Hope in the Dark

“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’ but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other, and since it is not all good it must all suck royally.  Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.'” from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Synchronicity is a great thing.  I just happened to be reading another book by Rebecca Solnit and saw Hope in the Dark mentioned, so I found a copy and discovered it was just the elixir I needed to give me hope and a sense of purpose in these worrisome times.

Last fall I had the chance to escape the pre-election madness and drive a friend down to Jackson Hole.  A visit to the beauty of the Tetons was just the distraction I needed.  But when we arrived we found the Tetons had disappeared under a heavy veil of angry storm clouds.  And to make matters worse, our arrival coincided with a visit by Donald Trump Jr.  It seemed there was no escape from my despair.

Driving through the park, we stopped at a number of viewpoints where disappointed tourists turned their backs on the shrouded mountains, thumbing their cell phones, or taking selfies in front of the signs that named the hidden peaks.  Undeterred, we went for hike in the frigid rain, getting soaked in the process, but rather than damping our mood, the walk through an aspen grove shimmering with saturated gold raised our spirits. 

That night we were scheduled for a fundraising dinner at a local restaurant.  I pictured a stuffy cocktail party atmosphere with the retired rich and well connected crowd I have come to expect at fundraisers.  But to my delight, instead I found myself in a room of engaged and enthusiastic young people dedicated to developing a sustainable food system in Jackson.  These members of Tetons Slow Food movement were farmers, ranchers, chefs and locals who were all committed to reducing the impacts of global industrial food. They were not just railing against the devastation wrought by corporate food, not just donating money so others could do something about it, but were all actively engaged in making the world a better place.  I sat across from a fourth generation rancher who was turning the family business away from a traditional cattle operation and toward raising sustainable, grass fed beef, using the most modern methods of land stewardship in the process.  

These young activists did not expect to put Con-Agra or Monsanto out of business, but they understood what Solnit talks about in Hope In The Dark: “The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself…The counter to Monsanto Corporations’ genetic engineering and agricultural patents isn’t just anti-GMO and anti- patenting activism and legislation, it’s local farmers, farmers’ markets, seed diversity, organic crops, integrated pest management, and other practices that work best on the small scale.  A farmers’ market selling the produce of local farmers isn’t an adequate solution but ten thousand of them begin to be.” 

While the food was superb, the real nourishment of that evening was hope.  As Solnit says, “Hope and action feed each other.”  The next day I headed north towards home, and still the Tetons were shrouded in storm.  I stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge and stood on the deck overlooking the valley.  Standing in the freezing drizzle, which alternated with gropple, I took photos of the amazing palette of reds, russets and yellows that filled the valley floor, the colors made more intense by the rain.  I was alone in the cold wind, except for a herd of cow elk grazing their way along the river bottom.  My SD card was full, but I stood and watched as a rustle of willows behind the cows made their heads pop up and the branches in the willows resolved into the six point rack of giant bull.  On the other side of the cows a smaller bull approached and the big bull let out a threatening bugle.  Head down, the smaller bull tried to cut out a couple cows, but the big elk charged and there ensued a short, antler clattering battle that ended with the smaller elk turning tail and running off downriver.  The brash interloper had tried to steal the herd, but was sent packing in the end.

The drama over, I went into the lodge where everyone sat with their backs to the windows, sipping lattes and checking their e-mails.  I went into the gift shop for a new SD card and the clerk offered me one that already had 20 professional photos of the Tetons on it.  “It’s perfect for a dismal day like today when there’s nothing to take pictures of and nothing happening out there,” she said.  I turned down the prepackaged card and smiled at her. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of where you look,” I said.  As I left the park, the clouds began to lift and the Tetons peeked through.

