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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The geography of hope: saving half the earth

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

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

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

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

Emerald Lake, Yolo National Park, British Columbia, Canada

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

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

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

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

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

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

A wildflower meadow in Glacier National Park, Montana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maps courtesy of Y2Y.net

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

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

Saving half earth: Map from California Protected Areas Database

Map from California Protected Areas Database

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

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

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

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

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

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

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The patient genius of transmutation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Songlines 2018: beauty and action

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

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

Betsey Craword photographing wildflowers on Tubbs Hill

Photo by Susan Beard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California

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Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

Season of Creation

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

Native plants: the genius of their place

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

Sowing seeds into the whirlwind

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

Cactus lingerie

 

Saving seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citrus fruit colors by Edgar Castrejon

Nature loves diversity. Photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

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

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

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

Vietnam market by Stephan Valentin

Vietnam market. Photo by Stéphan Valentin via Unsplash

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

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

Array of tomato varieties by Reseal Apacionado

Photo by Rezel Apacionado via Unsplash

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

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

Photo by Alfred Schrock via Unsplash

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

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

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

Bowl of seeds by Joshua Newton

Photo by Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Photo at top by rawpixel via Unsplash

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