It is easy to scorn the most abundant and least beautiful among us. Easy to forget that even such a lowly bird as the common starling in North America, with its metallic sheen and vampire black cloak, might be the exotic myna bird on another continent. Their ubiquity is their undoing. Flocks of starlings are referred to as constellations at best, but more commonly as scourges, filths, or vulgarities. Their conservation status is ‘of least concern.’ I do not consider them a nuisance, even when they arrive in dozens, chattering in the trees outside my window. To me, they are a welcome cacophony, well deserving of their only noble flock name- a murmuration, which serves to remind of me the ecstatic chaos of the world and entices me to step into it.
After years of drought and record high temperatures, a delayed start to the rainy season has left Oregon desiccated. Stream beds are dry. Leaves crackle under foot. Clouds pass without giving up their cargo. Everything waits. I long for the sour-sweet smell of the world after the rain, the petrichor of fall.
Every so often I receive a piece of information that so entirely startles me, so perfectly rearranges my perception of a thing that I find myself questioning if I’ve ever understood anything about the world at all. The windmills of Holland are one such example, wherein I have found that the gap between what I assumed I knew about a thing and what I actually knew was more a chasm than a crack.
Holland. Windmills. They go together. Why? I never bothered to ask, even upon visiting this lovely country. Perhaps a fad? An early and robust form of sustainable energy? No. In matter of fact, an early, ambitious, and robust form of large-scale engineering. Holland, you see, is largely a wetland. The ubiquitous windmills a constant and necessary country-wide drainage system that allowed development. That they still exist today is not a relic of nostalgia but a necessity, especially in these times of riding sea levels. The water always returns.
Ironically, it will be neither technology nor climate change that forces Holland’s windmills into obsolescence, but the very development they paved the way for. Ever larger and more densely sited buildings now block out the wind, stilling the mills.
Is it a crack or a chasm between what we assume know of the consequences of our actions and what we actually know?
Between 1933 and 1951 more than 550 square miles of forest west of Portland burned in what were, back then, unheard-of conflagrations. The fires were driven, much like the fires of today, by extreme temperatures and windy conditions and the inaccessibility of the terrain and lack of human power to fight the blazes conspired to render the state relatively helpless. For nearly two decades, the coast range burned. As each fire decimated once profitable timber stands, the logging companies, some responsible for the ignition of the blazes, stopped paying property taxes and the land reverted to public ownership. When the fires finally spent through the available fuel, Portland and its surrounding areas were left to face a scarred and blackened landscape that now belonged to them. In what at the time was more of a visceral, emotive response than a resource management plan, the decision was made to replant.
While several groups had a hand in the replanting effort in the decades over which it occurred, none was as unique as the Portland youth labor that rallied to the cause. Between 1950 and 1970 more than 20,000 Portland school children would participate in voter-funded and school-organized tree planting in what was to become the Tillamook Forest. It’s no wonder that the Portland population has long been known for its progressive views and opposition to the timber industry in what has traditionally been a whole-hearted logging state.
They watched it burn. They helped it grow. It’s hard to log a forest that you can rightly call your own.
In 2006 Joyce Carol Vincent was found dead in her London flat. The cause of death was not determined due to the advanced state of decomposition of her body. Joyce was 38 years old when she died. Her body had lain undisturbed in her flat for nearly three years. The story of Joyce, what there is to know and tell has been documented in the film Dreams of a Life.
Joyce was not a shut-in, had no history of mental illness of drug abuse, and had three living sisters. She was widely described as beautiful , vibrant, and successful. By all accounts from those that knew her, it is as though the Joyce they knew simply slipped away; they seemed unable to reconcile the woman in the flat with the person they had known. Contrary to the image of a recluse she was found surrounded by freshly wrapped Christmas presents; there must have been people in her life.
While there is something morbidly compelling about the unresolved cause of her death and the grim tableau of how she was found, the more disturbing element of this story is the three year wait before her discovery. Where were family, friends, and coworkers? Where were the neighbors or the mailman? Where, even, were the bill collectors? In the end, it took even the landlords three years to come and clear her out for unpaid rent.
