Death in the Landscape

On my way home from work the other day, I saw a bloated, rotting carcass on the side of the road. It was so far gone I wasn’t even sure what type of animal it was. I had a visceral reaction. Somebody should get rid of that thing. Not me, of course. (Ew. Gross.) But somebody. I looked away and drove on.

We humans have a great fear of death. We subscribe to religious philosophies mainly to reassure ourselves that death isn’t the end. We bury or burn our dead. We don’t want to look at death. Those of us who eat meat are mostly repulsed by the idea of killing and preparing that meat ourselves. In nature preserves, when a mammal dies, the body will be quickly disposed of so the tourists won’t see it.

But according to this article, entitled “’Landscape of fear’: What a Mass of Rotting Reindeer Carcasses Taught Scientists”, we may want to rethink our treatment of carcasses in natural settings. It seems that 323 reindeer were killed in a freak lightning storm on a distant Norwegian plateau. Rather than instinctively intervene and deal with this mass die off, scientists decided that it was far enough away from humanity that they should take this opportunity to study what happens if nature is allowed to take its course.

First, the top predators came in. Wolverines. Arctic Foxes. Golden Eagles. Then came the scavenger birds such as ravens, crows, and eagles. They hung around for about a year. Once they cleared out, the rodents felt safe enough to come in. Voles and lemmings, mostly. And non-scavenger birds would come and go, feeding on the flies.

Meanwhile, the plants in the area were starting to change, as the scavengers left their droppings, which contained seeds. This can increase plant biomass by as much as five times more than was previously seen in the area. This, in turn, attracts plant-eating animals, which then attract predators. And so the great web of life goes on. Death makes life.

Am I suggesting that we should leave dead animals on city streets? No. That would put us too close to the disease process. But just as we are learning to allow dead trees to remain where they lie in forests, as a benefit to the ecosystem, it’s really valuable to let nature reclaim dead animals in less populated areas.

If we can just get past the “squick” factor, we’ll be fine.

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Once Upon a Time, Not Long Ago…

I know you’re still young, and can’t remember a world that wasn’t like the one that we have today. That’s entirely the fault of human beings, and I’m really sorry for what you’re missing out on. I hope someday you grow up to make the kind of differences that we adults have failed to make for you.

Once upon a time, we could breathe the air without a filter.

Once upon a time, the sun was so bright that you couldn’t look directly at it.

Once upon a time, you got to see the full face of everyone you encountered, and that made it a lot easier to know how they were feeling.

Once upon a time, there were things called concerts.

Once upon a time, you could see the stars.

Once upon a time, kids your age enjoyed riding bikes and playing little league.

Once upon a time, you could travel to other countries.

Once upon a time, people could hug one another.

Once upon a time, people actually went outside on purpose, for pleasure. (You’d have loved camping.)

Once upon a time, there was a thing called democracy.

Once upon a time, the rivers weren’t choked with algae.

Once upon a time, we didn’t fight over water.

Once upon a time, people got together in large groups for school and just for fun.

Once upon a time, the world was a lot more populated, and maybe that’s where everything started going wrong.

I’m so sorry. We have no excuse for what we’ve done. I wish you had had the chance to know the world the way I remember it. You deserve so much better.

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The Consequences of This Pandemic

I can’t shake the feeling that this pandemic is going to change the world in ways that we don’t even anticipate. What will life be like after the dust settles? What will we have learned?

I must admit that I’m loving the reduced traffic. I’m hoping that many companies will realize that yes, in fact, they can continue to do business with a lot of their employees telecommuting. And will this habit of consolidating all one’s errands into a single day rather than rushing out whenever the mood strikes have any staying power? Fingers crossed.

What will the psychological impact be? Are we raising a generation of agoraphobics? Will we ever get past the increase in depression? Will anyone ever feel that they had a chance to properly grieve those they’ve lost during this age of social distancing? Will there be a spike in divorces? A spike in unplanned pregnancies? Will we ever lose our quarantine weight?

As horrible as this is to say, I suspect that the tragic decrease in baby boomers due to this virus will reduce pressure on senior care facilities the world over. I suppose that can be interpreted as a good thing. At least from that perspective, if not from any other.

