Weathering the storm: living with the power of cataclysm

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

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

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

Cataclysm: the Veil Nebula via NASA

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

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

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

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

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

Image: NASA/CXC/SAO

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

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

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

Cataclysm: supernova from the death of a star via NASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crab Nebula via NASA

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

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

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Becoming: the power of emergence

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

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

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

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia has been granted rights.

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

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

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

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

Bangladesh has granted all of it rivers standing in court

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

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

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

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

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted personhood rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia has been assigned rights

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

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

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Songlines 2019: a year of change and commitment

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

I’ve never thought of rain as life-changing, but this year it was. 2019 started with the wettest winter the San Francisco Bay area has known since recording began.  First, that meant I had plenty of indoor time to explore projects that excite me. I fell under the wonderfully radical and optimistic spell of E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth project in The geography of hope: saving half the earth. This year included news of the loss of three billion songbirds in North America alone. The idea of preserving half the earth to ensure biodiversity couldn’t be more compelling. There are still vast tracts of wilderness worldwide, so it’s doable, given the will. 

Few of us will be part of negotiating with eight sovereign states for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest or the Congo Basin. For the rest of us, I wrote What we can do: gardening to save half the earth. In the way we design our communities and in every plant we put in the ground, we have the chance to knit together ecosystems that have been displaced.

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada

Saving half the earth depends on what we do with the other half. Which brought me to Biomimicry: designing with nature’s 3.8 billion years of research. My interest was sparked a few years ago when a kingfisher’s eyelid inspired a design to control erosion. There are as many as 100 million species on our planet. They are geniuses at creating what they need out of materials at hand, at ambient temperature, without permanent waste. What if we modeled our cities on the regenerative wisdom of forests? Or powered our lives with the chemical genius of chloroplasts? Biomimicry opens up endless possibilities.

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada

Early in the year, I pondered another of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe, and what it can teach us about living into the world we yearn for. Little did I know when I was celebrating The patient genius of transmutation, the universe’s power of flux and evolution, that I was right on target. While transmutation’s ever-adapting diversity was assuring me that we live on a planet dedicated to life’s success, the rain was making her life-altering moves.

Her methods were simple. She caused leaks in the ten-year-old trailer I’d lived in for so many great adventures. I had one fixed, then another. Redid the roof caulking. Then, in early March, I was sitting on the floor, trying to find the origins of a small damp patch on the rug. I suddenly realized I’d come to the end. I loved my compact little space, treasured beyond measure all the wonderful places I’d lived, however temporarily. But it was time.

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward by Betsey Crawford

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward

I thought it would take months to find the right apartment. It took three weeks. Then the tornado began. In the midst of it, I wrote An Easter of memory and anticipation. I was glad to be moving and sad to be at an end. I so loved going anywhere I chose to explore the planet I love. Carrying my home with me meant moving to each place and inhabiting it, something I cherished. 

I could tell from the responses I got after that post that the poignancy of ending that adventure-filled chapter was very vivid. So I’m delighted to be able to say that I love my new apartment, nestled into a mountain, with trees everywhere I look. In the summer I sat on my flower-filled balcony with my resident hummingbird and wrote The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty. Allurement is another of Brian’s powers of the universe. Beauty is one of its most mysterious and gorgeous aspects. 

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada

July took me on the only trip of the year — to the Sierra Nevada, mountains forming the eastern boundary of California — to see wildflowers. Since it was my first time there, I thought John Muir wouldn’t mind my poaching the title of his wonderful book. So I put together My first summer in the Sierra, pairing my photos with quotes from his book, as well as creating a gallery. All the photos accompanying this are, to quote Muir, from those “vast, calm, measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems equally divine.” 

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada

In September I began a program with the Environmental Forum of Marin. It’s their master class, and our group is number 46. The Forum and class were started all those years ago by people who were instrumental in saving Marin County from overdevelopment. Eighty percent of the county is preserved land of one kind or another, much of it active agricultural land. The entire county coastline was saved. So, the EFM was born of powerhouses. Their goal is to create more powerhouse advocates. 

On ten days spread out over four months, we learned about the geography, ecology, and history of the county. We spent a day hearing from local government officials, and a day on other organizations in the county. Two full days were devoted to the craft of creating advocacy speeches, followed by presenting our two-minute versions. It was great: full of fascinating information and people. As always, it’s inspiring to see how much people are doing, what draws them, how much we all have in common.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada

What’s drawing me more and more these days is advocacy for rights of nature. I first wrote about such rights in 2018. I returned to them earlier this month in When Rivers go to court, where I had the glorious fun of imagining a river actually showing up before a judge. For my final project for the master class, I’m going to design a session to teach the issues around the rights of nature to future classes. For my advocacy speech, I decided my fellow classmates were the Board of Supervisors of Marin County. Here are my two minutes:

The Environmental Forum and all of my classmates are perfect examples of the forces I wrote about in my Halloween post, Wild times, spooky beauty. In a time when the news is a heartbreak a headline, people all over the world are rising to meet the moment. They are choosing to love, to create, to change, to commit. We are allowing the earth that formed us to rise in us, to heal our planet and the interconnected web that she supports. In the face of the daily onslaught of challenges, I often repeat Joanna Macy’s wonderful words: I’m so grateful to be alive when the earth needs me.

I wish you all a joyful, blessed, committed new year.

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada

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When rivers go to court

The Thompson River in Kamloops, British Columbia. Photo by Betsey Crawford Imagine a river taking her case to court. Arriving in her smooth, flowing robes, reflecting the blue of the sky, a shimmering train brushing the floor as she walks. Everywhere light is glinting, from her silver hair to her silver shoes. Her skin is sometimes the color of the mirrored moon, sometimes the color of the mahogany tannins she carries from the forests she flows through. She speaks in a deep, contralto voice. Her tone holds great authority. She knows her depths, knows the source of her power and energy, knows she is fed from innumerable streams, from the sky itself. No one, listening to her, would doubt her word for an instant. It would be impossible to ignore what she says. And we all know exactly what she would say. 

