Pleasures of the Storm

We just came through a deluge! Was it a whole week of rain? It seemed like a month! Dark skies and precipitation were constants, a sprinkle serving for a break in the weather, a ferocious downpour an awe inspiring twice daily event.

As creeks rose above roads and runoff formed ponds under highway overpasses, some citizens faced flooding in their yards or homes. Those of us, like me, who didn’t need to drive anywhere and don’t have a creek hard by, could just “go with the flow.”

A storm slows my thinking to a snail’s pace, but, now that I abstain from gluten, the crippling migraines that heralded a barometric change are gone! [To those of you who hold this gluten-free business is a passing fad —  be grateful for your ignorance! May you continue to lack first hand experience with IBS or CFIDS/fibro etc.] So I  have learned to take my pleasure as it comes.

It was restful to sit on the screen porch and watch the rain come down. Leaves on the maple tree trembled as the drops hit and slid off. Swirling, muddy water slid by through the drainage ditches beside the black road, off to swell the might James. The noise of the rain varied with the violence of the storm. Our Lab hung close to my heels as the thunder rumbled around us and the lightened cracked overhead.

An additional pleasure was my delight in the overwhelming green of my immediate world. The grass was lush and the leaves on the trees fresh and vibrant. The vegetables and flowers in our raised beds grew even as I watched them. Looking out the windows, I saw the sunflowers and potatoes stretch still taller from hour to hour.

In between downpours, I’d venture out and do a bit of weeding. A careful tug would bring up a whole dandelion, root and all — always a satisfying accomplishment. My hair and shoulders grew damp and then wet as I lingered between the garden beds until the mist went from sprinkle to steady rain and forced me back inside.

Here’s another pleasure: wading in ankle deep water. I was happy to splash through any shallow puddles between the back door and the hen house. A few more steps, justIMG_20180519_164828 through the back gate, the I found the clover submerged in standing water four inches deep. The ground was soft underfoot, the clover floated around my toes, and the water was cool. A sensory delight!

Such unusual, incredible rain created a new, separate world. During those days, we lived outside of sordid politics and gross injustices against humanity. We could even set aside environmental concerns as we* dealt with more immediate problems likely brought on by man-made climate change.

The Long Rain afforded some relief from our usual anxieties and left us a thriving, blossoming, vining garden set in brilliant green from under our feet to way over heads in up-against-the-blue-sky leafy trees. The fresh morning air fills with bird song and the night begins with the high songs of peepers and the deep calls of bull frogs.

War is another kind of storm that can overflow its banks. Inside my dry island on the sofa, while the drainage ditches gurgled and the rain beat down in sheets, I read The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves. Now that was a storm a long time coming and still not gone. Long after those cannons quit booming, the poisoned waters still trickle through our lands.

Future times may find others looking back at our recent deluge with an understanding I don’t have, just like those enslaved children marveling at the “thunder” echoing over the Georgia hills — and not a cloud in the sky.

 

* By “we”, I mean my husband. He was out in the rain attempting to free a blocked culvert across the street. He also dealt with a failing sump pump in the crawl space under our house.

 

 

 

 

 

A Scourge Upon the Earth!

A giant bee suspended from the canopy framework drew me into a booth at the botanical center’s plant sale. Inside, I found an education display on pollinators. A young man stepped out of the shade. “Do you have a question for a naturalist?” he asked. He and two other people waited alertly for my reply.

My husband, later, told me I’d missed my cue. According to him, I should have asked, “If you are naturalists, why aren’t you all naked?” It’s probably for the best that I missed that cue.

But I did have a question. “Why is it legal for my neighbor to use poison on her property?” The young man kind of sputtered. Then he said he had an answer to that question but it would be better if he didn’t give it.* (Kind of like me dropping my cue.) The woman beside him told us about a friend of hers whose neighbor sprayed poison on the perimeter of his property and killed her friend’s plants.