The economic impact is still hard to gauge. Will we bounce back quickly, or will the consequences be dire? Is the age of small business completely over? This pandemic seems to be killing small shops, while package stores are thriving. I know as a landlord I’m feeling the pressure, and I fail to see how my poor tenant will ever catch back up.

And what of travel? Will we ever be able to comfortably travel overseas again? And have we lost our taste for large concerts and sporting events? I know I’ll never feel quite as comfortable sitting cheek by jowl with total strangers again.

Now that we’ve seen nature bounce back ever so slightly due to our inactivity, will we appreciate it more? Will we care for the environment as we should have all along? Having realized what a cesspool we’ve made of the planet, will we make more of an effort to clean it up?

These things are but the tip of an enormous COVID-19 iceberg. But just as with the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago, a hundred years from now people will have all but forgotten what we have gone through and how things were before this pandemic washed over us like the invisible tsunami from hell.

Out of curiosity, I decided to read the Wikipedia page about the consequences of the black death. Other than the few minutes it took for our teachers to instruct us of its existence back when we were in school, most people don’t really think of the black death, and yet it changed the world permanently in many profound ways.

Here are some of the scariest and/or more fascinating bits of this Wikipedia article:

  • Historians estimate that it reduced the total world population from 475 million to between 350 and 375 million. In most parts of Europe, it took nearly 80 years for population sizes to recover, and in some areas more than 150 years.

  • The massive reduction of the workforce meant that labor was suddenly in higher demand. For many Europeans, the 15th century was a golden age of prosperity and new opportunities. The land was plentiful, wages high, and serfdom had all but disappeared.

  • Christians accused Jews of poisoning public water supplies in an effort to ruin European civilization. The spreading of this rumor led to complete destruction of entire Jewish towns, and was simply caused by suspicion on part of the Christians, who noticed that the Jews had lost fewer lives to the plague due to their hygienic practices.

  • Renewed religious fervor and fanaticism came in the wake of the Black Death. Some Europeans targeted groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers and Romani, thinking that they were to blame for the crisis.

  • Much of the primeval vegetation returned, and abandoned fields and pastures were reforested.

  • The Black Death encouraged innovation of labor-saving technologies, leading to higher productivity. There was a shift from grain farming to animal husbandry. Grain farming was very labor-intensive, but animal husbandry needed only a shepherd and a few dogs and pastureland.

  • In England, more than 1300 villages were deserted between 1350 and 1500.

  • After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The general mood was one of pessimism, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death. The widespread image of the “dance of death” showed death (a skeleton) choosing victims at random.

  • The plague was present somewhere in Europe in every year between 1346 and 1671.

What can we learn from the aftermath of the black death?

  • Clearly, our knowledge of medicine and viral transmission has greatly increased, and our ability to communicate is much better, so COVID-19 will not take as many lives as the black death did. That’s a huge relief. But perhaps these numbers should be used to remind us of the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and the use of masks.

  • It would be wonderful if this catastrophe brings about a narrowing of the income gap between the rich and the poor. We definitely need that to have a healthy society.

  • I fear the scapegoating and violence that is already happening. This time it’s focused on Asians and immigrants, and it’s absolutely insane. As if anyone is responsible for the existence of a virus.

  • I hope we see major environmental impacts, in a positive way, and that we don’t all revert to our previous bad habits.

  • I am seeing evidence of all kinds of innovation, and I find that encouraging. I hope we keep that up.

  • There is a very good chance that COVID-19 will return year after year after year, just as the black death did. I hope we come up with a vaccine soon, but I suspect that when we do, we’ll be getting COVID shots every year, right along with our flu shots. This is not a virus that will simply disappear after a few months.

Welcome to the new reality. May we all survive and be made all the better for it. Anything less will be an absolute horror.

dance-of-death

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An Environmental Reset

I just read an article that says that now that there are no tourists in Venice, the canals are so clear that you can see the fish in them, and that dolphins have been spotted for the first time in recent memory. How wonderful. I wish I could see that, but unfortunately, our trip to Italy has been cancelled.

And then this article on the NPR website shows that the air pollution in China has all but disappeared, because people aren’t driving, and factories aren’t running. China’s carbon footprint isn’t nearly as footy or printy as it was this time last year. Again, good news.

As someone said on a meme that is going around, it’s almost as if the planet has sent us all to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.

