Clouds in Spring

Dark clouds hover

on the horizon

 floating

over thirsty trees,

 some

so damaged

they fall

like matchsticks

in light wind.

A crushing cloud

embraces me.

Drought steals Life

just as 

rejection does.

The Earth keens

for silvery

sheets of rain

to wrap her

boughs in emeralds.

I keen

to wash away

the pain.

In the Shadow of the Night

THE BEARS ARE GONE

It’s hard to believe that when I first started this blog almost six years ago it was still possible to see Black bears on my property. They were never aggressive, but they were very curious and playful and I enjoyed watching them so much. Even then they were shot/maimed out of season.

Because it is spring, the time bears used to be hungry enough to overcome their fear in order to visit backyards to eat birdseed (unless they were curious yearlings who hadn’t learned to fear humans) I am going to publish some old photographs and poems of the few bears that once visited me. This one was written a few years ago when seeing bears was becoming so scarce. Below this poem are sobering excerpts from Eileen Crist about the situation we find ourselves in.

“Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.”

 

A furry

 shadow –

ever dimming vision –

did I imagine

him?

The woods

are needled –

 Bare twigs

 stick out,

pine spears 

behind Her. 

Mother Tree –

She who once

sheltered his kin.

 He thinks

rough elephantine

 arms will

provide

protection from

his greatest threat –

human depravity,

supremacy, born

of hubris and cruelty.

I cry out in desperation:

“I am not one of them”.

(this woman who loves bears)

He doesn’t know me.

He hides

behind ribbed bark

even at dusk

tasting the air nervously,

padding around

a can in circles

as if it might bite.

My scent is on it.

With one

clawed paw

 he separates

  cover

from metal can –

charges into wild brush

at the clatter.

His nose brings him

back.

Crackling boughs,

his continuous

 fear driven pacing

distract me.

One picture

comes out.

We have

made

I

contact,

eye contact,

and for one

timeless moment

 it sticks.

He feels

my longing.

Will it be enough?

I need him.

He doesn’t need me.

I am the enemy.

The few morsels

he swallows

won’t appease

the terrible hunger

he lives with –

He is starving

 for Sovereignty,

 freedom from Terror.

Humans have stolen

his country,

slaughtered the forests

he evolved with,

 depends on

for safety –

 Man torments,

turns his relatives,

kind dogs,

against him,

 gut shoots his kind

for fun –

projects Predator

onto a hapless

 Prey Animal.

Why would he

ever trust me?

And yet…

He saw me.

When I enlarged

 his picture

I glimpsed raw fright –

ebony beads

boring into my own.

Confusion.

A Question.

A Plea?

It reminded me

of Coal who 

might have been

his mother. 

 Oh Great Bear,

 let him stay

for a spell…

 He’ll be safe here

roaming over moss

covered paths.

  Lively young evergreens,

    crystal brooks,

and one old woman will be

his closest companions.

For Now.

When the Hunt begins

there’s no

Future

for any of us

because

his shrinking

world is also

our own.

We are losing

the Spirit of

the land

we love –

We know

the Embodied Soul

of the Earth

is dying.

Home.

What Extinction Really Means…

Excerpts:  Eileen Crist

“What’s happening during this ecological crisis is the collapse of the web of life: biological diversity, wildlife populations, wild ecologies. We’re in the midst of a mass-extinction event. It’s called the “sixth extinction,” because there have been five others in the last 540 million years. Mass extinctions are extremely rare. They’re monumental setbacks, not normal events. It takes 5 to 10 million years for life to recover from one…Non human species are going extinct primarily because the environment is changing so rapidly, so catastrophically, that they can’t adapt. If we keep going as we’re going, we will likely lose 50 percent or more of the planet’s species in this century…

And in addition to outright extinction, there are wholesale eliminations of local populations of plants and animals. The killing of wildlife is so profound that scientists have coined the term defaunation to capture it. We’re emptying out the planet. Big or small, herbivores or carnivores, marine or freshwater or terrestrial — it’s happening across the board. There’s a sad and facile view circulating that extinction is natural, so what does it matter if it’s human-caused? What this ignores is that the vast majority of species becoming extinct are robust, meaning they’re well adapted to their surroundings. These are healthy species experiencing overwhelming pressure from the human onslaught…When we drive a species to extinction, we’re prematurely taking out of existence a unique, amazing manifestation of life that has never existed before and will never arise again, and we’re extinguishing all possibilities of its evolution into new forms.”

 Black bears are only one example of an animal that is on its way to extinction.

Black bears are totally dependent upon trees/healthy forests in order to have adequate protection from predators. They co- evolved as a prey species approximately 12,000 years ago along with the forests that once covered the US. As the forests have been cut the bears have disappeared except in the few forested areas that are left. Black bears have been demonized by the hunting community. In reality they are shy, reticent, NERVOUS animals who huff, moan, and slap when approached by humans if they don’t run away first. They are terrified not only of humans but of dogs because they have been hunted with such cruelty.

As the logging machine’s maw devoured more trees, more and more of the land has been fragmented. Bears have neither adequate protection or enough food. Ironically, the three month bear hunting season continues even as these animals disappear. I used to say people wouldn’t be happy until every bear in Maine is extirpated. Well that time is upon us now… I

Human Supremacy

Our Great Reckoning

Eileen Crist On The Consequences Of Human Plunder

BY LEATH TONINO • DECEMBER 2020

Eileen Crist knows more than a person should, more than seems healthy, about dying birds and dying watersheds. She’s keenly aware of the global crisis of biodiversity loss and ecological collapse, and she sees what’s driving it: direct causes like climate change and what she calls the “ultimate causes” — population growth, overconsumption, and technological power. But the thing that really interests Crist, the thing that she’s been studying and publicizing for the past three decades as a professor and radical environmental thinker, is an even deeper question: Why is so little being done to address this planetary emergency?

She attempts, with a mix of intellectual rigor and lyrical passion, to provide an answer in her 2019 book, Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The cause of our inaction, she says, is “human supremacy,” a largely unconscious belief that Homo sapiens are the masters of creation rather than just one humble species among millions. This worldview sanctions not only factory farming, clear-cut logging, mountaintop-removal mining, and bottom-trawl fishing, but also more commonplace behaviors such as cruising along in cars that slaughter wildlife and emit carbon dioxide. As long as human supremacy prevails, Crist writes, “humanity will remain unable to muster the will to scale down and pull back the burgeoning human enterprise that is unraveling Earth’s biological wealth.”

Crist is a synthesizer of statistics and ideas. (The bibliography for Abundant Earth cites sources ranging from philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler to the United Nations Environment Programme.) She holds a PhD in sociology from Boston University and recently took an early retirement, at the age of fifty-nine, from twenty-two years of teaching in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. Since the publication of her first book, Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind, in 1999, she has coedited a number of anthologies on topics ranging from overpopulation to wildlife conservation to the holism of the Earth. Her writing has appeared in ScienceBioScienceEnvironmental Humanities, and Environmental Ethics, and she helps edit the online journal The Ecological Citizen.