The young man began explaining how my beautiful lawn, maintained with safe practices, could set the example for my neighbors. I explained that my lawn wasn’t beautiful to anyone but a rabbit because of all the weeds and clover. This response seemed to make him happy. (My yard undoubtedly makes my house-proud neighbor unhappy. Hers is the ideal smooth, even green. Obviously, we have different ideals, at least where lawns are concerned.)

Then I asked the naturalists about my still dormant passion flower vine and they reminded me it’s still early in the season and I shouldn’t give up hope. They gave me a detailed pamphlet on native and invasive plants and I continued among the other booths looking for heritage tomatoes.

My neighbor with the immaculate lawn employs a mosquito control service to fumigate “her” portion of the outdoors. Not infrequently during the warm season, Other neighbors are out with their own personal tank of poison slung over a shoulder, aiming a spray nozzle at driveway cracks or fence perimeters.

So far this year we see only two bats fluttering among the trees at dusk. Fifteen years ago we could count ten. I have read that birds who also catch their suppers on the fly have decreased populations. Fewer insects means fewer meals.

We humans claim to value intelligence but we only value our own. We ignore the conversation of the trees and the communications of the whales. Because we set ourselves outside and above the underlying intelligence, the web of all life, we have only recently begun to see other forms of intelligence. Those populations may well disappear before we ever get a true sense of their extent or qualities. We go about wrecking the environment as if we don’t live here, too.

The tragic part for us humans is that the environment we have constructed for ourselves isn’t even good for us. It’s an economic system which evolved to feed the bloated demands of profit and power. It tramples on the souls of the people who live under it. Toxic food, bad air, polluted water and stress. Money thrives. People and their communities, not necessarily.

There are environmental extremists who view humanity as an evolutionary experiment that failed. These environmentalists look forward to the days when a plague cleanses us humans from the face of the earth so Eden can rise again, a phoenix from the crematorium ashes. Oh! How the beetles and birds and baboons will frolic without the contamination of human kind! Things will be perfect again without us.

In that scenario, my neighbors would no longer spray herbicides around willy-nilly and I wouldn’t be heating my house with fuel oil or polluting the air with my car.

True, the human quest for total world domination is literally killing all of us (except maybe cockroaches), I’d prefer a solution that doesn’t depend on our extermination from it. Other inhabitants of this planet are known to modify their immediate environments to live here. They tunnel, they forage, they eat each other, etc. Other animals also extract and exploit. There are even other species that, left to themselves, run amuk.

“Any time you have non-native species of anything- plants, birds, or animals, there is an inherent risk of devastating damage to the natural environment that may well be non-recoverable.”

If we were half as intelligent as we think we are, we’d learn from our mistakes. Instead, we are inflexible and self-justifying. In other words, not as adaptable as a cockroach.

And, of course, that “we” is a concept that has glaring inaccuracies. “We” can all be wiped out by a pandemic because we are basically physically alike. But “we” don’t all think alike.  “We” don’t all share the same level of suffering from the toxicity “we” create or the same (relatively) short-term benefits “we” gain from exploitation of the natural world and each other.

One does not need to contrast indiginous peoples in the Amazon with the Board of Directors of the World Bank to illustrate this point. Right here in Virginia people are sitting in trees to block pipeline crews with chainsaws. The pipelines would transport fracked oil across the state to the seaport for export, wrecking havoc on the landscape every step of the way — from earthquakes at the drilling site to likely spills on the sea. All for the private profit of an already wealthy “we.”  The wealthy “we” write the laws that favor the interests of profit and the wealthy “we” insure that law enforcement protects their interests. The “we” who sit in the trees are not the same subset of “we” who want to build the pipeline.

The love of money may well be the root of all evil but comfort can devolve to decadence and complacency. Otherwise, at this point, “we”, intelligent beings all, should be sitting in trees, literally or figuratively.

Where is your tree?

 

(*Shouldn’t it be natural for a naturalist to have informed opinions about legislation that affects nature? And to freely share that information at a booth about pollinators? )

The Road Taken

A change in the weather, a change in anything, is hard to contain. Like a stack of Pick-up-sticks, pull at one and the whole pile might collapse.

When we first moved into this house, what we most loved was the setting: streets of modest homes shaded by towering oaks and tall pines. Our lot had a big oak in the front yard and a good-sized maple tree shading the side porch. The other three corners at this intersection supported even bigger oaks. Crows congregated on the topmost branches, loudly commenting on current affairs in bird world.

Our backyard, on the other hand, was open and sunny. Perfect for a garden, but only thanks to our next door neighbor who had taken down a big maple shortly before we moved in. Never having been acquainted with that tree, we didn’t mourn it. But we’d hardly unpacked the moving boxes and arranged the furniture before the neighbor across the street took out three massive oaks. That made us sad.

In the fourteen years we’ve been here, storms and tree crews have toppled more of these giants. A small house across the street from us changed hands and the new owner clear cut the front yard. Bye-bye seven pine trees. (The house has since changed hands again but no one has replaced the pines, not even with a pseudo tree like the Bradford pear.)

I mourn the gaps in the canopy where trees once stood: the corner up the street where a county crew cut down an oak so broad the trunk grew into the street; the new house addition that required the death of a magnificent oak tree whose branches shaded two properties; ghostly outlines where storms brought ancient residents crashing down. After each big storm, more of the human residents hire crews with rigging and chain saws to slice up and cart off the giants in their yards.

Our last storm uprooted multiple large oaks. They took down power lines as they thudded to the ground and blocked streets and smashed houses. We lost half our maple tree. It scratched our old car and poked a hole in the porch screen but it missed the power lines. (Dominion Energy regularly and severely trims any branches even remotely threatening the power lines.)

After a storm like that one, a sensible person might seriously consider cutting down any trees within striking distance of his roof. We decided to take our chances, even though we can expect more storms like that, more storms strong enough to pull big oaks up by their roots and lay them out flat on the ground. And more neighbors pre-emptively cutting down trees. The streets will be hotter and brighter every summer. The crows will have to fly further and further between perches.

Tropical storms and hurricanes have become more intense during the past 20 years. Of course, the wind has had help in its destruction. Stronger thunderstorms with heavier rains saturate the ground, making it more likely roots will give way.

So we don’t get to have as many trees all because someone two hundred or so years ago decided to power machines with burning coal. And someone else decided that diesel powered engines were more convenient to rotate carriage wheels than a team of horses. Horseless carriages were such a good idea, in fact, that everyone wanted one and then we needed to pave roads and clear land for big parking lots. “The U.S. is covered in about 4 million miles of roads. And while that’s only a fraction of a percent of the total land area in the lower 48 states, it’s still enough to have a noticeable impact on the environment–from heat islands, to floods, to pollution runoff in nearby waterways.”

Our climate is changing because the earth is warming. People have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by 40 percent since the late 1700s. Other heat- trapping greenhouse gases are also increasing. These gases have warmed the surface and lower atmosphere of our planet about one degree during the last 50 years. Evaporation increases as the atmosphere warms, which increases humidity, average rainfall, and the frequency of heavy rainstorms in many places—but contributes to drought in others.

Greenhouse gases are also changing the world’s oceans and ice cover. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, so the oceans are becoming more acidic. The surface of the ocean has warmed about one degree during the last 80 years. Warming is causing snow to melt earlier in spring, and mountain glaciers are retreating. Even the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking. Thus the sea is rising at an increasing rate.

We humans have had a lot of good ideas.

Plastic bottles! Light-weight! Unbreakable! Much better than the old glass bottles you had to return for the deposit. But now plastic bottles are everywhere — in the ditches along the roads, filling up landfills, floating in the ocean. We are drinking micro-plastics with our bottled water (and sometimes tap water) and eating micro-plastics in our sushi. And that wonderful polar fleece made from recycled plastic bottles? Laundering fleece frees micro-plastics.

We have changed so much so fast we can’t even keep track of the changes.

Spraying to kill mosquitoes means the birds and bats have less to eat so we see fewer birds and bats. Large swaths of mono-crops replace cycles of flowering native plants that fed the bees so we have fewer bees.

