Rain

White bells of manzanita flowers with raindrops. Photo taken on the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordWhen my partner George died in October one of the things I dreaded was the coming rainy season.  After my brother’s death in June, I was consoled by the beautiful blue and yellow days, the long soft evenings, the silken roses in overflowing gardens. By October I feared I had only darkness and storms ahead. Grayness inside and out.

When the first rains came, everyone in California, including me, was so desperate for 2020’s terrible fire season to end that it was a great relief. Then they stopped and we had more fire alerts and longed for more rain. Finally, by early January, the rainy season settled in. One soft, misty day, walking a trail along the edge of a mountain, stopping to look at the gray-green canyon sweeping down and then up below me, I realized how wrong my foreboding had been. It was so delightfully green, so full, so vibrant. A green so alive it was a presence itself, walking with me, exuberant everywhere I looked.  In my dread I’d forgotten that something magical happens in the rainy season — after seven months of no rain, the parched California landscape turns green. 

Ferns and moss grow lush after the rain along the Hoo Koo E Koo Trail in Larkspur, California. Photo by Betsey CrawfordOn the rolling hillsides, covered with dried grass, it’s not sudden. But in the forests that climb and flank the mountains it is. Even the evergreen redwoods, bay laurels, and coast oaks that form the forest turn a more vivid, juicier color. Mosses hibernating through the dry season take one long drink and perk up instantly, becoming emerald, fluffing out. Lichen swells away from the surface of its twigs and rocks, fills with bounce, becomes soft to the touch. Tiny ferns that curled up in misery once the dry days came, looking dead to the world, green and unfurl. And grow. Soon banks along the sides of trails are full of new ferns growing out of luscious moss. Early wildflowers begin to bloom. Streams start flowing down the canyon walls, cascading over rocks, filling the quiet woods with the soft sound of water moving in shallow runs among the trees. 

Winter stream after the rain comes in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordThis flowing, liquid water is the reason we have our gorgeous, verdant earth. Hydrogen is a gift of the Big Bang, oxygen of the eventual demise of the earliest mother stars. They likely joined forces to create water in its various states — liquid, solid, gas — soon after the first oxygen molecules showed up 13 billion years ago. The duo became part of the early matter of the universe that gravity eventually swirled into galaxies of stars and planets. 

Our local water came with the forming of the earth itself. Every drop, from tears to torrents, puddles to oceans, carrying blood in our veins, passing upward through the stems of plants, outward to the sky from leaves. All of it came frozen in the heart of the rocks that formed our planet or in the asteroids and meteors that bombarded the newborn, molten earth for millions of years. These were the bits that didn’t get drawn into the gathering sun’s mass and were left floating in its gravitational field. Rain, like everything on earth, is a gift of stellar rubble.

Lichen and moss growing together on a branch on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California by Betsey CrawfordAfter half a billion years the planet calmed down and slowly cooled enough for water vapor to build up in the atmosphere, attach itself to particulates of various kinds, and start to fall as rain. It then fell steadily for millions of years, building up the oceans and the underground aquifers, bequeathing earth a surface that’s 70% water.

The water softly enveloping me on that January day is the same water that arrived in the asteroids. That fell in those millions-years-long torrents. It’s the same water that fostered the evolution of life. That quenched the thirst of dinosaurs. That lured our ancestors out of Africa. That got locked in ice during the great glaciations. That helped convince our forebears to try farming the seeds they were gathering and dictated where that could happen, spurring the rise of the ancient river valley civilizations.

Yellow stemmed, red topped mushroom along the King Mountain Loop, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordThese details don’t have to be on my mind as I walk that misty, gray-green trail, where every leaf and twig, trunk and root, my feet on the eroded mountain terrain, my heart beating with delight are all due to the existence of rain. But they are still with me because the very water surrounding me brings its history with it. As do the rocks rising above me. And the plants, some of which — ferns, redwoods —  are descendants of the oldest plant kingdoms on earth. As a human, I am, so far, a momentary presence. But these are my lineages. I belong to them. I’m related to them. We are all made of the same things, by the same creative forces.

Ferns growing out of mossy roots in the rain in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordRain, like love, like grief, charges the underlying tenor of your day. I love waking up to a sun-filled room, but I also feel blessed as the rain falls, the mists linger, the clouds cherish. A being is passing through. With Walt Whitman, I ask that presence, ‘Who are you?’ Sweeping into my life, altering my world, consoling me.  Connecting me with the vaster cycles of earth and cosmos and yet holding me close in a whispering calm, promising me a green earth. 

Strange to tell,” Whitman says, rain “gave me an answer“:

I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d, altogether changed,
and yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own 
origin, and make pure and beautify it…

Milk maids (Cardamine California) King Mountain Loop, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milkmaids (Cardamine californica)

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Memories

 

Mount Redoubt from Kenai, Alaska by Betsey CrawfordAfter reading my last essay, A Year of Love and Death, on the losses of 2020, both personal and worldwide, my brother-in-law sent me a poem by John O’Donohue called For Grief. My partner George’s Irishness was a wild and wonderful force in his life. In the years before his death, he explored Celtic spirituality with his usual exuberance and loved John O’Donohue. So I was doubly moved by the poem, which means more to me every day. I share an excerpt below.

These quiet winter days, while I find my way back into words, I am full of memories stretching from the first time George and I met to our last day together. Because we both loved roaming around, there are wonderful memories from trips we took. Among the most vivid are from the years we spent traveling the U.S., living full time in an RV. We launched ourselves in 2011, but I didn’t start this website until 2015. Luckily, that year included one of the greatest adventures — our trip to Alaska — full of magic, mystery, and incredible beauty. After the poem are links to the posts and galleries from that wonder-filled journey, including a trip toward the Arctic in the Yukon.

For Grief

When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence …

There are…days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that 
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way …

Gradually you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes 
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

John O’Donohue
from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

 


North to Alaska

Denali

Matsu Valley in Alaska, by Betsey CrawfordThe first thing that happened when we drove into Alaska was that we lost all sense of time,as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border.


The Place Where You go to Listen

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


In Love in Homer, Alaska

monkshood-with-seedhead-aconitum-delphinifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

I fell in love with Homer as we drove down the uninspiring last slope of Route 1 into the town. I have no idea why it happened then, before I’d even seen all the things there are to love.


The Alaska Icon: Fireweed

There are a lot of potential Alaskan icons: salmon, Denali, the Matanuska Glacier, the grizzly bear, the moose, the bald eagle. But, not only is my passion for wildflowers, but all of those other icons never seem to appear, in summer, without fireweed somewhere in the picture. So, it’s my icon.


The Mysterious Yukon

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada by Betsey Crawford

If you want tundra, you have to go far enough north. It was late August in the Yukon, the last day before a wintery storm was blowing in. To satisfy my longing for arctic plants we drove as far north as we could for one afternoon, through a stunning land of jagged mountains, luminous lakes, trees turning gold, and a landscape carpeted in glowing fall colors.


Gallery: Alaska Landscapes

Matanuska Glacier in the Matsu Valley, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

 

Gallery: Alaska Wildflowers

Bee attractor wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

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Songlines 2020: a year of love and death

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawfordhere is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud 
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life…) 
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
~E.E. Cummings~

In mid-October, I was sitting at the deathbed of my beloved, thinking about love. The man I’d known for 31 years, partnered for 27 of them, was slipping away. He wasn’t in pain. He was dying of acute kidney disease, a quiet death of exhaustion. His appetite had long disappeared. He was so thin his handsome face had sunk into its bones. His eyes were still deep blue when open, but already looking at another world. 