I’ve been aware of Crist’s writing for quite some time, but it wasn’t until I’d read, and then reread, Abundant Earth that I felt compelled to request an interview. Due to the pandemic, our conversation had to be conducted via phone. Crist resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband, who is president of an international Tibetan Buddhist organization, and their two dogs. At the start of the conversation I asked for a description of her surroundings. Crist said she was on the basement floor, looking out at the garden on a rainy, overcast day. I pictured a ground-level window that put her eye to eye with the grass and the flowers and the vegetables, not above them.

Tonino: What are we talking about when we refer to the “global ecological crisis”? What’s actually happening on this planet — to this planet — right now?

Crist: What’s happening is the collapse of the web of life: biological diversity, wildlife populations, wild ecologies. We’re in the midst of a mass-extinction event. It’s called the “sixth extinction,” because there have been five others in the last 540 million years. Mass extinctions are extremely rare. They’re monumental setbacks, not normal events. It takes 5 to 10 million years for life to recover from one. Species would be vanishing approximately one thousand times slower without the human impact. They’re going extinct primarily because the environment is changing so rapidly, so catastrophically, that they can’t adapt. If we keep going as we’re going, we will likely lose 50 percent or more of the planet’s species in this century.

So that’s huge, but there’s more — or, rather, more is happening en route to that bleak future. We’re also seeing the loss of entire ecosystems and biomes, such as coral reefs and grasslands. Freshwater systems and tropical forests are being hit hard. Biological phenomena are disappearing — for instance, migrations. And in addition to outright extinction, there are wholesale eliminations of local populations of plants and animals. The killing of wildlife is so profound that scientists have coined the term defaunation to capture it. We’re emptying out the planet. Big or small, herbivores or carnivores, marine or freshwater or terrestrial — it’s happening across the board.

Tonino: The environmental ethicist Holmes Rolston describes human-driven extinction as “superkilling,” saying it kills “essences,” not just “existences.” How do you interpret that?

Crist: Rolston is spot-on to call it a superkilling. There’s a sad and facile view circulating that extinction is natural, so what does it matter if it’s human-caused? What this ignores is that the vast majority of species becoming extinct are robust, meaning they’re well adapted to their surroundings. These are healthy species experiencing overwhelming pressure from the human onslaught. And they’re usually experiencing pressure from more than one driver. Eighty percent of the species looked at in one study were found to be under pressure from multiple directions: pollution, nonnative species, poaching, climate change, and so on.

When we drive a species to extinction, we’re prematurely taking out of existence a unique, amazing manifestation of life that has never existed before and will never arise again, and we’re extinguishing all possibilities of its evolution into new forms. “Superkilling” is a good way to put it. Killing an individual is one thing, but killing a species — let alone 50 percent of the species on the planet — is something else entirely. It’s murder that reverberates farther than we can see or imagine.

Tonino: You mentioned multiple drivers, but let’s talk about just one for now: What role does agriculture play in all this?

Crist: Agriculture is huge. Much of the damage it inflicts is through habitat destruction and fragmentation: something like 40 percent of Earth’s ice-free land is given over to agriculture. Farming isn’t inherently wrong or evil, but large-scale industrial agriculture drives populations of native species off the land. That’s the way it’s practiced: a kind of takeover, an invasion. It also kills species that are perceived as a threat — for example, carnivores. Another aspect is that agriculture claims about 70 percent of the fresh water that humans use. And it’s a fierce polluter. With its artificial nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides and everything else, it’s arguably the greatest polluter of air, land, fresh water, and estuaries. It’s responsible for a substantial portion of greenhouse-gas emissions, too. So agriculture, and the food system overall, is a significant factor in climate change.

Tonino: Climate change is often portrayed as the environmental problem — like, if we could wave a magic wand and fix the climate, everything else would sort itself out. What are your thoughts on that?

Crist: Climate change is massively destructive, and the situation couldn’t be more urgent. It will bring, and has already brought, a lot of suffering to both humans and nonhumans, and it’s feeding into ecosystem collapse because the changes are occurring so swiftly.

But the reason climate change has penetrated public awareness is because an overheated planet directly threatens humanity and civilization. Mass extinction, the unraveling of the web of life, isn’t seen as so grave, because it isn’t viewed as an existential threat to us. It’s happening to them: the insects, the fish, the frogs, the birds. Putting aside the fact that these animals have inherent worth, we are making the typical mistake of thinking that humans are somehow separate from, and not dependent upon, the Earth’s natural systems.

Another thing to notice is that there are some potential technological solutions to climate change, and our society loves technological fixes. Many people feel we could get a handle on this monstrous thing if only we shifted our approach to how we produce and use energy. Mass extinction, on the other hand, doesn’t have a technological silver bullet. If we want to address mass extinction, we have to find a different way of life. We have to scrutinize human expansionism: the endless expansion of our numbers, our consumption, our infrastructure, our use of the lands and seas. But that’s a tall order. So talk about mass extinction is muted.

Viewing climate change as the root problem is dangerous because, even if we do manage to address it, there’s no guarantee we won’t continue to run down the planet.

Tonino: So you see human expansionism as the root problem?

Crist: There are two sides of the coin. One is what we’ve been discussing: the collapse of life’s diversity at all levels, from biomes and ecosystems, down through species and subspecies, and finally to genes. There’s so much reporting, so many articles about specific threats — imperiled mangroves, amphibians, migrating birds, and so on — but rarely is the whole picture conveyed. These are all one story with a single overarching theme: devastating loss. It’s important for us to know where we’re headed, to know the predicament life is in — not lives, but life itself.

The other side of the coin has to do with expansionism — the colonization of everything, the humanization of the planet. We’re turning the planet into a human monoculture. Of course, no monoculture is literally homogeneous. What we’re seeing is a population of 7.8 billion Homo sapiens, along with the billions of livestock and cultivated plants that feed us; some token wild species that are kept in restricted spaces and whose numbers are tightly managed; and some species that can parasitize our way of life. And the human monoculture continually replaces landscapes with constructed environments. All told, it’s a crisis of domination.

Tonino: Back in the 1940s Aldo Leopold, the pioneering ecologist and conservationist, said we should change the role of Homo sapiens “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”

Crist: That passage is one of the most frequently quoted of Leopold’s, and rightly so, because it captures the horns of the dilemma: we can dominate the planet as if it were human-owned, or we can participate in life’s beauty, in the wider world — which doesn’t mean we stop manipulating or impacting, only that we do so with care and a respect for limits. Actually it’s not a matter of can but of must. Leopold wrote that so many years ago, and here we are, still wrestling with this issue.

The most important thing to expose and dissect is human supremacy. It often gets referred to by the gentler term anthropocentrism. I view it as a widely shared, unconscious worldview that tells us we are superior to the rest of nature and thus entitled to treat nonhumans and their habitats however we please. Human specialness, human aboveness, and the sanctity of the human prerogative — those are key elements, along with our seizing the power of life and death over nonhumans and our aggressive control of all geographical space.

