Tag Archives: wildflowers

Love against all odds: celebrating the Season of Creation

Loving earth: Fairy lantern (Chalocortus albus) along the Independence Trail in Rough and Ready, California by Betsey CrawfordThe dying down of the zest for life is the greatest danger to the whole human venture and to the whole venture of the planet.
~Thomas Berry~

This is my fourth celebration of the September-long Season of Creation, and a year when keeping zest alive and well is profoundly challenging. Yet I agree with Thomas Berry: losing it is our greatest danger. When it’s hardest to muster, we need it the most. It will heal the world as it carries us through the decisions, tasks, and changes to come. Zest is loving the earth we emerged from, loving our fellow creatures, loving the green world, the rocks and soil underneath us, the mountains above us. Loving the rain, the clouds, the wind. Loving trees, grasses, flowers.

A love that recognizes the limits that time and urgency place on us. Recognizes how hard the changes will be for so many, likely including ourselves. A love fierce and gentle at the same time, to energize us through the challenges, to reach out to hearts that need it, to power us with strength and joy.

My first two celebrations paired photos with quotes from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, one of the most important and comprehensive environmental statements of our time. In it, he covers everything from treaties between nations to family dinners. He says the need to change from our current course is the moral challenge of our time. The whole rests on the belief that all livings beings and natural forms have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity.

The third celebration widened to religious leaders from many traditions. This time I am turning to poets, philosophers, scientists, activists, though starting with one of my favorite quotes from Laudato Si

One leaf onion (Allium unifolium) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

One leaf onion (Allium unifolium)

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

Pitkin marsh lily (Lilium pinkinense) in Cunningham Marsh, Sebastopol, California by Betsey Crawford

Pitkin marsh lily (Lilium pitkinense)

Together these vanishing remnants of Earth’s biodiversity test the reach and quality of human morality. Species brought low by our hand now deserve our constant attention and care. Religious believers and nonbelievers alike would do well to sacralize God’s elegant command given in the Judeo-Christian account of Genesis: Let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven.
~Edward O. Wilson~
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life

Celebrating the Season of Creation: hillside morning glory (Calystegia collina) along the Arroyo Hondo Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore by Betsey Crawford

Hillside morning glory (Calystegia collina)

We are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet. If we can revere how things are, and can find a way to express gratitude for our existence, then we should be able to figure out, with a great deal of hard work and goodwill, how to share the Earth with one another and with other creatures, how to restore and preserve its elegance and grace, and how to commit ourselves to love and joy and laughter and hope.”
~Ursula Goodenough~
The Sacred Depths of Nature

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso Balboa) in Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso Balboa)

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that
to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not
at all — nothing
before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.
~Marie Howe~
from the poem ‘The Singularity’

Celebrating the Season of Creation: California poppy (Eschschlolzia californica) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschschlolzia californica)

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the Universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
~Rachel Carson~
Speech accepting the John Burroughs medal

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata)

Our task is to take this earth so deeply and wholly into ourselves that it will resurrect within our being.
~Rainer Maria Rilke~
Letter to Witold Hulewicz

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western blue flax (Linum lewisii) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Western blue flax (Linum lewisii)

I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.
~John Seed~
Rainforest Information Centre

Loving earth: yellow mariposa lily (Chalocortus luteus) along the Independence Trail in Rough and Ready, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Chalocortus luteus)

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
~Iris Murdoch~
A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Celebrating the Season of Creation: marsh grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris) in Saint Hilary's Preserve, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Marsh grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and a reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forests and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.
~Thomas Berry~
The Dream of the Earth

Loving earth: Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata) at Bull Point in the Point Reyes National Seashore by Betsey Crawford

Point Reyes checkerbloom (Sidalcea calycosa ssp. rhizomata)

Living away from the earth and the trees we fail them. We are absent from the wedding feast.
~Thomas Merton~
When Trees Say Nothing

Loving earth: scarlet gilia bud (Ipomposis aggregata) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia bud (Ipomposis aggregata)

In this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world? 
~Barry Lopez~
Love in a Time of Terror

Celebrating the Season of Creation: jewel flower (Streptanthus toruosus) in the Sierra Nevada, California by Betsey Crawford

