Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Prosperity ≠ Fossil Fuels

One day last summer at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop, Sandra Steingraber had those studying with her use a zip code for a place important in our lives and the Toxic Release Inventory[1] as starting points for a writing assignment. We were to examine the selected location through a new lens and react to the toxic secrets that may belie that special place.  As someone trained as a chemist, I am by no means a chemophobe.  In fact, I am often frustrated by those who call for a chemical-free world as it is simply not possible.  But having run through this exercise several times now for places in the state of Michigan where I grew up (this is starting to become an obsession), I am having to come to grips with some very dark stories about the Upper Midwestern places I still call home, even though I moved to Pennsylvania in 1986.  I am wrestling with new truths about places that I long thought of as pristine retreats, places that seem wilderness-like compared to the East Coast, the Mid-Atlantic region.  I now have a series of draft reactions to the hidden legacies of the mining, agriculture, and chemical industries historically important to Michigan, some yet too painful to publicly reveal.  And some are still in too raw form; the writing comes slowly as I struggle with the sense of deceit I feel when delving further into these chemical realities.  Below is my most recent exploration, preliminary thoughts spawned by all the media coverage of tar sands oil and my growing frustration that that we have become a nation of addicts  -- fossil fuel junkies who will stop at nothing to get the next fix.


In the summer of 2010, thousands of gallons of oil from tar sands spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands in Michigan.  The accounts vary, but numbers as high as 840,000 gallons have been reported.[2]  This spill, caused by a burst in an Enbridge Energy pipeline, likely didn’t catch the eye of the public – maybe because we were more focused on the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred earlier that year just months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig went into action.  Maybe the media coverage was scant in areas outside of Michigan.  Or maybe, given that there is already a Superfund Site on the Kalamazoo River[3] people figured it really didn’t matter anymore.  Nevertheless, this incident foreshadows what could happen if the Keystone XL pipeline is built. 

A year later, the waterway was still closed to the public and residents claim that there have been significant health impacts.[4] 

Perhaps even more troubling to me, as someone who spent almost three decades living in Michigan including my formative years as a child, is the fact that this oil spill was not an isolated event.  According to a 2010 report entitled Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit, the state of Michigan ranks in the top 10 states with the most pipeline accidents.  And who thinks of this as an oil state?

Besides the risk of such nasty spills that destroy habitat, kill wildlife, and very likely sicken humans, the production and refining of sands oil is energy-and water intensive.  And, of course, burning of the refined product releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases.  A “game-over proposition for climate change” according to James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute and a world renowned climate scientist speaking of the Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Alberta tar sands oil to Texas.

If you are a climate change skeptic, then think of the less-abstract-than-climate-change toxic implications.  The refining and burning of fuels from tar sand oils release poisonous mercury and arsenic at higher levels compared to conventional oil.  To put a human face to the impact of these contaminants, read some of the stories of people living the legacy of tar sand processing in Detroit.[5]  Multiple diagnoses and deaths of cancer.  Environmental injustices.  Nose bleeds, asthma, emphysema, hypertension, sleep apnea.

I am still not fearful of chemicals.  I understand that there are differences between statistical and perceived risk, and that there are precautions one should take when working around hazardous chemicals.  I know how to look up information on Material and Safety Data Sheets, and I am familiar with the Community Right to Know Act -- legislation aimed at protecting the public.  But many people, in fact most of the public, those community members most in need of knowing, do not know these things and have no ability to protect themselves.  They do not know to grab gloves or a mask or respirator; they cannot move to a safer place, if such a place still exists.

As I wrote recently in a Facebook response to an article describing how we are tearing up pristine places to secure fracking sand to blast underground to free natural gas:  We are tearing up the landscape for sand to blast underground only to allow the buried gases to escape into pipelines and water tables.  We blow the tops off mountains to get to coal buried underneath and extract oil from tar in sands in Canada to pipe to wherever.  We are drilling miles below the ocean for a few more drops of oil. Insanity.  But I am not sure we will ever stop defacing and rearranging the planet until it is gone, all gone.

Yes, oil (and the other fossil fuels) have become “the lubricant of the world economy” as was stated in a recent CNN article about Iran threatening to block shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.[6]  But when the industrial profit reports fail to consider the externalities, the costs to human health and welfare, and the damages to nature and our natural resources, things have gone terribly wrong with “the system”.  This is not national prosperity.  This is indeed insanity.


I started down this dismal line of internet searching because I vaguely remembered there being dark, strange looking sands in the Copper Country region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  I wondered if they could possibly be tar sands deposits.  They are not.  These are stamp sands, left over from the processing of ores; in this case, they are from the processes used to purify copper.  These sands typically contain traces of toxic heavy metals.  Reportedly, aquatic life in the Keweenaw Waterway (or Portage Canal) is diminished in the areas of these sands.  Sigh.  That is yet another zip code that I need to look up.

On Animal Prosperity - a nod to the Great Ape Diaries Project and the work of the MGVP

Gerry Ellis, a renowned photographer, has worked for a number of organizations including the National Audubon Society, BBC Wildlife, New York Times, and National Geographic.  (You can learn more about him at  I had the great fortune to meet him through the Audubon TogetherGreen Fellows program ( .  Gerry is currently refocusing his attention on the Great Ape Diaries project ( – a project that he began working on in the early 1990s. 