I think that the we learn more about ourselves in Joyce’s story than we learn about her. When she died in 2003 we were pre-Facebook and post nuclear-family. 2003 was right in the transition point between the constant connections of the social media age and the isolation and lack of community of the end of the 20th Century. Three years? How can this be? It is not hard for me to imagine friends of mine disappearing and not being noticed for three or four months. The free spirits, wanderers, or troubled souls, but three years? There is no one I know or have ever known that was in any way functional that could disappear from all things for three years and not have someone ring the bell.
What are we to think of this? Is Joyce some kind of social canary warning us of the dangers of our modernity? Is it an isolated case; one sad woman’s quiet decline? Is it possible that we have reached a place where people can live out their lives with no real connections? How acceptable is distance between family members? How important is the building of community? How long do you want to wait before someone finds you? (original post circa 2009)
I spend a lot of time chasing grace. I find the physical manifestation of grace, grace of the body, comes far more easily to me than its less tangible partner, grace of the soul. To have a graceful soul requires the exercise of love, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness to the benefit of others. It requires an uncommon generosity that often lies just outside my grasp. I am becoming increasingly convinced that our current modern way of life discourages, if not renders completely hopeless, the exercise of grace in our day to day lives. Until, that is, I’m proven wrong, most often in the small and simple gestures of good and common people. This week I am acutely aware of the grace in those around me, and the largeness of their souls. And I am thankful. (Original Post October 9, 2015)
In the spring of 1990 the car transporting Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, vocal and influential activists for the preservation of the California Redwoods, exploded. Bari was an organizer for Earth First! a well-known environmental group formed in 1979 that specializes in non-violent direction action. Bari was a major organizer for their Redwood Summer, a series of anti-logging protests aimed at protection of the Redwood forests and the changing of logging practices.
Bari had received a series of death threats in the months leading up to the bombing. The FBI arrived at the scene in minutes. Injured, both Bari and Cherney were taken into custody in Oakland after the bombing and charged with transportation of an incendiary device; they were being held for bombing themselves. Bari never recovered, remaining severely disabled for the rest of her life. Though the charges were dropped amid clear evidence of a third party being responsible for the crime, the most compelling of which being the placement of the device directly beneath the drivers seat, the FBI and national press painted Bari and Cherney as environmental terrorists and used the incident to marginalize the entire environmental movement of the early 90’s.
No other suspects have ever been taken into custody.
The image of environmental activists as crazy, dirty hippies with no jobs and nothing better to do than drugs and violent petty crimes stems from incidences such as these. Far from the successes of other non-violent movements, civil right, and labor for instance, the environmental movement of the late 20th century was unable to garner mainstream support or respect, instead becoming increasingly caricatured and ignored. This allowed policy makers to largely ignore the environmental movement in its totality.
Perhaps the government and big business had learned a few things before the environmental movement was realized, perhaps the social climate was not ready for another cultural revolution, maybe it was a movement ahead of it’s time, lacking the rigorous research and obvious signs of climate change and species loss we now see daily on the news. Whatever the cause, Judi Bari, what she fought for, and almost the entirety of the movement have faded from public consciousness. Climate change, and the fact of dwindling resources have not.
Most distressing about this is the early, pre-911 association of non-violent activism, especially environmental activism, with terrorism. There is good reason to know about Judi Bari, and not just for the protection of the Redwoods, but for the protection of our civil rights and the freedom of speech. The fight to save the Redwoods continues. (original post February 26, 2015)
John Muir in 1920 on saving the Redwoods:
The Who Bombed Judi Bari Movie Official website:
Summer this year stretched on seemingly forever- the rain only coming to this temperate corner of the world a day after we passed the mark for the longest dry spell on record. For weeks we watched through smoky skies as first perennials and then even the trees began to suffer and brown from thirst. Fall though, now presses fully upon us, and the entire world seems to be relieved, save for my tomatoes, which cling to the hope of ripening in the sun’s waning moments.