I don’t think human supremacy is an explicit ideology, though it can take that form. Mostly it operates as a kind of background assumption about what humans are, what the rest of the world is, and what the relationship between the two should be. It’s a worldview that isn’t looked at directly but nonetheless shapes our attitudes and governs our actions.

Take factory farms, which are on the rise globally. In these spaces animals are treated with abysmal cruelty and indifference. Treating sentient beings as though they have no inherent experience, feeling, or interest — how can something so extreme occur without the mandate of human supremacy? Another example is converting entire biomes to human use. A poster case is grasslands: 98 percent of the tallgrass prairie here in the United States has been converted to farmland to grow mostly corn, wheat, and soy. What gives us the right to take over and destroy an entire biome? It’s one thing to cultivate a piece of prairie and grow some food. It’s very different to seize, repurpose, and essentially destroy the whole thing. But, you know, that’s taken as normal, because it’s perfectly acceptable from a human-supremacist point of view.

Another example: some 97 percent of the world’s oceans are legally open to fishing. Industrial fishing strips them of their life and has the gall to call fish and their habitats “fish stock” and “fisheries,” as if they were human property — an outrageous example of our sense of entitlement. Again, it’s an absurd level of appropriation that passes for normal, or at least inevitable.

We could go on down the line with examples: mountaintop removal, killing contests of animals such as coyotes and sharks, poisoning the world with [the herbicide] glyphosate. The bottom line is that this huge gamut of attitudes and actions and institutions is what makes human supremacy a worldview, albeit one that isn’t fully conscious. For me, there’s a good bit of hope in that last part: If it is made fully conscious, it will be seen in a different light. Its normality will be disrupted. We can become revolted by it. And revolt is linked with revolution.

What gives us the right to take over and destroy an entire biome? It’s one thing to cultivate a piece of prairie and grow some food. It’s very different to seize, repurpose, and essentially destroy the whole thing.

Tonino: You’re linking human supremacy with agriculture. What’s the cause-and-effect relationship there?

Crist: When humans settled and devoted themselves to the domestication of animals and plants, more and more wild nature was converted into cultivated nature, into engineered nature. Wild animals were now seen as adversaries, competitors in the field or predators of the flocks.

Over time human beings became almost exclusively focused on human affairs. This intensified with the building of walls around human settlements and increasing urbanization.

With agriculture human populations started to grow, and soils became depleted. This put pressure on societies to expand their search for food. Around the same time, hierarchy and social stratification were becoming entrenched. Some classes of people acquired more wealth and power than others, and more control over land. Others worked the fields or in crafts.

So, on the one hand, there was population growth and soil degradation. On the other hand, there was greed for power and wealth among the elites. These two things colluded, and armies came into existence. The history of civilization is the history of war. War, or the threat of it, became the chief instrument for acquiring land, slaves, loot, and tribute.

The separation of humans from the wild, our antagonism toward wild animals, and our growing power over domestic plants and animals all started to foster a human sense of pride, of being in command, of being superior. By the time the classical era rolled around, philosophy and political theory were asking, “How are humans different from animals?” Through this inquiry, which was kept up over many centuries, humans elevated themselves to a distinguished level of being: the only entity with reason, language, culture, ethics, or what have you, all of which animals supposedly lack.

So human supremacy was established in this twofold manner: geographical takeover on the one hand, and disparagement of the nonhuman world on the other. The nonhuman world became regarded as devoid of inherent meaning. It became dispensable, forgettable, and killable.

And this continues. For example, nation-states and companies are gearing up to start the commercial mining of the deep sea for gold, copper, cobalt, rare earths, and other minerals. The deep sea is one of the last places on Earth that is relatively undisturbed by human activity, but the occupation machine spares nothing; it has no sense of restraint.

Tonino: As you’ve become more aware of supremacist thinking in the world at large, you must also be grappling with it at the personal level. Do you recall any specific moments when you were shocked to see a form of supremacy inside yourself?

Crist: I’ve never told this story to anyone, but when I was eleven years old, I killed a crab. The crab was hiding in some rocks, back in a crevice, and I reached in with a knife and stabbed it between the eyes. I remember the crab looking at me, trying to make itself small. I remember its eyes, and I remember the knife.

I was living in Greece at the time — my mother is Greek, and we spent several years there during my childhood — and we were fishing as a family, so it was normal to kill marine life. Still, I felt sick with remorse the moment I stabbed the crab, and incredibly ashamed. It changed me, because in that moment I saw that I was capable of acting almost mechanically.

I learned something else from that crab: that there is a deep part of us that knows the difference between good and bad. Goodness isn’t a thing we humans arbitrarily assign to the world, but something inherent in the world. The world, if you will, prefers life and life-affirming behaviors. When we follow goodness, we’re in the flow of life, and when we violate goodness, we experience a painful disjunction. That’s the source of the remorse and shame I felt, that disjunction.

Human supremacy was established in this twofold manner: geographical takeover on the one hand, and disparagement of the nonhuman world on the other. The nonhuman world became regarded as devoid of inherent meaning.

Tonino: How do we wake up from the trance of human supremacy? Do we need a different story, a different set of values?

Crist: Human supremacy is a historical inheritance that we’ve been saddled with through conditioning, and once the conditioning is removed, reality will have a chance to come into view, and we’ll then have the opportunity to align ourselves with it.

There are aspects of Earth’s reality that we could emphasize, and interdependence is a place to start. We are completely dependent on this living planet for every breath we take. And we are beholden to the planet not just in terms of survival but in terms of who we are. Whatever attributes we claim as unique to the human species, such as our propensity for art and science and spirituality — these are gifts of the ground. Curiosity and exploration and awe require a world — a ground — to grow up from and in conversation with.

I take hope from the thought that human beings are, at a primordial level, in love with the Earth, our source. This love is obstructed by our sense of specialness, the sense that we are meant to own and control. When we remove the human-supremacy story, however, what comes through will be what already exists: love for this oasis in the cosmos, this mystery that we will never re-create or even fully comprehend. That’s the real story.

Tonino: You mentioned that we are looking for technological solutions to climate change. Is the environmental movement healthy and strong, or has it been co-opted by a technological approach to solving problems?

Crist: Mainstream environmentalism is quite infatuated with technological solutions. Oftentimes it’s not critical enough of consumerism and economic growth, and for the past twenty years or so it went silent about the human-population question. It puts a lot of emphasis on the renewable-energy transition. Yes, solar and wind are part of the solution, of course, but much more important is degrowth — slowing the economy, decreasing production, downscaling global trade. Our global trade system shuttles inordinate amounts of stuff around the world, lots of which is unnecessary, and enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses are released in the process. Extolling the merits of solar and wind is fine, but it’s nothing compared to creating a downsized, mindful material culture that is locally and regionally oriented.

So, no, in my opinion the mainstream environmental movement appears unwilling to go deep enough. That said, it isn’t wise to constantly heap criticism on mainstream environmentalism. It has played a very important role. The big environmental organizations of the twentieth century made some impressive achievements on the ground, and they’ve succeeded in raising awareness and knowledge. I often go to the World Wildlife Fund’s website, for example, to get facts about a specific place or species. These groups are like a bridge between mainstream culture and radical ecology.