Jewel flower (Streptanthus toruosus)

We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.
~Joanna Macy~
World as Lover, World as Self

Loving earth: fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

Fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans)

Appreciation and gratitude create beauty. Gratitude transcended is joy. Pure joy heals the world.
~Monica Gagliano~
Thus Spoke the Plant

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in a private garden in Marin County, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

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It couldn’t be clearer: the power of interrelatedness

Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas Chalcedon) with blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) along the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordIt’s become an instant cliche as the pandemic reveals the threadbare fabric of our culture: the truly essential people that make day-to-day life possible are often the ones in the most precarious and poorly paid jobs. As grateful as I am to have professional people in my life, I am utterly dependent on the people who grow, harvest, and distribute food. The people who stack grocery shelves and check us out. The people willing to shop for the elderly and immunocompromised. The people picking up our garbage, manning the water and sewer systems. And, of course, the health care workers.

It doesn’t take a pandemic to tell us that our culture has its values and rewards upside down. But it may take a pandemic to show us that we are also completely dependent on sound ecosystems, where viruses such as the new coronavirus have no reason to break away from their evolutionary niche. Destroy that niche and they will start migrating to other places. Tug on any one string, and you pull on the whole fabric. Tug on enough strings at the same time and the fabric loses all integrity. It will be years before we comprehend the full effect of this pandemic. But we can already see that we are all completely, intimately, and sometimes desperately interrelated.

Another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Osceola, Missouri

Interrelatedness is one of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I have been contemplating. I could have accompanied this particular exploration with any picture I have. Every flower, every leaf, every tree trunk, every mushroom is only here because of a web of relationships. With air, water, fungi, microbes, insects. With their fellow plants, the soil their roots penetrate, the beings growing on those roots, the slowly dissolving stone forming the soil. And they know they have these relationships. They smell each other, reach out to each other, signal each other, warn of danger. Trees nurture and protect their offspring. They send messages along savvy fungal networks. A seed won’t open its case unless it senses that its necessary cohorts for growth are in place. It will wait decades, even centuries, for that to happen. 

I chose photos with insects, which biologist E.O. Wilson calls “the little things that run the natural world.” Mycologist Paul Stamets says much the same of fungi. I’m sure the scientists studying microbes would put in a bid for their billions of subjects. Every specialty could make a claim. The list is endless. Without flowering plants, there would be no vegetables, fruits, nuts, the foods enabling animals to evolve and thrive. Without leafing plants there would be no oxygen. Without the tiny, brilliant chloroplasts in the trillions of green leaves waving over the globe plants would have no way to grow. 

A dragon fly on Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey Crawford

Dragonfly, Kaplan’s Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

If it weren’t for primitive bacteria evolving into those chloroplasts and eventually into all living things, the planet would be stone and water. If earth had never entered into a relationship with the sun, there would be nothing but a lot of floating rocks in our neck of the galaxy. If the galaxies had never formed, spinning out stars as they did so, there would never have been a sun.

In his talk on interrelatedness, Brian takes this vast, interdependent sequencing for granted. He focuses instead on a wonderful mystery. In order for the living planet to thrive, there has to be something that fosters this intricate web of relationships. He calls it care: the ability of living beings to nurture the lives of other living beings. 

Where did care come from? It’s not a human invention. Mother trees take care of their young. Fish and reptiles, in fighting off predators, show parental care. Mammals of all sorts — think mother bears — are famous for it. Primates mourn deaths in their wider community. Humans are capable of expanding their care far beyond their families and tribes, even into future generations.

Coyote brush beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Coyote brush beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

It make sense that evolution would favor developing the hormones and neurotransmitters to foster parental care. Living beings would be much more likely to survive and reproduce, thereby keeping the species going. Evolving the emotions to foster community increases the prosperity of all forms of life. Working together enables groups to live longer and healthier lives, helping to overcome any obstacles in the way. And that is what has happened.

But here Brian enters more deeply into the mystery. He posits that in order for care to exist, to have evolved, it had to be inherent in the creative force we call the cosmos. For them to exist today, the swirling plasma at the beginning of the universe had to hold the possibility for life, for consciousness, for care. “There was a time when there wasn’t parental care and then parental care was invented in the universe. It’s valued by the universe.”