This year, more than most, I have found solace in their persistence.
Gardening is our most tangible reminder that we will always reap what we sow, good and bad. More than that, it is proof that nothing, not even the most diligent care, can protect us from the unexpected, from the actions of outside forces and things beyond our control. We are not so far ourselves from the sunflower bowing in late rains, the blighted tomato, or the early pumpkin, slowly being eaten on the vine.
But in the end, the garden still yields its fruits, the birds still feast and sing, and I marvel at my sunflowers, still standing and my tomatoes, intent on ripening.
Alsea, an unincorporated community of less than 200 people in the Siuslaw Forest of Benton County, Oregon is home to one of the most important private libraries of environmental information with respect to chemicals, herbicides and pesticides in particular, in the United States. What started in the 1970’s as a community lawsuit against the National Forest Service for spraying residents with herbicides containing chemical found in Agent Orange has become over the years the final resting place for documents obtained in the course of scores of similar lawsuits across the country. Last year, the information was made widely available to the public for the first time on a searchable database through a collaboration of the Bioscience Resource Project and the Center for Media and Democracy.
The contents are shocking.
Want to know about the EPA turning a blind eye to corporate America’s pervasive misuse of chemicals- many of which were applied directly to communities or included without warning in common household product? Or about entire communities plagued with cancers and miscarriages? Or the use of hazardous wastes as ‘inert components’ in other products? Probably not. But like most important things, you should anyway. The people of Alsea, who worked for decades to amass this information on behalf of impacted humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems are aging, their work needs to be retained, and not just on a website.
Go read. www.poisonpapers.org
There are a lot of great, albeit traditionally left-winged reasons to eat locally. Eating locally supports small family owned farms and food producers, decreases the carbon footprint of your meals, discourages industrialization of farming practices and therefore the prevalence of pesticides and herbicides, supports your local economy, increases community sustainability, decreases dependence on the migrant workforce and foreign energy sources, and generally results in healthier meals and fresher/tastier food on your table. And we wonder why more conservatives haven’t hopped onto this bandwagon.
But there are a couple of reasons for eating locally that the conservative right can get behind. Eating locally is the best protection against food-related outbreaks of illness and disease and eating locally is the best way to combat agroterrorism. That’s right, agroterrorism, the malicious use of plant or animal pathogens to cause devastating disease in the food supply.
In 2006 Michael Pollan wrote an article for the New York Times discussing the role of industrialization in the prevalence of food-related outbreaks. While his article was written in the context of a spinach-related E coli outbreak, the recent problems with the peanut industry and the worldwide outbreak of swine flu have brought the issue back into focus. In his article, Pollan argues that the centralization of food processing and distribution centers leads to more frequent and widespread issues of infection and contamination, whereas food grown, processed, and distributed locally decreases the reach of food-related outbreaks and allows for faster and more efficient identification of sources and solutions to food-based illnesses. Pollan further goes on to note that when Tommy Thompson retired from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2004, he said “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” This sentiment was reiterated by the G.AO. in its 2003 Bioterrorism report to Congress, “The high concentration of our livestock industry and the centralized nature of our food-processing industry make them vulnerable to attack.” And they’re right, in 2006 eighty percent of beef in the United States was slaughtered by four companies and seventy-five percent of all precut salads were processed by only two companies. The implications of these numbers when viewed in the context of the spread of disease and our current healthcare crisis is terrifying. And the proof, at least lately, is in the peanut butter.
What this means is that food consciousness is no longer the proprietary holding of the liberal left, but a necessary and immediate change that must be made in the daily lives of ordinary citizens for the protection of public health and safety. Take back your health from the hands of industry, eat locally, and with compassion. (original post February 19, 2015)
To read Michael Pollans article:
For more information on farmers markets, eating locally, and CSA food shares: