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

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.