As I’ve been saying, many of us don’t consciously subscribe to the belief that Earth is human-owned or that nonhuman life lacks inherent worth and is dispensable — but we live in accordance with this stance regardless. Radical ecology takes the offensive, refusing to stand by and watch. It calls attention to the fact that all life has inherent value. It insists that justice means not only justice for humans, but justice for all species.

Tonino: You’re saying Americans cannot continue to live as we have lived. We must change. Period. And yet we have to make breakfast each morning, put the diaper on the baby, get to work, survive another day.

Crist: In the developed world, as long as we’re plugged into electricity and everything that entails, we’re pretty badly tangled up. I’m talking to you on my phone right now, but I don’t know where it was made, who made it, under what conditions, or where the materials for it were sourced. I don’t know how much destruction it has left in its wake or what garbage bin it’s ultimately going to end up in. And this is just one object: I could say the same about my toaster, my refrigerator, and on down the line. So I’m caught in the system — like pretty much everybody I know — and it’s from within this tangle that all of us have to try to make changes.

Speaking generally, what we can all do is prepare for a transition, and that has as much to do with altering our expectations, our thinking, as it does with altering our behaviors. COVID-19 really blindsided us and is a reminder that change can arrive suddenly. Environmentalists have been saying this for decades: expect the unexpected. The twenty-first-century world is incredibly complicated. There’s a huge acceleration on every front, including the collapse of nature, and this can mean only one thing: uncertainty. We’ve got to expect the unexpected and be ready to shift in response.

To my mind, the most important thing we can do is learn about our food and how it’s produced. Food is so basic and is tied to everything. It might sound idealistic, but there’s no way around it: humans must inhabit food communities that are ecological and ethical, that grow wholesome food in friendship with the natural world — and this nutritious food has to be available for all. These are the kinds of communities that we need to start building or, where they already exist, learning from and supporting. What would happen if some global catastrophe — a climate-related problem or a war or a more virulent epidemic than COVID-19 — disrupted our food system? In this current pandemic the fear and upheaval drove Americans to hoard toilet paper and guns and ammo. Try to imagine a food shortage instead of a scarcity of toilet paper.

Recognizing our participation in destructive, human-supremacist systems may bring up rage or grief or guilt on a daily basis, and that’s OK. We can acknowledge those feelings. We can allow those feelings to tell us something true about the world and about ourselves, and we can move through them into action. The most important thing we can do is to create alternative communities where we model a different way of living, and the core of these communities will start with food, because when was the last time you passed a day without eating?

Tonino: Does history or anthropology provide us with any particularly inspiring or useful examples of alternative communities?

Crist: Many Indigenous communities are good models — not necessarily of exactly what a life on the land should look like, but models of principles. What do Indigenous people do? They live within the contours of the land. They live within a place, making themselves a subsystem of it. In terms of what they eat and how they eat, what they use and how they use it, the land is their guide. They don’t take over and impose their structures. They don’t continually expand and conquer, as is the habit of colonial and human-supremacist cultures. Rather, they adjust to their surroundings, devising techniques for living within their regions.

Also, Indigenous communities have regular celebrations of the natural world — greeting the seasons, greeting the berries, greeting the salmon, whatever it may be. These are both a form of grateful acknowledgment and a tool for remembering. In colonial, resource-hungry cultures we don’t know what was here before us, and in some cases we don’t even recognize that there was a “before us.” Every generation assumes its surroundings are the norm, even if previous generations have degraded the land. This is referred to as the “declining ecological baseline.” It’s invisible, because there’s no memory of a different time when, for instance, you could drink water straight from the stream or eat fruit straight from the tree. If you have ceremonies — techniques for observing, stories about your animal and plant neighbors — you can at once honor the more-than-human world and remember it.

One more thing we can learn from Indigenous communities is animism, the worldview that sees everything as alive, as wondrous in itself. A major component of human supremacy is the tacit idea that animals don’t see us. We are the active agents — we see them. In an Indigenous culture a human sees the animal and, simultaneously, sees that he or she is being seen. There’s a mutual recognition not only with animals but with plants, rocks, everything.

I want to make it clear that I’m not looking to Indigenous communities as a literal model: “Oh, we’ll mimic such-and-such people, and then things will be fine!” It’s the principles of living within the affordances of a place, the ceremonies of gratitude and remembering, and the awareness that everything is alive. We have to learn to embody these principles in our own unique places.

Tonino: To change our way of life we require some sort of program, a regimen that will break down old habits and replace them with new habits, right? I’m interested in the pragmatic aspect of all this.

Crist: Decolonizing our minds and breaking habits of supremacy requires critical thinking: look at what the culture’s throwing at you, see it clearly, and then decide whether to accept or refuse it. A simple idea, though difficult to enact, is slowness: only by creating some time and space in our lives will we have a chance to pivot from blind acceptance to critical thought. The dominant cult of speed is, for me personally, something to target and try to undermine. Why is it that we drive too fast, eat too fast, walk too fast, get out of bed too fast? Why do we jam our to-do lists with so many chores and believe they all need to be taken care of ASAP? Why are we multitasking, looking at our screens as we’re cooking or exercising? This relentless acceleration is reinforced by so much that surrounds us that it’s easy to fall back into speed even if you’re aiming for slowness. But you can chip away at it. Do something slowly on purpose. Then do it again. Eventually things might begin to open up.

Tonino: What’s your take on the common argument that human nature is to blame for the ecological crisis?

Crist: It’s a dangerous view and often boils down to an excuse for resignation, continued destruction, and cynicism. It fails to appreciate the power of socialization, which is the biggest determinant of how people think and act. People comply with the values, norms, and actions they learn from their societies.

Human nature contains the capacity for all sorts of things: from the coarsest kind of selfishness to a lifetime of selfless service.

Tonino: I can imagine a person saying, “We all have to use nature — eat it, affect it in various ways. That’s not supremacy.” How do you respond to that?

Crist: Yes, we have to use the natural world, as all animals do. Though I prefer to avoid the word use, because of something I heard [eco-theologian] Thomas Berry say in a documentary. He said: “What’s the worst thing that one person can say to another? ‘You used me.’ ” He’s right. That’s as bad as it gets. Then Berry said: “What would the Earth say to us if the Earth could speak? ‘You used me.’ ” Right again.

We have to work with the natural world, to source from it, but there’s a huge difference between growing food through industrial agriculture versus agriculture modeled on ecological principles. The former demolishes biodiversity, dislocates and kills the nonhuman, degrades the soil, and pollutes the world with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The latter, called “agroecology,” is mindful of diversity, both cultivated and wild, and seeks to preserve it. It appreciates the nonhumans and natural processes that have made the very soil that grows our food. It builds up the soil. Agroecology works with wild nature and tries to find artful ways to negotiate with wild nonhumans who may pose a threat to the cultivated plants or to farm animals. Practitioners of agroecology do not automatically choose the options of poison and killing — far from it.

We can also think about this question of “use” in terms of scale. Scale matters. Think about cars, for example. Cars are not going to be uninvented. Humans seem to like them — at least, for now. It’s one thing, however, to have 1 billion cars in the world, as we do now. It’s a whole new level to have 4 or 5 billion cars, as we might in this century. So how about a world with fewer cars and a lot more restraint in terms of roadbuilding?

Tonino: How big a problem is capitalism? If capitalism disappeared, but we were all still under the spell of human supremacy, would nature be any better off?

Crist: Capitalism is a core driver of ecological destruction. It gobbles up the world as “raw materials” and turns them into commodities, with immense waste at every step along the way.

The destructiveness of this economic system goes hand in hand with a huge and growing global middle class, an increasingly global culture of consumerism, and over-the-top global trade. In qualitative terms, middle-class status comes with electricity, expendable income, and participation in the global economy. The size of the global middle class surpassed half the total human population in 2018, and it’s expected to reach about 5 billion people by 2030. The fundamental socioeconomic phenomenon of our time is mass production and mass consumption at a global scale, for billions of increasingly affluent people. This means extreme drawdown of resources, unsustainable pollution, and ecological ruin.

Making capitalism more equitable would be good for humans, but nature would be no better off, as long as mass production and mass consumption remained essentially unchanged and the natural world continued to be treated as human property.

So it is not only capitalism that has to go but also human supremacy. We must reenvision our relationship with the Earth, recognizing its intrinsic splendor and letting its inhabitants be free, letting them have the space to be who they are.

Tonino: Near the end of Abundant Earth you write that no art museum could ever rival a forest unless the museum’s walls began breathing.

Crist: It’s been said — I think it was Paul Ehrlich — that nobody would ever dream of bulldozing the Louvre in order to build a parking lot in its place. But how many forests have been felled for cars and livestock feed? How many breathing trees?

Tonino: With regard to “waking up” from the trance of human supremacy, what do young people, specifically, need to know? Do you have a dream curriculum, a pedagogy for the future?

Crist: One thing that children and young people (and the rest of us) need to get away from is the constant and prolonged exposure to screens. Life in front of devices is linked to attention-deficit disorder, depression, and, of course, nature-deficit disorder. The screens are running people’s lives. Just as Henry David Thoreau said, people “have become the tools of their tools.”

Also, learning environmental history is indispensable in order to see that an impoverished world, taken over by one species, is not normal. No matter how painful, young people need to understand the damage we have done. Challenging the normality of the status quo also frees us to imagine an altogether different future.

Another thing that bears repeating is that children have a natural sense of wonder about living beings and nature. This sense of wonder must be kept alive and cultivated through education and an outdoors curriculum.

In an ecological civilization — that is, a society not oriented toward competition, social success, and materialism — the role of education is to cultivate each person’s talent or deep personal inclination. We need to help children find what that is and be able to pursue it as their life’s work.

Tonino: Hopefully something other than domination! You write, “Humanity will not advance by taking over the biosphere, but, on the contrary, will stagnate in the debased identity of the colonizer.” What is it about domination that is so destructive?

Crist: When you dominate, you cannot win. You lose no matter how things turn out. Look at the message of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The protagonist thought he could become king by killing the current king and instead lost everything: the respect of others, his self-respect, his wife, his friends, and ultimately his life.

We have to understand that we cannot perpetrate a mass extinction and come out winners. Mass extinction will not “kill the planet,” but it will impoverish it irrevocably. That knowledge will weigh heavily on the human soul.

Even if humanity survives an anthropogenic mass-extinction event, even if humans go live on Mars or fully subjugate Earth by technological means, the question will never be evaded: Who will we become if we exterminate, en masse, our nonhuman cohorts? We cannot pass on to our descendants that burden of sorrow by not paying attention to this catastrophe now. Instead we must embrace the idea of Earth citizenship and disavow the identity of conqueror and master.

This is the consciousness shift that’s needed. After that comes the practical work of scaling down the human enterprise, economically and demographically, and pulling back from large portions of nature.

Tonino: Can we ever fully dominate the world? No matter how many wrecking balls we swing, isn’t the world still the big boss, calling the shots?

Crist: Ultimately yes, nature calls the shots. The forces of Earth’s big systems, like the hydrosphere and the climate, are way bigger than we are. But the side effects of our actions are sometimes delayed, so humans can think for a while — even for a long while — that we dominate, that we are in control. But when climate change hits home, and when wild fish and coral reefs give way to an ocean of plastic, humanity will find out that our domination was a hollow illusion.

In the meantime domination destroys precious things that cannot be recovered. It hurts beings and disrespects the inherent order of the world. It not only impoverishes nature but produces a world of fear, in which most wild animals avoid us. It also disenchants the world, making it monotonous, less diverse, and more barren of life.

At the same time that domination does so much harm to the other, it also disgraces humans by making us mindless and callous. Factory farms and industrial fishing are ugly ways to provide food, unethical and ecologically destructive, and they demean humanity profoundly.

Tonino: You quote John Rodman, the political theorist and radical environmentalist: “The ecology movement, to the extent that its central worry is the rapid extinction of ecological diversity, is essentially a resistance movement against the imperialism of human monoculture, roughly analogous to the earlier resistance movements against particular totalitarian regimes.” Nobody thinks it’s crazy when a group of resistance fighters take up arms against their oppressors — it seems rather sensible. But to do so on behalf of nature is seen as the craziest form of ecoterrorism. Do you see a need for violent resistance in the future?

Crist: I think John Rodman was entirely correct. Resistance against oppression of humans is widely embraced. What is not yet recognized is the legitimacy of resisting the oppression of nonhumans and the natural world. That oppression is a form of colonialism. Rodman and others have called nature colonialism the last bastion of colonialism.

I am partial to [writer and environmental activist] Wendell Berry’s definition of colonialism: destroying one place to be extravagant somewhere else. This is a straightforward description of our way of life. We are destroying large swaths of the planet to be extravagant somewhere else. Soybeans grown in the Amazon to feed pigs in China. Oil-palm plantations in Southeast Asia for added palm oil in packaged foods everywhere. The tall-grass prairie sacrificed for animal feed, biofuels, and corn syrup. Mangroves for cheap shrimp. Continental shelves for cheap fish. Coming next: seabed habitats for lithium batteries. The list is endless, and it will be ongoing unless we recognize what it’s all about, which is that our way of life is based on nature colonialism. When enough people see that, there will be a chance to transform how we live.

On the question of violent resistance, I do not believe in it. When has violence not perpetuated violence? Nonviolent action is powerful. It has soul presence. It is centered and filled with equanimity and righteousness. If it is quashed with violence, it exposes the violators as being in the wrong. Nonviolent action also exemplifies another way to be in the world. Nonviolent action is both the means and the end.

Having said that, I do not see activists’ rescuing factory-farmed and other abused animals as violent action, even if it involves breaking and entering. I think the torture of animals is an egregious violation that deserves a direct-action response. Rescuing animals from violence is nonviolent action.

Tonino: What are some alternatives to our present civilization? What would an “ecological civilization,” as you call it, look like?