He was the new minister at a neighborhood Presbyterian church when I met him on a September Saturday afternoon. I was checking out the church hall for an environmental meeting that I was chairing. George came bounding out of his secretary’s office. He was there working on his sermon — at the last minute — since his own office was such a mess. He had on a bright green sweater with a hole in the neck. He talked non stop. All details I was to become familiar with.

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

In no time he had elicited that I was an ex-Catholic, that I lived down the street, that I didn’t go to church but thought about it occasionally now that I had a little boy, that I valued the idea of a neighborhood church. But, I said, I’m prime Unitarian material. Wouldn’t you miss the Christology? he asked. Not at all, I said.

And yet I did end up at his church. He was the most exuberant human being I have ever met, a trait that would alternately enchant me and drive me mad for the next three decades. He was enthusiastic about everything — his work, his church, his friends, his family. He had a passion for the sea. He loved his boat. He loved sailing. He loved people, loved talking to everyone he met, ever promising and failing to ‘make a long story short.’

I love these: Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Everything was grist for enthusiasm. He relished dawn and was out early. He soon found out which of his parishioners was awake then, and called me at seven one morning. “I bring you glorious news,” he announced, in a tone that sparked visions of the end of world hunger or, at least, a trip to Paris. “We’re starting on the handicap ramp today.”

I enjoyed all this energy but was happy to be buffered from it by friendship. When we realized after a few years that we were in love I was disappointed. I thought it would ruin our friendship, would bring complications in its wake.

Which of course it did. Lots of them. Love is not easy. Or, perhaps, love is easy but living it is complicated. Certainly it seemed easy for him. He loved love and brought all that exuberance to day to day loving. I was so moved by this. My mother had suffered from depression and died in her fifties. My father had been remote for much of our life together and reserved even at his warmest. My ex-husband had been suspicious of love. He didn’t believe in saying ‘I love you.’

I love the tiny tenderness of these: Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

Now I was hearing those magical words all the time. Suddenly Christmas was merry, Easters were joyful. We were dancing in the living room, sailing to nearby islands for the night, welcoming one new year in Venice. My extended family blossomed. Grandchildren began to arrive. This rush of warmth into my life was one of the most enchanting things about loving George.

Exuberance isn’t necessarily a relationship skill. He was as complicated as the rest of us. Our twenty-year age difference added to the complexity. In my forties, with a child, a house, a business to run, I would have appreciated his having a more practical side. But there was no domesticating this wild man. I kept trying, not noticing, until it had already happened, that this wide-open energy had instead held space for me to un-domesticate.

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

We were both shocked when, approaching sixty, I said I was ready to close my business, rent the house, and head out into the unknown. But he agreed. His sailing days were coming to an end. He was ever up for the next adventure. So we launched ourselves into some of the most wonder-filled years of my life. That story is here.

There are over 1.4 million minutes in 27 years. In every one of those minutes this sacred being, making his last journey, held a part. By turns those minutes were joyous, stormy, peaceful, maddening, fun, ordinary, wild. Sometimes a mix at once. Not one was dull. And all of them, even the stormiest, held the great consolations and mysteries of love, ‘the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.’ 

And keeping them together. A great, cosmic, gravitational force. Both tame and untamable. It can shatter us and yet also give resonance and joy to the quietest, humdrum day. I had done a lot of loving before my son was born when I was thirty-six. But mother love was eye-opening: so full-blown so instantly that for the first time I could apprehend that I had been swept into a current that was already flowing. Love is, and we enter into it.

Beauty: checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

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

I entered it at birth, for the boy who was waiting for me when I got here. My brother, Perry, died in June, four months before George. He was the boy I shared a swing with when we were both tiny enough to fit. The boy who ran with me through the magical woods of an early childhood home. My deepest solace when my mother succumbed to depression in our youngest years. A source of endless laughter and quiet knowing. My pal for sixty-nine years.

He was the oldest current in my river of love, and the easiest love of my life.  We didn’t face the daily challenges of blending lives and personalities that romantic partnership entails. There were none of the responsibilities and fears of motherhood. We could just love. From the beginning of my life we never questioned it, never faltered. It was a rock I stood on.

Milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

My beloveds were two in a devastating flood of death this year. In February I wrote Weathering the storm: living with the power of cataclysm. I wasn’t even responding to the pandemic, which had just begun to make itself felt. But I may as well have been. At least 1.6 million people have died around the world. So many fearful and alone in hospitals, unlike George and Perry, who died surrounded by love. These losses are so unfathomable that it’s hard to think about them, impossible to ever come to terms with what was allowed to happen. And there are so many who have not gotten sick, or survived the virus, but have lost work, businesses they poured years of their lives into, loved ones they poured their hearts into.

This agony is another current of love, for all the people we will never know who now have enormous holes in their lives, empty places at the table, lonely beds. For the people fearful of the future, afraid they can’t feed their children, unable to see their families and friends. Humans are not alone in their ability to feel for their kin. But we may be unique in our ability to imagine the pain of someone far away, and send love in their direction. We are woven together — a worldwide tapestry of human hearts — by the mysterious bonds of such a love.

I love these luminous beings: a blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

In the face of all this, I was blessed by the gifts of another love — my passion for the natural world. The powerful comfort of trees, the delicate, intimate solace of flowers and ferns, the grounding strength of mountains. Even during the most restricted time of our shelter in place, I could walk from my house into a green land that held these immense consolations. The flowers accompanying this essay are from that time of deep communion with a small area of my neighborhood. 

The E.E. Cummings poem that starts these songlines opens and closes with the words ‘I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)’. The fact that there are so many hearts to carry is literally heart breaking. Yet the grace-filled paradox is that grief caused by love will also be healed by love. The continuing love for those who have gone. The love for those still here. The love of life, for being a breathing, sensing, embracing presence on our luscious planet, with all its incredible beauty and its terrifying perils. As a cosmic force love is boundless. There may be limitations on our ability to love, but there are none on love itself. 

With the courage such knowing brings, I send love to you all as we cautiously open the door to a new year, carrying each other in our hearts.

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

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Love against all odds: celebrating the Season of Creation

Loving earth: Fairy lantern (Chalocortus albus) along the Independence Trail in Rough and Ready, California by Betsey CrawfordThe dying down of the zest for life is the greatest danger to the whole human venture and to the whole venture of the planet.
~Thomas Berry~

This is my fourth celebration of the September-long Season of Creation, and a year when keeping zest alive and well is profoundly challenging. Yet I agree with Thomas Berry: losing it is our greatest danger. When it’s hardest to muster, we need it the most. It will heal the world as it carries us through the decisions, tasks, and changes to come. Zest is loving the earth we emerged from, loving our fellow creatures, loving the green world, the rocks and soil underneath us, the mountains above us. Loving the rain, the clouds, the wind. Loving trees, grasses, flowers.

A love that recognizes the limits that time and urgency place on us. Recognizes how hard the changes will be for so many, likely including ourselves. A love fierce and gentle at the same time, to energize us through the challenges, to reach out to hearts that need it, to power us with strength and joy.

