The gold rush: the joyful power of goldenrod

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

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

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

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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

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

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

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

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

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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Happy Halloween: ghosts in the landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California

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

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

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta

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

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

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

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta

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A girl in the Garden of Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagoon Park Playground in San Rafael, California by Betsey Crawford

Lagoon Park Playground in San Rafael, California

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

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

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

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Laudate si, repictured

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

Laudate si — Praise be! — are the opening words of each of the verses in Saint Francis’s beautiful Canticle to the Sun, and is also the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical defining the Catholic Church’s doctrines on the care of the earth. Last year I discovered that September 1 had been chosen as the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. Since I’m always ready to celebrate the earth, I read the revolutionary encyclical, and chose excerpts which I am presenting again this year, with a new selection of pictures of the great luminous beauty of our world. 

Always reflecting Pope Francis’ deep concern for the plight of the poor, the lengthy letter covers many topics, all relating to the care of ecosystems, and the belief that all livings things have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity. The encyclical ranges from the devastation of war and the insidious consequences of political corruption, to the dignity and necessity of meaningful work, to the need for orderly and inviting living conditions. Francis issues a call for new models of development, starting with the cooperative efforts of small villages and extending to complex global treaties involving all the countries of the world.

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

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

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

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

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

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

Mushroom after a rainy winter in Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

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

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

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family.

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

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

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

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

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

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

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

Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that…dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (Genesis 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

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

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

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

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

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

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

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

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

We take these ecosystems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities. So, when we speak of ‘sustainable use’, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One big, happy family: the Asteraceae

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordI took the picture above six years ago this month, standing in a field of sunflowers on Cape Breton Island on the east coast of Canada. It was the first place we went when we started the journey that has taken us to so many wonderful places. I’ve never forgotten the joy of standing in that field, completely surrounded by the happiest of flowers, growing with wild abandon toward the August sun.

With almost 24,00o species, the Asteraceae family is vast and exuberant. It’s literally everywhere you go, except Antarctica. The accompanying photos range from Alaska to the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California. They reflect one of the family’s strengths: the ability to thrive in many different environments, whether hot or cold, dry grassland or wet marsh, in alpine meadows or among desert cactus. Some are important commercially: sunflower, safflower and canola oils. Camomile and echinacea tea. Artichokes, lettuce, tarragon, radicchio, endive. One shrub even produces a form of latex. The horticultural market depends on many of them.

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) taken along Chimney Rock trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The most familiar asteraceae configuration is the sunflower and its relatives: a central circle of disk florets, surrounded by a crown of ray florets that look like and act like petals, attracting insects to pollinate themselves as well as the less showy disk flowers. The family name comes from these composite forms: aster derives from the Latin word for star. But there are a variety of other structures. Some, like the thistle and the arnica below, are discoid, with disk but no ray flowers. Others, like the dandelion, are ligulate, with no disk flowers and ‘petals’ of strappy ligules. 

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

As a group, they tend to develop a fluffy seed head, a pappus of filaments that originally surround the base of the ovary, and grow longer as the flower goes to seed. With their feathery attachments, seeds are easily dispersed by wind, which helps account for the ubiquity of yarrow, fleabanes, dandelions, asters and other family members. Some seeds have hooks on them and spread out by attaching themselves to animal fur or clothing. 

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska

What looks like an individual flower is an inflorescence, a bowl-, vase- or cone-shaped capitulum, holding its lovely arrangement of hundreds of ray and disk florets. The capitulum is held by green bracts, or phyllaries, sometimes many layers of them, constituting an involucre. When you eat the bud of an artichoke flower, you peel off, dip in melted butter, and then eat one phyllary after another, until you get to the heart, which is the capitulum containing the disk flowers. The phyllaries can be plain or beautifully sculptural. Their differences, in number, shape and position, are often a key to identifying close species. 

Analysis of fossil pollen found in Antarctica dates the Asteraceae to 80 million years ago, when the continent was still part of Gondwana, before it floated south to the icy pole. Species were lost during the K-T extinction, which killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. But those that survived thrived and multiplied during the great flowering of the warm Late Paleocene and Early Eocene epochs, as did every other plant family. The asteraceae in turn benefitted their pollinating insects, and were especially important to the evolution of bee species.

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

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

They are a pollinator’s dream: one landing, up to 1,000 flowers. The sunflower, our biggest and most dramatic North American native asteraceae, dedicates a most intriguing and charming trait to bees and other pollinators. It starts with buds and young flower heads, still covered with their green, photosynthesizing bracts, following the sun over the course of the day. At night, they work their way back toward sunrise, moving faster near the solstice, and more slowly as the nights grow longer.

 

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

This cirdadian heliotropism is driven by growth hormones that spur growth on the east side of the stem during the day, lengthening that side, and tilting the flower head toward the west. At night, another hormone spurs growth on the west side, moving the flower to face east by morning. In experiments that interfere with this sun tracking, plants quickly lose mass and leaf surface, cutting down on photosynthesis and thus vitality and size.

Their sungazing stops at maturity. The ‘clock genes’ turn off, leaving entire fields of sunflower heads facing east. That way they are warmed early in the day, making them five times more likely to be visited by pollinators than experimental plants arranged to face west.  And there are lots of pollinators: bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, wind, and, in South America, birds. With their warm, open faces offering almost unlimited opportunity for fertilizing, reproduction becomes very efficient, which explains the diversity and worldwide habitat of the family.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Standing in a field of sunflowers, or prairies of thistles, coneflowers and goldenrods,  I am not only surrounded by the sheer exuberance of vividly colored, beautifully shaped flowers, with their attendant bees and butterflies. I am surrounded by a long history of carefully ‘chosen’ evolutionary changes that remain mysterious despite all the genetic information we can now gather about plants. Why so many yellows? And why pink, or white? Why feathery leaves on one family member, big chunky leaves on another? Why is this one so tiny, and this one gigantic? Why a cone on one, a bowl on another? This heavenly exuberance of form and color is a delightful mystery.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

In that sunlit field I’m also surrounded by a form of life — the flowering angiosperms with their nutritious fruits — that may well be responsible for me, a member of a much later species, being able to stand there at all. That nourishment helped my forebears to develop the eyes and consciousness to celebrate the wonder around me. That may even be the point of evolving me at all: a way for the universe to contemplate its glories.

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Relishing the sunny warmth of a summer day, drinking in the beauty and vitality of the flowers around me, grateful for our shared history and destiny — these are moments of transcendence that make life rich and fulfilling. Our beautiful world makes them so available, but we too often rush by. Even when we stop, we feel we must quickly return to the practical tasks that make life possible. But our world is always there, waiting to be treasured. Waiting for the eyes and ears it has gifted us with to turn toward these great and beautiful mysteries. “Life is this simple,’ theologian Thomas Merton wrote. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through all the time.”

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

More pictures of this exuberant family can be found in the Asteraceae Gallery.

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A season of birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egret, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

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

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

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

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

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

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

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Blessed unrest: the bioblitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist's Identotron

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist’s Identotron

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

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

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Retaining paradise: gardening with native plants

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

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) San Ramon, California

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

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

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California

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

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

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) San Ramon, California

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

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

California wild rose (Rosa California) Novato, California

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

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

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

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), Novato, California

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

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

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

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

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

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea) El Sobrante, California

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

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

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

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Novato, California

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

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

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

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

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

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) El Sobrante, California

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

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

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

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The Work that Reconnects: a weekend with Joanna Macy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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