Crist: The human system, especially settlements and food-production areas, should inhabit a modest portion of the Earth rather than claiming the lion’s share. Free nature, or wilderness, will be the sea within which human habitats are nestled like islands.

For that to happen, our consumption patterns and waste output must be substantially lowered. One means of achieving this is lowering the human population. This can be done by investing in women’s empowerment, educating girls and young women, and bringing family-planning services everywhere. We also have to change the economic system — slow it down, so we produce much less. We need to get rid of superfluous, luxury, and throwaway goods. What is produced must be made durable, fixable, recyclable, and biodegradable. We also need to pull back our presence from large areas of nature. Minimize infrastructure spread. Setting nature free on a vast scale will enable the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life to return.

Human beings will have an equitable standard of living that is modest but high-quality, with nutritious food, clean rivers, ancient forests, and abundant wildlife. Let us imagine human life within a verdant and lively world. Wild nonhumans will be respected and allowed to live free, while domestic farm animals will be allowed natural and long lives. The planet is our ground, and an ecological civilization will be in loving alignment with all its beings and processes.

Tonino: The best conservation science — and this includes a 2019 report from the United Nations — is calling for half the planet to be set aside as biodiversity preserves. What are your thoughts on this 50 percent idea?

Crist: The proposal to protect 50 percent of Earth’s area of land and seas is inspiring. It’s known as Nature Needs Half, or the Half-Earth Project. It is bold, visionary, and necessary. It was an idea first formulated in the early 1990s, and it is gaining attention and traction today.

Large-scale nature conservation is a low-tech and, if embraced by humanity, eminently doable approach to addressing the planet’s dire predicament. The only way to stem the extinction crisis is generous protection of habitat. This will enable the preservation of viable populations of animals and plants and sustain the integrity of ecologies like rivers, grasslands, forests, deep seas, and coral reefs. It’s not just about large size but also connectivity, to enable animal movement.

Large-scale nature conservation is also a profoundly effective way to counter climate upheaval. Scientists are calling this approach “natural climate solutions,” and it is so important. Protected and restored forests, grasslands, and wetlands can sequester substantial amounts of carbon. Additionally, phasing out industrial agriculture will help mitigate climate breakdown.

When we think of conservation, our mind often goes to the land. I want to emphasize the imperative to protect the ocean and restore its abundance of marine life: from the microscopic plankton that make so much of the planet’s oxygen, to the krill, to the masses of small prey fish, to the big fish, mammals, reptiles, and sea birds. We have lost touch with the inherent richness of marine life, which industrial fishing, especially, has decimated. Large-scale protection of 50 percent or more of the ocean will support the restoration of the sea’s abundance of life. Of course, we must also hasten to deal with climate change. Otherwise we will lose most of the world’s coral reefs, which harbor so much of the sea’s biodiversity.

In the twenty-first century there will be a reckoning with how we’ve lived, what we’ve done to the planet and ourselves, and that reckoning will set in motion an awakening: a different way to go about things.

Tonino: You said earlier that there are approximately 7.8 billion humans on the planet. What would be an ideal number of humans?

Crist: Many analysts are thinking of a provisional goal of around 2 billion. This figure is for a human population enjoying roughly a European standard of living, sustained by organic food production, and eating far less fish, meat, and animal products than the average Western consumer.

Of course, there is no “optimal” population number in an absolute sense, because a lot depends on the level of consumption people gravitate toward, their dietary choices, and unknown variables having to do with technological developments. But 2 billion is more optimal than where we are now and where we are headed. Two billion is what the global population was about a hundred years ago. It is a big-enough number to enable a connected global civilization to continue, with achievements in the sciences, humanities, technology, and so on. In other words, 2 billion can sustain a lively “conversation of humanity.” But it’s a low-enough number to enable the substantial protection of nature that we are discussing.

According to Cornell agronomist [the late] David Pimentel and his colleagues, 2 billion people is the estimated number that can be sustained on organic, diversified, mostly regional agriculture, with farm animals living on the land and people eating a mostly plant-based diet. This way of eating would not only be wholesome for people but good for the planet and for all other animals as well.

You might say: “Fine, 2 billion sounds good, but how do we get there?” We get there by fast-tracking two important human rights: One, full gender equity and schooling for all girls, through at least secondary education. And, two, affordable and accessible family-planning services for all. If we could bring the global fertility rate — voluntarily: I do not support coercion of any kind — to an average of one child per woman, the human population would start to approach 2 billion within four generations.

Tonino: The ecophilosopher Arne Næss said that he was pessimistic about the twenty-first century but optimistic about the twenty-second. How do you think about the future?

Crist: What Næss meant, I think, is that in the twenty-first century there will be a reckoning with how we’ve lived, what we’ve done to the planet and ourselves, and that reckoning will set in motion an awakening: a different way to go about things, a different relationship between Earth and humanity. It’s quite possible that things will play out that way — get bad, then better. In some respects it’s an optimistic prophecy. But obviously there’s no guarantee that the future will follow this trajectory. We don’t even know where we are with respect to climate change. If runaway heating happens — or a nuclear war or some other unimaginable disruption — this trajectory that Næss outlines will be impossible.

I try to avoid predictions, because the future always manages to surprise. That said, we can and should talk about certain trends and where those trends are likely taking us. For example, follow the population graphs, and then ask: What does it look like if there are 10 billion of us on the planet, all trying to fill our bellies? What does it look like for people in different countries, at different latitudes? What does it look like for wolves and monkeys and forests and seas?We can’t predict the future, but it’s more useful to focus on the past anyway. It’s the past that has delivered us to this present moment, which we’re trying to understand and navigate. One thing to note about the past is that human supremacy has been a constant since the emergence of agriculture. I like to envision human supremacy as a baton that’s been handed forward for millennia: from the Neolithic village to classical antiquity to Judeo-Christian and Muslim cultures to our modern mechanistic era. By coming to understand this past, we can begin to understand that our current struggle isn’t simply to expedite an energy transition, to save some acres and wildlife here and there, or even to stave off the extinction of Homo sapiens. To put it accurately, our struggle is to change the course of history. To break with our history. To drop the baton.

Dead Cedar

Bloodroot Spears

 

Week after week

heat, wind, sun,

shrinks vernal pools.

 Ditches are dry.

Denizens

of wet forest,

 masked gold leaves,

seek shallow depressions

 fed by Spring.

One night the

heat wave breaks

I smell rain,

hear hoarse croaks.

I stand there

swallowing sound

inhaling fragrant air

Lamenting absence –

 so many voices stolen

by drought.

 

At dawn

two frogs persevered, 

laid a cluster

of eggs –

clasping

each other

in prayer.

A week later

 stray snowflakes

pressure earth,

forcing

  pale green.

A cluster

of bloodroot spears

 splits ground.

I dream

my Voice is

Drowning

in a pail

of jellied eggs.

A dead cedar

rots nearby.

