begin to expand their cells, and wake up their sleepy metabolism.

They know to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. They know their place well enough that many seeds can confidently do this in the fall to get a head start on the next spring’s growth. Many others know to resist the temptation of germinating in warm autumn soils and thus risk the winter freeze. Those wisely wait until spring. Seeds sense where they are, how deeply they are buried, whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi they need are available. Some seeds wait years, even centuries, for the right moment.

The seeds of grasses are full of energizing starches that provide half the world's calories. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThey know to send out one or two ‘first leaves’, cotyledons, to begin the work of photosynthesis, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. Long before that they know to take one of the two sperm that makes it into the ovary as a result of pollination and make nutritious food out of it, usually the endosperm. Until photosynthesis starts, that’s what nourishes the embryo and seedling. And us: the endosperm of grains accounts for over 50% of human caloric intake worldwide. 

In the long process of evolution, they have created a variety of endosperms and related ways to nourish themselves. Fat-filled avocado seeds have plenty of food for the slow time it takes them to start photosynthesizing in their native forests. The starchy seeds of grains and grasses give them the quick energy they need to take off in any open, sunny spot. Protein-rich nuts drive the long lead time it takes to launch a tree, and promise nourishment to the animals who handily spread them around and then forget where they put them. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to take off by Betsey Crawford

The wonderfully fluffy and prolific seeds of common mllkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

They’ve worked out arrangements with pollinators and predators. Hard shells protect against rodents eating too quickly. They carry the heavy nuts — and often bury them — away from the mother plant, enabling young plants to better establish themselves. Seeds create alkaloids like piperine in black pepper, terpenes in citrus fruits, capsaicin in hot peppers to make themselves too unpleasant to eat. Then they work out further deals. Birds, who don’t mind the heat of capsaicin, but whose digestive systems are slowed down by it, thus carry the seeds farther abroad, handily depositing them in a small package of fertilizer.

After a summer of ripening, they take off on wings, feathery filaments, parachutes. They hitch a ride on animals, including humans. They drop at the feet of their parents to form colonies. The pods of lupines and other legumes pop open and shoot seeds away from the mother plant. Seeds can ride ocean currents for thousands of miles to establish themselves on far-off lands. Many know to ripen alongside the flesh they are encased in, which changes from protective bitterness to such sweetness that more and more dispersers are lured to them. Birds, bats, bears, monkeys happily spread apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries far and wide. Humans take fruit seeds and plant them in orchards. Dispersal to a good place for eventual germination is crucial to the survival and evolution of a species. Seeds know how to enlist the help they need, even from the tiniest creatures.

An ant carries seeds in the Anza Borrego Desert in photo by Betsey CrawfordThis varied and amazing wisdom has inspired 90% of plants to evolve the use of these protective, easily dispersed packages of nutrition, embryo, and intelligence to ensure the viability of the next generation. Of those, 80% are angiosperms, from the Greek for ‘seeds in a receptacle.’ The remaining seed producers are gymnosperms (‘naked seeds’) which predate angiosperms by 160 million years. They lack the protective seed coat of the angiosperms, important protection during dormancy. However, many of the gymnosperms, including all of the conifers, have evolved cones as a way to protect their seeds. 

White spruce (Picea blanca) cones protect their seeds. Photo by Betsey CrawfordGymnosperms, among our most ancient plants, are far less diverse than the angiosperms. Try parking your car near a pine grove on a windy spring day. Pines are pollinated by very fine, yellow pollen carried by the wind in fluffy clouds. Many angiosperms, especially grasses, rely on wind pollination, and it works wonderfully. But it’s a scattershot approach to reaching the precise spot you want fertilized, as you’ll see when you get back to your now yellow car. By tucking the egg deeply into the protection of the ovary, angiosperms created conditions for a multitude of goal-oriented pollinators: bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies among them. This led to competition for the attention of these creatures, which in turn evolved into a large variety of shapes, petals, sizes, colors, scents, seeds themselves. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Clusters of ripening spores on the underside of a fern leaf.