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

On the one hand, this isn’t news. Our stories of our ancestors, of our gods and goddesses, our varied religious cultures, all assume a caring energy operating in the world. The traditions we live with today ask us to embody compassion and care. The Jewish ethic of compassion is Jesus’s central tenet. Five centuries earlier the Buddha made it one of the two pillars of Buddhism, along with wisdom. Two thousand years later, the Dalai Lama tells us that without compassion, we cannot survive. Indigenous traditions share an even broader compassion, encompassing the earth itself and all its beings and elements. 

All these traditions grew out of times when our stories of the origin of the universe were earth-based. The Abrahamic genesis stories, echoing even more ancient Sumerian ones. The aboriginal songlines. The Egyptian gods forming infants from clay and breathing life into them. The agents of genesis were beings we were familiar with — grand versions of humans and ancestors, which can include rivers, mountains, turtles, coyotes. 

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae) found in Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

But in the last few decades, our origin story has receded in time, and out into the cold and dark of the vast cosmos. Our ancestors have become stars, plasma, energy. Brian’s revolutionary idea is that the care we now feel was inherent in that remote beginning. ‘Imagine the universe just being neutrons and protons,’ he says. ‘Then a process took place that eventuated in fish caring for one another. The power of care is evoked out of the plasma of the early universe.’ 

I can easily imagine many a raised scientific or religious eyebrow. Brian gives those a nod in his talk. But I join him in pondering what it means for us to allow the universe’s power of interrelatedness to guide us. We have, as our traditions show, been doing so for millennia. The reason it seems to operate so weakly in our culture isn’t that we don’t want compassion to be part of life on earth. We do, and many people are really good at it. But our industrial culture is based on stories that don’t foster care. They foster use. Use assumes that things don’t have meaning in and of themselves. Their meaning comes from how they enter into our manufacturing process.”

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

Long predating industrialization, our stories fostered militarism, inequity, power, money. And they still do. Thus we have Silicon Valley, rich beyond measure from providing interesting nonessentials. Just over a short mountain pass are the farms where truly essential workers are paid so little they can’t afford the produce they pick. “How amazing that this envelope of humanity around the planet is making this decision about which species will live and not live.” Who will thrive and not thrive.

These are decisions we make. “Each is an act of the imagination because we can determine how we want to relate to various beings.” Though our stories tell us “that other beings are there for our use, there are other possible ways of imagining what the beings are there for. I’m trying to suggest a new way, a new value to begin to reorient our society.” 

An ant carrying a seed head in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey Crawford

An ant carries a seedhead home in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

It’s through this imagining that we open to the power of interrelatedness and allow it to operate ever more fully through us. Our imagination expands the concept of care. It redefines priorities and values. It includes the entire earth, not just one species. It sees a world that could be. Again, these aren’t new activities. Our religious, political, and philosophical histories are full of such imaginings. But the urgency is now so dire. The stories we need to leave behind are not just threadbare, they’re deadly. The pandemic shows this vividly because it devastates so rapidly. Climate change is equally urgent, and equally a product of ignoring interrelatedness. As is poverty and hunger and so many other issues we face. But our stories have allowed us to put off truly reckoning with them.

If the world is full of caring and compassionate people, how did we let our agenda be set by those who don’t care? How did we allow our stories to become those that justify the powerful, the greedy, the cruel? How do we buy into it? Why do we put up with it? These are the questions the power of interrelatedness propels us to ask. How have we failed this profound, life-organizing, and life-giving energy? Limited its reach? Ignored its implications? What kind of revolution would we launch by embodying this power? What will we lose by ignoring it?

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), a member of the Asteraceae family, in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

A fly on brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Everything. If we don’t open ourselves to the vast implications of the power of interrelatedness, we risk it all. We are pulling on too many threads, all the time. The pandemic shows us that we are not prepared for the results of tearing down the fabric of the world. It shows us how much we have to do.

