While my songlines stretched out once again in 2023, I’m ending the year where I started: in “a world of emerald fluff.” As soon as the late autumn rains fall in the forests I live among, the vast swaths of moss, dormant in the long dry season, uncurl, fluff out, and turn a vivid green. The effect in my evergreen surroundings, as I wrote in The Emerald Kingdom, is a green “so pervasive that it’s palpable, almost breathable, both delicious and disorienting.”
Mosses are the parents of the trees they carpet, the creators of soil, the home to countless other tiny beings. The first plants to venture onto land, they have worked tirelessly for 460 million years to create the world we inhabit. I went way further back in time in the last of my essays on cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe. In Boundless Possibilities, the Power of Seamlessness, I invited readers to imagine themselves as subatomic particles. We move through a constant sea of choices and possibilities formed by the directions chosen. That has been the case with the entire cosmos from the beginning. The act of becoming, Brian says, “is the nature of the universe.”
The possibility of making bad choices was a theme in The Lost Words. In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed 56 nature words — including acorn, otter, buttercup, fern — to make room for words like broadband and analog. The move created a great outcry in Britain and inspired a gorgeous book. But the words are still missing, and the tragic severing of children’s connection with the deepest forces of nature continues. Do 6- and 7-year-olds (the age for this dictionary) “need to know the word analog over the playful antics of otters?”
Perhaps inspired by the importance of misunderstood nature, I turned to beavers in Leave It to Beavers. It fascinated me, hiking among wetlands in Washington, to read on a placard that the area had recently been ranch land. Instead of a million-dollar wetlands reclamation plan, the town introduced beavers who happily did it all for free. The North American continent was once a mesh of wetlands thanks to millions of years of landscape management by hundreds of millions of beavers. Almost decimated by 300 years of the North American fur trade, they began to rebound when they finally went out of style. But by then, they were pests to farmers and ranchers. Today their value as water managers is inspiring their accommodation and even restoration.
Speaking of water — and fire — management, there is a revolution in California. Gardeners are increasingly moving away from water-thirsty lawns and toward using native plants that have evolved with both drought and fire. There is growing recognition that this approach also fosters wildlife in a time of dwindling habitat and devastating species loss. Such considerations are not just local. In my neck of the woods, May is native plant garden tour month. The gardens I saw inspired Gardening as If Life Depends on It, a look at the intersections of life that a garden represents. “Landscaping isn’t a static, visual element, but an active participant in the world we create….What we do with our land, however small an area, matters not just to us, but to the life of our planet.”
In June, my songlines stretched north along the Oregon coast. I found plants I loved on the way. But it was the destination that meant the most. I was filled with boundless joy watching my son, Luke, marry his bride, Genevieve, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Since I was too distracted to think about writing an essay that month, I reposted one from another time of great joy: I Have Located Heaven. It’s easy to find, just over the Canadian border, in Waterton Lakes National Park. That 2016 visit was one of wildflower joy since the park is home to 1,000 species of plants, many of them rare. A couple of dozen occur nowhere else. “In a world full of spectacular beauty, Waterton Lakes is still a place apart.”
Then, on the way home from the wedding, I discovered another sublime wildflower world — the back roads of far northern inland California. My essay’s title, Be Astonished. Tell About It, is poet Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life.” My road trip taught me, once again, that “one of the greatest blessings of being immersed in the green world is that surprises await you everywhere.” Sure enough, driving — or rather, stopping along the way — on old dirt logging roads had me “moving through astonishment.” This was a year of new-to-me flowers, some of them pictured here. “The ability to center ourselves among the beauties of this challenging, whirling world is one of the greatest gifts of Earth.”
New-to-me beauties among California’s bountiful mariposa lily species inspired A Season of Butterfly Lilies. The exquisite beauty of these lilies, along with their sometimes elaborate and even slightly gothic interiors, would make you think they would stand out in the landscape. Calochortus means beautiful grass in Greek and they often grow hidden among grasses. Bringing them into focus and then discovering they are surrounding you is an intriguing process, “proof that paying attention expands our vision.” We are so blessed that Earth isn’t shy with her small beauties. “She doesn’t save splendor only for grand vistas and awe-inspiring mysteries. She spreads it at our feet the minute we leave the pavement we are so attached to.”
“Wherever there are birds, there is hope,” wrote Turkish writer Mehmet Murat ildan. In that spirit, I chose poetry about winged creatures for Taking Wing , the celebration of this year’s Season of Creation. Though “we missed the eons of dragonflies with six-foot wingspans and the extravagant explorations as dinosaurs turned into birds,” their gift is that we evolved on a planet filled with birds and insects. They soar above us, fill our air, dazzle and inspire us. Our ears are attuned to and our souls are elated by their songs. Countering the loss of so many of our winged companions, “we can make their world a more welcoming and blossoming place. By doing that, we create the flourishing world every creature needs, including us. Then we can all take wing.”
Pope Francis’ fostering of the Season of Creation and his advocacy for Earth, along with all her beings, inspired my essay about his new, urgent apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum: a Cry of the Heart. Timed to be released shortly before the COP28 meeting, he was clearly hoping it would have the effect that his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si,” had on that year’s agreements. Blunter and angrier than he was in 2015, Pope Francis takes to task government and business leaders. He flatly states that the world is placing too much power in too few heedless hands. He continues to warn against the technological paradigm that promises solutions that ignore the cultural changes we are called to make.
“Altering our course requires that we see everything is connected. No one person or group can move forward to a thriving world alone. He is asking us to rethink our roles on our shared planet. To redefine power. To be humble in the face of our abilities to both help and harm. To acknowledge limits on what is acceptable to do with those abilities.”
July included a trip to the mountains of eastern California, where I saw both flowers and butterflies I’d never seen before. While there, this native New Yorker, accustomed to the vivid colors of northeastern autumns, asked a friend where one can see fall colors in California. In the eastern Sierra Nevada, she said, so off we went in early October. In The California Gold Rush, I told the story of the hillsides of glowing aspens and how they got that way. “Like most magical phenomena, fall color has a chemical explanation. Which, in my book, doesn’t make it any less magical.” Their color-shifting wizardry meets another miraculous process: our vision. This celebration of “eyes, brains, photosynthesis, the emergence of hidden color in the cooling days of autumn,” closes with the words that I’ve chosen to bring this year to an end and open the door to the next.
“These are all profound, magical mysteries, along with their fascinating scientific explanations. We are both living with such blessings and living through a time of agonizing strife and suffering everywhere we look. When we almost despair of the ability of humanity to behave in ways that foster the health and happiness of the whole.
And yet every single moment we are both surrounded by miracles and are, ourselves, walking, breathing, sensing miracles. Knowing this — living this — can sustain and support us. To trash such gifts and do so much harm in our fight to control and own them is insanity. Our life is the passionate unfolding and the soft falling of a leaf, borne groundward on a breeze. Imagine if we spent that brief span in continual celebration of an Earth of such radical abundance and intricate beauty.”
I wish you all a year of abundance and beauty.
Top photo: St. Helena’s fawn lily (Eythronium helenae) Sonoma County, California