Like so many charismatic mega fauna, gorillas are highly endangered facing a host of threats.  They have the added bad fortune to live in areas that have a long history of poverty, war, corruption, and genocide.  Recently, media attention has been given to the topic of human rights and “conflict metals” – the technology industry’s equivalent of the blood diamond story (for example, see:

Last week, a YouTube video about a troop of gorillas entering a camp near Bwindi National Park, Uganda and having close encounters with humans hit the social media circuit through Facebook and other channels.  It went viral due to the “oh wow” factor it had and most likely had a number of people looking into gorilla-sighting tourism opportunities.   Given Gerry’s familiarity with endangered apes, it wasn’t surprising that he would a) know about the video-gone-viral and b) have something to say about it.  What was surprising, to me at least, was the issue of concern was not one that would immediately come to mind – even amongst many conservationists.  You can read his blog post at:

Gerry and I occasionally chat electronically about a range of topics.  I am deeply grateful to the TogetherGreen program for enabling these types of rich, inspiring, and hopefully lasting personal connections.  Anyway, Gerry’s blog posts and Facebook messages often prompt me to send him a message.  Today, his entry motivated me to draft a much longer response that I posted as a comment on his blog site.  But I thought I would also share these thoughts on my own too-often neglected blog.  It makes more sense if you read Gerry’s post first....

Gerry, I am glad that you posted this message of concern and wish there was a way to get the points you raise out to the masses who watched the YouTube video.  As like countless others, I did watch the experience with some awe and pondered what it would be like to see these extraordinary animals in the wild (not necessarily in the camp; I had that experience with a rogue elephant in the Maasai Mara once).  I even envied for a moment, my vet who is currently on a gorilla trek in Uganda.  But I kept thinking about a different sort of risk than you note; these animals are wild and, as such, unpredictable and possibly dangerous.  The person featured in the video might have been “lucky” to have such a close encounter, but he was also lucky that no harm came from it to him.  We don’t know how the apes were impacted.

You quote from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) report that raises an important dilemma too seldom considered by the mega-fauna adoring public:   “Although human proximity to mountain gorillas is essential for their conservation, also crucial is minimizing the risk for human-to–great ape transmission of respiratory pathogens.”  I teach a course each spring entitled “The Impact of Technology on Diet and Disease”.  We talk about the origins of disease – often through the wild animal/human interface.  Students read pieces from Jared Diamond about the negative impacts of the domestication of animals on human health and from Laurie Garrett (“The Coming Plague”).  But I hadn’t previously discussed this in the reverse direction with these students; that is, the risk we pose to the animal populations.  I suppose if this was one of my conservation courses, I would have thought to do this.  But now I will be sure to call attention to this in this human-focused course too!

So how then, do we raise awareness of the dire need for conservation in general and, in particular, protection of endangered species?  Animals, especially ones that look and act like us or ones that appear too cute to resist, can tug at heartstrings in ways that scientific data cannot.  As a plant scientist, I also know that other species, no matter how beautiful or critical in the ecological web of life, do not have the same sort of power to capture the imagination and interest of the masses in the way that certain large vertebrates do.

I have a strong aversion to zoos, but many animal biologists claim that this is the only exposure to “wildlife” that many people have and thus, can be an important education and conservation tool.  A few years ago in a Conservation Biology course, we had a rather heated discussion about the value of taxidermy animal displays in mega stores like Cabelas.  (I am not opposed to hunting; just trophy hunting.)  And while a trip to Kenya years ago was a childhood dream come true for me, I remember being disgusted by some of the guides/tour companies chasing after animals for their clients, disrupting the animals at rest or in the midst of a hunt just for the rude humans to get a closer look or a better picture -- a trophy of a different sorts.  [I was pleased that on the game drive on my recent trip to South Africa (a Christmas present for my son who also attended COP17), the guide had the utmost respect for the animals and started by saying that we were going into their territory and had to remember to respect that.  No chasing but rather viewing with reverence in quiet, and often from a distance.  No radio calls to other vehicles. No rude interruptions.]

Ecotourism can be good for conservation, but too often caters to the elite, adventure-seeking people and doesn’t put habitat and wildlife protection as the top priority.  Game preserves in Africa can be well-intended, but humans will be humans!  I simply don’t have the answer to this one.  As someone who dislikes the propaganda that PETA uses, I doubt that we want to start showing videos of animals dying of human-transmitted diseases as an awareness campaign strategy!

I don’t know if you have heard of the play entitled “Tooth and Claw” by Pennsylvania playwright Michael Hollinger.  If you ever get a chance to see it – do so.  Set on the Galapagos Islands, the script is filled with environmental science and conservation biology (accurately described), and raises many complex questions including that of which species (including humans) are most important to protect. There is a wonderful debate about removing the "invasive" goats from the islands in order to save the Giant Tortoise from both the perspective of the scientists and the inhabitants of the islands who could describe all sorts of uses for goats, but no practical ones for the tortoise.  They also point out that everything on the island was an "immigrant" including the people. The descriptions of natural selection, species gone extinct, and the tributes to Darwin were beautifully worded.  The author weaves together themes of exploitation of ocean fisheries, poverty, extinction, culling populations, abortion, biodiversity, and the too often unheard voice of the people without power or money.  Ah, but I digress.

I must now go make a donation to MGVP!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A letter to my students

Greetings from Washington D.C.
I am surrounded here by a group of inspiring conservationists at my conference - my fellow Audubon TogetherGreen Fellows.  (For information on the program, see  You can learn more about my cohort at - the 2010 class.)  

Outside the National Museum of the American Indian where we are meeting, the Occupy D.C. protests are getting more unruly and the police are becoming less tolerant.  Over 12,000 people attended the protests on Sunday about the Keystone XL pipeline, joined by a lot of anti-fracking activists.  