How do we cope with how much there is to do? With how much needs to change to create a just and sustainable culture? We engage. All the powers of the universe ask us for engagement with the energies they are showering us with; interrelatedness perhaps most of all. Each of us does what we can. Individually that can look like a pittance in such a vast field of urgent need. But fabrics are not woven of heroic threads. They result from the patient weaving of countless thin strands. The interrelated threads making up the tapestry of life on earth are all crucial. The mightiest tree trunk cannot live without the finest of fungal threads at its roots.

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

It’s fascinating that some of our ancestors’ most powerful deities were goddesses of weaving. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was one. In a version of her story the Egyptian Nit, source of the sun and goddess of Lower Egypt, was said to have woven the world into existence, and remained the guardian of weaving. Among her many domains, including medicine, midwifery, and earth itself, the Mayan Ixchel included weaving. Also combining birth, women, and weaving is the Maori Hineteiwaiwa. The tasks of the Celtic Arianrhod, Goddess of the Silver Wheel, included weaving the tapestry of life. So it’s been long acknowledged that the slow, repetitive, and often laborious task of weaving our fate from the threads we bring to life is one of our crucial tasks. 

The tapestry that interrelatedness has us forever forming is infinitely rich and complex. There are always new connections to discover. All to be done with the utmost care and compassion. The great thing about care is that it enables so much to take place. Devotion, service, nurturance. Where would we be without it?” At this stage in evolution, Brian suggests, we are searching for our role in the cosmos. We should look to the possibility “that care is seeking to expand out into a comprehensive role on this planet.” The reflective consciousness of human beings can provide the means for this to take place. Care, “pervasive in the universe from the beginning,” is looking to us for new ways to express and expand its energy.

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

Top photo: Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas Chalcedon) with blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) along the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California 

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Beauty for ashes

Beauty: checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

I am sent to heal the brokenhearted….To comfort all who mourn….To give them beauty for ashes.
~Isaiah, 61~

I am blessed, in this time of forced absence and fearful presence, to live with beauty. As long as I’m willing to climb some steep hills, I can walk among embracing trees, with unfurling ferns and delicate spring wildflowers at their feet. The consolation is inestimable. It doesn’t erase the images of long refrigerated trailers outside of hospitals, or the vast grief of lost lives, or the fear of what lies ahead. But a deep, green, ancient energy holds my shattered heart for a while. I go home soothed, more alive, better able to abide in a fearful mystery.

The photos accompanying and below this post are from those walks. Elsewhere, in sunlit fields, orange California poppies, bright yellow tidy-tips, and purple lupines are blooming. I may not see them again this spring. So I treasure all the more these quiet spirits in the woods around me, emerging from the earth from which I, too, have sprung, relations and friends. I’ve paired each with a quote celebrating beauty.

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.
~Mary Oliver~

Last summer’s essay, The Power of Allurement, the Mystery of Beauty, has just been published by Kosmos Journal in an issue entitled True Wealth. When the invitation for submissions came in January, I took the theme in a practical spirit and submitted The Universe and the Doughnut, a vision of a new economic order through the lens of Brian Swimme’s universal power of centration. Then, knowing that the editor, Rhonda Fabian, is also a fan of Brian’s, I sent her the list of my essays on his powers of the universe. She chose the one on allurement, saying in her reply, “Beauty really fills a need in this edition. Beauty is true wealth, and when we rediscover this simple truth, our relation to the Earth will be transformed.”

At a time when the current definition of wealth has crashed at our feet, finding the meaning of true wealth has never been more urgent. Peace, health, community, nature, beauty, shared abundance, meaning. Beauty not about the surface of things but instead the deep pull from aliveness to aliveness. Not every wildflower is superficially beautiful. But they are all blooming — vibrant, filled with life, interesting, intricate, mysterious, the soul of the earth. They pass quickly on to the profound work of creating their brilliant seeds, forming life and the endless potential for life in those tiny containers. Then they sleep, confident in their ever-renewing role in nature’s long life.

Blue beauty: a blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we love.
~Terry Tempest Williams~

They are part of the deep, intimate, enduring paths of our planet. It’s so easy to see, in the midst of this pandemic, how fragile a structure we have created. How many people are left out. How limited and lethal our definitions of prosperity and security. We did not know, when ashes were crossed on foreheads on February 26, that the edifice we have built would lie in ashes by Easter. But none of this is news except how suddenly it could all collapse. How hollow it really was. 

