Part of human nature, of how we experience ourselves in the world, is linked to the human sense of scale and our ability or inability to see the world around us. The crater at Mt. Tabor in Portland is an excellent example of this. Some people, in fact most people, will stand in the crater and see a parking lot, basketball courts, and a performance amphitheater all semi-enclosed by what looks like half a hill, a grassy knoll on one side and a great wall of rock on the other. Or you could see the exposed cross section of the inside of a small, possibly someday active volcano. You would notice the vertical vent, the piled layers of gravel-sized rocks ejected in fits and starts, each eruption contributing another layer to the cone like children at work on a sandcastle. You might then go on to notice other such round features across the city, isolated cones of land and realize that the entire area is dotted with small volcanoes. Learning to look, at the landscape, the plants and animals, the night sky, is an important part of understanding the world and our role in it. Urban green spaces and semi-developed natural areas almost always provide excellent interpretive resources. It is worth reading the signs, listening to the ranger, or picking up the brochure. Even better, read a guide to plants and animals or flip through picture books about geology and ecology. Take a class at the local community college or go listen to a lecture.
What kind of recognition do you get when you are a pioneering female paleontologist in the 17th Century? One that has been called the ‘greatest fossilist the world ever knew’? A monument? An international award in your name? A professorship? No. A tongue twister. That’s what you get.
Mary Anning was born to a lower-class family at the turn of the 16th century in Dorset, a port town on the southwest coast of England. One of the oldest in her family, Ms. Anning took up fossil hunting in the limestone cliffs along the coast with her father and became known locally for her daily walks, scouring the dangerous and unstable cliff bases along the shore for what would become the largest and most diversified collection of fossils in her time. After her father’s death, she turned her hobby into a profitable endeavor to help support her family, selling specimens to tourists, but more lucratively, to gentlemen scientists in the growing field of paleontology. These men flocked to her to obtain samples, detailed descriptions, and anatomical sketches of Jurassic-period fossils, many of which, such as the ichthyosaur which she discovered at the age of twelve, had never before been described. Though she was an early and important contributor to the theory of evolution, she was largely regarded a rock hound and field worker. Her research and findings were never published under her own name, or even a pen name- her male counterparts almost always chose to publish her work under their own names, ‘on her behalf.’ Moreover, the scientific community that relied so heavily upon her work attributed her intellect and abilities to a rumor that she had survived a lightning strike in infancy that had killed several other people. Today, she is credited with many of the earliest discoveries of dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles species.
In the later years of her life, recognizing her contribution to the field and her ongoing lack of financial resources, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London granted her an annual annuity. The money for the annuity was charitably raised by the membership of both groups, the latter of which would not admit women until 1904, nearly twenty years after her death. At the time of her death she was so widely known and highly regarded that the Charles Dickens Journal, said of her, ‘the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.’
While her work remains a cornerstone of modern geological and biological theory, her name has largely been lost from mainstream science curricula. The only mainstream reminder of Ms. Mary Anning bears no reference to her as either an outdoors woman or a scientist. She is the inspiration for the ubiquitous tongue twister- “She sells seashells by the sea shore.”
After the Woman’s Guide was released in 2016 it was immediately clear that there was also a gap on the shelf where an outdoor book for young women and girls should be. So I embarked on a three-year process of research and writing to create a volume that speaks to the broadest possible audience of girls in a way that encourages them to go outside, be adventurous, active, curious, and brave, and feel like they can do anything. This week, A Girl’s Guide to the Wild has hit the shelves and my inner girl is delighted. It’s a gift from her to girls everywhere, in the hopes that they follow their dreams.
It is raining. After a year of wildfire and historic snowfall the rain has come like our corner of Oregon has not seen in over a hundred years. It comes in big, fat, sloppy wet drops, fast, drumming and thrumming and falling in sheets and waves. The rain puddles, pools and fills up city streets. It covers windows, washes cars, and soaks into fences. At night, it wakes the children, who stumble out groggy and rubbing their eyes to peer through the windows at it. In the morning, they press their feet into still-wet shoes and slop through the muddy lawn to the truck, the grass so wet it soaks their pants to the knees.
Still, it rains. The dog takes shelter in the garage, inching farther against the wall as the hours pass, keeping a watchful eye on a ribbon of water wending its way across the floor. The squirrels are soaked and listless, hiding under the juniper branches. Streams swell. Streets begin to flood. Basements fill with water. The dams are opened in the middle of the night. Everywhere, people wake up to hours-old evacuation warnings. The clouds blend in to the hills in the distance. The world is a blanket of grey. Hillsides blackened by summer fires slide, closing roads. Rivers spill over their banks. Fields become lakes and lambs stand leg-high in the mud.
Inside at the piano I keep time to its gentle waltz.
Last week I watched as historic amounts of snow fell, engulfing curbs and walkways, drifting in feet against fences and obscuring cars. The human world slowed, then crawled to a stop. The snow kept coming. The trees sagged, some succumbing, losing their branches to the weight of wet, late-season snow. Animals took to their dens. For days hardly a thing moved under a cover of dirty grey clouds.