This explosion of diversity is possible because seeds efficiently combine the genes of two parents. Ferns mix them, too, via spores. But they use an ancient process so cumbersome that ferns are basically the same plant they were 180 million years ago. Seeds allow for evolution itself: the easy and continual mixing of the gene pool creates an endless array of subtle variations that allow plants to adapt to changes in the landscape, in pollinators, in temperature, in pests. Combining parental genes allows one species of wheat to become more drought tolerant than another, a flower to form purple petals from pink, a potato to better resist fungus.

How these multitalented beings do all this remains full of mysteries, though we have clues. Can seeds see light? Perhaps not the way we can, but they definitely see light and judge its strength and direction. Like us, they possess sensors and chemicals to allow this skill. Phytochrome enables seeds to register light energy, or the lack of it, at the red and far-red end of the spectrum. They judge the season by the length of the night, yet know if darkness comes from overhanging foliage because light filtering through green leaves switches from red to far red. Seeds also rely on knowing the temperature and moisture suitable for their species to judge when it’s time for the seedling to emerge. At that point, phytochrome switches gears, fostering growth and the increasing complexity of the emerging plant. 

The seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) bring to break off from their stalk. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) break away from their stalk.

Are seeds conscious? Not, so far as we know, the way we are, but they are keenly aware of and responsive to their surroundings. They make choices and decisions. One can say it’s a chemically-mediated response to stimuli, but that’s how our brains work, too. I doubt the seeds lying in wait in the brown hills surrounding me are ruing the exciting days of last spring, or planning for the coming rainy season. That kind of consciousness seems to be our unenviable lot. Instead, they have a way of holding the spring that launched them and trusting the rains to come that I would love to emulate.

Those dry, dozing seeds have their own type of awareness. More important, they, like all of creation, hold the consciousness of the whole. The same wildly creative, ardent energy that brought the universe into being flows through every seed, every plant it forms, every creature it nourishes. It flows through us as we spend our days sipping and munching them, or planting a flower garden, or sowing corn to be sure we can feed our families.

Western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) seeds ready to drop to the ground. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The heavy seeds of western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) will fall close to home.

As long as we treasure them, does it matter whether we think seeds have any kind of consciousness? The trouble is, too few people are treasuring them. By not regarding them as the vibrant, sacred trust that millions of years of cosmic evolution have bequeathed us, we’ve lost 90% of their vast diversity in the last hundred years. We’re stopping evolution in its tracks. That’s not just losing access to nourishment, which is devastating enough. It’s losing culture, history, connection, spirit. Far from treasuring them, we have given control of seeds to corporations whose only mission is profit at any cost. And the cost is unbearable.

Currently, seeds are treated as a commodity to be bought, traded, used, changed, profited from. That mindset will be explored in the second part of this series. If, instead, more and more of us see ourselves sharing with seeds the same co-evolved energy and wisdom that have made us partners for millennia, we will help prevent their destruction. There are many passionate people on this journey. Their hope and work will inspire part three of this essay.
Seeds in autumn in Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park, Revelstoke, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

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[Top photo: Micro images of seeds. Photo by Alexander Klepnev via Creative Commons]

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Centration: the universe and the doughnut

 

The power of centration: the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Hubble Heritage Team, N. Scoville (Caltech)

The universe seldom operates in straight lines; certainly not for long, and only in details. A twig may be straight for an inch or so before hitting a node and angling off on another line. But the whole bush is likely to be a glorious circling of twigs, leaves, and flowers. Tree trunks can be beautifully tall and straight, but they radiate out into branches, twigs, leaves, needles. A flower stem may make a delicate line, but it, too, radiates leaves and ends with gatherings of round, tubular, or conical flowers, each creating its own center.

From birth, the cosmos has been turning in on itself, creating these centers: the early clustering of the original elements into stars. The swirling arms of galaxies gathering them together, then continuing to create more centers as new stars formed. The dust of the universe collecting itself into planets around those stars, and they, in turn, pulling matter into moons and rings. Centered planets within centered solar systems within centered galaxies. Without these gravitational formations, the earliest matter of the universe would have floated off into infinite space, and we would never have arrived and found a place to stand and contemplate it all.