GMO’s, super refined flour, preservatives in food, factory raised meats, food crops raised on chemically fertilized depleted soil. Sedentary lifestyles of desk jobs, elevators, binge-TV-watching, no fresh air. Isolation from others exacerbated by social media.

What are the unintended consequences?

Does any of this matter? How can we tell? Who gets to decide?

This is all very far from a controlled experiment. Too many things are changing at once. We often can’t predict whether, in the long run, Progress and Improvement are good or bad. What’s coming down the pike? We can make out part of it but the rest is a guess.

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Premature Eruption

I appreciate a well written blurb. It’s an art form I understand and admire. It takes skill to compose a terse but compelling summation of a novel. A good blurb dives right into the emotional heart of the book, plunging into the throbbing core of the plot. It grabs you by the eye-balls and says READ ME!

The blurbs on my Kindle screen, on the other hand, are usually bad. These blurbs and the corresponding book cover appear on the screen before I swipe the screen to read my own book. The ad is meant to entice me to buy the book. But, rightly or wrongly, when a blurb is bad, I assume the book is bad, too: probably a self-published novel that has never passed through a critique group, let alone fallen under the eyes of an editor. To be fair, a Kindle screen blurb — at twenty-five words or less —  has to be the devil to concoct. (And I’ve never tried to do it.)

Here’s a bad blurb from my Kindle screen:

A baby vanishes from the womb without a trace. A fossil upends two centuries of scientific theory. A prehistoric virus kills thousands within days.

Would you buy this book? I didn’t. Those three sentences just make me think of that Sesame Street song “One of These Things (is not like the others).” Except I can’t pick out which thing doesn’t belong.

Here’s another blurb:

20th Centry Fox developing for film. An award-winning story of one family’s struggle to survive a massive terrorist attack that destroys America.

This is better. But the hype at the front is off-putting. Do I believe it? Do I care? Does it make me want to read the book? Not really. And the second sentence is the plot of every other contemporary dystopian novel.

Gabriel Miller swept into my life like a storm. There’s one way to save our house, one thing I have left of value. My body.

We are not amused. If there’s a connection between the first sentence and the second, you wouldn’t know it from this blurb. And would I trust an author who uses a period instead of the colon I am expecting? But at least this blurb pricks my curiosity. Is the body in question valuable for organ harvesting? Blood plasma sales? Scientific experiments? (My curiosity wasn’t strong enough that I bought the book.)

I think the blurb below has been on my Kindle since I bought it. Maybe absence would make the heart grow fonder because familiarly, in this case, has definitely bred contempt.

3 massacres, 2 detectives, 1 writer and 0 answers. A dark thriller you can’t put down with a twist you won’t see coming.

Plot? Hero? Nada. I didn’t buy this one either.

Here’s the plot of the books I buy over and over, in every permutation, as long as the setting is historical British Isles and there’s a Duke somewhere nearby.

Two people meet and instantly hate each other. Through misunderstandings and mishaps, desire flares between them. They succumb. They marry. The end.

Predictable? Yes. So why would I read such a predictable book and not, say, a novel like Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (which I found in our Little Free Library):

“An absolutely terrific thriller, so pulse-pounding, so ingenious in its plotting, and so frighteningly realistic that you simply cannot stop reading.”

And ” . . . leaves the reader suspended as the book speeds to a breathless finale!”

I don’t read thrillers. I don’t read fiction that scares me, shocks me, keeps me in suspense, or keeps me awake. No rapes or mutilations or blood dripping through the floor.

I do read fiction other than bodice busters but it’s always fiction that entertains, transports, intrigues — unchallenging fiction to effortlessly pass the hours when chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia has me down and I’m not up for anything else. I read fiction to escape from the things that scare me in the real world.

And it’s harder every day to ignore those scary things.

For example: It’s only February and my asparagus is up more than two weeks earlier than we’ve ever seen it. And the bluebirds were fighting the sparrows for the birdhouses in the yard two weeks earlier than last year. (The bluebirds lost again.) The sparrows are sitting on eggs already, which is something I don’t keep track of from year-to-year but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen them sitting on eggs in February.