In the midst of this, the birds alone continued about their days, overseeing downed limbs and lines and the clearing of roads from above, bearing witness to the struggle of humanity to shelter and warm its own. For the first few days they seemed impervious. And then, on the third day, their hunger was revealed in the frantic attempts of a single, black-hooded junko, a ground feeder, to alight on our feeder, a struggle only intensified by the arrival of dozens more birds, thirteen species in a single hour during a break in the storm, jockeying for position.
This is all to say that I was reminded in that moment how intimately tied we are to other species and how drastically our relationship to the natural world has shifted in recent years. You see, you can walk for blocks in my neighborhood without finding another feeder, something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Our inside lives that value screens over windows have made them obsolete, but the birds, who pass on knowledge generationally, have not been informed. So they search in vain, for the house with the feeder that suits them, the suet block, sunflower seeds, or easily spilled feeder that lets them feast from the ground. Frustrated, they come to me, all of them, running a tiny bird soup kitchen on a frozen day, putting out trays and scattering seed on snow to accommodate the influx of visitors.
I do not think this should be so. It’s a simple form of giving, the feeding of the birds, and one that I believe nourishes us all, allowing us to connect to the larger world in spite of being driven into our own dens by even the worst of winter’s tempests. It’s a kind of small-scale gifting that helps the world be vibrant and diverse and creates communities of animals inclusive of humans. To feed the birds may be a form of feeding ourselves.
There are days my wings are clipped and my tethers keep me close to home. On these days I stand longingly at the window looking at the patches of urban woods that sit astride the ridge surrounding the city. I know these woods well and can picture their imperfect, encroached-upon understories, their tangles of Himalayan blackberries, the way utility lines run like scars across their foreheads. On days inside these imperfections mean nothing to me. Rather, I long to be immersed in their unique wildness, the nearby nature that they offer. On these days, cut off from the natural world, looking, I retreat to language, creating the forest around me through the symbolism of runes. From this confined, detached place I become naiad, spirit of water, free to flow through my own interior forest, my private sylvan space. And I am free.
Time. Of all the nonrenewable resources in our lives it is the one that people seem the most acutely aware of wasting and the least interested in saving. It is of great interest to me to observe how people pass through time, scuttling, lazing, bargaining, floating, or attempting to gain control (particularly of other’s time) whittling down their unknowable number of days and hours with pleasure, pain, boredom, and diversion. Watching the sands pass though other’s hands has a way of making one question one’s own use of time. How, as Mary Oliver asked, will you spend your one precious life?
This year, as I press into new projects, it would be easy for me to feel time as fleeting, a scarcity among my tasks. Only not. As I look forward into the year, the month, the coming days, I’m filled with a sense of expansive abundance that comes from the firm belief that the more consciously I consider my days, each of my precious moments, the larger they become.
Consider this; in every day there is at least one behavior mired in repetition, inefficiency, or lack of productivity, things like searching for keys, considering what to cook, or getting trapped by the over-talkative neighbor, something that planning, boundary setting, or a change of routine might eliminate. Perhaps this behavior, this tick of one’s day takes ten minutes. In a week, perhaps you lose an hour. In the course of a year, you have lost more than 50 hours. More than a full week of work, lost to a habit, inefficiency, or irritant.
Now, consider the effect of eliminating four of these from your life. In one year, you gain yourself a month or more of time. What could you accomplish? What skill might you learn? How much time might you have to devote to loved ones?
How might you change the world in ten minutes a day?
Today, a reminder that things are not always what they seem and that the touch of humanity runs deeper than we like to believe. And that this holds true most especially in the wild. There, industrial effluent runs silently through streams, planes and satellites pass continuously overhead, pipelines are buried in mud and thickets, and, yes, someone controls the water over Niagra Falls. Consider for a moment the millions of people that annually visit the falls to witness a natural wonder or mark a life event never knowing that the flow is increased at peak visitor hours and dropped to a trickle at night when the waters are diverted for human uses. Consider the unnatural and perilous ecosystem created. Consider the hubris in treating an abiding natural phenomenon like a common faucet.
What does it say about us that we are blind to the irony in this situation?
As climate change, political upheaval, addiction, mental and physical health concerns, and hate threaten to overwhelm us, resistance has become a necessary way of life. So this year, as in previous years, I offer you a list of simple but potent forms of resistance to add to your everyday life in the hopes of spurring you to positive change in your own body and life and for the sake of us all.
Go to the library
Visit your local parks
Purchase art directly from an artist
Make eye contact
Eat something you harvest yourself
Buy in bulk
Write a physical letter
Mend instead of replacing
Hug more people
Sit in silence, doing nothing
Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, derives its name from the Latin sol, meaning sun, and stit, stand, or stationary. Most of our modern associations with this moment center on darkness and in this year, at this moment in history, it is especially easy to focus on those darker forces at work in the world.
It is easy, in the face of turmoil, uncertainty, and changing times to want to burrow, collapse inside ourselves, and hibernate. But in trying times inaction is a luxury we cannot afford.
Instead, choose to embrace these older derivations and take this day as an opportunity to stand in the light. Be the hope you wish to see in the world.