My first two celebrations paired photos with quotes from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, one of the most important and comprehensive environmental statements of our time. In it, he covers everything from treaties between nations to family dinners. He says the need to change from our current course is the moral challenge of our time. The whole rests on the belief that all livings beings and natural forms have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity.

The third celebration widened to religious leaders from many traditions. This time I am turning to poets, philosophers, scientists, activists, though starting with one of my favorite quotes from Laudato Si

One leaf onion (Allium unifolium) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

One leaf onion (Allium unifolium)

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 that dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
~Pope Francis~
Laudate Si

Pitkin marsh lily (Lilium pinkinense) in Cunningham Marsh, Sebastopol, California by Betsey Crawford

Pitkin marsh lily (Lilium pitkinense)

Together these vanishing remnants of Earth’s biodiversity test the reach and quality of human morality. Species brought low by our hand now deserve our constant attention and care. Religious believers and nonbelievers alike would do well to sacralize God’s elegant command given in the Judeo-Christian account of Genesis: Let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven.
~Edward O. Wilson~
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life

Celebrating the Season of Creation: hillside morning glory (Calystegia collina) along the Arroyo Hondo Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore by Betsey Crawford

Hillside morning glory (Calystegia collina)

We are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet. If we can revere how things are, and can find a way to express gratitude for our existence, then we should be able to figure out, with a great deal of hard work and goodwill, how to share the Earth with one another and with other creatures, how to restore and preserve its elegance and grace, and how to commit ourselves to love and joy and laughter and hope.”
~Ursula Goodenough~
The Sacred Depths of Nature

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso Balboa) in Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso Balboa)

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that
to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not
at all — nothing
before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.
~Marie Howe~
from the poem ‘The Singularity’

Celebrating the Season of Creation: California poppy (Eschschlolzia californica) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschschlolzia californica)

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the Universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
~Rachel Carson~
Speech accepting the John Burroughs medal

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata)

Our task is to take this earth so deeply and wholly into ourselves that it will resurrect within our being.
~Rainer Maria Rilke~
Letter to Witold Hulewicz

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western blue flax (Linum lewisii) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Western blue flax (Linum lewisii)

I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.
~John Seed~
Rainforest Information Centre

Loving earth: yellow mariposa lily (Chalocortus luteus) along the Independence Trail in Rough and Ready, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Chalocortus luteus)

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
~Iris Murdoch~
A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Celebrating the Season of Creation: marsh grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris) in Saint Hilary's Preserve, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Marsh grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and a reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forests and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.
~Thomas Berry~
The Dream of the Earth

Loving earth: Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata) at Bull Point in the Point Reyes National Seashore by Betsey Crawford

Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata)

Living away from the earth and the trees we fail them. We are absent from the wedding feast.
~Thomas Merton~
When Trees Say Nothing

Loving earth: scarlet gilia bud (Ipomposis aggregata) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia bud (Ipomposis aggregata)

In this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world? 
~Barry Lopez~
Love in a Time of Terror

Celebrating the Season of Creation: jewel flower (Streptanthus toruosus) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Jewel flower (Streptanthus toruosus)

We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.
~Joanna Macy~
World as Lover, World as Self

Loving earth: fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

Fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans)

Appreciation and gratitude create beauty. Gratitude transcended is joy. Pure joy heals the world.
~Monica Gagliano~
Thus Spoke the Plant

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

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The survivors: the long consolation of ferns

Ferns along Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordSince the middle of March, when California’s shelter in place started, an acupuncturist friend has been offering weekly meditations via phone. At the beginning of each she asks us to imagine ourselves in a nurturing place in nature. Whenever I receive such an invitation, I invariably find myself sitting on a forest floor, trees reaching high above me, leafy branches arching overhead, sunlight glinting through the openings between the leaves. That is peaceful enough, but the most important element is that I’m surrounded by ferns, their graceful fronds gently touching my shoulders. I’m in a soft sea of wavy green. 

Why ferns? I could as easily imagine being in a meadow full of wildflowers. But there is something about ferns that speaks of peace and the deep quiet breathing of the green earth. I don’t remember a time I didn’t love them, yet I don’t remember them from my suburban childhood. But they were likely a part of the woods I lived in for several very young years. For they are happiest in the woods, growing enormous in the moisture-laden forests of the Pacific coast or in tropical rainforests, where they grow in the trees as well as at their feet. But some fern species also survive long dry seasons — a few are drought-tolerant enough to live in deserts — allowing them to have a foothold everywhere except the poles. For all their graceful delicacy, they are a very hardy bunch.

fern-and-hounds-tongue-along-Hoo-Koo-E-Koo-Trail-Larkspur-California-by-Betsey-CrawfordAs we would be, too, if we had survived for 360 million years, outlasting two major extinctions, feeding dinosaurs along the way. For 200 million years they were mostly enormous trees. Those are still with us, somewhat unfortunately. They are now the coal and oil that power the industrial world. The ferns that we live among today — which include some tropical tree forms —  evolved around 160 million years ago, at the time the first flowers began to appear. Flower forms have proliferated over the eons. Petals, colors, leaf forms, stem length, fruits all continue to evolve because their habit of cross-pollination allows for a continuing creative mix of genes from different parents. This gives us the enormous variety of flowering plants covering the earth. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey CrawfordFerns, on the other hand, evolved a different method. They produce spores, usually along the undersides of their fronds, stored in sori. When the spores ripen, the sori open and the microscopic spores  puff off in the wind. Once on the ground, they form a tiny new plant, a prothallus, which produces both egg and sperm. Whatever water is available allows the sperm to swim to the egg and fertilize it. The new fern is launched, with genes from one only parent. This process has still produced a variety of ferns, but minimally compared to flowering plants. We’ve named 300,000 of the latter, to just 12,000 identified ferns. Only a handful of those — 380 species — live in North America.

Ferns also frequently reproduce by rhizomes, fibrous stems that also hold roots, traveling just under the ground. Fronds pop up along their length. That’s how the forest floors in my neighborhood have become covered by them. I am blessed to have a place filled with ferns — pictured below — that I can get to any time I want. It’s not quite my meditative dream, where I almost disappear into fern fronds, but it’s a good substitute. 

Bench among ferns on King Mountain in Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordIt’s along a popular trail, so I’m unlikely to be there for long without my closest genetic kin passing me by. But when they have passed, I’m still among my cousins. We are in the midst of a worldwide call for recognizing our kinship with people who share everything but the most superficial differences. Less than 1% of human DNA accounts for the marvelous variety of people we see on a busy street any day of the week. Given our millennias-long struggle to recognize that we are infinite varieties of the same creative force, that every human is family, it can be a reach too far for some to realize that we are also intimately related to the green world around us.

And yet that is one of the consoling things about sitting among the ferns. They, too, are family. We share DNA, about 25% of it. Our respiration depends on the same cytochrome-c. Our circadian rhythms depend on the same PRMT5 gene. These reach back to our earliest forebears, the one-celled organisms that came to life in the thermal vents of the ancient ocean 3.8 billion years ago. Though our genetic ways split 1.5 billion years ago, their chloroplasts and my mitochondria continued to travel the same journey, powering us both with energy. The minerals in the rocks and dirt I sit on among the ferns are the same minerals structuring both our stems and bones and flowing in and out of our cells. All gifts of the earliest stars.