We are experiencing a rare opportunity to see a cleaner, less crowded world. I hope that really sinks in with people. I hope it makes us all tread more lightly upon the earth. I hope that we learn more from the horrible tragedy of COVID-19 than the need to wash our hands.

Dolphins venice

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Mid-Month Marvels: Greenagers

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’ll be calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

I’ve blogged about my teen participation in the Youth Conservation Corps before. It was a very life-changing part of my growing up, and it gave me skills that I employ to this day. It used to be a federal program, and I truly believe that when Reagan did away with it, the country didn’t quite realize what it was giving up in terms of teaching the nation’s youth how to be strong, capable, confident and hard working adults.

So imagine my joy when I stumbled upon an organization called Greenagers. The only fault I can find with this amazing program is that it is only in the Berkshires and a small part of New York State. I think this entire country could benefit from this fantastic idea.

According to their website, “Greenagers provides employment and volunteer opportunities for teens and young adults in the fields of conservation, sustainable farming, and environmental leadership.”

They have several programs. They help maintain the Appalachian trails in the area, work with local farmers, and install front yard gardens for area families. They work on public lands to build trails, remove invasive species, and construct kiosks and benches. They also have a river walk stewardship program, and a climate action program to educate students in middle school.

There are so many benefits to Greenagers that there is not enough space in this blog to count them all. Not only does it provide youth with gainful employment, but it educates them about the environment and provides them with tools to maintain this planet in a way that we should have been doing all along. It also teaches them teamwork and gives them skills in collaboration. It shows them how to work with their hands, and it gets them off the couch and into the great outdoors for actual exercise. It gives them an amazing work ethic and it instills confidence and keeps them out of trouble.

Currently, this organization is raising funds to acquire the April Hill Education and Conservation Center, a 100 acre plot that includes a farmhouse that was built in 1744, a barn, and several outbuildings, not far from the Appalachian Trail. This will allow them to expand this incredible program and increase their opportunities to educate and uplift the community. Check out this amazing video, and please join me in supporting this great cause.

Greenagers

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Oh, the Humanity

I just read a fascinating article. It seems that some scientists want to bring airships back. Yes, Zeppelins. Like the Hindenburg. As in, the one that burned so spectacularly in New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people.

Your gut reaction may be that that’s an insane proposition, but hold on a second. Have an open mind. Let’s think about this.

First of all, these scientists are not talking about making these vessels for passenger transportation. They are thinking strictly of cargo. Airships could transport cargo across the globe much more quickly and with a great deal less environmental impact than freighters do today. The article spoke mainly of fuel efficiency, and pollution, but it would also reduce ocean noises that have such a negative impact on whales and dolphins.

They are also talking about the fact that these things could be massive, as much as a mile and a half long, which is ten times bigger than the Hindenburg was. This would be possible because we have created much more durable materials to work with than we had a century ago. That’s a lot of cargo space.

Yes, there’s still a concern about hydrogen and its flammability, but scientists have come up with an additive that makes it less flammable. Also, these vessels could be operated remotely, or even robotically, to lessen the risk to humans.

Another delightful side benefit is that the byproduct of hydrogen is pure water, rather than carbon emissions, and that water could very conceivably be released as these airships float over land that is suffering from drought.

I think this is an idea worth pursuing. I hope that the Hindenburg tragedy, as horrible as it was, won’t prevent us from moving forward. Zeppelins operated for 40 years before that disaster. Yes, there were other crashes, but then, there are plane crashes, too.

No matter what the planet decides, I felt great after reading that article, because it reminded me that there are innovators in the world who are actively seeking solutions to our environmental problems. Now is not the time to abandon all hope. We can still do this.

Hindenburg_disaster

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Flygskam

A friend of mine loves to travel, but vows never to fly anywhere ever again. This is not because of a fear of flying or a desire to avoid the dreaded TSA indignities, but because of the carbon footprint it leaves on the planet. According to this article in the Seattle Times, one roundtrip flight from Seattle to Rome emits the same amount of carbon per person as 9 months of driving in the average American car.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a horrifying statistic. I struggle with this concept every day. In Sweden the term for this type of flight shame is “flygskam”.

While I admire my friend’s commitment to the planet, I have mixed emotions about how small her world has become. In this era when nationalism is on the rise, bringing with it an increase in hate crimes, we need to broaden our horizons, not shrink them.