Stop! she would call out, her voice shaking the room. Stop the poisons. Undo the dams. Protect the lands that feed me. Don’t use me for greed. I am not here to absorb your waste or your delusions. I am not here for you. I have been here for billions of years. I have cut deep canyons through sheer rock. I have carried rain from one end of the world to another. In me flow innumerable sacred fish. Birds nest on my banks. Plants grow in my shallows. None of this was put here for you. I am here because I am here, part of the living, breathing earth that formed me. I exist because the universe called me into being.

Behind her are the deep voices of her brothers, the mountains, testifying that they are not here to be blown up for profit. Then come the trees, aghast at our wholesale disposal of their forests and savannahs. Flowers come from meadows all over the world, declaring, in their silken tones, that they cannot grow through asphalt. The piping voices of birds tell the judge what it’s like to see three billion of their relatives die in the last fifty years. The deep, mournful voices of whales and elephants, the soft buzz of bees, the whisper of butterflies wholeheartedly agree. The snarling, angry roars of the great cats describe losing their homes as the wild, ancient forests are felled.

If only! We would never be the same again. If even just once the rivers and trees and jaguars could talk to us in a language we all understood, we would be unable to go forward one more day as we have been. But it’s not to be, at least at this stage of evolution. However, there are people who do understand their languages, and they can show up in court on nature’s behalf. The difficulty, in our current legal system, is that these guardians can only sue after demonstrable, often extensive damage has been done to a person or people. 

The Hudson River in New York, US. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The Hudson River

At that point the ongoing destruction may stop, but the existing harm is not necessarily mitigated. If fracking destroys a town’s water supply, stopping the fracking will not restore the water. If an oil pipeline leaks 400,000 gallons of oil, plugging the leak doesn’t pull the spilled oil out of the ground. I grew up on the Hudson River. In 1977, General Electric, after decades of dumping 1.3 million pounds of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls into the water, was forced to stop the discharge. It took another 30 years for a clean up to even begin. Now, 40 years later, it still goes on. Every person, animal, and plant, from north of Albany to New York Harbor, has PCBs in them.

What if the Hudson River had had rights on its own to go to court? To speak through a guardian, to refuse to have poisons dumped in its waters, refuse to have its ecosystem polluted? Those rights have been granted to the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River. In March 2017, the high court in the Indian state of Uttarakhand ruled that from that day forward both rivers would be “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” In other words, they will be treated as persons in the eyes of the law. Harm to the rivers would be the same as harm to a human being. 

Rights of nature: The Ganges River delta. Photo from NASA's Earth Observatory

The Ganges River delta. Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory

The judges in that case cited the Whanganui River in New Zealand. It had just been declared not only a living entity but kin to the Whanganui iwi, the indigenous Maori people of the area. They had fought for 140 years to gain this status for a river they consider to be their ancestor. Legally, harm to the river is now the same as harm to the Maori themselves. This was the first river in the world to gain personhood in the eyes of the law. But New Zealand had already granted such rights to the Te Urewera forest in 2014. In 2017, along with the Whanganui River, the same rights were established for Mount Taranaki. 

2017 was a banner year for rights of nature. In addition to the Ganges and the Whanganui, Columbia announced biocultural rights for the Atrato River. The Constitutional Court agreed that the best way to protect the rights of indigenous communities is to preserve biodiversity and restore ecosystems. Australia passed the Yarra River Protection Act. Like similar legislation, protecting the Yarra River meant acknowledging indigenous rights and relationships to land that has always been part of their lives and history. Speaking to the parliament, Wurundjeri elder Alice Kolasa said: “The state now recognises something that we, as the First People have always known, that the Birrarung is one integrated living entity.” The act was written in both the English and Woi-wurrun languages. In August 2017, Australian experts on environmental law recommended shifting the focus of law to a rights of nature approach.

Rights of nature: The Yarra River. Photo by Melburnian via Creative Commons

The Yarra River. Photo by Melburnian via Creative Commons

In the US, rights of personhood were established for the Klamath River in Northern California and southern Oregon. The law was created by an indigenous nation, the Yurok, and reflects their view of the river as not a resource, but a living entity holding rights. This may be easier to do in tribal governing bodies and courts. Rights of nature easily fit, and indeed arise from, the indigenous view of nature as a web of intimate relationships into which we are all embedded. “We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,” said Gerrard Albert, who was the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi.

Significantly, many of these early rights of nature pioneers are considered sacred by the communities that have lived in and alongside them for millennia. Though I can find no mention of it, Lake Erie, vast and teeming with fish, was undoubtedly considered sacred by the various indigenous nations that lived on it shores and saw its existence as sustenance for body and spirit. The arrival of Europeans began centuries of industry and farming, the filling in of wetlands, the building of ports and docks. Now pollution, agricultural runoff, and a warming atmosphere have combined to produce algae blooms so vast they can be seen from space. And so toxic that the water becomes undrinkable, the fish no longer safe to eat. 

Rights of nature: Lake Erie's algae bloom. Photo from NASA's Earth Observatory

Lake Erie’s algae bloom. Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Citizens of Toledo put a Lake Erie rights of personhood on the ballot. It declared that it  “has become necessary that [we] reclaim, reaffirm, and assert our inherent and inalienable rights, and to extend legal rights to our natural environment in order to ensure that the natural world, along with our values, our interests, and our rights, are no longer subordinated to the accumulation of surplus wealth and unaccountable political power.” It passed by 61%. The Ohio state legislature, in a move reminiscent of the bans on boycotts during the Civil Rights movement, then voted to ban all such laws. Their law was written by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. 

Following the ban, another community promptly began to gather signatures to put protection of their aquifer on the ballot. That’s the spirit that needs to greet all setbacks. There have been a few of those, but the very first community-passed rights of nature ordinance in the world is still going. In the early 2000s, a small borough in Pennsylvania wanted to prevent the state from giving permits to dump toxic sludge in their town. They reached out to a relatively new organization for help: the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. I’m planning to devote a future post to CELDF and I would not be writing this essay if it weren’t for their work. They have been involved in most of the rights of nature movements around the world, including the Ganges and Lake Erie.