Ferns and fairy bells in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Ferns and friends (and lots of pine pollen) in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

And here is the most magical thing: they see me. They know I’m there. Indigenous peoples have always known this. Now plant scientists like Stefano Mancuso are exploring features common to ocelli, the simple eyes of insects and other invertebrates. They are also found in epidermal cells of both leaves and roots. Mancuso is building on insights from the early twentieth century, when Austrian botanist Gottlieb Haberlandt proposed that plants can register images. Another botanist, Harold Wager, took recognizable pictures of the English countryside using a variety of these epidermal cells as lenses. His achievement earned him a front-page headline in the New York Times on September 8. 1908.

Harold Wager's NYTimes headline about his finding that plants have visual abilitiesWhy was this insight forgotten for more than 100 years? Mancuso suggests the idea of visual ability in plants was simply too eccentric for anyone to follow up on it. This fascinates me. Those were the years when Einstein was revolutionizing physics, opening the entire universe. The nineteenth century saw an endless parade of fossil hunters, set off by the insights of Scottish geologist James Hutton, who wrenched earth’s history out of the bible. As did The Origin of the Species, published just a few decades before Haberlandt. Darwin’s son, Francis, was a champion of his work. It wasn’t that people weren’t used to new and challenging world views. What made the idea that plants have visual capability a bridge too far?

Botanist Harold Wager's photos taken using plant cells as lenses

Botanist Harold Wager’s photographs, taken using plant cells as lenses. Note the recognizable human head in the upper left.

Institutionally, things haven’t changed much. But there are now revolutionary plant scientists like Mancuso, Monica Gagliano, and Suzanne Simard who are paving the way with studies of plant communication, memory, choice, and decision making. Their work tells me that as I sit on the ground among the ferns they not only see me but feel me. Roots, which could be considered the brains of plants, are exquisitely sensitive. They would sense changes in the weight, the air, the light above them. Even sitting on the bench in my fern alcove above I would change the light and air, give greater weight to the ground, subtly alter the temperature. Plants respond to light and chemical signals in the world around them. What do they detect from the chemicals I give off? Do they read my mood? Do they know I’ve come for comfort and peace? Do they embrace me?

That’s how it feels to be among them. Their aliveness and our infinite interconnectedness is something I feel so deeply. I know their resilience, their strength, their persistence. I am among beings that have lived through long, long eons, some quiet, others ferocious. They have survived what most others couldn’t. They have grown everywhere. Nothing surprises them. They blow in the wind and upright themselves. They burn and start growing again. Floods wash over them, recede, they adapt. Forty-four million years of global cooling? They cope. The air grows dry and they figure out how to work with it. The air grows moist and warm and they’re even happier. Great ice sheets come and they wait 50,000 years for the ice to melt and then start growing again.

Unfolding fern frond in the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThe visual softness of their graceful arches is deceptive. The fern spines are strong, hard to the touch, hairy. The fiddleheads are firm, almost fiercely held as they start to open. The leafy pinnae growing from the stalks are pointed, papery, even leathery as the fronds age. And yet they are — as a whole, a community — soft. Artemis, the goddess of the woods, passes easily among them, rustling them slightly. They move aside, bending and recovering, ever retaking their space in the cosmos.

Their existence gives mine more room to be, more depth to depend on. What sustains you? I was asked recently, and I immediately thought of the green world that means so much to me, and the earth it springs from. All my relations, as the Lakota say. A constant showering of nourishment and abundance. And when I know that I am part of it, that the same energy that flows through all flows through me, that’s where my energy comes from, my sustenance. When I lose that connection I’m scattered, anxious, feeling engulfed by life’s details. But I take heart from the desert fern that dries up and reconstitutes itself once the rain comes. It reminds me that the peace ferns provide is something I can carry everywhere, revivifying it as it wilts again and again in the jangling flux of human life.

Fern fiddlehead along Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

 

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The Bowl of Roses

Bowl of Roses: Peach colored David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Since my brother’s death in June, words have been hard to come by, for writing, speaking, even reading. Poetry has been a companion; so much meaning in so few words. And, on these bright, blooming California days, the tender mercies of beauty have been deeply consoling. Perry, who started his landscaping business in college, told me while he was still able to contemplate such things that he was profoundly grateful that he could spend his life making the world more beautiful.

My daily life takes me past a garden where the quintessential June flower — roses — are still blooming in profusion. Their intricate, soft voluptuousness reminds me of some of the most luscious words ever strung together: Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Bowl of Roses. For this post, I am floating on his words. I’ve coupled them with photos of roses from the gorgeous Rose Hill in Spokane, Washington’s Manito Gardens.

Bowl of Roses: Yellow and pink rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

The Bowl of Roses

Rainer Maria Rilke

You saw angry ones flare, saw two boys
clump themselves together into a something
that was pure hate, thrashing in the dirt
like an animal set upon by bees;
actors, piled up exaggerators,
careening horses crashed to the ground,
their gaze thrown away, baring their teeth
as if the skull peeled itself out through the mouth.

Bowl of Roses: Three gorgeous David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordBut now you know how these things are forgotten:
for here before you stands a bowl full of roses,
which is unforgettable and filled up
with ultimate instances
of being and bowing down,
of offering themselves, of being unable to give, of standing there
almost as part of us: ultimates for us too.

Beauty: David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordNoiseless life, opening without end,
filling space without taking any away
from the space the other things in it diminish,
almost without an outline, like something omitted,
and pure inwardness, with so much curious softness,
shining into itself, right up to the rim:
is anything as known to us as this?

Bowl of Roses: Peach David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordAnd this: that a feeling arises
because petals are being touched by petals?
And this: that one opens itself, like a lid,
and beneath lies nothing but eyelids,
all closed, as if tenfold sleep
had to dampen down an inner power to see.
And, above all, this: that through the petals
light has to pass. Slowly they filter out from a
thousand skies the drop of darkness
in whose fiery glow the jumbled bundle
of stamens becomes aroused and rears up.

And what activity, look, in the roses:
gestures with angles of deflection so small
one wouldn’t see them if not for
infinite space where their rays can diverge.

Yellow David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordSee this white one, blissfully opened,
standing among its huge spreading petals
like a Venus standing in her shell;
and how this one, the blushing one, turns,
as if confused, toward the cooler one,
and how the cooler one, impassive, draws back,
and the cold one stands tightly wrapped in itself
among these opened ones, that shed everything.
And what they shed, how it can be
at once light and heavy. a cloak. a burden,
a wing, and a mask, it all depends,
and how they shed it: as before a lover.

Yellow rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordIs there anything they can’t be: wasn’t this yellow one
that lies here hollow and open the rind
of a fruit of which the same yellow,
more intense, more orange-red, was the juice?
And this one, could opening have been too much for it,
because, exposed to air, its nameless pink
has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?
And isn’t this batiste one a dress, with
the chemise still inside it, still soft
and breath-warm, both flung off together
in morning shade at the bathing pool in the woods?
And this one here, opalescent porcelain,
fragile, a shallow china cup
filled with little lighted butterflies,
and this one, containing nothing but itself.

Bowl of Roses: Peachy petals of a David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordAnd aren’t they all doing the same: only containing themselves,
if to contain oneself means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and disguised fate
and darkness of earth at evening
all the way to the errancy, flight, and coming on of clouds
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars
into a handful of inwardness.

Now it lies free of cares in the open roses.

