Tag Archives: nature

Writing from Nature’s Artifacts

 

I’m one of those people who look at the ground when they hike, not to see where I’m going but to scout out rocks. At the beach, I scour the wrack line for shells and other treasures the tide has washed ashore. I’ve collected rocks, shells, nests, and bones from all my travels, including to big cities where artifacts of the natural world are harder to find.

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In my memoir A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms and the mementos I gathered during summer vacations there:

“As a young girl, I was a rock hound and my grandparents’ farmyards were my stalking grounds. I scouted petrified wood, round picture agates, and red and gold siltstone flinted like arrowheads, bringing a pailful home to Colorado each summer to polish in my tumbler on the tool bench in our garage. For years, I kept a small dark brown stone, like magma from the earth’s core cooled in the swirled shape of a horse’s head and mane. My Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s neighbor shared pieces of larger rocks he’d gathered on his own farm and from forays in that region. One was a polished oval picture agate, a horizon of shadowed trees landscaped across a champagne sky. Decades later, I had it edged in spiraled sterling with a silver chain, a memento in miniature of the land I’d left behind.”

Now on my travels, I’m more likely to take photographs than artifacts. Still, the fascination is the same. I’m trying to understand my place in the ecosystems that remain. Perhaps because I spent childhood vacations on my grandparents’ farms, built environments don’t satisfy and comfort me the way natural systems do. What I’m searching for, I think, are the ways my body and my writing are connected to the earth.

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We live surrounded by human-made things—objects made of plastic, metal, and fabric shaped through mechanization. Even though these materials may have started out in some natural form, the consumer items they produce are artificial in that each is exactly like the other.

Shells and rocks, pinecones, feathers, and bark all share one attribute: none of them is exactly like another but instead vary in magnificent and intimate ways. Each carries a unique trace—or memory–of the world it inhabits.

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Writers, too, want to create a unique record of their experiences in the world around them. Some use writing to understand and describe their place within a particular ecosystem or encircling planet. Nature’s artifacts can serve as reminders of experiences or relationships with the natural world, helping to create stories of what Thoreau called “something kindred” between humans and nature.

In a workshop I taught in Colorado, an outdoor adventurer wrote of his obsession with heart-shaped rocks. He carried them home from all corners of the world and kept them piled on shelves like cairns marking a trail, yet he wasn’t sure why he collected them. It wasn’t until he showed us the only picture he had of his mother, who had died when he was very young, that the heart came into view in the shape of his mother’s face. There we saw the heart that had been beating for and in him through the rocks he’d carried home, a memory captured in stone.

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Stories like this illustrate how the distinction between humans and the natural world is finer than we think. From cells to bones, we all carry within ourselves some trace of our ecological origins. Through writing, we can examine the world around us for the juxtapositions that complexify the distinction and, in turn, forge new understandings of our place within this ever-changing world.

sitkaviewI’ll be helping writers explore this rich terrain in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon coast, September 27-28. Bring a natural artifact or image of your own to inspire writing from poetry to fiction to environmental advocacy amid the beauty of the Sitka campus.

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A Turn to Spring

No deep thoughts today, and no time to compose them if I did. Instead, a few pictures to document the farm’s turn from a long winter to a slow spring. With opening day this Saturday, we’re happy to see rain instead of snow. Thunder’s rolling as I write. Soon, raindrops will fall.

Six days ago, our yard was covered in snow.

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Today, a freshly tilled field awaits planting.

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The wild plums are beginning to bud. Nothing smells like spring as wild plum blossoms along the ditches.

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We lost many of our daffodils to snow; the more colorful varieties bloom later and survived.

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A peony unfurls like a tropical flower.

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A certain sign of spring is a greenhouse full of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

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The snow gone, John mowed the yard this morning with my Grandpa Short’s push mower.

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And now, the rain begins.