There will be many, many plans, suggestions, dreams put forward in the next months and years. They have already started. Some dreams come with a long history.  Some will pull us backward. The pandemic is already an excuse for erasing pollution standards and “rescuing” oil companies. Tyrants will seize more power in the name of fear and chaos. But many of the plans will hold promise, recovery, redefinition.

What if, in the work ahead, we include beauty in true wealth? We look to what makes us come alive, to aliveness calling to aliveness? What if we took the definition of scientists, and saw beauty as the harmonious ordering of all parts of the universe, down to our daily choices of work, home, pleasure? What if we insisted on the beauty of clear skies and clean water? What if the heart-expanding music of children laughing became our priority? What if we honored visual beauty, and created a built world that was wonderful to look at and live in? This is how beauty transforms the earth. 

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson~

Easter and Passover are ancient celebrations of the promise of renewal and the solace of hope, both much older than their current stories. Has there ever been a time when we didn’t welcome the light, the springing green shoots, the radiant, multi-hued glory of flowers? Yet these enduring traditions arose out of the immediate anguish of their time: slavery, persecution, suffering. They have endured through millennia by reminding us over and over, in the face of fear and destruction, that hope is a choice. That right action is beneficence. That community upholds us.

This is my 70th Easter, and the first one I will spend without family and friends around me. We’ll talk and text and make sure to say we love each other. Then I will go out among the trees, watching for shy spring flowers. Some are tucked under leaves. Others, speckled, are nearly invisible in the dappled forest. A few, especially on the sunnier side of the mountain, make a bit of a show. On this quiet, meditative search for beauty, I join with all of you in this holy season of hope, longing, and love.

Delicate beauty: milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
~C.S. Lewis~

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

The perfection of beauty in these lilies of the wilderness is a never-ending source of admiration and wonder.
~John Muir~

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.
~Susan Sontag~

Pink beauty: wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child, our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
~Thich Nhat Hanh~

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
~John O’Donohue~

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity—that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.
~Charles Baudelaire~

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

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

When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.
~Rabindranath Tagore~

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
~Rachel Carson~ 

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Songlines 2019: a year of change and commitment

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

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

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

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

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada

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

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada

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

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

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada

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

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

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

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada

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

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

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

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada

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The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty

Beauty: 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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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

 

The brilliance of seeds

Micro images of seeds by Alexander KlepnevThese gorgeous seeds and their vast number of relations are the foundation of life. Certainly for the plants that grow from them. And for the entire animal kingdom, which is completely dependent on them for food. Herbivores eat their plants and the seeds themselves. Carnivores eat animals that eat plants. We human animals have a special relationship with seeds. First, as eaters. If you had oatmeal or toast for breakfast you ate crushed seeds. Coffee? Ground seeds containing the energizing alkaloid caffeine, which creates a mild addiction we share with bees. Raspberry jam? Fruit containing seeds. Hummus for lunch? Crushed protein-rich seeds from legumes. Walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack? Seeds themselves, packed with nutritious oil. Some chocolate with that? Seeds filled with luscious fat. String beans for dinner? Pods containing ripening seeds. Spicy salsa on the side? That the heat of capsaicin-containing pepper seeds.

Vivid peppers at the San Rafael farmers market, San Rafael, California by Betsey CrawfordOur whole life is one seed after another. But that doesn’t separate us from our non-human kin. What distinguishes us is that we consciously plant them, and the discovery that we could do that changed everything. Once we found out how to create a reliable source of food by cooperating with seeds, we changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to settled communities. We were launched on a revolution we are still living today. Our 10,000-year history with seeds, and what has happened to this most interdependent of relationships in the last hundred years will be part two of this essay. In part one, I want to celebrate their brilliance.

Here are some of the things that seeds know: they know that the twelve hours of daylight in early April in the northern hemisphere means it’s time to germinate, whereas the twelve hours of daylight in late September means it’s time to disperse themselves away from their mother plant. They know it’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. 