Two yellow David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Translated by Galway Kinnell & Hannah Liebman

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The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty

The call of wild beauty

Cows in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Walking in beauty

 

It couldn’t be clearer: the power of interrelatedness

Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas Chalcedon) with blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) along the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordIt’s become an instant cliche as the pandemic reveals the threadbare fabric of our culture: the truly essential people that make day-to-day life possible are often the ones in the most precarious and poorly paid jobs. As grateful as I am to have professional people in my life, I am utterly dependent on the people who grow, harvest, and distribute food. The people who stack grocery shelves and check us out. The people willing to shop for the elderly and immunocompromised. The people picking up our garbage, manning the water and sewer systems. And, of course, the health care workers.

It doesn’t take a pandemic to tell us that our culture has its values and rewards upside down. But it may take a pandemic to show us that we are also completely dependent on sound ecosystems, where viruses such as the new coronavirus have no reason to break away from their evolutionary niche. Destroy that niche and they will start migrating to other places. Tug on any one string, and you pull on the whole fabric. Tug on enough strings at the same time and the fabric loses all integrity. It will be years before we comprehend the full effect of this pandemic. But we can already see that we are all completely, intimately, and sometimes desperately interrelated.

Another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Osceola, Missouri

Interrelatedness is one of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I have been contemplating. I could have accompanied this particular exploration with any picture I have. Every flower, every leaf, every tree trunk, every mushroom is only here because of a web of relationships. With air, water, fungi, microbes, insects. With their fellow plants, the soil their roots penetrate, the beings growing on those roots, the slowly dissolving stone forming the soil. And they know they have these relationships. They smell each other, reach out to each other, signal each other, warn of danger. Trees nurture and protect their offspring. They send messages along savvy fungal networks. A seed won’t open its case unless it senses that its necessary cohorts for growth are in place. It will wait decades, even centuries, for that to happen. 

I chose photos with insects, which biologist E.O. Wilson calls “the little things that run the natural world.” Mycologist Paul Stamets says much the same about fungi. I’m sure the scientists studying microbes would put in a bid for their billions of subjects. Every specialty could make a claim. The list is endless. Without flowering plants, there would be no vegetables, fruits, nuts, the foods enabling animals to evolve and thrive. Without leafing plants there would be no oxygen. Without the tiny, brilliant chloroplasts in the trillions of green leaves waving over the globe plants would have no way to grow. 

A dragon fly on Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey Crawford

Dragonfly, Kaplan’s Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

If it weren’t for primitive bacteria evolving into those chloroplasts and eventually into all living things, the planet would be stone and water. If earth had never entered into a relationship with the sun, there would be nothing but a lot of floating rocks in our neck of the galaxy. If the galaxies had never formed, spinning out stars as they did so, there would never have been a sun.

In his talk on interrelatedness, Brian takes this vast, interdependent sequencing for granted. He focuses instead on a wonderful mystery. In order for the living planet to thrive, there has to be something that fosters this intricate web of relationships. He calls it care: the ability of living beings to nurture the lives of other living beings. 

Where did care come from? It’s not a human invention. Mother trees take care of their young. Fish and reptiles, in fighting off predators, show parental care. Mammals of all sorts — think mother bears — are famous for it. Primates mourn deaths in their wider community. Humans are capable of expanding their care far beyond their families and tribes, even into future generations.

Coyote brush beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Coyote brush beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

It makes sense that evolution would favor developing the hormones and neurotransmitters to foster parental care. Living beings would be much more likely to survive and reproduce, thereby keeping the species going. Evolving the emotions to foster community increases the prosperity of all forms of life. Working together enables groups to live longer and healthier lives, helping to overcome any obstacles in the way. And that is what has happened.

But here Brian enters more deeply into the mystery. He posits that in order for care to exist, to have evolved, it had to be inherent in the creative force we call the cosmos. For them to exist today, the swirling plasma at the beginning of the universe had to hold the possibility for life, for consciousness, for care. “There was a time when there wasn’t parental care and then parental care was invented in the universe. It’s valued by the universe.”

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

On the one hand, this isn’t news. Our stories of our ancestors, of our gods and goddesses, our varied religious cultures, all assume a caring energy operating in the world. The traditions we live with today ask us to embody compassion and care. The Jewish ethic of compassion is Jesus’s central tenet. Five centuries earlier the Buddha made it one of the two pillars of Buddhism, along with wisdom. Two thousand years later, the Dalai Lama tells us that without compassion, we cannot survive. Indigenous traditions share an even broader compassion, encompassing the earth itself and all its beings and elements. 

All these traditions grew out of times when our stories of the origin of the universe were earth-based. The Abrahamic genesis stories, echoing even more ancient Sumerian ones. The aboriginal songlines. The Egyptian gods forming infants from clay and breathing life into them. The agents of genesis were beings we were familiar with — grand versions of humans and ancestors, which can include rivers, mountains, turtles, coyotes. 

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae) found in Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

But in the last few decades, our origin story has receded in time, and out into the cold and dark of the vast cosmos. Our ancestors have become stars, plasma, energy. Brian’s revolutionary idea is that the care we now feel was inherent in that remote beginning. ‘Imagine the universe just being neutrons and protons,’ he says. ‘Then a process took place that eventuated in fish caring for one another. The power of care is evoked out of the plasma of the early universe.’ 

I can easily imagine many a raised scientific or religious eyebrow. Brian gives those a nod in his talk. But I join him in pondering what it means for us to allow the universe’s power of interrelatedness to guide us. We have, as our traditions show, been doing so for millennia. The reason it seems to operate so weakly in our culture isn’t that we don’t want compassion to be part of life on earth. We do, and many people are really good at it. But our industrial culture is based on stories that don’t foster care. They foster use. Use assumes that things don’t have meaning in and of themselves. Their meaning comes from how they enter into our manufacturing process.”

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri, by Betsey Crawford

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri

Long predating industrialization, our stories fostered militarism, inequity, power, money. And they still do. Thus we have Silicon Valley, rich beyond measure from providing interesting nonessentials. Just over a short mountain pass are the farms where truly essential workers are paid so little they can’t afford the produce they pick. “How amazing that this envelope of humanity around the planet is making this decision about which species will live and not live.” Who will thrive and not thrive.

These are decisions we make. “Each is an act of the imagination because we can determine how we want to relate to various beings.” Though our stories tell us “that other beings are there for our use, there are other possible ways of imagining what the beings are there for. I’m trying to suggest a new way, a new value to begin to reorient our society.” 

An ant carrying a seed head in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey Crawford

An ant carries a seedhead home in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

It’s through this imagining that we open to the power of interrelatedness and allow it to operate ever more fully through us. Our imagination expands the concept of care. It redefines priorities and values. It includes the entire earth, not just one species. It sees a world that could be. Again, these aren’t new activities. Our religious, political, and philosophical histories are full of such imaginings. But the urgency is now so dire. The stories we need to leave behind are not just threadbare, they’re deadly. The pandemic shows this vividly because it devastates so rapidly. Climate change is equally urgent, and equally a product of ignoring interrelatedness. As is poverty and hunger and so many other issues we face. But our stories have allowed us to put off truly reckoning with them.

If the world is full of caring and compassionate people, how did we let our agenda be set by those who don’t care? How did we allow our stories to become those that justify the powerful, the greedy, the cruel? How do we buy into it? Why do we put up with it? These are the questions the power of interrelatedness propels us to ask. How have we failed this profound, life-organizing, and life-giving energy? Limited its reach? Ignored its implications? What kind of revolution would we launch by embodying this power? What will we lose by ignoring it?

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), a member of the Asteraceae family, in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

A fly on brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Everything. If we don’t open ourselves to the vast implications of the power of interrelatedness, we risk it all. We are pulling on too many threads, all the time. The pandemic shows us that we are not prepared for the results of tearing down the fabric of the world. It shows us how much we have to do.

How do we cope with how much there is to do? With how much needs to change to create a just and sustainable culture? We engage. All the powers of the universe ask us for engagement with the energies they are showering us with; interrelatedness perhaps most of all. Each of us does what we can. Individually that can look like a pittance in such a vast field of urgent need. But fabrics are not woven of heroic threads. They result from the patient weaving of countless thin strands. The interrelated threads making up the tapestry of life on earth are all crucial. The mightiest tree trunk cannot live without the finest of fungal threads at its roots.

Crab spider (Mesumena vatia) on dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Crab spider (Mesumena vatia) on dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) Sierra Nevada Mountains

It’s fascinating that some of our ancestors’ most powerful deities were goddesses of weaving. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was one. In a version of her story the Egyptian Nit, source of the sun and goddess of Lower Egypt, was said to have woven the world into existence, and remained the guardian of weaving. Among her many domains, including medicine, midwifery, and earth itself, the Mayan Ixchel included weaving. Also combining birth, women, and weaving is the Maori Hineteiwaiwa. The tasks of the Celtic Arianrhod, Goddess of the Silver Wheel, included weaving the tapestry of life. So it’s been long acknowledged that the slow, repetitive, and often laborious task of weaving our fate from the threads we bring to life is one of our crucial tasks. 

The tapestry that interrelatedness has us forever forming is infinitely rich and complex. There are always new connections to discover. All to be done with the utmost care and compassion. The great thing about care is that it enables so much to take place. Devotion, service, nurturance. Where would we be without it?” At this stage in evolution, Brian suggests, we are searching for our role in the cosmos. We should look to the possibility “that care is seeking to expand out into a comprehensive role on this planet.” The reflective consciousness of human beings can provide the means for this to take place. Care, “pervasive in the universe from the beginning,” is looking to us for new ways to express and expand its energy.

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

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

Top photo: Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas Chalcedon) with blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) along the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California 

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Beauty for ashes

Beauty: checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

I am sent to heal the brokenhearted….To comfort all who mourn….To give them beauty for ashes.
~Isaiah, 61~

I am blessed, in this time of forced absence and fearful presence, to live with beauty. As long as I’m willing to climb some steep hills, I can walk among embracing trees, with unfurling ferns and delicate spring wildflowers at their feet. The consolation is inestimable. It doesn’t erase the images of long refrigerated trailers outside of hospitals, or the vast grief of lost lives, or the fear of what lies ahead. But a deep, green, ancient energy holds my shattered heart for a while. I go home soothed, more alive, better able to abide in a fearful mystery.

The photos accompanying and below this post are from those walks. Elsewhere, in sunlit fields, orange California poppies, bright yellow tidy-tips, and purple lupines are blooming. I may not see them again this spring. So I treasure all the more these quiet spirits in the woods around me, emerging from the earth from which I, too, have sprung, relations and friends. I’ve paired each with a quote celebrating beauty.

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.
~Mary Oliver~

Last summer’s essay, The Power of Allurement, the Mystery of Beauty, has just been published by Kosmos Journal in an issue entitled True Wealth. When the invitation for submissions came in January, I took the theme in a practical spirit and submitted The Universe and the Doughnut, a vision of a new economic order through the lens of Brian Swimme’s universal power of centration. Then, knowing that the editor, Rhonda Fabian, is also a fan of Brian’s, I sent her the list of my essays on his powers of the universe. She chose the one on allurement, saying in her reply, “Beauty really fills a need in this edition. Beauty is true wealth, and when we rediscover this simple truth, our relation to the Earth will be transformed.”

At a time when the current definition of wealth has crashed at our feet, finding the meaning of true wealth has never been more urgent. Peace, health, community, nature, beauty, shared abundance, meaning. Beauty not about the surface of things but instead the deep pull from aliveness to aliveness. Not every wildflower is superficially beautiful. But they are all blooming — vibrant, filled with life, interesting, intricate, mysterious, the soul of the earth. They pass quickly on to the profound work of creating their brilliant seeds, forming life and the endless potential for life in those tiny containers. Then they sleep, confident in their ever-renewing role in nature’s long life.

Blue beauty: a blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we love.
~Terry Tempest Williams~

They are part of the deep, intimate, enduring paths of our planet. It’s so easy to see, in the midst of this pandemic, how fragile a structure we have created. How many people are left out. How limited and lethal our definitions of prosperity and security. We did not know, when ashes were crossed on foreheads on February 26, that the edifice we have built would lie in ashes by Easter. But none of this is news except how suddenly it could all collapse. How hollow it really was. 

There will be many, many plans, suggestions, dreams put forward in the next months and years. They have already started. Some dreams come with a long history.  Some will pull us backward. The pandemic is already an excuse for erasing pollution standards and “rescuing” oil companies. Tyrants will seize more power in the name of fear and chaos. But many of the plans will hold promise, recovery, redefinition.

What if, in the work ahead, we include beauty in true wealth? We look to what makes us come alive, to aliveness calling to aliveness? What if we took the definition of scientists, and saw beauty as the harmonious ordering of all parts of the universe, down to our daily choices of work, home, pleasure? What if we insisted on the beauty of clear skies and clean water? What if the heart-expanding music of children laughing became our priority? What if we honored visual beauty, and created a built world that was wonderful to look at and live in? This is how beauty transforms the earth. 

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson~

Easter and Passover are ancient celebrations of the promise of renewal and the solace of hope, both much older than their current stories. Has there ever been a time when we didn’t welcome the light, the springing green shoots, the radiant, multi-hued glory of flowers? Yet these enduring traditions arose out of the immediate anguish of their time: slavery, persecution, suffering. They have endured through millennia by reminding us over and over, in the face of fear and destruction, that hope is a choice. That right action is beneficence. That community upholds us.

This is my 70th Easter, and the first one I will spend without family and friends around me. We’ll talk and text and make sure to say we love each other. Then I will go out among the trees, watching for shy spring flowers. Some are tucked under leaves. Others, speckled, are nearly invisible in the dappled forest. A few, especially on the sunnier side of the mountain, make a bit of a show. On this quiet, meditative search for beauty, I join with all of you in this holy season of hope, longing, and love.

Delicate beauty: milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
~C.S. Lewis~

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

The perfection of beauty in these lilies of the wilderness is a never-ending source of admiration and wonder.
~John Muir~

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.
~Susan Sontag~

Pink beauty: wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, 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~

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
~John O’Donohue~

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity—that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.
~Charles Baudelaire~

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

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

When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.
~Rabindranath Tagore~

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
~Rachel Carson~ 

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Weathering the storm: living with the power of cataclysm

Death of a star forms a nebula. Image via NASABy the end of the first week of the impeachment hearings, I was as miserable as I’ve been in a long time. Not because any of it was news to me, but because institutions are failing in ways we never imagined. We’ve never seen them tested this much before. That same week the Trump EPA added to its boundless failures by relaxing water safety standards. Lying political ads flooded Facebook, which is fine with that. A news photo of five young women climate activists was edited to take the sole African out. 