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42nd Earth Day and Still Counting

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, I was a student in Mr. Osborn’s fifth grade class at Sherwood Elementary. Earth Day was organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to bring national attention to the alarming state of the environment through grassroots actions. On Earth Day, people were asked to demonstrate care for an earth whose gifts of clean air, water, and soil could no longer be taken for granted.

My fifth grade class (I'm in the lower left hand corner with knee socks)

Our fifth grade class decided to celebrate the first Earth Day by turning the hard dirt outside our classroom into a beautiful garden of grass and flowers.  All it would take, we thought, were some shovels and a few seeds. We showed up with tools—the girls in pants, which weren’t normally allowed—and worked like crazy all day to get that small square of soil ready for the plants we imagined would grow there. Mr. Osborn even let me run a block home for my wagon to haul away rocks and trash. With rakes and hoes in our young hands, we scratched tiny furrows in the soil to plant our hopeful seeds.  A little water, and we’d have our first Earth Day garden.  At the end of the day we were dirty and tired, but proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

 

Around the world, 20 million participants representing thousands of schools and communities organized events like ours from planting trees to picking up trash along highways in what Senator Nelson called a “spontaneous response at the grassroots level.” Earth Day proved that many people did care about the environment, becoming a symbol for the new ecological movement that at that point held so much promise.

Today Earth Day and its message of stewardship is still part of many school curriculums. Children learn about the value of recycling, saving energy, and protecting endangered species.  Since the first Earth Day, stricter standards have been passed for air and water pollution, cars have become more fuel efficient, and many contaminated areas have been recovered.  But 42 years after the first Earth Day, we are living that fearful future of vanishing species, toxic food, oil spills, nuclear disasters, and climate change-amplified weather crises.

To celebrate Earth Day’s 40th anniversary two years ago, we planted an Opalescent Apple tree at Stonebridge Farm in memory of Mr. Osborn, my fifth grade teacher who had died just a few months earlier.  Many years will pass before Mr O’s tree bears fruit in the old orchard beyond the barn, just as many years have passed since planting my first Earth Day garden. When I tend that tree, I remember how Mr. O inspired us to care about the natural world by getting our hands in the soil. He taught us the Earth Day lesson of working together to care for our environment by visualizing the world in which we wanted to live. Even though the grass and flowers didn’t survive long in the high traffic area outside our schoolroom, it didn’t matter because the real seeds had been planted in us.

Ecology stickers I've saved from fifth grade

This Earth Day we’ll celebrate by learning to forage wild plants on our farm. Foraging lends a new perspective on so-called weeds by showing us that plants we overlook or eradicate can have value. Similarly, Earth Day teaches us that we need to look more closely at the earth’s interconnected ecosystems if we are to be good stewards of this planet.

We’ll plant an apple tree too, one John grafted from the branch of a blush apple tree in our farm’s old orchard. That tree probably came from a seed planted by a bird or squirrel or apple fallen from another tree. Since apple trees grown from seeds don’t come true to the parent tree, until we grafted it, our tree may have been the only apple like it in the world. Now this second Stonebridge apple will bear more wine-fleshed fruit born of this place and bringing the past into a future we hope promises harvests for generations to come. 

In fifth grade, I believed that solutions to the world’s environmental problems would be achieved in my lifetime. How naïve I was to underestimate the economic forces that value profit over preservation and the lack of political will to challenge them. The view that the earth is only ours for the harvesting has led us to disregard its limitations. We should all participate in “green” efforts to plant school gardens, recycle our cans and bottles, or eat locally grown organic vegetables as ways to honor the earth as our home, yet actions like these alone will not save the planet. The changes needed to stop further ecological degradation are monumental and our individual efforts so small, it’s hard to see how the tiny seeds of stewardship planted 42 years ago can still grow.

Celebrate Earth Day on April 22 this year by planting a tree—and then join others in the insistence that the environment must not only be protected for ourselves, but for generations as far as we can count. Together we must create a new vision that inspires fresh seeds of environmental activism, one that looks not only at individual actions but at collective intervention in the mounting crisis of our only earth.