“Finding the Mother Tree”

 

Susan Simard received her PhD in Forest Science and is a research scientist who works primarily in the field. Part of her dissertation was published in the prestigious journal Nature. Currently she is a professor in the department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia where she is the director of The Mother Tree Project. She is designing forest renewal practices, investigating the ecological resilience of forests, and studying the importance of mycorrhizal networks during this time of climate change. 

Susan’s research over the past 30 plus years has changed how many scientists perceive the relationship between trees, plants, and the soil. Her intuitive ideas about the importance of underground mycorrhizal networks inspired a whole new line of research that has overturned longstanding misconceptions about forest ecosystems as a whole. Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize the root systems of plants providing water and nutrients while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates. The formation of these networks is context dependent.

Simard discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest. This includes trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones pass from tree to tree through these underground networks (as well as above ground). Resources tend to flow from the oldest and largest trees to the youngest and smallest. Alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger. And if any tree is dying it often sends carbon to its neighbors. 

At this point in time others researchers have replicated Simard’s major findings. Resources do travel among trees and plants via underground networks. Most ecologists also agree that the amount of carbon exchanged among trees is sufficient to benefit seedlings as well as older trees that are injured, entirely shaded, or severely stressed. Most are also in agreement that trees pass nutrients, information, and do support one another. This reciprocity undermines the dogma of individualism and competition for the fittest as the primary driving force of evolution.

  Simard believes that an old growth forest isn’t a group of solitary individuals who tolerate each other and compete for resources. Instead she calls a forest a cooperative system that behaves more like a single organism.  The trees, understory plants, fungi, and microbes in a forest are so intimately connected that other scientists have described them as super organisms. There is conflict and negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even altruism.  Recent research by Simard and others suggest that mycorrhizal networks also link prairies, grasslands, chaparral and arctic tundra, indicating that life stretches across the entire planet by way of land.

In North America most trees are generalists, forming symbiotic relationships with hundreds of fungal species. In one study an especially old tree was linked to 47 other trees and projected to be connected to at least 250 more. Depending upon the species, mycorrhizal networks supply trees and other plants with up to 40 percent of the nitrogen they receive, and as much as 50 percent of the water they need to survive. Simard also found that denuding a harvested forest of all trees, ferns, herbs and shrubs – a common forestry practice – was often harmful to the entire ecosystem.

The language Simard uses when speaking about the complex relationships that occur between the trees and the fungal networks beneath them is a source of contention. For example, Simard uses the word “Mother tree” to describe the oldest, largest, and most interconnected trees in a forest. She uses this phrase to evoke the capacity of trees to share resources and nurture those around them even if they are not kin, although she has also established that trees do seem to favor their offspring.

The idea that trees are social beings – living beings  – has profound and urgent implications for how we presently manage our forests.

Plants and fungi oozed out of the ocean onto land somewhere around 400 – 600 million years ago. Plants obtained energy by eating sunlight but they couldn’t extract mineral nutrients from the barren rock. Fungi couldn’t photosynthesize but they could digest rock and transform it into soil, so together, the two formed a partnership and spread across the land. The resulting forests helped create an atmosphere that continues to provide us with the oxygen we need to breathe. 

Forests also respire (breathe) filling the air with water vapor, fungal spores, and chemical compounds that seed clouds with moisture, cool the earth by reflecting sunlight, and provide much needed precipitation to inland areas that would otherwise be in a state bordering on drought or worse.

 Additionally, forests store an immense amount of carbon in their leaves and trunks as well as in roots and the soil below. The statistics vary but each year the world’s forests capture at least 24 percent of global carbon emissions. Deforestation diminishes that effect dramatically. When a mature forest is burned or clear – cut the planet loses one of its most natural and effective systems of climate regulation – not to mention the cheapest. 

When colonial peoples came to this country in the 1600’s forests covered one billion acres – close to half the total land mass. By the beginning of the last century ravaged forests were the norm with a third of the forests gone. By the end of the century loggers were forced to replant trees in order to continue to harvest trees. And although clear cutting isn’t as common as it once was it is still practiced on about 40 percent of the land in this country.

When we destroy an old growth forest we collapse a system that is essential for survival. Although young forests now cover parts of the Northeast, less than one percent of old growth forest remains intact. We have less than 3 percent of old growth forest left in the entire country.

In a thriving forest a lush understory captures huge amounts of rainwater and dense root networks provide nutrients and stabilize the soil. Logging disturbs the forest floor increasing the chance of landslides and floods, stripping the soil of nutrients and releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere. When soil flows into the rivers and streams it can kill fish and other aquatic creatures not to mention that the felling of trees harms and evicts countless species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

Simard’s research also suggests the crucial importance of leaving seed trees when cutting. When a seed germinates in an old growth forest it immediately taps into an extensive underground community of interspecies partnerships. Conversely, when a plantation of trees is planted after a clear cut there aren’t any ancient root and fungal systems to support the tree. As a result these new trees are much more vulnerable to disease and many die. Simard believes that leaving the mother trees intact will improve the health and survival of future seedlings.

 Simard is presently concentrating on how the underground networks could be disrupted by environmental threats during climate warming, as a result of logging, and pine beetle infestations (that are killing western trees in less than four years). She believes the underground networks will probably survive but whether they will be beneficial to native plants etc. remains to be seen.

 One of the fascinating aspects of Simard’s recent research demonstrates that trees who are dying as a result of climate change continue to send carbon and warning signals to the seedlings/trees of the new species of trees that will eventually replace the original forest. The only caveat warns Simard is that we must leave some trees that support the complex mycorrhizal networks below, or the forest will not regenerate.

Susan’s love for trees and lifetime dedication to saving forests began when she was a child. She went into the woods to watch her uncle log western cedar for his living, and saw that logging could be done in a way that would allow the forest to thrive. I admire her vision, her commitment to saving trees, but also the fact that she refuses to abstract or distance herself from the research she does. She reminds us that trees are living beings who communicate and cooperate with one another and their surroundings both above and below ground. In the final analysis it is not education that creates change; we save what we love.

The next time you are walking by a tree think about the fact that humans have four photo – receptors with which to see – red, green, blue, and light/dark – trees have eleven. When you are gazing at a tree, it may also be looking back at you.

Postscript: By the time this article is printed Susan Simard’s new book “Finding the Mother Tree” will probably be published, and I will be one of the first people to read it. Susan’s work has the potential to change the public’s understanding of how forest ecosystems really operate. My earnest hope is that her ground-breaking research and this book will help shift the way humans perceive our forests so that we can save them before it’s too late. 

Broken Mothers

I awakened under clouds

feeling respite from fierce

heat in April that

forced maple, birch,

beech, and poplar

 to bud and burst.

  First we planted

 Balsam seedlings;

 He climbed birch

sawed off

 dying trunks,

some broken

beyond recognition,

wreckage from 

the ice storm –

a winter holocaust 

that stole my peace,

my trust in white,

 deep restful sleep.

My body keens 

for the multitude –

 Removing gray birch

dims the memory

of a forest

of downed trees

that lay across

my road –

  Anguish

that buried me.

This is about me

and not the trees,

I think sadly, as

if I could separate

One from the Other…

Our lives are

inextricably entwined.