I learned yesterday that of the $290 billion in philanthropy in America last year, more than half came from the middle class, working class, and poor people.  About 70% of households contribute tot 5 to 10 organizations per year.  The median amount contributed per household is $1300 to $2000 per year.  [Source:]  Only 5% comes from corporations.  Bequests led to 7% of the donated money; in other words, dead people donated more than the rich corporations!  Will we ever be able to redistribute the wealth when poor people donate more of their money as a percentage of their income than the rich?

The docent at the museum gave us a wonderful tour and we had a rather emotional conversation about the ongoing misconceptions (and ignorance) about native peoples, the distortions of history that many of us have been taught, and the ongoing impact of discrimination and flawed policy on the lives of native peoples today -- so many examples of social and environmental justice.  I can't even begin to do the stories justice in trying to retell them.  The docent, probably in his early 30's, spoke honestly about his anger that people in his country from previous generations had done what they did - essentially genocide - and how difficult it can be to have no one alive to direct this anger at.  So instead, he has devoted his life to trying to educate the public, show the multiple "truths" about history (he had a great example of how native people view Presidents Lincoln and Nixon differently than whites), and dispel stereotypes.

I was part of wonderful discussion late into the night about the impact that these current activist movements will have (if any), how they compare to the civil rights movements and anti-war protests in the 1960's and 70's, and whether or not large conservation groups have also been bought out by corporate America.  One in our group has been a National Geographic photographer documenting impact on wildlife and landscapes across the globe.  He has documentation that despite all the environmental efforts since 1970, things are not improving overall.  We had a long discussion about whether sustainable development, or balance, are even possible given the ever-growing population.

From the news this week:

There are reports that the earthquakes in Oklahoma may be a result of fracking operations there, similar to claims that have come from Texas.  The state also was hit by tornadoes yesterday, after record-breaking heat this summer.

The National Climatic Data Center reports that Hurricane Irene killed 45 people and caused at least $7 billion in damage.  Tropical Storm Lee killed 13 and lead to at least $1 billion in damage.  This  makes 2011 quite a costly and deadly year for hurricanes and tropical storms, the 7th busiest for named storms since record-keeping began in 1851. And this added to the fact that by June that we had the record for extreme weather events.

The droughts in Texas continue.

Just a freak year?  Or part of a "new normal"?

Things are not looking good for the upcoming U.N. climate negotiations (COP17):

One difference that came up in our late night conversation is that in the late 1960's, people protested to save their lives (they had a draft card and didn't want to go to Vietnam).  Paul Ehrlich's book "The Population Bomb" had come out warning about the perilous impact of growing population back then, but many didn't believe they would live long enough to see that doom and gloom if they went to war.  Not surprisingly, if you are from that generation, you look at the Occupy Movement a bit differently than young people today since you, my students, haven't seen major activist movements and have grown up in calmer times.

I don't have the answers, but hope that we can continue to ponder these issues and collectively discuss our options for the future.  I would love to hear your thoughts on some of these issues.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the eve of the end of daylight savings

Tusker (the "Big T") enjoying a fall day earlier in the season - Photo by Corey Husic
Surrounded by a pile of grading, I decided it was time to have some “me-time" this afternoon.  It was simply too beautiful a day in late autumn not to.  So after a long grooming session, my aging gelding and I took to the trails for a leisurely saunter through meadows filled with the glistening gray seeds of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.).  The ashen seed color was akin to that of my horse before I brushed the field dirt and dried mud off.  Flea-ticked grey is the official coat term, but when clean, he looks pretty white to me.

The sky was unmarred with clouds, that beautiful pristine kind of blue.  The remnants of the anomalous snowstorm of last weekend were gone except for the new brush piles already inhabited by sparrows and some downed trees across the trails.  The “Big T” and I approach the first of these new barriers slowly.  Although he hasn’t jumped in years, he was trained as a hunter, so I am always conscious of the fact that he might not simply step over a log.  And he was the type that jumped all fences as if they were at least three feet.  But today, he turned and decided to reroute through the greenbrier (Smilax spp.).  He didn’t seem to mind the spines.  I did.  I could do without this plant even though it is a native and oddly enough, closely related to Daylilies, Lilies, and Yucca.  Even the deer rarely eat it.  But it is my neighbor, so we tolerate each other.

I could hear Bluebirds, but could not see them against the matching sky. Numerous Golden-crowned Kinglets were playing unusually low to the ground today – some in the new brush piles and some eating wild grapes off vines that had fallen from the weight of last week’s snow.  Fourteen inches we had, even before the first hard frost of the season.  Odd weather, especially for October, but that was not the case today.  A flawless early November day for plants to go on with their transition to dormancy, for Downy Woodpeckers to rummage for insects in the newly exposed vascular cambium where large limbs snapped off, and for me to find a sort of mental renewal.

Gone are most of the tree leaves on the north side of the mountain.  But yesterday, I noted quite a range of reds and golds still decorating the south-facing side of the ridge and, in town, in the valley, the leaves were almost at peak color condition.  That is on the trees which are still standing.  A few oaks in our woods are still holding on to their rust-orange ornamentation.  Normally, even more of these oaks would still have their fall foliage, but these too fell victim to the storm.  But other plants, non-natives mostly, still have green leaves.  The lilacs, along with the invasives—honeysuckle, olives, and barberry—are amongst these.  A lack of a killing freeze to date, this November 5th.  By the barn, one of my lilacs even has a few blossoms!  Confused shrubs indeed. 