A cell is an example of the power of centration

Microscopic photo of a skin cell by Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco via Flickr

There are more: cells are centers, gathering together disparate working elements within an intelligent membrane. They then form into one nexus after another, getting more and more complex until conglomerations of centers — brains, lungs, stomachs — turn slowly into bacteria, algae, plants, fish, animals, birds, us. Water vapor gathers and falls as rain, or as snowy crystalline centers. The currents of the great waters flow in curves around the globe. The winds do the same, sometimes sweeping into great storms, with whirling water and wind, centers of great intensity.

In his series on the Powers of the Universe, cosmologist Brian Swimme calls this the power of centration. This is the second of my essays exploring what these great energies can teach us about how to move forward to the regenerative future we all desire. ‘The role of the human,’ Brian says, ‘is to enable the creative powers of the universe to proceed in a new and more mutually enhancing way.’ Even our desire for such a way forward, he feels, is a centering around the basic focus of animal life: to nurture ourselves and our young. We do this by gathering into families and communities. ‘The universe is aiming to bring forth…life that will carry life forward.’

The power of centration shows in seashells

Centration is everywhere! Photo by Paul Brennan via Pixabay

Given nature’s minimal interest in lines, it’s intriguing that we humans have, unlike any other species, surrounded ourselves with them, creating a built world of squares and rectangles. This, Brian suggests, extends to our thinking about the entire cosmos: it’s ‘a box with a lot of things in it…and a lot happening.’ The society inside the box has ‘become like a machine, a vast network of interactions focused on its own perpetuation.’ 

One line that we’re particularly attached to is the idea of linear progress. We have created a culture in which our measurement of prosperity is that we create and get more and more. If the more is nutritious food, comfortable shelter, and useful education, then the gain is positive and potentially sustaining. If by more we mean tons of things in larger houses, more cars, vaster shopping centers, then the gain is going to overwhelm the planet. But this is the line we measure in the gold standard of progress: gross national product, or GDP.

The power of centration shows up in the Fibonacci curves at the center of the sunflower

Swirling Fibonacci curves can be found throughout the natural world, showing up vividly in the centers of sunflowers. Photo by Casey Pilley via Pixabay

This linear view of progress is insidious. Thinking that because we have more things we are better, more civilized, more advanced than those with fewer things fosters the idea that some people, species, places are worth less than others, and beyond that, expendable. This attitude underlies the idea that people living in poverty have done something to deserve their state, that species protection is incompatible with human endeavor, that the resources of the planet exist for our use.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because of an economist and firecracker-in-human-form named Kate Raworth, who has written a riveting and delicious book called Doughnut Economics. The shape of her economic model, with its circling double lines of permeable membranes, enfolding a well of conditions for human prosperity, is a perfect example of using the power of centration as we proceed into the 21st century.

A view of the doughnut from Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics

From Doughnut Economics; image by Christian Guthier

In the ‘hole’ of the doughnut are twelve things that are required for a just and humane presence, living within the bounds of the planet, such as housing, equality, a role in politics, peace, health, food, and water. Falling into the center of this hole means we have a shortfall of these basic necessities. Outside of the doughnut is where we go into overshoot, using up the resources we have faster than they can be replenished, and discarding more than can be absorbed by air, water, or soil. 

Though we’ve largely ignored it in the linear make-use-trash market we have today, the idea of a circular economy isn’t new. This is what Raworth calls the butterfly economy, a cradle to cradle model, where resources used to create goods are recycled back into the same goods, as with modular pieces, recycled into other goods, or repaired. Such ideas have been a touchstone of sustainable thinking for years and are excellent examples of using the power of centration. 

The power of centration is illustrated in Kate Raworth's butterfly economy in Doughnut Economics

From Doughnut Economics; image by Marcia Mihotich

But the doughnut is different. It’s not only an economic model, it’s a place. One where the planet can live comfortably and the thriving of our species doesn’t threaten the flourishing of any others. A circular economy is part of the doughnut, as is building a robust commons. Freeing intellectual rights from overuse of patents on knowledge collectively developed. Looking to nature to learn from its billions of years of experimentation and know-how. Creating cooperative businesses and endeavors. Understanding the utter interdependence of everything on earth. Designing equitable distribution and regeneration into the economy.