Perhaps if Trump had studied abroad in Mexico as I did, he wouldn’t have said, that “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

I genuinely believe that it’s a great deal harder to demonize people when you’ve broken bread with them. I have no desire to wall a child off from safety when I’ve held one just like her in my arms. And I can’t close my mind and pretend that my way of living is the only right way since I’ve witnessed so many other people living differently and thriving in their own ways. I also truly believe that when I travel to other countries, I am helping those economies, and I am also acting as an ambassador to demonstrate that some Americans are good people, too. I think travel is essential.

So what to do to mitigate this flygskam?

In that same Seattle Times article, it mentions that Rick Steves is donating a million dollars a year to groups that help people who are negatively impacted by drought and famine. This will sort of offset the carbon footprint of the large number of people who fly with his tour groups to Europe each year. It’s a start.

But Should You Buy Carbon Offsets? That link suggests that this type of financial salve on your environmental guilt is akin to paying people to do the right thing so you don’t have to. Well, as with all things regarding this issue, it’s not quite that black and white. If you find a legitimate carbon offset, then you’re actually paying someone to do the right thing who couldn’t or wouldn’t have done so in the first place. That, to me, is a good thing. Because of this, I vow to pay 50 dollars in carbon offsets for every roundtrip international flight I take, and 25 dollars for every domestic one. But I can’t stop there.

The best way to reduce your carbon footprint in this world is to do it yourself. I’m committed to recycling, composting, threadcycling, getting energy efficient appliances, turning off lights, reducing my heating and cooling, buying locally, and eating less meat. I’m building a bug house. I’ve got a bat house. I’m also looking into wind turbines. The state of Washington is on the forefront of green burials, so I will have one when the time comes.

I also think that corporate travel needs to be drastically reduced. In this age of video conferencing and virtual reality, there’s no reason for the vast majority of it. And telecommuting needs to be considered for more jobs.

I think carbon neutral perfection is unobtainable. I have feet. I’m going to leave a footprint. But if I can do something, I will, and I must.

Takeoff

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An Adventure Fraught with Pangs of Conscience

I try really hard to live gently upon this earth. I recycle. I eat locally as much as I can. I don’t use fertilizer or Roundup on my lawn (and shame on you if you do!) I boycott the most environmentally abusive corporations. I feel guilty every time I use my car.

But the other day, I went snowmobiling for the first time ever. At age 54. And it was… FREAKING AWESOME!!!!

I’ll probably go straight to hell.

After being fitted with an XXL helmet to fit my XXL head, we went to Crystal Springs Sno-Park, and since it was a Monday, we had the entire place to ourselves. We went deep into the Cascade Mountains, crossing Stampede Pass and Meadow Pass, and skirting the edge of Lost Lake. It was a beautiful day for it. Clear blue skies, perfect snow conditions, and not terribly cold. Glorious.

We covered 37 miles. I got to see parts of Washington State that most people never get to see. One of the things I love most about living out here is the pure majesty of the landscape. Just a couple hours outside the cities, you are in one amazing natural setting or another. I want to explore every inch of this state.

I knew I’d love the views. And why does food taste so much better outdoors? I absolutely adored the peace and quiet when we stopped and gazed into the valley.

But, heaven help me, I also loved blasting along the straightaways, a rooster tail of snow behind me. The roar of the engine sounded like I was riding atop a chainsaw. Woo hoo! What a rush! I don’t think I’ve ever felt so powerful in my entire life.

But at the same time, I was thinking about the environmental impact I was making, and I was feeling kind of ashamed because of it. (Some company in Canada is working on creating electric snowmobiles. I hope they catch on.) I also didn’t see much wildlife at all in that gorgeous place which should have been crawling with it. I’m sure the noise agitates them. Making a creature run away in the dead of winter when every calorie counts is really an awful thing to do.

It’s really hard to have this kind of fun as a human being without also being utterly selfish. Lightning may strike me dead, but I have to admit I want to go again next year. In the meantime, I think I need to go plant about 150 trees.

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Coyotes

I was standing in a big, dirty parking lot in the industrial part of town. Think concrete and gas fumes. It would be difficult to find a less natural setting. And it was raining, causing rivulets of polluted snowmelt to criss cross the pavement as far as the eye could see.