Rights of nature: Atrato River, Columbia. Photo by Ambarpatt

The Atrato River, Columbia. Photo by Ambarpatt

Giving these waters standing in court is only the beginning of solving their problems. Every day, 400 million gallons of raw sewage and 132 million gallons of industrial toxins are discharged into the Ganges. The ruling that gives the Ganges and Yamuna rights came from a state, not the national government. Between poverty and civil war, the illegal mining devastating Columbia’s Atrato River is difficult to stop. There is a plank guaranteeing a clean environment in the Pennsylvania constitution. But the state’s Department of Environmental Protection sues local communities to force them to allow fracking. In 2008, Ecuador included rights of nature in its new constitution. The government still parcels out the rainforest to oil and mining companies. Many of the advances in rights have not yet been tested in court. Even when they are, enforcement can fall on ill-equipped local communities. Complexities are everywhere. 

Nevertheless, it’s an amazing start. The Ganges itself can now sue to stop pollution. It’s happening all over the world: Bolivia, Ecuador, India, Nepal, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Uganda, Sweden, Cameroon, Mexico, the United States. The Florida Democratic Party has included rights of nature in its platform. Pope Francis preaches environmental rights.  This year the National Lawyers Guild in the US amended its constitution. They included the revolutionary statement: “Human rights and the rights of ecosystems shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests.” Despite setbacks, there have been wins in court. Every step is worth celebrating. All different ways of thinking are resisted until they’re not. This year, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to grant all their rivers personhood rights.

Rights of nature: An island in the Whanganui River. Photo by Duane Wilkins via Creative Commons

An island in the Whanganui River. Photo by Duane Wilkins via Creative Commons

Gerrard Albert, the Maori leader quoted above, went on to say “rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.” That idea changes everything. Would we dump raw sewage or toxic chemicals into a human being? Would we harvest all the valuable organs from a living being? Would we bury it alive? Would we injure a living being and walk away from their gaping wounds?

These are things we do. Blast mountains. Bury wetlands. Throw all manner of toxins into waterways. Clearcut forests. We do them in the name of efficiency and profit. Because we believe these entities are inert, unimportant except as they provide resources for us. Now, slowly but increasingly, they can go to court on their own behalf. As one of the Australian legislators said of the Whanganui, “The river itself has the right not to be polluted, it has the right not to be degraded. It has the right not to be overdrawn before it can replenish itself.” These are such simple, basic ideas. But they hold the power to change how we look at and operate in the world. And, once we see ourselves as guardians instead of users, how we look at ourselves.

Rights of nature: Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Wild times, spooky beauty: happy halloween

Perfect for Halloween: black, curling fading flower by Betsey CrawfordAt the end of the day, it’s because there are people who are deeply committed and are fearless. And are not going to be stopped. That’s how history happens.
~ Ted Howard ~

It was seeing the black curving lines of the fading flower above that made me think occasional Halloween posts might be fun. And they are. I explored white flowers for Ghosts in the Landscape, and orange ones for Slightly Ominous, Very Orange. This year I’ve chosen flowers that have a spooky aura about them. It might be from their spikiness, their weird emergence from the earth, or their lovely, dying curves. But these are wild and difficult times, with plenty of real-life ghouls trying to take charge of our destiny. Wishing someone a happy anything can feel like a hopeless cause.

I can get as obsessed with politics as anyone. But in these essays, I prefer to focus on what the earth we emerged from has to tell us about our lives. Especially about how we might live for the sustainable prosperity of all. After the 2016 election, I wrote Sowing Seeds into the Whirlwind. There I turned to what I took comfort from — the millions of people worldwide who are working to make the world a better, fairer, saner, greener place. The blessed unrest that Paul Hawken describes in his book of that name. They are still there, and there are even more of them now, more energized than ever. 

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) bud. Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, El Dorado Springs, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) bud. Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, El Dorado Springs, Missouri

As a Sierra Club newsletter so well put it: “When it comes to dealing with [the environment] there are few obstacles to progress as great as the hot mess of greed, denial, and incompetence that is the current U.S. federal government.” Yet that was in an article about reasons for hope. Partly because the Sierra Club, along with Earthjustice and the National Resources Defense Council, has spent the last three years taking the Trump administration to court on a continuous basis. And have won almost all of the challenges that have been decided so far. 

Small and nimble, the newer Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has expanded its work in helping communities resist corporate takeovers of land and resources. This year their lawyers helped Toledo residents get personhood rights for Lake Erie. It’s “the first rights-based law in the United States that specifically acknowledges the rights of a distinct ecosystem, securing the Lake’s rights to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” Of course, the Ohio legislature immediately voted to outlaw such laws. But, as the organizers said, they are not going anywhere.

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado

Post-industrial northern Ohio is also the home of the only Ph.D. program in biomimicry, design based on nature’s 3.5 billion years of research and development. People involved are hoping to turn their corner of the rust belt into the Silicon Valley of biomimicry. Cleveland, Ohio is pioneering a local and cooperative economy in a collaboration that is now called the Cleveland Model. The quote that leads this essay is from Ted Howard, the model’s founder/collaborator. He was asked why certain communities were leading the way in creating their own versions: vision, courage, commitment.

On one day in early October, California’s Governor Newsom signed six bills designed to move California beyond fossil fuels. Twenty-five states have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, formed to keep the United States moving toward the Paris Climate Agreement goals even though the Trump administration has abandoned them. Here is a list of recent actions by, among others, New York, Michigan, Virginia, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.   

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

In July, Ethiopians took off from work and school and planted 350 million seedlings in one day, part of Ethiopia’s plan to plant four billion tree seedlings this year. Recognizing that reforestation is crucial in climate mitigation, the U.N. launched The Trillion Tree campaign in 2006. Over 15 billion trees have been planted, with China, India, and Ethiopia leading the way. The U.S. is number ten. Want to plant trees simply by surfing the web? There’s an app for that: Ecosia devotes 80% of its profits to planting trees.

Greta Thunberg sat alone in front of the Swedish Parliament one year ago, inspiring a steadily growing movement. In September she marched along with 4 million people across the globe who took up her call to change how we operate in the world. She’s in the good company of a fast-growing number of young climate activists, many from indigenous nations. Like Greta, they are courageously persisting despite endless, cruel, and threatening online and public harassment.

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

In Project Drawdown’s 100 solutions to reversing global warming, educating and empowering girls and women are numbers 6, 7, and 62. Women, who grow 80% of the food eaten in poorer parts of the world, are on the front lines of climate disruption. They suffer disproportionately from issues like loss of water and soil, gender violence, toxic environments, and land rights. In a field that too often gravitates to vaunted technical solutions, women bring practical, day-to-day needs, skills, and experience.