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Gluten Free? Try GMO Free

[I wrote this letter for our local papers but want to share it with my readers first because many of you are interested in this topic and I’d love comments.]

My daughter needs a gluten-free diet so I’m used to checking labels and asking at restaurants about gluten-free options. But as an organic farmer in Boulder County, I’m also concerned about the future of our food safety now that GMOs are entering our diets. A recent study in Canada found the Bt gene in the bodies of pregnant women and their unborn babies. Since the women ate conventional diets, the Bt most likely came from corn genetically modified to contain the Bt pesticide. But because GMO foods aren’t even labeled, we’re not allowed to know whether these potential allergens are in the foods we eat, even if we try to avoid them.

In 2003, the Boulder County commissioners held a public meeting about allowing GM corn on leased county open space agricultural land. Speaking in favor of GMO crops, the State Secretary of Agriculture asked the commissioners not to “take away our tools.” When then-commissioner Paul Danish remarked to anti-GMO advocates that GM seeds were already in use so “we can’t be virgins,” organic farmer John Martin brought down the house with “We may not be virgins but we don’t have to be prostitutes.” Despite community concerns, the commissioners decided to allow GM corn on publicly owned land.

Now the county is trying to craft protocol about open space agricultural usage and the biggest debate surrounds more genetically modified crops—sugar beets most immediately—and the value of growing them in our county. On the pro-GMO side are some farmers and chemical agricultural interests like CSU and farm consultants who claim that GMOs increase yields, decrease pesticide use, and are the wave of the future for feeding an increasing world population.

On the anti-GMO side are environmentalists, organic farmers and businesses, and citizens concerned about public health. They argue that GM crops should not be allowed on publicly owned land because GMOS threaten organic agriculture, are predicated on evermore dangerous pesticides as weed resistance increases, and pose devastating risks to health through the introduction of potential allergens. Opponents also point to the terrible track records of chemical companies like Monsanto, the lack of peer-reviewed studies regarding problems to ecosystems and human health, and the inadequate governmental process for determining safety of these new types of organisms.

At a recent panel discussion of these issues, an agricultural consultant echoed the State Secretary of Agriculture by lamenting that government is “taking away our tools.” Yet the reason those tools were taken away is their toxicity. Take DDT: Scientists started raising questions about its horrible impact on natural systems in the 1940s, yet it wasn’t banned until 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the public to its dangers. Clearly, that “tool” wasn’t a good one to keep in the toolbox.

As an organic farmer, I believe that GMOs “tools” are already proving dangerous and certainly don’t belong on publicly owned land. Farms like ours face potential destruction if GM drift contaminates our crops and we as farmers face lawsuits from biotech companies if GM plants are found on our land. Looking to the future, our farm would never consider selling our land to open space if GM crops might be allowed here some day. Even if the county required GM farmers to carry huge liability policies, I cannot see the possibility of GM and organic co-existing in any long-term relationship because the county cannot protect organic crops from contamination. But beyond particular organic farms like ours, the county is responsible for protecting the health of its open space land and the citizens that live here.

It’s time for Boulder County to take steps away from risky agricultural practices and start down the road to environmentally sustainable policies–which in the long run will prove economically sustainable as well–by banning GM crops, leasing smaller acreages to encourage farming for local consumption, connecting local growers with local organic businesses, and supporting transitions away from chemical dependency through organic practices that increase yields and improve soil for better human and planetary health.

If, like me, you read labels and are concerned about how the food you eat is grown, urge Boulder County to be governmental leaders toward new agricultural practices by emailing them at croplandpolicy@bouldercounty.org.

 

 

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It’s Just Nature

John and I celebrated his birthday with a hike to Bierstadt and Bear Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. We hadn’t been all the way to the Park for a couple years and were shocked at the advance of pine beetle kill into the Park itself. In some places, the damage looked about 50%, with some whole patches standing dead across the slopes.