Tonight, we turn the clocks back, so my time outside in daylight will become increasingly limited for a few months thanks to the demands of the academic workplace.  Up early, home late on too many days.  But today was about a gentle big soul and me meandering through new routes to avoid obstructions, listening to the high pitch sounds of winter resident birds, marveling at the yellow Witch hazel flowers (Hamamelis virginiana).  Witch, from wiche or wice, meaning "pliant" or "bendable”, but Wikipedia tells me that hazel twigs were once used as divining rods, possibly influencing the name of this shrub.  Even though Witch hazel is not a true hazel.

Pliant and resilient – these woods and fields.  Tolerating snow and cold and hot and drought, always changing, but always remaining—remaining for me, enabling a bit of solace after a frenzied week.  Pliant.  Not the “easily influenced” definition, but rather, as the antonym of inflexible, rigid, stiff.  If only nature could teach us all to bend a little in our lives, our daily routines, our attitudes.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When access to an online response feature is denied

I am normally not a  paranoid or suspicious person.  But since I have been blogging about some touchy issues recently, I have joked with friends and colleagues wondering when I will be put on some sort of watch list.  Well, today, I received an email from Sandra Steingraber about an article that appeared in a Lancaster newspaper questioning the partnership between a company involved in hydraulic fracking and a breash cancer coalition:

Some phrases in the piece struck a chord, so I tried to use the online "talk back" feature to provide a response, and was denied.  I had been given an account, but received a notice indicating that I was denied permission to respond to this article.  Hmmmm.  I haven't ever written Letters to the Editor for this paper.  I want to, but can't find an online submission portal.

So I will have to be content with posting my thoughts here:

There was a time when we didn’t realize that the processes employed to extract, purify, or convert natural resources into products that we use might have negative consequences.  The products helped us win World War II, protect millions from death by malaria, and power our nation to become the most powerful and wealthiest in the world.   But soon we learned that there were consequences to our actions – pollution that threatened habitat and public health. 

The people of this nation demanded clean air and water as a basic right.  When the rivers caught fire and the concealed landfills resulted in cancer clusters, the citizenry rightfully also demanded cleanup.  The 1970’s brought a wave of federal legislation to protect our environment and our health and in 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund to identify and hopefully clean up (or at least contain the risk at) the most contaminated sites.  Of the tens of thousands of sites identified, priorities had to be made, so the potential risk to human health became a major factor in determining the worse of the worst, the sites added to the National Priorities List.

Decades of scientific research and casualities from the contaminants have validated the claims that environmental contaminants were impacting human health.  But what have we learned?  Corporations now know that they must have close connections with those in power so that they can obtain exemptions from the federal laws aimed at protecting us.  They know that they have to frame the risk-benefit analysis in terms of the economy, jobs, and energy-independence, playing on the short-term fears that we have in this country – a country no longer secure in its  power or wealth.  Industry not only donates to political candidates, but also to non-profits that are as American as apple pie.  Who would dare question a breast cancer coalition that now partners with a major energy company that uses hydraulic fracking solutions containing a mixture of chemicals?  Some of the chemicals in these solutions are known to be hazardous to human health; others are labeled proprietary.  In other words, the companies don’t have to tell us their trade secrets.  And the mixtures are exempt from all of those environmental regulations that hold companies accountable should something go terribly wrong.

Do I really have to be a Pennsylvania resident to raise my eyebrows over an odd partnershp?  Or to demand that the public has a right to know what chemicals are being mixed with our water and then forced into the ground beneath our feet?  Dr. Steingraber and I both have Ph.D.s in relevant areas of biology and years of experience researching the impact of environmental contaminants on the health of living organisms.  Both of us live in states sitting on top of Marcellus Shale beds and thus, threatened by fracking. But our expertise or where we live are not the point.  Anyone with the ability to think critically should notice that there are some red flags that we should all be paying attention to because we all need to care about our health.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The power of the buy-out

Earlier today, I sent an email to Sandra Steingraber after learning of her recent Heinz Award for her investigative, scientific, yet creative writing. It came with a $100,000 prize, which she is dedicating to the fight against fracking (drilling beneath our feet, homes, and schools for natural gas).   You can read about her decision to do this:
Below is an excerpt from my message and some other thoughts inspired by information I looked up:

The fight against fracking is going to be a tough one since our country seems to have turned its back towards the environment and even science.   Perhaps all those environmental pollutants are affecting brain cells too. [Sandra has written about the impact of chemical pollutants on our bodies in her books and regular columns in Orion Magazine.]  We truly are addicted to fossil fuels and the false hope that "finding more" will fix our problems.

Have you ever read the poem "The Last One" by W.S. Merwin (available at  The expressions of loss in this piece could easily apply to fracking as well as trees.

I showed the Lorax in one of my classes this week and was struck by the eerie relevance of the messages from the early 1970’s to today. Economy/jobs vs. a healthy environment and good habitat. I saw an ad of local citizens from the northern tier of PA praising Chesapeake Energy for bringing them good fortune, development (cough, cough), and jobs. It could have been the Once-ler.

For an example of what we are up against in this fight, all you have to do is read the information from the webpage of a single company:

"..Chesapeake has 2.4 million acres under lease in the Marcellus and has already paid almost $2 billion in lease bonus and royalties to farmers, families and townships across Pennsylvania ... Chesapeake has 1 million mineral owners in 16 states. To put that in perspective, about one in every 300 Americans has an oil and natural gas lease with Chesapeake.  [I don't even know how many of these companies exist, but there are several.] And they have been very well rewarded. We’ve paid out $9 billion in lease bonuses over the past 5 years, about $5 billion in royalties over the past 4 years, and another $2 billion in taxes over the past 5 years.   And every one of those numbers is going up daily. The lives of millions rest on us getting this issue right and utilizing this American Treasure."