I could go on. Even the weekly lists are endless. I don’t usually dwell on such things in these essays. I prefer to concentrate on the energies that support what we can do to move toward a just and sustainable world. But we are in the midst of the most challenging of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe: cataclysm. Writing about radiance and allurement was sheer pleasure. The powers of centration and transmutation are inspiring. Then, after dwelling last month on the optimistic energy of emergence, I figured I may as well face the dragon.

The pictures I’ve chosen for this essay are all imploding stars, courtesy of NASA. We are here because of the cataclysmic death of stars. They gave us the calcium structuring our bones, the iron flowing in our blood, the oxygen we breathe. We both are and live in a matrix of carbon, without which life wouldn’t exist as we know it. Those elements are being formed every minute throughout the universe, as stars finish their many-billion-year lives of cycling hydrogen into helium. Then, in sequences near the end, helium heats to carbon, carbon to oxygen, to silicon, to iron. 

Cataclysm: the Veil Nebula via NASA

Veil Nebula (Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Iron burns up in a flash. Two seconds later, a star implodes in on itself in such heat that only wispy neutrinos remain. Neutrinos are the lightest particle in the universe, Brian tells us. “But the star is now so dense that what was insignificant can now blow the whole thing apart. As it blows it apart, all of the different elements are created. We had nothing but neutrinos and suddenly you have hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon.” 

The earth eventually formed around a young star and launched its own 4.5 billion year history of cataclysms. Eons of meteor bombardment. Great plates floating on the surface, crashing mountains into existence as they meet. The molten core spewing from volcanos. Glaciers crushing everything in their path. There have been five major extinctions. At the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, 96% of the thriving marine life was suddenly gone. Possible cataclysms: glaciation, volcanic activity, shifting landmasses. The most prominent theory about the last extinction, when the dinosaurs disappeared, includes a meteor hitting the earth. All of our other hominid cousins have died out. Due to a massive volcanic eruption, homo sapiens were down to a few thousand individuals 70,000 years ago. 

Yet, out of these catastrophes arose the Himalayas, the Hudson River, redwood forests, roses, orcas in deep oceans, bluebirds, gazelles, us. “Creativity would not be possible without the power of cataclysm.” The blessings have been boundless. But the power of cataclysm has swept through humanity over and over: wars, drought, famines, epidemics, devastating floods and fires. We are now creating new ones as we bury the earth in garbage, change the climate, allow the sixth great extinction. 

Cataclysm: the death of a star forms a round supernova. Photo via NASA

Image: NASA/CXC/SAO

“We feel an ongoing mix of failure, regret, frustration,” Brian says, “because it’s so hard to imagine how to proceed.” What we treasured is disappearing. Our deepest ideals, what organized entire nations, seem to be just dissolving. This isn’t what we expected to see. We had dreams of how we were going to create this fantastic world.” We trusted our ingenuity, technology, the possibility of spiritual and cultural transformation. 

In 2018 the environmental world was roiled by an essay by Jem Bendell, a British sustainability expert. He describes coming to the conclusion that climate change is so imminently disastrous that we are on the edge of societal collapse, especially because of the degradation of agriculture and the rise of food scarcity. He foresees the possibility of human extinction in the near future.

Bendell would say my usual optimism that problems are ultimately solvable is denial. “Green positivity,” he called it in another essay. Of course, the fact that problems are solvable doesn’t mean we’ll have the collective will to solve them. So I agree that we should be contemplating what to do if we don’t muster the will. Or if, as he fears, no amount of will can stop the climate juggernaut at this point.

Cataclysm: supernova from the death of a star via NASA

Image: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/IAFE

But I also feel that we are not alone in this. That the profound creative forces of the universe operate continually in all its manifestations, including us. Learning from and using these primal energies is what this series of essays is about. By our embodying its primordial, ever-transforming powers, the universe is flowing through us at every moment. Now, Brian suggests, we need to trust cataclysm to “free us from all that is causing destruction.”

By allowing ourselves to be the conscious force of cataclysm, we can help “this power to tear down that which is no longer adaptive.”  The central beliefs of western culture, especially economics, are grounded in the idea that the destruction of the earth, of other people, of resources is not even considered a cost. Such wreckage may be seen, at most, as collateral damage, but nothing to avoid if inconvenient to do so. We can choose to channel our current crises toward the end of these disastrous ideas, the empires they have fostered, and the massive devastation they have done.

Cataclysm promises a turbulent path ahead whether we choose to work with it or resist it. The challenging paradox of our beautiful planet is that, while it is clearly dedicated to bringing forth life, it is also deadly. On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake sent lethal tsunamis crashing against the eastern rim of the Indian Ocean, killing 120,000 people. Earthquakes and volcanoes have proven cataclysmic over and over throughout earth’s history. Yet, while the shifting of the plates that float on the earth’s crust spawn these calamities, they also are the reason our planet can support life. 

Cataclysm: the death of a star forms a supernova. Photo via NASA

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO & ESA; Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams (NCSU)

Of the seventy or so planets and moons in our solar system, only our earth’s crust is moving, and thus alive with possibility for formation and renewal of mountains, oceans, coasts, rivers, forests, the atmosphere, life itself. One of the reasons our planet can be devoted to life is that it also encompasses destruction. “Everywhere you look, there is simultaneously breaking down and building up, every day, every moment, every breath. For every birth, there is a death.”

“How,” Brian asks, “do we orient ourselves in the midst of all this?” How do we live with cataclysm? Jem Bendell, one of the direst thinkers I’ve come across, didn’t hunker down in a cave. He began a practical and reflective movement called Deep Adaptation. Bendell is not a climate scientist, and some scientists dispute his more extreme prognostications. Nevertheless, there is no comforting timeline in climate disruption. There is every reason to be actively engaged in imagining and creating a different way forward. What do we treasure? What can we let go of? How can we deepen our commitments to our children? How can we foster solidarity? How can we expand our spiritual connections? What are our values? “A future full of love and learning,” Bendell writes, “rather than flying cars and fancy robots, could be a way to imagine a more beautiful world.” 

Our current cataclysm has us rethinking our extractive, exploitative economic system. We’re looking to reorient an education system designed to create workers for an industrial structure that we must also reimagine. We’re pondering rebalancing our individualism with an openness to community. We’re mourning our lost connection to trees, water, stone, animal. Like a star that has come to an end, “we’re at a moment of enormous compression,” Brian says, “when all these structures are being torn down.” As they go, they “leave us to the central nature of who we are.” And to an outpouring “of the creative energy necessary to build the new earth community.” These are great challenges and great gifts. The cataclysms that we have created have turned and are now creating us.

The Crab Nebula via NASA

Crab Nebula. (Image: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, Arizona State University)

(Top photo: the Orion Nebula. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

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Becoming: the power of emergence

Mount Taranaki has been granted personhood rightsIn a world increasingly governed by western notions of progress, people can find rights of nature an alien concept. Since the founding of ancient Rome, we have safeguarded property rights — the ownership of land, people, capital, resources — even when such rights work against the common good. Or even, as in the case of slavery, against the most basic principles of morality. Property rights belonged to the people who had the money to buy them or the military power to claim them. Colonizers assumed the right to arrive anywhere and claim the land, uproot both people and nature, and take whatever they wanted. And as we celebrate them to this day, we are still agreeing with them.