Collaborative efforts like the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network are mobilizing women and resources worldwide. WECAN’s riveting agenda is a perfect explication of how addressing climate change involves engaging the full array of challenges humanity faces. These include land use, distribution, and rights; corporate control of government; the need for sustainable, living economies; biodiversity loss; food security.

Hairy clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Hairy clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado

Older, more traditional groups are focusing their activism on empowering young women. The venerable aid organization CARE’s top priority is educating girls. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has put the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals at the center of its mission, along with fostering girls’ leadership abilities. They even have an app for finding events to join, including group actions and demonstrations.

I could go on and on. There are so many people doing good things, and every one of them is a reason to feel hope. Desmond Tutu famously said that he is “not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I am a prisoner of hope.” The Old Testament prophet Zecharia, whom he was quoting, promised double blessings to the prisoners of hope. 

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

As I write this the entire county of Marin has no power. The incredibly inept Pacific Gas and Electric Company has taken this precaution because they were paying their shareholders and their executives’ bonuses instead of investing in infrastructure. Wildfires are raging north, east, and south of me, a result of super dry, windy weather patterns caused by global warming. The news is a heartbreak a headline. And yet here I sit, a prisoner of hope. I don’t know if we will have the imagination and will to overcome the challenges we’ve created in my lifetime. But I know that whenever we do overcome them, it will be because we have expanded our vision of what the human presence on this planet means. And our vision of who the stakeholders really are. 

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Once women and people of color are at the table, they will not go back. Once indigenous nations are at the table, they will not go back. When farmers have rights to their land and their seeds, they will not lightly cede them to agribusiness. As soon as the first state, the first country leaves fossil fuels and all their damage behind, the dominoes will fall. One river with rights means there will be other rivers with rights, as indeed there are. Educated girls will become empowered women. If you listen carefully in California during this “public safety power shut off,” I bet you’ll hear the word microgrid everywhere you go. Smaller, local, renewable, sustainable energy production. The old paradigms can’t meet the moment their structures have created.

Will it happen in time? We don’t know. We don’t even know what time is. Our scale is so different, our story so small. The planet herself is taking over. Not to protect herself from us, but because she is us. This is where I draw both hope and optimism — in the millions of people who are hearing her call. Who are allowing her energy to become theirs. “Our origins,” Rachel Carson wrote, “are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” Deep down we know. We have been blind and we have been oh, so slow. But we can feel the earth that formed us now rising in us. 

So, I do wish you a happy Halloween, with love, hope, and spooky beauty.

I've been waiting for years to use this spooky Virginia creeper leaf emerging into the light. Photo by Betsey Crawford

I’ve been waiting for years to use this spooky Virginia creeper leaf reaching into the light!

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The most powerful family on earth

Prairie grass in the Konza Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey CrawfordUntil man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. 
~Thomas Edison~ 

Such a tiny word — poa, Greek for grass — to encompass one of the great life forces on earth. The Poaceae are the fifth most species-rich plant family with over 11,000 plants. They populate a quarter of the planet’s land and half the United States. Along with forests, they are among the most important stabilizers of both soil and climate. One of the most adaptive plant families, they live on every continent. They’re the top source of nutrition worldwide.  They’re the basis of human civilization. Every one of us is alive thanks to grass. 

We may even have evolved into humans because of grass. There are grass pollen fossils dating from 70 million years ago, but it wasn’t until 5 to 8 million years ago that the vast grasslands we inherit formed. It was a period of cooler, drier climate and water-thirsty forests began to diminish, opening space for the adaptable grasses. The open landscape helped foster bipedalism among primates, which ultimately helped stimulate the development of our large brains.

Anatomy of grass artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society

Artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society. Thanks to both for permission to use this lovely piece.

Our hunter-gatherer forebears would have eaten the seeds of grasses along with other seeds, fruits, and tubers. Twelve thousand years ago, they began to plant them. Though we can’t know what seeds the first farmers started with, we do know that all the early civilizations grew with grass. Wheat, barley, and rye in the Mideast. Rice, millet, sorghum  in China. Corn in Mesoamerica. Rice and sugarcane in India and Southeast Asia. Sorghum, millet, and tef in Africa. Over the millennia grasses have fed humans and the animals we depend on. They have built, roofed, fenced, heated, and furnished our houses. Cleaned our air and waters. Formed our soil. Made baskets, boats, and paper. They have cured diseases and powered our cars. 

All this inspires the anthropocentric idea that humans have harnessed grasses to meet their needs and desires. But I like the counter take of some botanists: it’s grass that has bent the human. What better way to ensure your survival than to hook this clever species with the handy thumb and ability to plan for the future? Provide enough nutrients to maneuver them into planting you everywhere they can, every single year for 12 thousand years. Induce their browsing animals to open up more land for you to grow, all the while fertilizing your roots. Convince them to plant 40 million acres of you around their houses. And then spend hours every week lovingly feeding and watering you while fending off pests. That’s power! I toyed with calling this essay ‘Our overlords.’

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

But that has negative connotations, and grass is a miracle. You don’t cover a quarter of a very varied planet without being a highly adaptable genius. In the US we are most familiar with the prairie ecosystem that extends through the midwest from the Gulf of Mexico north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. South America has similar systems in the pampas and llanos. Trees and grass combine to form the savannas of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Cerrado in South America. The vast expanse of the Eurasian steppes extends from Eastern Europe well into China. 

In the eons before they formed these priceless expanses, grasses evolved several traits that would secure their eventual success. They are wind-pollinated, tossing their pollen to the air. The wind spreads it far and wide, creating a lot of opportunity for pollination over a large area. They form deep roots, up to five times the height of the plant. This vast ecosystem supplies their needs for water, nutrients, and stabilization. And not just for themselves, but for the soil they, and the rest of us, depend on. 

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute.

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Note the meager extent of lawn grass roots on the far left. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute

Crucially, they developed a key variant in the photosynthetic pathway. C4 photosynthesis allows for more efficient use of sunlight and water in the creation of carbohydrates. This process allows grasses to use less water, grow in nutrient-poor soils, and allocate more of their biomass to roots. C4 plants are very efficient at pulling in carbon dioxide and sequestering it in their miles of roots. This gives grassland preservation a pivotal role in climate stabilization.