The Park now runs shuttles to popular areas in an attempt to cut down on traffic, a terrific idea, so we left our car at the park-n-ride near Moraine Park to catch the shuttle and got off again at the Bierstadt Lake trailhead to stay out of the crowds heading toward Bear Lake. A sign inside the shuttle warned us to watch for falling trees, presumably so we could stay out of their way. With so much pine beetle damage, falling trees must be a more common danger than it used to be, but we wondered how much time we’d have to clear a path once a tree started to fall.

Bierstadt’s a wonderful trail, only 1.3 miles of moderate slope, mainly switchbacks across the side of the mountain. The view of the peaks is tremendous, a panorama of sights from sagebrush to aspen to wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, fireweed, harebells, arnica, sunflowers, and mountain asters.

Once at the lake, we watched a duck diving for food and bobbing on the gentle waves that come with the mountain breezes. Like many small mountain lakes, Bierstadt feels enclosed, like a small bowl of water set down in the middle of jutting peaks. Walking partway around the lake, we found deer tracks on the sandy part of the shore near a sculpture of branches tipied together.

Bierstadt gets overlooked because of its proximity to Bear Lake, but we were glad for the solitude. How infrequently we make moments to sit and rest amidst the mad pace of our comings and goings.  But in nature we remember how the earth surrounds us, even when it’s covered in asphalt and concrete.

From Bierstadt, we had to decide whether to hike back down the switchback trail that we’d ascended or hike over to Bear Lake through the trees, a bit uphill and then down to the lake itself. We knew that the closer we got to Bear Lake, the more people we would see, but we decided to go that way for a change of scenery.

Next time, I think we’ll hike back down the Bierstadt Trail, opting for more quiet and mountain vistas than tourists and trees. I hadn’t been on that section of trail for twenty years and I was disturbed at the graffiti alley of names carved into aspens as we neared Bear Lake. Perhaps the loss of so many trees inspires some people to carve their name into one, but to me the signatures seem too proprietary, a shattering of the tree’s inherent beauty in the ecosystem.

Back at our lodge that night, we asked the innkeeper if they sprayed their trees for pine beetle kill. Yes, for the twenty years she’s been there, they’ve always sprayed. She shrugged her shoulders at our lamenting the loss of trees in the Park.  “It’s just nature, “ she said, and we let it go at that. We are certain that human fossil fuel consumption is warming the planet more quickly than mere natural causes could affect but we didn’t want to enter that conversation with our host. Not after such a beautiful day, a wonderful dinner at the Rock Inn, and the gift of cool mountain air.

But as we drove home, we noted the dead pines along the highway and said to each other, “It’s just nature.” That will be our new mantra, our shorthand way of noting the human refusal to admit our trespasses and the knowledge that nature will react in kind.

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Taos Portrait Found

I’ve been looking for this picture for years. I knew that I had stuck it in a book at some point in my various moves, but I didn’t know which book, although I’d searched through many. The picture was taken in Taos and I knew the book had something to do with that region, so occasionally I’d think I’d remembered the title and searched through the pages of that book. For fifteen years, I hadn’t been right.

And then, when I wasn’t looking for this photo at all, I found it, tucked not inside a book but between two books by Linda Hogan, one of my favorite authors. Recently I’ve been purging my book collection to make room on my shelves for books brought home from my office and for artifacts I’d like to look at from time to time. I was rearranging books by Native American authors when I picked up Hogan’s Dwellings, a book I use in teaching, to place it with Hogan’s other works on the shelf—and there was the envelope between two of her novels. I knew immediately that the picture was there, even though I had forgotten that I’d put it in the envelope at all with others from that trip.