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) seeds splitting out of their red pods in Stewart, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

As the ripe pods of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) split open, they curve away from the center, pulling tiny seeds with them, ready to be airborne.

Having waited in dormancy all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, they know how to measure the right mix of light, water, and oxygen. They know a passing shower is not the rainy season they’re waiting for. They know the forest they’ve lain dormant in for decades has burned and nutritious ash and volatile organic compounds have been made available, along with enough light to sprout and grow. When a drought ends, or a road is cut through, or a field plowed seeds know to grab their chance in the sun and air, take in water, begin to expand their cells, and wake up their sleepy metabolism.

They know to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. They know their place well enough that many seeds can confidently do this in the fall to get a head start on the next spring’s growth. Many others know to resist the temptation of germinating in warm autumn soils and thus risk the winter freeze. Those wisely wait until spring. Seeds sense where they are, how deeply they are buried, whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi they need are available. Some seeds wait years, even centuries, for the right moment.

The seeds of grasses are full of energizing starches that provide half the world's calories. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThey know to send out one or two ‘first leaves’, cotyledons, to begin the work of photosynthesis, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. Long before that they know to take one of the two sperm that makes it into the ovary as a result of pollination and make nutritious food out of it, usually the endosperm. Until photosynthesis starts, that’s what nourishes the embryo and seedling. And us: the endosperm of grains accounts for over 50% of human caloric intake worldwide. 

In the long process of evolution, they have created a variety of endosperms and related ways to nourish themselves. Fat-filled avocado seeds have plenty of food for the slow time it takes them to start photosynthesizing in their native forests. The starchy seeds of grains and grasses give them the quick energy they need to take off in any open, sunny spot. Protein-rich nuts drive the long lead time it takes to launch a tree, and promise nourishment to the animals who handily spread them around and then forget where they put them. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to take off by Betsey Crawford

The wonderfully fluffy and prolific seeds of common mllkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

They’ve worked out arrangements with pollinators and predators. Hard shells protect against rodents eating too quickly. They carry the heavy nuts — and often bury them — away from the mother plant, enabling young plants to better establish themselves. Seeds create alkaloids like piperine in black pepper, terpenes in citrus fruits, capsaicin in hot peppers to make themselves too unpleasant to eat. Then they work out further deals. Birds, who don’t mind the heat of capsaicin, but whose digestive systems are slowed down by it, thus carry the seeds farther abroad, handily depositing them in a small package of fertilizer.

After a summer of ripening, they take off on wings, feathery filaments, parachutes. They hitch a ride on animals, including humans. They drop at the feet of their parents to form colonies. The pods of lupines and other legumes pop open and shoot seeds away from the mother plant. Seeds can ride ocean currents for thousands of miles to establish themselves on far-off lands. Many know to ripen alongside the flesh they are encased in, which changes from protective bitterness to such sweetness that more and more dispersers are lured to them. Birds, bats, bears, monkeys happily spread apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries far and wide. Humans take fruit seeds and plant them in orchards. Dispersal to a good place for eventual germination is crucial to the survival and evolution of a species. Seeds know how to enlist the help they need, even from the tiniest creatures.

An ant carries seeds in the Anza Borrego Desert in photo by Betsey CrawfordThis varied and amazing wisdom has inspired 90% of plants to evolve the use of these protective, easily dispersed packages of nutrition, embryo, and intelligence to ensure the viability of the next generation. Of those, 80% are angiosperms, from the Greek for ‘seeds in a receptacle.’ The remaining seed producers are gymnosperms (‘naked seeds’) which predate angiosperms by 160 million years. They lack the protective seed coat of the angiosperms, important protection during dormancy. However, many of the gymnosperms, including all of the conifers, have evolved cones as a way to protect their seeds. 

White spruce (Picea blanca) cones protect their seeds. Photo by Betsey CrawfordGymnosperms, among our most ancient plants, are far less diverse than the angiosperms. Try parking your car near a pine grove on a windy spring day. Pines are pollinated by very fine, yellow pollen carried by the wind in fluffy clouds. Many angiosperms, especially grasses, rely on wind pollination, and it works wonderfully. But it’s a scattershot approach to reaching the precise spot you want fertilized, as you’ll see when you get back to your now yellow car. By tucking the egg deeply into the protection of the ovary, angiosperms created conditions for a multitude of goal-oriented pollinators: bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies among them. This led to competition for the attention of these creatures, which in turn evolved into a large variety of shapes, petals, sizes, colors, scents, seeds themselves. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Clusters of ripening spores on the underside of a fern leaf.