They are also imperative for preserving biodiversity. Grasslands are not only grass. They form a matrix for many other plants that grow with them. The Missouri Prairie Foundation reported that in one of its restored prairies a record of 46 separate native plant species was found in a 20 by 20 inch plot. They provide food and habitat for countless birds, bees, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, microbes, fungi, and other beings that are part of the web of life on earth. They have co-evolved with some of the most majestic life forms on the planet: buffalo, gazelle, zebra, giraffe, elephant. 

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado

Grasses both depend on these and domestic grazers to keep land open for them and also have ways to protect themselves from overgrazing. Various toxic phenols and alkaloids, including cyanide, increase as grazing pressure rises. Phytoliths, minute shards of silica, wear grazer teeth down. On the other hand, grasses need grazers, and so keep their budding crowns just under the soil so that they aren’t damaged by nibbling muzzles. As the grazers clean off the upper stalks, new shoots have ample air and light to grow. In the meantime, grazers deposit fertilizer and move on, allowing grasses time to recover.

Some of the most diverse places on the planet are in grasslands. But our tendency has been to treat them as wasted space waiting for us to make them productive. Thus 99% of the American prairie has been plowed, planted, developed. The South American Cerrado is headed in the same direction. Using large, open areas for agriculture certainly makes sense. But the current state of monoculture farming — growing single species annuals with shallow roots, using yearly tilling and high nitrogen fertilizers along with artificial pesticides and herbicides — means that standard agriculture ruins the most important gifts of grasslands. Soil erosion is high, biodiversity and carbon sequestration are low to nonexistent.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the filament are ready to receive pollen. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the white filaments are ready to receive pollen.

I love the subtle beauty of grasses with their feathery flowers and am deeply moved by grasslands. I’m not sure where this came from, since I grew up in suburban New York. But one of the most moving experiences of my life was standing in a grassland in South Dakota. I was driving back roads north along the Missouri River, and a stretch took me into the short grass prairie of that dry area. I was up to my knees in sun-filled grasses, flowing like golden water with the wind. It was so hot the air itself was an intense presence. Despite the wind, there was utter quiet. Everything else fell away to nothingness. At that moment, swept into the warm, moving air, I was grass.

As we all are. We share up to half of our genes with grass, a legacy from common ancestors. Sixty percent of human caloric consumption worldwide is grass-based. We are literally grass. We are formed by them and we are inextricably bound into a miraculous matrix of interdependence. To see this clearly is to plant ourselves into the very roots of life. It means we live on earth not as user but as participant, surrounded by equally important partners. We can then hear their message. The skill grass chose us for — our ability to plan for the future — is being called forth to help all of us prosper on our mutual planet.

Pawnee National Grasslands in Fort Collins, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

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The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty

Beauty and allurement: David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordThose who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. 
~ Rachel Carson ~

September 1 starts the annual Season of Creation, and to celebrate I’m pondering one of nature’s most intriguing mysteries: why is so much so beautiful? Why all those luscious colors, gossamer wings, silken petals? Why rainbow-decked waterfalls cascading into deep, curving rivers disappearing into the folds of magnificent mountains? Cool forests of feathery ferns at the base of towering trees, full of the elation of bird song? Why rustling waves of grasslands, filled with flowers, chirping crickets, soaring meadowlarks? Deserts lit with luminous cactus flowers, the call of ravens, the song of coyotes? Why clouds on fire with the setting sun? 

The easy answer is that we evolved the senses and the consciousness to find all this beautiful. And so we did. But why? We could have evolved to find a much duller world satisfactory. Bees and hummingbirds could have evolved to pollinate a planet full of white flowers. Butterflies and birds don’t need their luminous jewel tones to fly or find food. Peacocks and prairie chickens could have figured out calmer ways to attract a mate. It’s the sheer extravagance of it all that makes it so mysterious. 

Beauty and allurement: Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Beauty is an aspect of the universal power that cosmologist Brian Swimme calls allurement. It was one of the early powers to show up, as the great attracting energy of gravity swirled the universe’s new-born atoms together to form the first stars. Then the stars themselves felt the pull to one another as they formed the gravitational fields we know as galaxies. Between the stars, matter gathered into planets, then into moons around the planets. All, in turn, both being drawn and entering, Brian says, ‘into their destiny as a source of allurement.’

Allurement not only creates, but creates a mode that continues to create. Within the forms relationships develop, intimacy leads to more creativity. The earth’s long relationship with the sun eventually gave rise to life. Plants emerged. ‘Then this amazing moment comes when living beings figure out how to create the chlorophyll molecule….in resonance with the sun’s light.’ By creating this strikingly complex and beautiful molecule, plants bound themselves, and the entire earth, into an ever more intimate relationship with the sun.
 
Beauty and allurement: Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

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

This cycle of attraction — form — creativity — intimacy has given us an earth of inexpressible beauty. Imagine walking through a field of wildflowers. Or peering through a microscope at the structure of a seashell. Or discovering the intricate mathematical language that governs the universe. Our whole being responds to the power of beauty in such moments. Our hearts expand. Our energy rises. We feel alive, connected, excited. We are transported, from the Latin for ‘carried across.’ Lifted over a threshold into a realm beyond the concerns, demands, confusions of daily life.

 I have written before about psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that evolution favored awe. In the face of the many challenges of existence, awe gives us reasons to love life. To him, evolution wanted us to be here long enough to reproduce, and that is certainly high on nature’s agenda. But beauty preceded us by eons. I prefer Carl Sagan’s and Thomas Berry’s idea that the cosmos wanted a way to ponder all the beauty it had created, and so evolved us.
 
Beauty and allurement: Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

It may well be having second thoughts. As I write this, the Amazon rainforest is burning so that we can grow soybeans to feed pigs. Or clear space for ranchers to provide beef for fast-food hamburgers. It’s being opened to drill for oil to fuel our insatiable appetites for every conceivable consumer item. How, surrounded by so much beauty and sublimity, have we managed a history of so much cruelty, neglect, and obliviousness? That is another mystery. Our souls long for the beauty they have evolved to know so intimately. And yet our minds, our actions are so easily turned to the ugly. We trash our living spaces and fail to nourish and protect our children. We go to war over land and resources. We cage families fleeing danger our policies created. We burn the lungs of our planet.