It’s not surprising to me now that the picture was with Hogan’s works. Not only is she a favorite author of mine—I’ve taught her novel Solar Storms in my coming-of-age in women’s lit course for years—but she even writes about losing and finding objects in an essay in Dwellings called “The Feathers.” Here she details discovering that her granddaughter’s umbilical cord was missing from the black pot where it was kept. She searched her entire house, looking several times in a cedar box where she kept other important items, but the cord wasn’t there. After performing a ceremony to call the cord back, she returned to look again in the box, only to find that the feather she kept there was now missing too. Getting down on her hands and knees to look for the feather, she found it pointing toward the umbilical cord on the floor she had already searched.

So here’s the picture, found again, of me in 1996 standing in my blanket coat in front of the adobe church in the Old Taos plaza. Over the last fifteen years, I had remembered the picture differently: in my remembered picture, I could see the colors of the coat (navy, purple, and tan) as my body cast a long shadow across the adobe, and the look on my face wasn’t so severe. I had made the picture in my mind more vivid and stylized than the picture actually was. Call it the O’Keefe effect.

Even though the photograph doesn’t quite live up to my memory of it, I still like this picture of me. This was my first—and for now, only—trip to Taos and Santa Fe, and I loved the area, especially the church I’m standing against. I had never been that close to something that old, that sacred, built out of the earth itself as if it had grown there from the very mud of which it was created. I felt—as the picture depicts—very small standing against the back of the church but safe at the same time, perhaps because the wall seemed so solid and so warm on that early spring day. I’m not casting a shadow because, in the photo, I am the shadow, the only darkness against the light of the adobe, absorbing rather than reflecting the power of that place. I imagined why artists like O’Keefe had been so drawn to the Southwest—the textures, the heat, and the severity of light that draws our eyes to the shadows in relief like the pattern of a Hopi design.

When this picture was taken, I was just starting my career at the university and was about to buy the home where I would raise my daughter. I wasn’t young, but I was starting out once again on a new phase of my life. Now, fifteen years later, that career is finished, my daughter is raised, the home sold, and I’m once again facing new and exciting changes in my life.

This picture reminds me that we sometimes find ourselves in unexpected places that we don’t even realize we’ll remember years hence. Sometimes our days seem so settled, so sedentary or even senseless, that only looking back across our lives tracks how far we’ve come. Perhaps I’ve searched for this picture from time to time because I needed that reminder. Perhaps I’ve found it now because I’m ready for another change.

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A Heart Like a Stone

We’re into our third week of high 90s on Colorado’s Front Range and I’m not getting much done these days. We went to the Oregon coast for the week of the 4th, where a couple cold, windy days deterred our swimsuit-on-the-sand time, but led to more long walks along the shore than usual, the hoods of our windbreakers drawn up around our faces.

We came home to a few days of monsoon rains but soon the heat moved in, more humid than usual because of the accrued moisture, perfect growing conditions for the weeds that normally slow down in the July heat. I’m enervated by noon and don’t gain momentum again until the next morning because the nights are almost as unpleasant as the afternoons. Only early morning brings relief, but the scattered clouds burn off by lunchtime and the heat swells relentlessly, cooling long after midnight and barely enough to sleep. We don’t have air conditioning or a swamp cooler in our century farmhouse, relying instead on old-fashioned methods like keeping the house closed up during the day and opening windows after dark. When we can’t take the heat another minute, we swim in our irrigation ditches, the shock of the water welcome but brief as the pressing air dries our skin.

To get my cool back on, I thought I’d share an entry written at the beach on the only day warm enough to sit on a towel with my journal; I’ll share too some pictures to remember the beautiful coastline edging the inlet of Neskowin where Hawk Creek meets the ocean, pushing and pulling the fresh water back and forth along the shore.

 

Hawk Creek, July 5, 2011

One day after the 4th of July celebration. The beach is quieter now after fireworks and Tuesday jobs marked the holiday’s end. A few lucky vacationers remain on shore, flying kites and throwing Frisbees to ever-present dogs. Seagulls parole Hawk Creek for sandy leftovers as low clouds drape the wooded hills ringing the inlet, but the sun is warm enough at midday to discourage the cold wind that blew earlier this morning.