This explosion of diversity is possible because seeds efficiently combine the genes of two parents. Ferns mix them, too, via spores. But they use an ancient process so cumbersome that ferns are basically the same plant they were 180 million years ago. Seeds allow for evolution itself: the easy and continual mixing of the gene pool creates an endless array of subtle variations that allow plants to adapt to changes in the landscape, in pollinators, in temperature, in pests. Combining parental genes allows one species of wheat to become more drought tolerant than another, a flower to form purple petals from pink, a potato to better resist fungus.

How these multitalented beings do all this remains full of mysteries, though we have clues. Can seeds see light? Perhaps not the way we can, but they definitely see light and judge its strength and direction. Like us, they possess sensors and chemicals to allow this skill. Phytochrome enables seeds to register light energy, or the lack of it, at the red and far-red end of the spectrum. They judge the season by the length of the night, yet know if darkness comes from overhanging foliage because light filtering through green leaves switches from red to far red. Seeds also rely on knowing the temperature and moisture suitable for their species to judge when it’s time for the seedling to emerge. At that point, phytochrome switches gears, fostering growth and the increasing complexity of the emerging plant. 

The seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) bring to break off from their stalk. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) break away from their stalk.

Are seeds conscious? Not, so far as we know, the way we are, but they are keenly aware of and responsive to their surroundings. They make choices and decisions. One can say it’s a chemically-mediated response to stimuli, but that’s how our brains work, too. I doubt the seeds lying in wait in the brown hills surrounding me are ruing the exciting days of last spring, or planning for the coming rainy season. That kind of consciousness seems to be our unenviable lot. Instead, they have a way of holding the spring that launched them and trusting the rains to come that I would love to emulate.

Those dry, dozing seeds have their own type of awareness. More important, they, like all of creation, hold the consciousness of the whole. The same wildly creative, ardent energy that brought the universe into being flows through every seed, every plant it forms, every creature it nourishes. It flows through us as we spend our days sipping and munching them, or planting a flower garden, or sowing corn to be sure we can feed our families.

Western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) seeds ready to drop to the ground. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The heavy seeds of western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) will fall close to home.

As long as we treasure them, does it matter whether we think seeds have any kind of consciousness? The trouble is, too few people are treasuring them. By not regarding them as the vibrant, sacred trust that millions of years of cosmic evolution have bequeathed us, we’ve lost 90% of their vast diversity in the last hundred years. We’re stopping evolution in its tracks. That’s not just losing access to nourishment, which is devastating enough. It’s losing culture, history, connection, spirit. Far from treasuring them, we have given control of seeds to corporations whose only mission is profit at any cost. And the cost is unbearable.

Currently, seeds are treated as a commodity to be bought, traded, used, changed, profited from. That mindset will be explored in the second part of this series. If, instead, more and more of us see ourselves sharing with seeds the same co-evolved energy and wisdom that have made us partners for millennia, we will help prevent their destruction. There are many passionate people on this journey. Their hope and work will inspire part three of this essay.
Seeds in autumn in Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park, Revelstoke, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

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[Top photo: Micro images of seeds. Photo by Alexander Klepnev via Creative Commons]

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Eostre and the Universe Story

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

Humans are story-making animals. We have a story for everything, and many, many stories for the same things, depending on where and with whom we found ourselves when we arrived in this life. Our tales explain where we came from, how we got here, why we’re here at all, how to behave now that we are here. As science expands our knowledge of how the universe, and our tiny piece of it, came into being, how our DNA links us, how we migrated out of Africa, we create new stories, layering evidence on metaphor, while still cherishing the old and familiar ones.

Easter connects me to many stories, especially those of my childhood tradition of Catholicism, where the ancient lore of fertility goddesses, ushering in light and renewed growth, became entwined with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose last days were embedded in the story of the Passover, which was in turn embedded in the story of how a tribe became a nation, one of thousands of stories about how tribes cohered, and how that made them special in the eyes of their gods.