The “fundamental question,” Raworth writes, is “what enables human beings to thrive?” What will create “a world in which every person can lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community…within the means of our life-giving planet?” What allows for all humans to prosper, not just those blessed to be in situations that favor them, at the expense of those in less favored circumstances? And what is prosperity? Merely the accumulation of money and things? Or a world where everyone’s basic needs are met by design, not just a few by default?

The power of centration gives prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) centers curving around a central stem. Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) with centers curving around a central stem. Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Economic growth has proven to be effective for relieving deep poverty. But it’s based on the idea that we can just keep making things forever, with its concomitant mountains of garbage and overuse of earth’s supply of water, clean air, and resources. Even if we could keep this pace with a completely renewable, circular economy, recycling everything, leaving nothing to foul the earth, measuring our wellbeing by GDP “only values what is priced and only delivers to those who can pay.”

If you have asthma from a nearby toxic dump, every visit to the doctor counts toward the GDP and is thus included in ‘progress’. In our current economic thinking, there isn’t a usable measurement for no asthma and no toxic dump. Health and the ability to enjoy your neighborhood literally don’t count. By law, a corporation is responsible for maximizing profit for shareholders, not for creating and maintaining a living, prospering world.

The power of centration delightfully displayed by these curving petals of columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Centration captures one of nature’s few straight lines. Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia

Raworth points out that since the 1970s, the word consumer has replaced the word citizen, losing the far broader values, roles, and responsibilities the latter word invokes. The unpaid work that goes into our households, families, and neighborhoods — the foundations of our ability to thrive in the world — has no recognized worth. The doughnut changes this by “shifting our attention from merely tracking the flow of income to understanding the many distinct sources of wealth— natural, social, human, physical and financial— on which our well-being depends.”

This will require a radically different way of thinking, a different set of values. “Reversing consumerism’s financial and cultural dominance in public and private life is set to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas,” Raworth says. Even those of us who wish ardently to live within the means of the planet and want all beings to be able to blossom may well be thrown by the need to recalibrate what we cherish and desire. To decide what we’re willing to live without in order to live with our fellow creatures and the earth we share.

The power of centration: doughnut economics means more community, as in this garden

A community garden in Glendale, California. Photo by Melissa Wall via Flickr

It will be a challenge in our culture, in particular, to subsume the modern version of the mythic rugged individual — the larger-than-life entrepreneur — into the need for communal centering. As Raworth notes, “Suddenly the words ‘neighbours’, ‘community members’, ‘community of nations’ and ‘global citizens’ seem incredibly precious for securing a safe and just economic future.”

The universe itself tells us that our current approach is unsustainable, and guides us forward. For all its long life it’s been gathering information about what works and moving past what doesn’t. It provides us with its incredibly flexible, generative energy, continually centering, gathering elements of itself for the creation of every new being or mode of being. This intelligent, vital force, Brian Swimme says, ‘has been roaring for 13.7 billion years and now it’s roaring into our lives. It’s been shaping the universe all this time, and it’s inviting us into the shaping itself.’

The power of centration: a solar system in the making

A solar system in the making, via NASA

Both of my mentors here, while acknowledging the vast destruction we’ve wrought and how much work there is to do, are excited about our opportunities. Kate Raworth recognizes that a regenerative economy must be supported by regenerative economic design, which “is currently sorely missing. Making it happen calls for rebalancing the roles of the market, the commons and the state. It calls for redefining the purpose of business and the functions of finance.” But, she says, “taking on this redesign task is surely one of the most exciting opportunities for the twenty-first century.” 

She sees many examples, worldwide, of a new, emerging paradigm. The power of centration tells us that these energies can be drawn together and strengthened into nurturing ways of living on and with our planet and our fellow beings. There is a great, sustaining joy in such a task, Brian says, in ‘feeling part of a greater self, rooted in energies that go back to the beginning of time…Feeling the partnership and participation.’ This exhilaration is ‘what the primordial energy of the universe feels like.’