A couple of years ago I waiting for an elevator with several men who were attending a conference on forest management. They didn’t look like park rangers, so I asked if they owned forests. “Yes,” one said. “Lots of forests.” They were private owners, not corporations. It’s likely the return on their investment came from logging. I have no doubt the health of their forests was extremely important to them. Yet I suspect that had I asked “How do you protect the rights of your forests to live out their ecological role?” they would have waited for the next elevator.

But I was surprised to discover recently that people in the environmental movement had no idea what rights of nature mean. There’s a lot to think about these days, and it’s a small, new movement in a field crowded with urgency. Many people credit Supreme Court William O. Douglas’ 1972 dissent in Sierra Club vs. Morton with inspiring the movement. But there were people ready to run with his idea that “The critical question of ‘standing’ would be simplified…if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers.” He pointed out that other non-human entities — corporations, trusts, ships, for example — have standing in court through guardians.

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia has been granted rights.

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia. Photo by Yuri Romero Picon. Public domain.

Citing Douglas, law professor Christopher Stone, in his 1972 Should Trees Have Standing, was the first to explore the ramifications of these ideas. Thomas Berry introduced the phrase ‘earth jurisprudence’ and it was of paramount importance in his work. Starting in 1972, the UN issued a series of charters related to the human/earth relationship. Among them were the World Charter for Nature in 1982, the 2000 Earth Charter, and the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. In 2008 Ecuadorans included rights of nature in their new constitution. Thirty thousand people from all over the world were in attendance in Bolivia when the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was passed.

More books and many papers have been written, very active advocacy groups have formed. In the last few years, governments have begun to grant such rights all over the world. The earth-centered beliefs and historically sustainable practices of indigenous peoples are finally returning to the fore as more and more people realize how badly the ravening dream of the west has damaged the world we depend on. The photos accompanying this essay are places that now hold rights.

So what happened to make rights of nature move from a single dissent in a Supreme Court case to a worldwide phenomenon, even if still a relatively quiet one? This is the force of emergence, one of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I’ve been exploring. These are the energies working in and through us that can teach us how to move forward. They are the births in the history of the cosmos, starting with its own. Each one is both active and generative. The universe bursts into being and then creates the conditions for atoms to emerge. Atoms create the building blocks for eventual stars. The stars create the elements and gather into galaxies. It’s radical,” Brian says. “There’s no galaxy, and then there’s a galaxy, and within the galaxies themselves you have the birth of planets, at least one of which becomes alive.” 

Bangladesh has granted all of it rivers standing in court

Bangladesh has granted all of its rivers standing in court. Map via Wikimedia Commons

Carbon is an excellent example, since — especially to us carbon-based life forms —there is no more important molecule. In the beginning there was no carbon, so no chance of life as we know it. The emergence of the universe itself gave us hydrogen and helium, which gave us stars. Then, in the 100 million degrees of the early imploding stars, there was enough heat to fuse helium nuclei into carbon. As the stars collapsed, “suddenly carbon is flooding into the universe by the trillions a second.” For billions of years, carbon powered emergence after emergence, finally allowing us and all the species we share the earth with to come to life. “The universe is always seeking a new domain of emergence.”

Processes as well as forms emerge. The earliest, single-cell life forms became multi-cell eukaryotes. They needed hydrogen. As they took it from water, oxygen was increasingly released into the atmosphere until it became too toxic for life. The process of photosynthesis emerged, allowing cells to use oxygen for fuel. From that emerged the great flowering of life on earth. It’s a long, slow, deeply generative process. “The power of creative emergence involves groping, profound confusion. Millions of years of living with ambiguity. One idea isn’t good enough. You need millions of ideas. See which one finally takes off. That’s the nature of creative emergence.”

As my title suggests, emergence is the process of becoming and we are becoming the power of emergence. Because we have turned into the equivalent of a geological force — capable of altering the atmosphere, changing the chemistry of the oceans, forcing extinctions — we need to think about our role in and as this great power. If we create planetary conditions we can’t survive, we will turn out to be one of the universe’s unworkable ideas. In which case, the creative and generative powers of emergence will eventually sweep past us as the earth proceeds to rescue herself. If she survived 100 million years of meteor bombardment as a young planet, she will survive us.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted personhood rights

The Whanganui River in New Zealand. Photo by Joerg Mueller via Wikimedia Commons.

But that can’t be what the cosmos is seeking. If the wild abundance of life on earth tells us anything, it’s that we live on a planet dedicated to bringing forth life. Ideas can seem unworkable and yet lead to new and flourishing forms. Eukaryotes and photosynthesis didn’t just show up one day. They were the end product of eons of experiments. The same happened with Homo sapiens. We are the survivors of many hominid experiments that didn’t last into our era. Let’s begin, Brian suggests, with the assumption that creativity engulfs the whole universe and each of us. It’s not a question of becoming creative, it’s a question of enabling the creativity that’s already suffusing us to proceed more effectively.”

“And here is the amazing thing. The creativity actually knows what it’s about.” The experiments may be many, but they are not random. Going from the initial expansion of atoms to their coalescence into stars, to the gathering of galaxies and the birth of planets shows an emergent force with a drive toward creative order. That’s not to say the process is orderly. Far from it. “Emergence requires the softening or destruction of the order of the previous era.” Part of our distress in the present moment is the difficulty of living with the chaos that we have precipitated. Now, “our task as a planet and species is to reinvent the major forms of the human presence. It’s an activity that’s involving the entire earth, not something humans are in charge of. We are part of a process that goes back to the beginning of time.” 

This is one of my favorite ideas: that we are energy from the beginning of time. We’re not only a result of these deep creative processes, we embody them and bring them forward. “It’s a single energy that begins 13.7 billion years ago and sweeps through to our moment. It’s complex, but it’s one process. So when we talk about moments of creative emergence in the past, we’re talking about the energy that we are in the present.” Far from feeling adrift on a lonely planet, this makes me feel “rooted in the very fireball, grounded in the ancient yet present energy that brought me into being.

Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewara, New Zealand has been granted rights of personhood.

Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewara, New Zealand. Photo by Kyzrsztof Golik via Wikimedia Commons.

This doesn’t save me from the tension and grief our current state inspires, but it gives me an underlying faith in our own creative process. We are part of the cosmic forces calling for ever more life. As we explore our way out of the quagmire, we find new roles and tasks in the emergence of a healthy human/earth relationship.The great discovery of the 20th century is that the universe assembles itself.” Atom by atom, element by element, cell by cell: the cosmos has been a flow of ceaseless creation. There’s been plenty of havoc. Cataclysm is also one of the great powers. But from the destruction of one form emerges the creation of another. 

In moving from the mayhem we have caused to a new presence on earth, we enter into this ingenious and prolific force. A sustainable economy, different forms of education, more just and equal governance — all of these tasks cry out for our energy, faith, and creativity. From the beginning, the cosmos has continually transcended itself. Our very yearning for and dedication to a better world is part of that push. Learn to cherish this yearning, Brian suggests. Think of it as your personal invitation from the universe to be involved with creative emergence.”

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia has been assigned rights

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia. Photo by Andres Cuervo via Wikimedia Commons.

Top photo is Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. Photo by Yoann Laheurte via Unsplash.

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