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Western houndstongue (Cynoglossum grande) King Mountain, Larkspur, California. The individual flowers would barely cover your thumbnail.

The Easter stories of death and resurrection, and their ties to the seasonal changes from birth to fruition to death to rebirth, go back to our earliest records: those on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumer. Inanna, Queen of the World in the Sumerian pantheon, traveled to the underworld, was stripped of her clothing, tortured, and crucified, while the world above shriveled in response. Though she was rescued in three days, her ordeal was just the beginning of a journey to explore the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The embodiment of the planet Venus, Inanna became the Babylonian Ishtar, and in turn the Canaanite Astarte. Her spirit eventually metamorphosed into the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, perhaps the Germanic Eostre, who may or may not have presided over the celebration that bears her name. The lineages are not pure and direct; many stories and energies are merged and scattered among them, and traits are bestowed and then changed. Ishtar was also the goddess of war. By Aphrodite’s time that title belonged to Ares, and Hera had become the queen of the Greek pantheon.

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) King Mountain, Larkspur, California, another tiny, dainty flower

The hints we have of Eostre don’t suggest the mighty energies of Inanna. She is most likely representative of any number of fertility goddesses, bringing with them light and fecundity, heralding the spring avalanche of green growth, renewing the promise of survival. She may be related to Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn.  The etymology of the word Easter is traced through the Proto-Germanic word for dawn, ‘austron-,’ but is only used in German and English. Most other European languages derive their word for Easter from paschas, or passover.

I love all of this: the layers of meaning, the tellings and retellings of the same basic human tales, the bequeathing of characters from one civilization or culture to another. These interweavings speak of the depths of our connection to other human beings, even those living many thousands of years ago. To me, it doesn’t challenge the Christian beliefs in the teachings of a holy man named Jesus to know that his story was couched in literary structures inherited from venerated traditions. The idea that our great narratives are echoes of more ancient ones isn’t a limitation to me. It’s a sign of the universality of our fears, our longings, our loves.

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are about an inch long.

Our stories provide us with energy and motivation. They place our feet on the ground of our culture. They entertain and explain and nourish. But our love of story also has a long history of darkness. There has been a lot of carnage over whose story is the ‘real’ one, and many stories to justify the mayhem: that one group is chosen and another not, that we can never have enough, that the earth is ours to use up, that my story justifies killing people with a different one. A narrative can burn a forest, enslave a people, destroy a planet. So often it’s only after protracted battles that we wearily sit down and listen to the shared longing under the destruction: I want to be safe. I want to be loved. I’m afraid of my vulnerability. I want the comfort of abundance. I’m afraid of death. I want my life to be meaningful. I want my children to be happy. I want the light to return after a stretch of darkness.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

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

One of the reasons I am so drawn to Thomas Berry’s work is his call for a new story. His is a way to see the world around us, and including us, not as an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but as a constantly evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, beings perched on a planet put here for our disposal. We are one of many, many manifestations of this continual, billions-year-old generativity, beings emerged from the earth itself. Related by the very elements of our cells to all the other forms that have developed with us. Connected in the most profound way to the living landscapes we walk among.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California

Though Berry’s universe story is grounded in the advancing science of the history of the cosmos, he saw its connection to many indigenous creation stories, where beings — animal, plant, rock — rise from the soil of their sacred places. Not long ago, we were all indigenous to a place we held sacred, and when I was tiny I lived for a while in a place that rooted me to the earth. But later, hunting Easter eggs in suburban New York in the 1950’s, that deep connection was more elusive. I sensed it in my love of the wind, of the violets growing in the cracks of a rough patch of sidewalk, the smell of our neighbor’s lilacs. I felt it in the tunnel my father cut through a massive tangle of honeysuckle, allowing us a home among the branches and roots. I once sat in awe at a mysterious jack-in-the-pulpit that showed up in the tiny woodland separating our house from our neighbor. These wisps were among the many threads of love and longing that Berry’s message wove together for me, connecting me to a story that places my feet and my heart securely on the planet that created me.

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

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