The power of centration is obvious in this siberian aster (Aster sibiricus) along the road in Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibiricus) along the road in Alaska

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The season of creation

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western red columbine and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa) Valdez, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

For the past two years, I’ve celebrated September 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, with a collection of quotes from Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudate Si. It was he who launched the day in 2016, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. This has grown into the Season of Creation, which extends from September 1, the first day of the Orthodox year, to October 4, the birthday of Francis of Assisi, whose devotion to the wonders of the earth inspired not only Pope Francis’ choice of name, but also the title of his encyclical. Laudate si — Praise be!    are the opening words of each of the verses in Francis’ beautiful Canticle to the Sun.

This particular Season of Creation is jumping. Whether affiliated or not, there are events happening all over the world. Especially here in California, where, in response to the current scene in Washington, Governor Jerry Brown called for a Global Climate Action Summit, to be held in San Francisco from September 12 through 14. The part that Brown himself is involved in includes people from governments, NGOs, and businesses all over the world. By and large, those sessions are closed to the public. All other groups were invited to create events and participate in whatever way they wished.

That’s all Californians needed to hear. On  Tuesday, the day before the summit even starts, there are 77 separate listed events, mostly near San Francisco, not counting ongoing exhibits and the Green Film Festival. On top of listed events, groups are gathering to protest, march, perform ceremony, dance, and make music. Young people and indigenous people want to make the point that those governments and corporations behind the closed doors have, so far, been the creators, not the solvers, of global warming.

Supporting rallies are happening all over the world on September 8, as you can see from this map from The Action Network. New York is having Climate Week NYC from September 24 to 30. There is a conference in Rome in October. My friends at the Pachamama Alliance have created the Stand Up in September campaign, and are hosting special events in the US, South America, Australia, Europe and Japan. Even in your own home, where you can receive an action to take to reverse global warming every day for the month of September by signing up here.

I’ll be part of a Pachamama team teaching a Drawdown workshop starting in September, and will certainly go to some of the events around the summit. For today, I’d like to follow my now three-year-old tradition, and celebrate the beauty we are trying to save and the wisdom we can turn to. This year I’ve interwoven Pope Francis’ words with those from our other prayerful traditions.

Celebrating the Season of Creation: pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in the Pawnee National Grasslands

We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.   
(Hildegard of Bingen)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

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

Because of all the complexities of its tectonic activity and its distance to Sun and Moon and other planets in the solar system, each region of Earth needs to be understood in its own evolutionary terms. Each region’s landforms, waters, climates and evolving communities of life are unique and highly vulnerable to the human societies which reside there, often without this prior understanding to temper the raw force of their technologies.
(Sister Miriam MacGillis in Kosmos) 

Celebrating the Season of Creation: black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stymie) with snow lichen (Flavocentria invalid) in Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stymie) with snow lichen (Flavocentria invalid) in Denali National Park, Alaska

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

Celebrating the Season of Creation: common buckeye (Junonia coenia) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Common buckeye (Junonia coenia) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them. 
(The first of
 the Four Vows of the
Mahajana Bodhisattva)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

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

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child–our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
(Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness) 

 Celebrating the Season of Creation: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) on the Stanley Glacier trail in Kootenay, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) on the Stanley Glacier trail in Kootenay, British Columbia

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. 
(Buddha)

Our ancestors have left us a world rich in its natural resources and capable of fulfilling our needs…We are the generation with the awareness of a great danger. We are the ones with the responsibility and the ability to take steps of concrete action before it is too late. 
(Dalai Lama)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: frost aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Frost aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Ahimsa means more than not hurting others, it means not intending to cause harm, physical, mental or spiritual, to any part of nature, for, in the words of Mahavira: ‘You are that which you wish to harm.’
(Jain statement on ecology)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: a hawk in flight in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

The Pawnee National Grasslands

There is no animal on the earth, nor any bird that wings its flight, but is a community like you. 
(Qur’an 6: 38)
 

Celebrating the Season of Creation: human and gull footprints on the beach in Kenai, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Footprints on the beach in Kenai, Alaska

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

There is nothing superfluous in the universe. Even flies, gnats, and mosquitoes are part of creation and, as such, serve a divinely-appointed purpose. 
(Midrash: Bereshis Rabba 10:7) 

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

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

Windmills near Barlow, California

If you believe that it is possible to damage, believe that it is possible to repair.
(Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) British Columbia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) British Columbia, Canada

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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