Yesterday we rose early to stroll the beach before the crowds arrived and to take a few photographs of the newly contoured sand that has narrowed the beach as we’ve known it for the last decade. The tide comes much higher than before so that one part of the beach is cut off from another, creating a mini-inlet in the middle of the larger bay; we’ve never seen the waves edge this close to the houses before and wonder what conditions have caused the change in the surf. The tsunami, perhaps, that devastated Japan and ruined the Fukushima nuclear reactor, the radioactive water still flowing into the sea? Residents tell us that the shoreline erosion started before the March 11 disaster but no one has much of an explanation why.

Two couples walking their dogs stop to show us a bald eagle perched on a pine high on Proposal Rock, a promontory at the confluence of creek and ocean populated only by trees, seagulls, and eagles. The rock is steep, which discourages many would-be hikers, as does the incoming tide that could strand unsuspecting tourists. A few years ago, a sudden wave swept a woman away from the man who was proposing to her on that rock; she was drowned, a sad and cautionary end to a romantic retreat.

As I snap a few pictures with my not-telephoto-enough lens, one of the women approaches again to announce a second bald eagle on a similar tree lower on the rock. Two bald eagles on the 4th seems auspicious, so we mention them to other beachcombers as we continue our way to the end of the cove.

We’ve exploring the petrified trees known as “stumps of mystery” that are occasionally uncovered along the shore. Looking like rounded stones jutting from the sand, some even hold starfish and anemones in their sea-hollowed cores.

Today, most of the folks on the beach are young parents with small children and babies in strollers, perhaps reliving their own childhoods by teaching their kids how to skip stones, throw Frisbees, fly kites, or dig a big hole for the ocean to fill.

Whack! An errant Frisbee thrown by an unpracticed mom nearly hits me in the face as I sit on the beach against the rocks. I’m not hurt so I laugh and advise her son not to throw like his mother, but I think it’s nice for a mom to teach her son such an important skill rather than suggest he wait for his father to do it. People without children throw sticks for dogs to splash and retrieve in the middle of the creek.  The day unfolds slowly this way, with just enough breeze to move time from one moment to the next.

I’m searching for a heart-shaped stone, something I do from time to time. I’m not an avid heart-stone searcher like some people I know, but it does seem the right gesture today as I walk the beach and scout the tideline where the rocks are thrown onto the sand by the waves.

In this stretch of the Oregon coast, the shells aren’t unusual or plentiful but sand dollars are common, most shattered like porcelain plates in shards along the shore. I’ve found a few whole in the years we’ve been beachcombing this shore, and a couple times have stumbled upon spots full of sand dollars rolling in the surf.

But stones are more numerous than shells here; most are flat, hard, and gray, but some are porous like circles of pumice. I pick up one small, soft stone and press it to my lips to absorb its warmth. Sun-drenched, it holds its heat for nearly a minute before the wind cools it against my skin.

I don’t find a heart stone today in my ten or fifteen-minute stroll. Lots of triangular stones scatter the beach, but none that part and curve in proper heart shape along two sides.

I pick up a stone that looks more like whale fins than a heart because its bottom point is too blunt, but I tuck it into my pocket just in case. I also save a lava-ish rock ribboned in white crystals of quartz, like a geode split open by the sea. Another stone is round and flat, with one side calcified like a shell; I ponder how this stone/shell synthesis could occur in the ocean waves. One special treasure is a flat, round shell the size of a nickel, smooth on one side but like eyelet lace on the other, with a small hole ready for stringing. The last rock I keep is a round, fat rock with a belly button center, a naval of the sea.

I don’t find a heart rock that day, but several days later, when I’m not even looking, I spy this one.

It’s not perfect, but it will do. I’ll place it with the shells in an old pottery planter, a memento of time well spent doing nothing more than strolling, observing, and wishing for more time to do the same.

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