Sigh.  Why do these statements scare me so?

Today, there were thousands of activities through the project Moving Planet all around the world -- all aimed at reducing our dependence on and moving past fossil fuels (see   And in our region?  Nada.  Sigh. But I guess when you are part of the buy-out described above, who is going to protest?  A state that is in the midst of a gold-rush-like frenzy with the fracking craze and that is populated by people who believe the claims about all the jobs and money that will come is certainly not complaining.  Hey, this Commonwealth only contributes 1% of the global carbon dioxide to the global atmosphere.  (Excuse me while I cough some more.)


This week, an article appeared in International Business Times entitled "Alarming Poverty Rate: Is U.S. Becoming a Third World Country?" (see  Now anyone who has traveled to the Global South knows that this is a bit absurd.  BUT, such alarmist titles should make us think long and hard about "business as usual".  Simply put, it is not working.  Perhaps we need to consider something new, something like a green economy, perhaps?

Calls for redefining prosperity in the past have been futile.  How much of an economic and social crash will it take?

Monday, September 12, 2011

When prosperity eludes us

A friend wrote a piece yesterday while reflecting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11:  I think it is beautiful.

Perhaps I am growing cynical.  The result of an eternally frustrated optimist, I guess.  For what it is worth, here is the off-the-cuff reaction I wrote on Stephen's blog (instead of working on my grading and lecture preparation).


In the most general sense, things have not really changed.  Our worst characteristics have perhaps become more fully exemplified (fear, discrimination, a failure to understand difference but a tendency to stereotype, hypocrisy, etc.).  As you state, “our churches were suddenly full”, but sadly, the preaching was too often of retaliation, rather than forgiveness.  I was having great difficulty with all the memorializing over the past week.  For what purpose?  To fuel the anger and hatred? To sharpen the state of fear?  To honor the fallen from that day?  What about all those who have died fighting (sometimes in a country not at all involved in the attacks) or at the hands of our military (perhaps in retaliation)?

One of my favorite stories that appeared over the past week was surprisingly enough from CNN:  The story of the Maasai gift says much about the sense of compassion that remains amongst some cultures.  Have we been as thoughtful in their times of drought, and now, the pipeline explosion?  Or are we still so self-focused that empathy escapes us?

In 2010, Pakistan suffered extreme flooding – the worse in 80 years.  A death toll near 1000, 20 million people affected.  Did we pay much attention?  Not really.  After all, it is an Islamic country and we have sadly lumped all of “those types” together and associated them with 9/11.  After all, bin Laden was found there. (Please know that I am being sarcastic here – just to be clear.)  I still lament the loss of human life and know that even the poor and even the evil, have someone who loves them and is grieving over the loss.

Meteorologists have linked the unusually heavy monsoon flooding in Pakistan to the hottest summer on record and massive fires in Russia in 2010.  Something called an abnormal Rossby wave.  I have no idea what that is, but I am sure that our climate change deniers in Texas (on fire literally and figuratively this year) and in the flooded northeast/mid-Atlantic region would never succumb to the idea that maybe we should pay attention to the climate models.  Or at least the idea that Mother Nature can get pretty cranky sometimes and perhaps we should treat her planet and her people a bit nicer.

So we lick our wounds from the heat waves, and fires, and floods, and hold memorial services “to remember”, but we don’t ask what needs to be altered in our lives, our lifestyles.  We go on.  After all, we are survivors.  Nothing changes.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Water, water everywhere?

I am a water person.  Growing up on the shores of a Great Lake will do that to you.  When I walk along a shoreline, paddle a canoe, or go for a swim, I find it to be soothing, an escape from the stresses of work or life.

Yesterday, I went for the last swim of the season at the local community pool.  It was a cloudy day, not the type that attracts a lot of pool-goers.  Which was just fine with me.  I love when the pool is quiet, free of the screams of delight and the “wake” from people jumping off the side into the lane where I swim laps. 

As I glided through the water, I couldn’t help but think how cool and refreshing and comforting it felt.  Cool water is better for swimming laps.  It feels faster somehow.  But I also began to think about the trouble that water (or lack thereof) has caused this year.  As I was swimming, people in states from North Carolina to New England were still cleaning up from Hurricane Irene’s flooding rains.  And major rains are predicted for the upcoming week possibly followed by the remnants of not just one, but two hurricanes/tropical storms.  In the northeast, water is abundant, too abundant in some places.  In parts of my state, August precipitation levels were at an all-time high for any month, ever!

Meanwhile, areas in the south like Texas have not only had an incredible streak of hot weather, but also a severe drought.  The U.S. Drought Monitor ( labels the south as being a D4 level of drought intensity (“exceptional”).  Funny choice of terms since I typically associate the word "exceptional" with good things, like a job well done.  According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the ten months from October 2010 through July 2011 were the driest for that 10-month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records. During that same time period, Texas has been battling its worse wildfire season in history with over 3.5 million acres burned already and new fires blazing as of yesterday.

Occasionally, there are news reports of the extreme drought in the Horn of Africa, especially all the starving refugees from Somalia.  The water levels at Kenya’s power dams were so low that electric companies had to begin rationing electricity at the end of July leading to blackouts.  What little coverage there has been, the reports make it sound like this is a new problem.  Two years ago, my Maasai friend from Kenya told me about the problems that the already long-running drought was causing for pastoralists, their livestock, and wildlife.

Check out the graphic at this website ( to get a sense of the number of people who don’t have “reasonable access to safe drinking water” (defined as the availability of at least 20 liters per person per day from an improved source within 1 kilometer of the user's dwelling).  How many of us would walk this far for drinking water when we can just carry our little plastic bottles around?  Sigh.  Do you feel at least a little guilty if you water your lawn or wash your car?  I do neither.