In the face of this devastation, is there space for contemplating beauty? The power of allurement says yes, we must. This power draws us out of ourselves, brings us to life, again and again. It strengthens us to carry the weight of disappointment, grief, rage and move toward regeneration. This isn’t beauty as a surface attractant. The ultimate beauty of flowers doesn’t lie in how pretty they are. That, of course, is a lovely thing to contemplate. But they lived for 160 million years before we arrived to take delight in them.
 
Beauty and allurement: Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Their great power lies in what the universe wanted of them, not in what we want. These are cosmic beings, forged out of chaos, molecule by molecule. The soul of the earth emerging from the soil at our feet. Formed for relationships and adept at creating them. With that soil. With the air they breathe and the sunlight they turn to nutrition. With the creatures, including us, that they form intimate, mutually beneficial relationships with.

Allurement is all about relationships. This deeper beauty draws our depths to itself, into bonds of intimacy and love. We are devastated by the news because profound relationships are being severed, day after day. ‘The industrial society has moved to break allurement apart, most profoundly to break the natural allurement people have for the rest of the universe. The field of allurement we are born into is fractured’  by the view of the natural world, including humans, as strictly a resource for plundering. 

Beauty and allurement: the 2019 superbloom in the Carrizzo Plain, California by Betsey Crawford

Speaking of extravagance: the 2019 super bloom in the Carrizo Plain, California

Because I spend a fair amount of time thinking about things that have been happening for epochs, part of me is able to take the long view. For millions of its early years, all that happened to our fiery, volcanic earth was a continual meteor bombardment. Out of that disorder, the delicate petals of the flowers pictured here eventually arose. All the beauty we know has arisen from the journey of disorder to order, a journey often interrupted by fresh outbreaks of chaos. The last two hundred years of industrial mindset isn’t even a blip on this time scale. But it is cataclysmic, and our hearts ache continually with the suffering we see.

I am exploring Brian’s powers of the universe to see what our oldest teacher tells us about creating a just and sustainable planet. Allurement’s profound lesson lies in the deep creative energy it launches. As we move toward what we are attracted to, we are changed. The relationships formed — with a person, a mountain, a river, a cause — attract further changes. ‘This is how the universe works. We’re captivated, and we pursue, and then we are awakened in the pursuit, and we end up captivating others’. The intensity of the relationship deepens as ‘the actual form of who we are is shaped by that which draws us.’

‘The same power of allurement that drew the stars together is working in us.’ Fully realizing this idea has the power to release the defensive crouch our current affairs can drive us to. We don’t need to create allurement, we already embody it. ‘It’s happening throughout the universe, wanting to burst forth into conscious self-awareness.’ Our task is to allow it, to remove whatever is in the way. To free ourselves from the illusions of consumerism, mindless growth, separation. In that release lies creative and generative ideas along with the energy to undertake the tasks we need. There lies intimacy with and love for all our fellow beings and entities. The world we long for is pulling us toward itself.

 
Beauty and allurement: Grass widow (Olysinium douglasii) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Grass widow (Olysinium douglasii) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

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My first summer in the Sierra

fritillary (Speyeria species) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey CrawfordBeauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.
~ John Muir ~

Fans of John Muir will know that my title is the same as one of his most wonderful books. Like thousands before me, reading it made me want to go and spend the rest of my life in search of Sierra Nevada wildflowers. ‘The charms of these mountains,’ he says, ‘are beyond all common reason, unexplainable and mysterious as life itself….For my part, I should like to stay here all winter or all my life or even all eternity.’ Last month I got a taste of what that would be like, learning, once again, that ‘wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.’

Our first summers in the Sierras, which extend north and south in eastern California for 400 miles, were very different. His was a whole season. He went in 1869, when he was 31, and spent three months. He was helping herd 2500 sheep to higher and higher pastures as the summer heat rose in California’s Central Valley. I spent two stunningly beautiful days, in the company of ten botanists and native plant lovers. He was in Yosemite, I was 200 miles north, in the heart of gold rush country. The highway there is aptly named Route 49. Although I was filled with wonderful energy the whole of my short visit, his inexhaustibility had him casually remark in his September 8th entry that he climbed three mountains that day.

The book is a journal of his summer. It wasn’t published until 40 years later, and the rich beauty of the language likely owes something to the mature Muir’s editing and rewriting. But the unbounded, joyful exuberance the younger Muir brought to every encounter still bounces off the page. He enjoys his own ‘wild excitement and excess of strength.’ Day after day, finding ‘everything glowing with Heaven’s unquenchable enthusiasm,’ he matches it with his own.

For the sheer joy of it, I’ve combined selections of his gorgeous and inspiring words with some of the beauties he so celebrated. There are more photos in the Sierra Nevada wildflowers gallery.

 

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Found a lovely lily (Calochortus albus).…It is white with a faint purplish tinge inside at the base of the petals, a most impressive plant, pure as a snow crystal, one of the plant saints that all must love and be made so much the purer by it every time it is seen. It puts the roughest mountaineer on his good behavior. With this plant the whole world would seem rich though none other existed. It is not easy to keep on with the camp cloud while such plant people are standing preaching by the wayside.

 

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work—every crystal, every flower a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.

 

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja nana) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja nana) Sierra Nevada Mountains

After a long ramble through the dense encumbered woods I emerged upon a smooth meadow full of sunshine like a lake of light….brightened by several species of gentian, potentilla, ivesia, orthocarpus, and their corresponding bees and butterflies. 

 

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains

How fiercely, devoutly wild is Nature in the midst of her beauty-loving tenderness!—painting lilies, watering them, caressing them with gentle hand, going from flower to flower like a gardener while building rock mountains and cloud mountains full of lightning and rain. 

 

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward by Betsey Crawford

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward

What grand bells these lilies have!….Noble plants, in perfect health, Nature’s darlings….The perfection of beauty in these lilies of the wilderness is a never-ending source of admiration and wonder.

 

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Like most other things not apparently useful to man….the blind question, “Why was it made?” goes on and on with never a guess that first of all it might have been made for itself.