My experience with the Teton Slow Food group has given me more than hope.  They have spurred me to take my own actions locally.  I have rededicated myself to growing and preserving as much of our food as possible, supporting the farmer’s market and sourcing as much as I can from local growers and ranchers.  But that is not enough.  I also feel like I need to do everything I can to resist the political agenda of the new administration, not by being angry, or wringing my hands over every outrageous tweet, but by supporting groups like Garden City HarvestThe Missoula Freedom Garden, and Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula.  And I’m going to become more active politically, as hard as that is for someone as introverted as me.  On inauguration night I will be attending  “An Evening Inspiring Hope and Action” with other local people hoping to turn our anger into action.  

“‘Resistance is the secret of joy,’ …quoting Alice Walker.  Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.  You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them…struggle generates hope as it goes along.  Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait.” from Hope in the Dark.

 

 

New–Digital Stories

Several people have asked me to post my digital story The Pond so they can share it with friends.  You will find it under Digital Stories in the menu and I hope to add more stories as they are created.  Thanks for your interest and enjoy!  And here’s to a New Year filled with wonder, connection and a new sense of purpose.

Reflections on the Election

reflections-1The morning after the election was a heartbreaking, confusing time for me.  It was not just that my candidate had lost–that had happened before–or that the president elect would not agree with me on the issues that I consider most important.  It was not even the possibility that this man might lead the country into another catastrophic war.  That too had happened before.  No–what devastated me was the fact that I could not understand how the electorate could vote for someone who so clearly had no moral or ethical center.  Did that mean that half the country also lacks a moral and ethical center?

Needing some way to wrap my mind around this post-truth, post-values world, I turned to one of my favorite poems–one that has given me solace in the past during troubled times. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry”

I headed out to the pond in the backwoods.  Seating myself under the great cottonwood, I stared up into its now bare branches.  The red-tail hawk, who had raised a chick in the massive nest over my head was circling high in the sky , scanning the world below.  His shrieking kee-ree sounded like the cry my heart was making.  Because this time, I didn’t feel the peace of wild things.  I felt fear.  Fear for the wild things of which I am an integral part.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, after an unseasonably warm October, after the warmest year on record–again.  The mountains were still bare of snow.  The aspen trees, just weeks after loosing their autumn leaves were beginning to bud out, the furry white tips of the catkins emerging from their brown winter casings.  What would happen when the frost finally did come?  The pond was shrunk down, leaving a bathtub ring of decaying leaves on its shore.  Through the silvery trunks of the cottonwoods I could see the reddened pine needles of another beetle-killed ponderosa,  Our warmer winters are a boon for the pine bark beetles who are decimating our western forests and have created a fifth season–fire season, when massive forest fires eat millions of acres every year.

I thought about our next president for whom reality is a TV show, thought about him sitting in his gilded Trump tower and wondered if he was so cut off from the natural world that he couldn’t see what was happening–that he could really believe that Climate Change was a Chinese hoax, not the gravest threat to our future and the most pressing and dangerous issue.  This was not a problem you could wall out.

I thought about the people who voted for him.  I knew several people who were “unfriending” anyone who had supported Trump.  But I realized that reacting from fear, anger and hate was exactly what his supporters had done.  They saw the problems in the world–terrorism and an economy that was all about the bottom line and not about the workers, where everyone was nothing more than a consumer and their way of life was threatened by so many global issues too complex to understand–they saw those problems as overwhelming and unsolvable.  And it made the them afraid. Trump told them that he could solve those problems.  And they wanted so badly for someone to step up and do just that that they gave him their votes–and their futures.

What I realized was that they weren’t that much different from me.  I too saw the problems in the world–most particularly Climate Change as overwhelming and unsolvable and I felt defenseless in the face of global powers who were refusing to confront the reality of the situation.  I have let myself get distracted by other things, I have stopped paying the deep attention that is necessary for any relationship, and that includes my relationship with the natural world. And so I have sat back and waited for someone else to fix it.  I need to react, not out of fear, but out of my own moral center.

From Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril: page 469

“The times call for integrity, which is the consistency of belief and action.  The times call for the courage to refute our own bad arguments and call ourselves on our own bad faith.  We are called to live lives we believe in–even if a life of integrity is very different, let us suppose radically different from how we live now.  Knowledge imposes responsibility.  Knowledge of a coming threat requires action to avert it.  There is no way around it, if our lives are to be worthy of our view of ourselves as moral beings.  How to begin?  Maybe with four lists.  List 1: These are the things I value most in my life…List 2: These are the things I do that are supportive of those values.  List 3: These are the things I do that are destructive of those values.  List 4: These are the things I am going to do differently.  From now on. No matter what.”

List 1: A healthy, life affirming relationship with the natural world.  

List 2: I can begin by paying attention.  By speaking out in defense of what I love. Recommitting to this blog is part of that.  Supporting those who are working to change the way we relate to the natural world is another.

List 3: Waiting for someone else to solve the problems while I remain quiet and afraid is destructive to my values and ultimately to my spirit.

List 4: This is a start.  I will recommit to the things I already do, like trying my best to eat locally, to be conscious of how my decisions affect the rest of my community and the world, to an ethical relationship to money and how my spending and my investments support or hurt the natural world.  But this is only a start.  One person may not make a difference in the bigger picture, but “each of us, right now, at this exact moment in time, has the power to choose to live the moral life, to live a life that is indeed worth living.” Michael P. Nelson

 

Mother Tree

mother treeWhen I was a child, growing up in Colorado, I went on a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Denver.  While most of the other kids were drawn to the dinosaur skeletons, I wondered off, completely entranced by what the others considered a ho-hum diorama.  Behind the glass was a window into what lay beneath the surface of the earth.  There were the rodent tunnels and the centipedes and earth worms but what really caught my attention were the complex network of roots reaching down and branching out all over from  plants and trees.  My father was a geologist and made colorful geologic maps, so I was familiar with the idea that there were layers of different kinds of rocks hidden beneath the soil.  But until then I didn’t realize how much life was going on out of sight beneath my feet.

Fast forward 50 years and we now know a great deal more about what is happening just under the surface of the ground we tread.  Plant biologists have found that not only do roots sense gravity, and will inevitably grow down into the earth, even if the seed is oriented upside down, they also can sense, and respond to chemical signals from other plants, whether of their own species or another.  In fact, in recent years botanists have discovered that plants can signal each other, exchanging nutrients and information through their roots. Suzanne Simard and her colleagues from of the University of British Columbia have mapped out complex networks of roots, connected by mycorrhizal fungi which transmit chemical signals.  They even showed how older, or mother trees used the network to nourish their young and that they can recognize those trees who are their descendants.

Looking at this mother tree surrounded by her offspring, I could almost feel the vibrations in the earth, and as I imagined the web of connection beneath the soil, that wonder I first felt at the Natural History Museum was rekindled.

Pyrocumulous Clouds

pyrocumulousI have spoken before about the pleasures of cloud spotting.  They make every adventure outdoors fill with anticipation to see what might be painted on the canvas of the sky.   As Gavin Pretor-Pinney says in The Cloudspotter’s Guide, “I’ve always loved looking at clouds.  Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”  And this is nearly always true for me as well.  Except when the clouds are ominous.  I’m not talking about storm clouds, for I actually love all kinds of weather.  But this week there was a cloud on the horizon, rising behind Point Six Mountain where the homestead lies.  It is the kind of cloud we are seeing every summer now in the west, one full of dread and worry,  the billowing, white topped pyrocumulous.

Pyrocumulous clouds form from the column of air rising from a forest fire.  In order to create these clouds, the fire must be large, large enough to create strong convection currents that carry any moisture aloft, where it condenses around the particles in the smoke.  Forest fires can thus sometimes create their own weather, complete with thunder and lightening.