Northern Africa has been in the news a lot this year due to the political uprisings.  Just recently, while some celebrated the rebel take-over of the Libyan capital or pondered over the newly-found documents that show ties between Libya and the CIA, many may have missed the fact that people in Tripoli were becoming desperate because Gadhafi loyalists had cut off water supplies to the city.  Cutting off food and water is not a new tactic of warfare, but I can’t imagine what that must be like.  Remember, this is a desert region with a coast along a sea (i.e. saltwater).

Only 1% of the world’s freshwater (~0.007% of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human use. "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Yet in this state (and others), millions of gallons of water are mixed with unsafe chemicals and blasted down into the Earth to release tiny bubbles of methane gas.  Yes, we are willing to sacrifice molecules that are essential to life, H2O, to extract some more fossil fuel.  And who says we aren’t addicted to oil and gas?

Recently, while discussing the protests in Washington D.C. about the tar sands pipeline (a protest really about climate change and the President's broken campaign promises), my students asked if there was any issue that would cause me to engage in civil disobedience.  Without hesitation I replied, "..if they ever were to start piping water from Lake Superior to the southwest."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Musing on Hog Island


Being here at Hog Island

reminds me of my home, my place

where I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior.

I am a water person.

Not the type who spends time

lying on the beach or riding on power boats.

I love the craggy, irregular shorelines

where spruce and white pine and birch

bow down to pay their respects to the vast blue.

Being here with the Osprey family

behind the kitchen, outside my bedroom,

reminds me of a former colleague.

He retired before I had the opportunity

to talk to him about his project.

The one that reintroduced Osprey into Pennsylvania.

And now I know

of Steve Kress and Project Puffin

and other seabird restoration projects.

I recently reviewed data,

50 years of it from a hawk watch near home.

The positive impact of banning DDT was clear.

The age distribution, the numbers

of migrating Bald Eagles and Osprey

are better now, so I am hopeful today.

Being here, I think of people

who saved this island and other special places.

A family linked to Henry David

who saved the work of a great poet, Emily.

I am intrigued by the picture

of Millicent Todd Bingham and Rachel Carson

and the ties to Audubon.

What would have been lost

if Rachel hadn’t written about the silence of spring?

Did Scott Weidensaul inspire the flyway initiative?

Lately, I have been reading

about nature and environmental writing

and the impact writers have had on conservation and awareness.

Bill McKibben asks what metaphors,

what type of writing we need now

For 21st century conservation, for the many threats of today?

Not Muir, Leopold, Brower or Abbey.

But who?

As I have been watching the water,

the seabirds, the intertidal pools,

I also wonder what each of us will do.

To make a difference,

To preserve a special place,

To continue the stories and provide hope for others.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Healing Power of Peaches

I have been a bit down lately.  Perhaps it is the sad state of political affairs in Washington.  Perhaps it is the fact that a week of August is now past and I have worked too many hours this summer instead of taking time to enjoy the season like I should.  (Don’t even get me started about how many people tell me that it must be nice that you college professors have the summer off.  Harrumph.)  Lately, even during my walks through the woods with my dog—usually a time devoted to not thinking, but simply listening, enjoying—I have been ticking off a long list of tasks that need to be done before the fall semester starts or lamenting all the projects that I once again didn’t get to.

Or maybe it isn’t politics or work at all that have caused this state of melancholy.  Perhaps it is because so many of my former students are getting married this year, and I am starting to feel like grandmother!  Or maybe it is because so many friends my age are beginning to bury their parents, or are facing death themselves.

I am usually an optimist, sometimes painfully so.  Having this trait sets you up to be disappointed, to be brought down hard, often.  Did I really believe that during the recent debt-ceiling debate/fiasco the politicians would focus on the good of the people and the country, instead of themselves and their chances of re-election?  Had I hoped that the U.S. would finally make a serious commitment to confronting an international climate change policy that would be better than the Kyoto Protocol that expires all too soon?  (Oh yeah, we didn’t sign that agreement, did we?)  Could the President at least acknowledge the atrocious situation in east Africa and the need for humanitarian aid?  And how unrealistic was my list of summer projects, anyhow? 

I am typically equally optimistic—and heartbroken—about the state of the environment.  I often believe that all of the hard work of conservationists and environmental educators, along with some human ingenuity, will coalesce to begin to change attitudes and priorities and some solutions.  If we could only show some stories of progress and success, even more of us might start thinking about saving the planet, or at least preserving or restoring a little bit of nature around our homes.  And I continue to hope that all my efforts and those of my colleagues will finally get a few more people outside, a few more children to once again experience the wonders of the natural world rather than the virtual ones they live in.  If they could get over their deficit, Richard Louv could start writing about other societal ills.

As I ponder my gloomy state of mind, I wonder how much it has to do with the fact that I spend so much of my time these days dealing with environmental issues and conservation – be it through teaching or my scholarship.  My research students asked me a few weeks ago why, knowing what I do about the science of climate change, I don’t get depressed.  (At least they haven’t noticed that I have been less cheery than normal.)  Over the summer, they were progressing through their phenology project and the series of research articles I had given them to read.  And now they were coming to the conclusion that their future was indeed grim.  Great.  So much for my mentoring and being a source of inspiration!  I do not remember exactly what I said to them, but it was probably something to the effect of …at least we know that we are trying.  We have to start somewhere.

