Tag Archives: rights of nature

Wild times, spooky beauty: happy halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado

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

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

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

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

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

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

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

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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.]

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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