That’s when I spotted her. A coyote, running down the sidewalk as semi trucks blasted past. She looked mangy and emaciated. I’ve never seen anything that looked so feral in my life.

I was fascinated, but also glad that she hadn’t come too close. There was something surreal about seeing her there. It was almost like she was floating in outer space. This should not be her environment.

She was focused on her mission, whatever that may have been. She didn’t acknowledge me, although I’m sure she was acutely aware of my presence. Nothing was going to get in her way, not even an 18 wheeler. And she was quiet. If I hadn’t been looking that direction, I’d have never known she was there.

I had never come face to face with a coyote before. I know they’re around. I sometimes hear them howling in the park behind our house. It always gives me a frisson. And it makes me worry for my Dachshund.

But to see one is something else again. It’s like being confronted by the raw power of nature. Even in her weakened state, I had no doubt that she was stronger than me, and much more capable of surviving.

At the same time, I felt sorry for her, living on the ugliest, dirtiest fringes of human civilization. We have done this. We have encroached. She shouldn’t have to live like this.

None of us should have to live like this.

https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_6_6f_Coyote_in_Griffith_Park_3

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A Blanket Apology to Everyone on Earth

This post is for all of you who read my blog outside of the U.S. I am an American. I can’t speak for all Americans. No one can. Or at least no one should. But I can certainly speak for myself.

It breaks my heart that my country as a whole is being judged by the rest of the world based on what they see in the news. Most of us are not like the insane people who grab the headlines these days. Many of us are as appalled by what we read as you are. I don’t know if that will be a source of comfort or of increased anxiety for you, but there you have it: for many of us, that feeling of disgust does not stop outside our borders.

So let me tell you a little about who I am, so you can see that not all of us fit that stereotype that has been created by Washington D.C., our nation’s capitol, where you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting someone who is morally bankrupt, unforgivably selfish, and rotting from the inside by the sheer weight of his or her greed. Such blatant abuse of power is unconscionable.

First of all, I am horrified at my government’s total disdain for the environment. We are one of the most environmentally selfish nations on earth, and the least likely to do anything to turn this global warming situation around before it destroys us all. I’m so sorry for that. I wish I felt like I could do something about it. I mean, I vote. I speak out. I do the best I can to reduce my carbon footprint. But I feel like I’m not making an impact, and I know this negatively impacts you as well.

I also happen to think that my country’s stance on guns is absurd and dangerous. We have more mass shootings than anywhere else, and we can’t even agree that the average citizen has no legitimate need for semi-automatic weapons. It makes no sense.

And this damned border wall that Trump is so in love with? I don’t want it. No one I know really wants it. All this political maneuvering is an embarrassment. Honestly, how do these people even look themselves in the mirror?

I don’t think immigrants are a threat. In fact, I’m a second generation American myself. This country would be lost without immigrants. I’m not so greedy that I’m not willing to share the wealth. I actually like you unless you give me some personal reason to feel otherwise. I don’t believe in kidnapping your children at the border. I think the day we stop granting asylum to people in danger is the day when we lose the most vital part of what makes us decent human beings. Jesus wouldn’t turn you away, so how can a country that considers itself mainly Christian do so? I don’t understand this attitude of xenophobia. It makes me sick.

I am also profoundly sorry that we don’t step in to help nearly as often as we butt in to serve our own best interests. We have no right to do this. Clearly, we struggle to get ourselves right, so it’s the height of arrogance to think we can fix anyone else.

And we imprison people to a much higher degree than any other country. I can’t blame you if you think twice about visiting us. I’d be afraid to, if I were you. But I genuinely believe that we need you to come visit. We need our horizons expanded. It’s hard to think of someone as an enemy once we’ve broken bread with that person. Please, come break bread with us.

I guess I do sit squarely in one stereotype. I tend to forget the world doesn’t revolve around us. Perhaps you could care less about what my country says or does. Perhaps you have more important things on your mind than my pompous country. That’s a legitimate response, too, and I can hardly blame you for it.

I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry about all the destruction we cause. I just wanted you to know that somewhere here, in this unbelievable circus of a country, sits a woman in a bridge tower who is every bit as outraged as many of you are. And I know for a fact that I’m not alone. So, please forgive us, individually, even if you cannot bring yourselves to forgive us collectively.

American Flag

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