My students (and Bill McKibben) are right.  The number of environmental concerns and unsustainable practices we are confronted with is staggering.  The college-age youth/young adults are just about to enter the “real world” and it is weighing heavily on them.  My generation tries to prepare our children and students for success, but, in reality we have left quite a mess for them to resolve.  And there are not guarantees for success.

In searching for readings for a fall seminar course on “Environmental Writing for the 21st Century”, I started skimming an anthology last night:  “American Earth:  Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.”  In the introduction, Bill McKibben, in writing about the link between environmentalism and environmental writing says:

The [American environmentalism] movement—so often driven by a piece of writing—has won many great battles.  There are hundreds of millions of acres of land conserved and laws passed to protect the most insignificant of flora and fauna; regulations have cleaned the air and water. 

What, a ray of hope?  But he continues:

And yet the war goes badly.  So far the images and metaphors that these and other writers have produced—the rich heritage of American environmental writing, on which the movement continues to draw—have proved insufficient against the forces of expanding commerce and daily habit that drive global warming.

Sigh.  I am not sure why I am drawn to Mr. McKibben’s writing since it has a way of bringing us optimist types down—quickly and hard.  Who else titles a book “The End of Nature”?  He continues:

But there is no closure in this struggle.  To look down that list [over environmental battles that have been won] is to realize that most of these battles were fought around the margins.  The places we’ve managed to preserve, with few exceptions, were high, rocky, cold, or otherwise remote, and hence of limited economic value.  The fights we’ve won have so far been mostly about smoothing the rough edges of progress—catalytic converters for cars and highway beautification, but not mass transit, much less bicycle cities.  …But as we set about the work that faces us now—the work of reorienting our lives to ward off the apocalypse that science now predicts—we must continue to find further images, further metaphors.

Bill, you are right of course, but really?  Can’t you find some hope or examples that are more uplifting?  And yet you keep trying, through your own writing and activism.  But is this the message I want to give to an incoming group of freshman?  Will they be the ones to find the right metaphors that will finally make a difference in a place other than a margin? 


This morning – the skies were murky, a perfect match for my mood.  I tried not to think of work during the walk with my dog and instead wondered what happened to the Field Sparrow I had heard all week.  In its place, I heard the lonely calls of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and some Mourning Doves, the hollering of a Pileated Woodpecker, and squawking Blue Jays.  Were they all annoyed with the state of the world too?  As I came back down the hill to where the forest and old farm field meets, I heard a lot more bird commotion.  A Cooper’s Hawk was perched on a snag, close to a crow’s nest and within striking range of the Barn Swallows swooping over their insect-hunting grounds. 

I was reminded of the recent incident on campus where a Red-tailed Hawk had somehow caught a young crow and was precariously balanced on a lamp-post trying to annihilate its prey while being bombarded by other members of the crow family.  My students had spotted this while returning from lunch and ran it to get me.  We watched the struggling bird in the talons suddenly go limp as the hawk squeezed hard, probably snapping the crow’s neck.  The hawk then proceeded to start ripping apart the flesh.  The scene was fascinating, in sort of a morbid way.  I was most pleased that the girls had thought to come and get me to share in the moment.

Now there is little chance that an accipiter would take out a crow this morning or any day, but it could very well make breakfast out of a barn swallow.  Given that I had just watched the newest brood of young swallows sticking their hungry beaks out of the nests in our barn, the loss of a parent at this point would not be good.  Yes, I know that there is violence and both winners and losers in nature, but have you ever seen baby Barn Swallows?  I think that this is the second batch of babies in our barn this year, but it is possibly the third.  As I said, I have been rather busy with work and not noticing the things I usually do.

Before heading back inside, I walked up to our newest peach trees which are producing a real crop for the first time this year.  I see that the bees and wasps and maybe some birds have taken small bites out of the fruit on the highest limbs, so I harvest the ripe and almost ripe drupes.  I can cut around the flesh wounds created by the insects when I slice some fruit for a cobbler later.  The not-quite ready specimens will quickly ripen on the sunny kitchen counter along with some tomatoes that I have set out. The fruit flies (Drosophila to my science colleagues) which seem to spontaneously generate in our house will be pleased with what I have gathered this morning.

I realize that I am hungry and bite into the soft golden-orange flesh of one of the peaches.  It is sheer perfection, the juice runny down my chin, the sweet flavor and aroma being too wonderful for mere adjectives.  I look around at fog-drenched mountain.  The Cooper’s Hawk has flown off and the swallows have resumed collecting breakfast for their young.  I bite into a second peach.  Such indulgence I think, realizing that life is actually pretty good.  And I wonder, despite all the abuses that we throw at Mother Nature, why does she continue to bless us with things as wonderful as I have experienced this morning?  Do we really deserve gifts as remarkable as these fresh peaches?

I head back inside with my T-shirt full of treasures, ready for baking and ready to have a great day preparing for that new group of students who will arrive on campus soon.

Friday, July 22, 2011


I have been neglectful of this blog for too long.  I suppose it is largely because work and family, but mainly work, have consumed much of my time.  It was so much easier when I was on sabbatical in the fall with time to think and write and daydream.  There are many angles for a post on work and prosperity or the woes of working too much.  But these are not thoughts that caused me to pick up pen to write today (I really did write this out by hand first).  I write because of family.

Five weeks ago, a beloved aunt, my mother’s sole remaining sibling, died.  Her body had grown weary from a weak heart and late stage Parkinson’s disease.  She suffered a stroke and passed from a coma to a more peaceful place.  Then this morning, I received news that one of her daughters, my cousin Deb and once close friend, died from liver failure.  A mother, a grandmother, she was just my age – way too young to die.  But long ago, she chose a path that led to this point.  I want to cry, to reach back in time and pull her down a different passageway even though I know that would have been futile.  She was much too stubborn and rebellious.