 

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains

So extravagant is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees, but as far as I have seen, man alone, and the animals he tames, destroy these gardens.

 

Oregon checker bloom (Sidalcea oregana) Sierre Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Oregon checkerbloom (Sidalcea oregana) Sierre Nevada Mountains

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality. 

 

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains

What pains are taken to keep this wilderness in health—showers of snow, showers of rain, showers of dew, floods of light, floods of invisible vapor, clouds, winds, all sorts of weather, interaction of plant on plant, animal on animal, etc., beyond thought! How fine Nature’s methods! How deeply with beauty is beauty overlaid! The ground covered with crystals, the crystals with mosses and lichens and low-spreading grasses and flowers, these with larger plants leaf over leaf with ever-changing color and form, the broad palms of the firs outspread over these, the azure dome over all like a bell-flower, and star above star.

 

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

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

How many mouths Nature has to fill, how many neighbors we have, how little we know about them.

 

Elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica) Sierra Nevada Mountains

A lovely flower, worth going hungry and footsore endless miles to see. The whole world seems richer now that I have found this plant in so noble a landscape.

 

Pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) Sierra Nevada MountainsPussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Nature’s open, harmonious, songful, sunny, everyday beauty.

 

Mountain achillea (Achillea millefolium lanulosa) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain achillea (Achillea millefolium lanulosa) Sierra Nevada Mountains

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. 

 

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature—inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

 

Round Lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Round Lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever. 


There are more flower photos in the Sierra Nevada wildflowers gallery, which is here.

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What we can do: gardening to save half the earth

Creative habitat with native plant gardening

I once designed a landscape for clients who wanted their property to blend in with the oak and hickory forest surrounding them. They’d read an article in the local paper about my advocacy for native plant gardening and liked the idea. This was at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, which is blessed with glorious native shrubs. We had a great time working with beautiful viburnums, vivid oakleaf hydrangeas, spicy bayberry, sweet-smelling clethra, native azaleas, and a lovely native rose.
 
A couple of years later, after listening to me give a talk on native plants, a woman who lived in the same neighborhood came up. She told me that her neighbors felt sorry for my clients, who had “spent all that money and ended up with something so wild looking.” A landscaper told me the same thing. He would drive prospective clients around to see what they preferred. He liked what I had done and kept hoping to find someone who agreed. They never did. Too wild, they would say, about the landscape pictured above.
 
So a new housing development carved out of a forest that began at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation 11,000 years ago ended up with house after house with the same design: lawn to the street with a kidney-shaped area of varying size containing one or two non-native trees. These were underplanted with a frill of non-native — and sometimes invasive — shrubs. Some would then box themselves in with a wall of unspeakably dull privet hedge. Though not invasive in the acidic soil of eastern Long Island, privet is taking over forests in many other states across the country.
 
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by David Clode via Unsplash

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photo by David Clode via Unsplash

I am not easily discouraged and, by and large, found the experience fascinating. I began to appreciate the theory that our landscape choices reflect our evolution on the savannas of East Africa. Deep in our consciousness, do we associate open grassland punctuated by small areas of trees and shrubs with safety? We can see our predators. So we are forever mowing down and hacking back the wilderness that we find threatening.
 
More immediate history has played a powerful role. After (and since) World War II there was a huge push to build houses and suburbanize farm fields and woods throughout the country. To soften the stark, boxy neighborhoods developers chose trees and shrubs for speedy growth, regardless of where they came from. Many of us grew up with a landscaping language that saw native plants as weeds. Native plant gardening was a laughable concept.
 
The archetypal post World War 2 suburb: Levittown, New York. Photo by Mark Mathosian via Flickr

The archetypal post-World War 2 suburban development: Levittown, New York. Photo by Mark Mathosian via Flickr

 
No more native hedgerows, filled with flowers and berries, birds and bees. Now hedges were all the same, uninteresting plants, shaved into a box. Rhododendrons, pulled out of the woods and marched along the fronts of houses, were then pruned so hard they never bloomed. Flat slabs of lawn became sacrosanct, lined with fast-growing birches and aggressive maples. When we wanted something unusual, or more colorful, we imported delicate red maples from the forests of Japan. Or dragged blue spruces out of the mountains of Colorado. When they didn’t prosper in the heat of our summers, we sprayed them with poisonous compounds. We got those from chemical companies that had flourished during the war and now needed new markets.
 
It didn’t take long for a landscape that grew out of a hodgepodge of interests to become the norm. So much so that a woman who tried growing vegetables in her front yard in Detroit was taken to court last year. There is no reason on earth to essentially pave our yards with mown grasses that can’t survive without excess water and chemicals. And yet we have so accustomed ourselves to it that it’s the law in certain places. It is, as the Zen masters say, a story we tell ourselves. And we can tell ourselves a different one.
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri, by Betsey Crawford

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

And must. If we are going to save half the earth to protect the biodiversity that every creature on the planet depends on, we need to change our landscaping story. We need another language. Satellite images tell us that lawns cover over 40 million acres in the lower 48 states. Half of homeowners also garden, which means we have upwards of 65 million gardeners. Allow them each an average eighth of an acre and homeowners in the US alone control up to 50 million acres of land.
 
Activists and organizations, with good reason, tend to focus on projects like saving the vast Amazon basin. But it’s also vitally important that we preserve, create, and connect local habitat everywhere we can. Mercifully, as gardeners, we don’t need to deal with the competing interests of eight separate countries. Or 400 indigenous nations. Or corporations itching for access to petroleum, minerals, beef, or palm oil. We can grab a shovel, put some plants in the ground, and make an immediate difference.
 
But it depends on the plants we choose, and the reasons we choose them. If we are growing for biodiversity, we have a rich and rewarding path ahead. Butterflies, birds, bees, moths, and other beings will discover our gardens. But it’s not what we’re used to. It may not be tidy. It goes through seasonal transitions. It’s more unpredictable. You leave your leaf litter on the ground to foster nutrition and manage moisture. There are bugs, and they are so crucial we need to aim for more of them, happily living in the leaf litter. In other words, it’s wild, or should be. We can organize and tame it, shape the landscape, choose and place plants to create beauty. But our fellow creatures need us to embrace wildness, no matter how urban our environment.
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on the aptly named butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on the aptly named butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) in Osceola, Missouri

Birds and bugs have evolved over eons to adapt to the native plants they eat and nest in. And that’s what they need to survive. The monarch butterfly larva eats milkweed. That’s it. If there are no milkweeds, there will be no monarch butterflies or any of the other 11 species that specialize in milkweeds. Beautiful and fascinating plants, milkweeds’ lovely flowers turn into extraordinary seed pods. Once opened, thousands of silky threads float their attached seeds through the air. But milkweeds are not conventionally pretty. They’re a little wild looking. Those silky seed threads could land in the lawn! You would be hard pressed to find milkweeds in a nursery selling plants to the general public.