And so, as each one

comes down,

is sawed and piled up

for firewood, I

feel relief.

Young evergreens

emerge, having 

been protected

by Gray Birch

for all these years…

I take a moment

to give thanks

 for broken “mothers”

who nurture 

New Life. 

Gentle, generous

Living Beings – who

even in their dying

 accept what is.

Witness

The last of the Old Ones in Vancouver…

“then there were those

who went out over unlit hills …

and turned pale at

what they saw” (Merwin)

Witness

I went out over unlit hills

longing for 

the scent of moisture

the ditches were dry

not a frog in sight

cracked earth bore

 chasms too deep

no roots live

without water

 parched soil

shrinks thought

birches bow 

too low

bent and broken

winter sliced

by freeze thaw

and poplars

in desperate hope

throw nourishing catkins 

to the wind

a month before

their time –

  bears and bees

no longer feed

heat forced tender leaves

 burst pale green

under hostile blue.

Nature 

starves under

Fire –

  but Sun

pays scant attention

 demanding  Soul

as well as Body –

Blistering

TorturedGround.

The Professor

He’s out there every morning surveying the feeder. Sitting on his haunches he peers up towards seeds that he cannot seem to reach no matter how many times he scales the baffles. 

I think he’s made of stardust, a magician in disguise.

I watch him ruminate, feeling his thoughts penetrating my own. “There must be a way.” This wily character has bulbous eyes popping out of his scruffy gray head. Curiously, his ears are tipped in white though the rest of his coat is sable. Suddenly a flash – he streaks across the grass, ascends the maple, peers around briefly, and then rushes up the Mother Tree for a different view. He suffers from ADD. Too far to jump. Too high to drop. I can feel his frustration as he sprints towards the feeder, noses the ground and finds one stray seed. Sitting back on his haunches he spies the cardinal feeding just over his head. He scents the ground again. “There must be one more.” Coming up empty, he can’t quite believe it. 

Now he assumes the Professor’s position, leaning back on his haunches, almost rocking, with small hands appealingly clasped in front of him like a prayer. He just sits there with a glazed expression. A meditating Buddha. Well not quite; he’s calculating his next move. 

Sighing, I accept the fact that this guy is smarter than me, and eventually he’ll find a way!

One Year Later

 Last year, at this time I was driving home from NM grateful to be hearing cardinals and seeing red bud trees in bloom, oh so grateful to be returning to the Northeast. I was badly frightened by the specter of a virus that was bearing down on a country that up until this point behaved as if nothing could overcome its hubris, its power, and its addiction to consumerism and wealth.

One year later I learn that I am one of thirty three percent of Americans that have received the vaccine. Other countries are not so fortunate. The virus is still very much with us and it’s mutating and becoming more infectious; many people are refusing to behave as if this threat exists, even as Covid is beginning to spike again across the country. 

In Maine the threat is serious. Every week cases continue to spike. Today, April 5th, there are almost 300 hundred new cases just in this county, and this is a trend that keeps climbing. It is staggering to realize in our area that one out of 22 people is carrying the virus and doesn’t know it. 

Meanwhile the State of Maine has lifted all travel restrictions to support the economy (that seems bent on killing us one way or the other), while also stating that the reason the virus is spiking is because people are traveling more and mutants are more infectious (they don’t mention deadly). I feel as if I am living in a surreal culture composed of humans who no longer have access to common sense.

  When it was time to be vaccinated I was uneasy, certainly not elated. Coming home from the hospital after my second injection, with my young friend I felt woozy like I had after my first shot and wondered if I would become ill. Earlier, I had spoken to my body with compassion, telling her I was sorry that I had to put her through yet another physical invasion by agreeing to inject this deadly virus into my arm.  For the second time in a month she would be forced to fight off infection. 

After my friend left I spent the afternoon in bed. Although I did not feel really ill, I wanted to give my body a chance to rest. The next day the reaction hit with a vengeance and I was ill for three more days during which time I researched second dose reactions for the first time. I have a very sensitive system that responds negatively to medications of all kinds and I had no idea what this virus might do to my body. I had not done this earlier because I didn’t want to go into this troubling situation biased. 

What I learned was that it was mostly women who had the reactions and when I discovered this fact the feminist in me woke up as I recalled that most medications were tested on men rather than women because women’s physical bodies were more complex. Had the same scenario occurred with this vaccine? I didn’t know but suspected it did. If so, we needed to re –test the vaccine with females. Judging by my reaction and those of other women some of us were literally being poisoned by a vaccine whose long-term consequences still remain totally unknown.

I am not suggesting that we not get vaccinated because, of course we ALL must in order to stem the viral tide. What I am saying is that women, especially those with sensitive systems be made aware of complications that might arise.

It’s also critical to understand that being vaccinated does not mean a person will not get this disease. For those of us, like me, with a compromised immune system (because of emphsyma as well as my age) remaining vigilant is a necessity. 

Today, I am reflecting on this past year with Covid. In my case the virus changed little including my fear of it. I am used to being alone – well not quite. I have two devoted dogs and a bird, Lily b, and a very small bubble of friends that I interact with regularly; my young friend is here the most. Need I add he is always masked? During the summer and fall I spent time with others outside, hiked almost continuously, participated in writers Zoom meetings in the evenings, but mostly I took simple pleasure out of being with this piece of earth that I belong to, participating by planting more trees and working in my gardens. 

 December brought a raging ice storm that destroyed more trees on my road and throughout my small forest than I could ever have imagined, creating deep distress. Freeze –thaw periods followed all winter long, further damaging the few young forests that are left in this area. Even now, the ice is still at least three inches thick in places around my house. Until two days ago I couldn’t enter my own woods – first time ever.

 Around the vernal equinox the state began to widen a highway to accommodate those who inevitably brought the virus with them knowingly or unknowingly as they streamed into Sunday River Resort to ski all winter as they do every winter boosting Bethel’s local economy.

 I’m told that our local spring, a precious resource that so many depend on that is located in the midst of the present carnage will not be affected. But since trees have already been taken from all around the spring damage has already been done because trees help purify the water. From what I learned from the town manager the desecration of the trees has only begun and will extend for miles.  In his words “it will only take a year for new foliage to hide the damage.” I imagine this perspective is the dominant one. 

Economic greed defines our culture and Maine is a tourist dependent state so both the masses of incoming people and the State of Maine are equally responsible for the destruction. As for the trees – well, they are expendable and will remain so until until we have used up this “resource” permanently.

Recently I had a disturbing dream:

I have written a poem about hunting and I know that it is good. Then I gradually realize that the hunting doesn’t involve animals.

 It is the trees that are being hunted to extinction.

I awaken in horror. It’s been a hard year permeated with a virus that won’t quit because too many people are too selfish to follow sane rules even when there are some, insane doublespeak, and for me, this state of affairs is coupled with the destruction of beautiful trees, land, and forest in a state that once was so beautiful. It is the latter that is slowly erasing the memory of what used to sustain us, our intimate relationship with the Tree of Life.