So instead, I turn to writing.  Now one does not normally link the loss of a close childhood friend and relative to the theme of this blog (prosperity).  But when months ago, I heard that Deb had been rushed to the University of Michigan Medical Center and was on life support, I was overwhelmed with memories, happy ones of our younger days.  I was worried for her, of course, and scared that we might loose her.  But I kept thinking of all the silly things we did as kids.  She pulled through that crisis, but only for a short time.  But the flood of memories and stories are still with me today.  And so I write.

I heard that during my aunt’s funeral service, the minister chose to focus on her suffering in recent years.  Why didn’t he focus on the wonderful wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and friend she was?  The warmth that she exuded made everyone smile.  She readily welcomed anyone who knocked on her door (or most likely just walked in because that was the way their home was).  And there was always food to share.  Good food and great bakery.  I felt horrible that I couldn’t attend the funeral, but I think the minister’s words may have made me angry.  Hers was a life to be celebrated.  My sermon would have been very different.

Theirs was a home of love.  Lots of it.  And a home filled with lots of kids and commotion, giggles and squabbles.  Eight children and a very big dog in a small house is going to result in chaotic moments!  But this was always a favorite destination of mine – this little green house.  This is where the extended family gathered on Christmas Day for dinner, where grandma stayed when the snow was too deep at her farm and she could no longer snowshoe to the outhouse.  This is where my cousins and I listened to the Archies, looked through catalogs to pick out our first bras (long before we needed them), and shared secrets about boys and career dreams.  Deb wanted to become a neurosurgeon.  I had only figured out that I wanted to be some sort of doctor and go to Africa.

 In summer, we often hung out at grandma’s farm where we wandered through the abandoned hay fields that now grew “wildflowers’ and lots of grasshoppers.  The flowers were destined for a bouquet for grandma’s crowded table next to the bowl of sugar cubes; the grasshoppers were destined for a fishing line or a jar where the boys would try to toss them down our shirts later.  I still hate grasshoppers.

We wandered the dirt road, climbed trees to get the green apples that gave us stomach pains, and rigged up “sprinklers” with clothespins clipped on the end of a hose flung over the clothesline.  Our backsides would be black from sliding down the tar paper roof of the root cellar, we jumped off precariously high piles of hay bales, and tried to catch wild kittens in a barn no longer save for dairy cows, much less little girls.  At this age, we really didn’t think too much about the risk of our choices.  Although I usually knew that I would get scolded by my mom for getting too dirty.

Grandma made rag rugs on a loom out of material salvaged from old clothes.  We spend countless hours as kids playing dress up with the clothes – wherever they came from.  Before they were cut into strips and rolled into balls, we up-cycled them into costumes for Ms. America pageants.  After all, we couldn’t reach the pedals on the loom, so we might as well just play.  Or eavesdrop on the adults through the hole cut into the floor to allow the heat to rise upstairs from the wood burning stove.  We would be plopped on the beds covered with grandma’s hand-sewn quilts (also made from salvaged material) and surrounded by comic books.

When were older, we often joined with other relatives to go bowling or to cruise along the canal.  We went to the drive-in or Big Boy for late night meals that were never healthy, but at that point we could eat crappy food and not gain an ounce.  That changed for me soon enough, but Deb always seemed to be stay thin.  Back then, the newspapers didn’t tell us about the health risks of these addictive habits.

We lived two hours apart so went to different high schools.  We competed against each other in swimming.  I could never beat her although I always got my fastest times when she was in one of the other lanes.   But then again, I couldn’t catch her when we played games at the farm either.

It was in college that we started to drift apart.  I saw her often enough on campus.  I was pursuing a degree in science but I never saw her in those courses, despite that earlier dream of being a neurosurgeon.  I did see her partying a lot.  Occasionally, we would go to the Pizza Hut for the lunch buffet to see who could eat the most slices of pizza.  We did the same with grandma’s pancakes when we were younger.  I never won, but often felt sick to my stomach for trying!  It never seemed to faze Deb.

Deb married and had babies early.  I moved on to graduate school to become a different type of doctor than I originally imagined.  I would get updates from my mom and, if I was home visiting family, I would occasionally run into Deb.  Sadly, I never really got to know her children living as far away as I did.  My own children would be born much later; I am not sure if they remember the one time they met her at that little green house before her mom and dad moved to a senior living apartment complex.

Perhaps that was our last conversation.  Or maybe it was at my grandmother’s funeral.  Deb had braided grandma’s long snowy white hair for the event, noting that she had been the only one gram allowed to play with her hair.  She was probably right, but I wasn’t in the mood to rekindle our competitive sparring from years gone by.

This is a family that has seen much tragedy.  The father, my uncle, had suffered serious health problems from a major fire at the paper plant he once worked for.  He now has Alzheimer’s and may not understand the news he will be told about his daughter today.  Several of the children had serious health problems when they were young.  Two brothers died in their 30’s.  Parents should have to see their children die first; the father just lost his third.  Despite a large family, low income, and string of misfortunes, this family was always generous – always ready to share food, stories, love, hugs, and laughter.  I am sure that this is what gives them all the strength to handle all that life has thrown their way – an unfair share, if you ask me.

To me, the wealth in all of this are these types of memories, the great times that we had together, and the immense amounts of love shared, without ever saying the words.  I hope that Deb remembered some of these rich moments and that she had found the peace that she has needed through her rocky, rebellious life.  Rest in Peace, dear cousin.  I miss you!