Creating habitat with native plant gardening:: common-milkweed-seedhead-asclepias-syriaca-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus) seed pod and seeds

If there are enough open meadows and wetlands, there will be enough milkweeds. But as we destroy more and more of those, it’s left to gardeners to keep milkweed available for monarch butterflies. After we build and pave our neighborhoods, it’s up to us to use native trees as street trees to support the hundreds of life forms they shelter. Instead, we use pear trees imported from Asia. They grow upright for many years, so don’t need a lot of pruning. They provide a profusion of white flowers when everyone is desperate for a sign of spring. They aren’t susceptible to being eaten by our insects, so harbor no life at all. From a highway department’s point of view, they’re perfect. From a biodiversity standpoint, they’re a disaster.
 
Plants produce toxins to protect themselves from too much predation. Over millions of years, local bugs have evolved enzymes to neutralize those toxins. When you introduce a plant that insects didn’t evolve with, they can’t eat those toxic leaves. This may seem like a win for gardeners and planners. But not feeding your insects means you’re not feeding birds, lizards, frogs, small mammals, fish. You’re not allowing butterfly larvae to mature. Insects that we depend on to break down plant and animal detritus — thereby returning nutrients to the soil all life depends on — die out. First flowers and then whole plants disappear because there are no pollinators. Naturalist E.O. Wilson calls insects “the little things that run the natural world.”
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a gorgon copper butterfly (Lycaena gorgon) on California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

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

The idea of gardening for insects may seem alien in a world full of products to exterminate them. But nature has been at this way longer than we have. If insects consistently defoliated plants, there would be no photosynthesis, no plants, no animals, no us. The caterpillars munching your oak leaves are themselves likely to be eaten by birds or parasitized by wasps. If they make it past such hurdles, not much will get eaten before it’s time to spin their cocoons. Introduced aliens, like gypsy moths and Japanese beetles, can do a lot of damage because they have no natural predators. That’s the problem with all non-native species, animal and plant.
 
Over 5000 non-native plant species have taken over vast swathes of our natural world. It’s such a mess that in many places the only way to preserve the natural ecosystem is to first reclaim it. Eastern deciduous forests are being smothered by bittersweet and mile-a-minute vines. Autumn olive is choking Utah’s great river canyons. Wetlands are disappearing under the seductively pretty haze of lythrum’s magenta flowers. Some plants, like the melaleuca that is destroying Florida’s Everglades, were brought here to do what they did. Developers wanted to drain the swamp to contain mosquitos and allow building. A few invaders arrived by accident. Others, like the oats and annual grasses that have taken over the hills of California, were grown for fodder. The eucalyptus and pampas grass spreading along the west coast were among many, many plants brought here as novel ornamentals.

 

Creating habitat with native plant gardening: a pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) feed exclusively on plants in the Aristolochia family, the pipevine plants. Not only have they evolved to deal with the toxins of this family, but by ingesting them they make themselves toxic to prey. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) feed exclusively on plants in the Aristolochia family, the pipevine plants. Not only have they evolved to deal with the toxins of this family, but by ingesting them they make themselves toxic to prey.

The same sad trajectory is true for plant diseases and insects. In British Columbia, I drove past mile upon mile of boreal forest destroyed to the horizon by an Asian beetle. We are losing our native ash trees to the accidental importation of emerald ash borer. An early casualty of imported plants was the complete destruction of the eastern chestnut in the nineteenth century. When the European chestnut came here it carried a fungus to which it was resistant. The native one was not.
 
It’s a very complex problem, made even more so by unpredictability. Lythrum became a garden stalwart in the mid-1800s. It bloomed in back yards for 100 years before it became invasive. We don’t know why some plants reach invader status after such a long time. It may be genetic. Plants and insects evolve over time. One genetic switch may bring a dramatic change.
 
Early on, no one foresaw the damage alien plants would do when they were free of the constraints that kept them in bounds in their native homes. But we know now, and know that we can’t predict which seemingly desirable aliens will turn into invaders. So we are faced with not only an ecological problem but also a moral one. In his excellent and heartfelt book, Bringing Nature Home, entomologist Doug Tallamy asks a thought-provoking question. We go to great lengths to quarantine and prohibit diseases that affect humans and farm animals. “Why are the native plants that sustain us and our native animals less worthy of protection?”
 
Creating habitat with native plant gardening:: another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri

Possible answers bring us back to the stories we tell ourselves. The dream of the west, and now most of the world, has been dominion. The earth is ours to subdue. Humans, or at least a select subset of them, are the undisputed lords of creation. Other humans, animals, plants, minerals all exist for the benefit of those with money and power. This is the driving force behind the destruction of the Amazon rainforest today. A milder but still deadly version drives the landscaping trade. New and more exotic plants, more lethal insecticides, billions spent on millions of acres of grass two inches high.

 The alternate dream isn’t new. It’s the dream our human consciousness emerged from: the deep knowledge that we are intimately related to everything on earth. Literally related: we share 45% of our DNA with plants and 60% with fruit flies. We share with insects the same enzymes, muscle fibers, neurons. Our hearts and brains do pretty much the same things. Our digestive and reproductive pathways are similar. Insects communicate, form communities, and work together, as we do. With infinite care, evolution has woven a web of interdependent beings to create the lush and beautiful planet we live on. Yet we are severing those miraculous bonds with increasing rapidity. All because of stories we tell ourselves about what progress or prosperity or happiness or aesthetics should look like. When we grab our shovels and replant a place for the abundance of life we are re-tying our links to the diverse world around us. And we are changing those stories.
 
White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

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

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An Easter of memory and anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

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

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

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

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

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

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