This particular cloud was the result of a fire burning up north in the Mission Valley.  It grew to a size of  1750 acres and caused the evacuations of 21 homes.  Living in the west this has become our new reality.  We work to thin our forests and create fire safe zones around our homes.  Many of us have given a great deal of thought to what we would take in case we need to evacuate and friends of mine who live deep in the woods pack up their treasures every summer, just so they’ll be ready.  It is beginning to change the way we think about what we “own,” and the price we are willing to pay to protect it.  The loss of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Arizona this summer is making us question the whole notion of protecting property as a priority for the fire fighters.  Agency reports on the incident question one of the primary  priorities  being that of protecting property.  And yet, lawsuits filed against the land management agencies when property is destroyed in a wildfire makes one ponder where the responsibility actually lies..  Add to that the spiraling costs of fighting fires that threaten all the hundreds of thousands of homes built in the urban-wildland interface in the last twenty years and you have to question who ultimately pays the price for someone’s desire to live “in nature.”

In recent discussions about these very issues I hear people changing the way they think about fire and its seeming inevitability in these times.  I know that if a fire should break out up at the homestead, I would not want anyone to risk their lives or expend their resources to “save” my property.  I will do the thinning required to reduce the chances of fire.  I will remove the beetle- killed trees and do what I can to mitigate their damage.  But ultimately I know the land is not really my property.  It belongs to the mountain and to the forces of nature.

 

Mosquito Hawks

dragonflyThe Montana Natural History Center offers an array of Master Naturalist classes.  Once you have completed the intial Master Naturalist series, you can continue your education through a yearly offering  of specialized topics.  Last week I went on a day long field trip to study dragonflies and damselflies.  Of course, every time I’m around water in the summer I can’t help but notice these large insects whizzing by and flitting from plant to plant, but I never realized the diversity of what I was seeing.  Two or three different colors, the difference in size between a dragonfly and a damsel fly, maybe.  But I was astonished to learn that in Montana alone there are 91 different species, 57 dragonflies and 34 damselflies.

Our guides for the trip,  Bob Martinka and Nate Kohler are men obsessed with the order, Odonata, which means ones with teeth.   This is because these insects are carnivorous, consuming the insects they catch in mid-light by chewing them to mush in their   It is one thing to learn the facts about dragonflies, that their eyes have plus or minus 7,000 lenses, or that they have been around for more than 250 million years, predating the dinosaurs,  or that their wings, because they are attached to their bodies by separate muscles, can move independently, which means that they can fly backwards as well as forward, upside down, dive, hover, pivot in a circle and fly up to 30 miles per hour.

But information like that is available to anyone with the click of a mouse.  What I took away from the field experience was the infectious enthusiasm for Odonatas that our guides demonstrated.  They shared how the desire to find and identify different species can send the naturalist out into far-flung wildernesses and hidden potholes and tarns.  No book or web page can give you the experience of being in the field with someone who opens up a world of wonder.  Reading cannot give you the sense of slogging through a bog, the feel of walking on sponges suspended in water with the possibility of breaking through at any moment.  A list of facts cannot substitute for what it’s like to search the insect filled air for a dragonfly or damselfly and the skill to get just the right swipe, with a twist of the wrist to secure them in you net.

I would never have thought it possible to hold a dragonfly in my hand until Bob showed me how to gently grasp their wings between my thumb and forefinger and peer into their multi-faceted eyes.  They taught me how to look for all the identifying markings that will tell you what species you are holding.

And then, having caught their infectious curiosity and enthusiasm, I am off on my own, discovering the place in the tall grasses where the tiny sedge sprites are perching,  or seeing,  as I track  them with my net, how the Dancers bounce around, a little spastically, in flight and flick their wings when they perch, giving me that aha moment as I connect their name to their flight pattern.  As I spent the day immersed in the Odonata world, I I began to catch a glimpse into the world Leslie Marmon Silko conveys  in Ceremony:

“Dragonflies came and hovered over the pool.  They were all colors of blue–powdery sky blue, dark night blue, shimmering with almost black iridescent light, and mountain blue.  There were stories babout the dragonflies too.  He turned.  Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them.  It was world alive, always changing and moving, and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky.”