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Sparrows nesting behind blue walls.

Very early this month,out on the screened porch, about twenty of the black swallowtail chrysalises opened and the butterflies came out, only to die trapped in the cheesecloth-covered mason jars. Three or four of the insects died still crawling out of their winter homes, probably felled by the sudden return of cold weather. I had intended to remove the cheesecloth in time for the butterflies to fly away and find flowers to feed on. Who was looking for butterflies in early February? Not me.

Two butterflies were still alive. I placed them in a garden bed, on top of the foul-smellng purple deadnettle, and hoped these early blooms appealed. I hope the butterflies enjoyed a few days before winter temperatures caught them.

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Jar of black swallowtails with perfect wings.

There were a dozen more chrysalises intact. Those are now in the refrigerator until I am more confident of the weather. This February looks like spring and the birds and peepers sound like spring. But it makes me uneasy.

It makes me uneasy in the same way finding caterpillars on the parsley made me uneasy last November, when I brought them inside to save them from the frost. It makes me scared in the same way watching video of the calving of an iceberg bigger than Manhattan scares me.

The world I know has changed. It continues to change in unpredictable ways.

I read non-fiction. I read  newspapers and informative magazine articles. I attend forums and listen to podcasts.  I can find my cheeks wet with tears during a discussion of health delivery systems for impoverished children. Real life offers more than enough to make my pulse pound, my blood boil, and my heart sore. Real life is more than enough suspense for me.

The seas rise and powerful tornadoes scour the land as dangerous shifts in climate threaten the lives of all earth’s inhabitants. An extraordinary tale of greed and ruthlessness, of bravery and sacrifice — with a heart-stopping climax of unforgettable power!*

I like the blurbs for the thrillers. I just don’t enjoy the actual books.

 

 

*This blurb is based on rave reviews of Eye of the Needle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Save the World?

“Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.”

Arthur Ashe

Before I got knocked flat by the “yuppie flu” (now more respectfully, if still problematically, titled Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disorder) I was an ambitious person.

In high school I answered the call from a favorite AM Radio DJ to collect money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I organized other kids to collect donations door-to-door and street-by-street. We covered the whole town. At the end of the day, our kitchen table was covered with neatly stacked bills and columns of coins. As a reward, participants took a chartered bus to Cleveland to a live concert with the popular DJ.

While I was pregnant with my third child I organized other volunteers in Scioto county, Ohio’s largest county, to collect signatures for a state-wide ballot initiative. Collecting enough signatures for a bottle bill turned out to be relatively easy. Nobody likes trash and  a deposit on containers was a proven method to cut down on roadside litter and broken glass. Several other states already had a bottle bill and the facts spoke for themselves.

But once our bottle bill was securely on the ballot, those facts didn’t speak loud enough to drown out the flood of money that poured into the state in opposition. The widespread support we encountered while collecting signatures evaporated under the barrage of expensive radio and TV and print ads we couldn’t match. The bottle bill would destroy jobs! Factories would close! And prices on soda and beer would go through the roof! It’s a communist plot!

Okay. Maybe nobody made that last claim but, the bottlers and beverage producers smeared proponents of the bill as a mess of dirty-hippies-who-aren’t-like-you. It was the most expensive ballot initiative (campaign?) in the state up until that time. And, of course, we proponents lost, Big Time. And, of course, soon after that glass bottle factories closed and truck drivers lost their jobs when the beverage industry turned to plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Prices went up. And trash increased exponentially.

But I digress. My intent here is to illustrate my appetite for projects to Save the World! (or at least a part of it).  I was a big donor to the Mothers’ Milk Bank Club (started by bereaved mother and nurse Laura Taylor) and decorated and furnished a large doll house for the club raffle several years in a row. My husband and I were key members in a storefront food coop. If there was a local anti-war rally I was there with my kids and a sign. Etc.

Even after my fourth baby, I was confident there were lots more good fights out there for me, and, as soon as my children were a little older, I’d take on The World!

This didn’t happen. My illness destroyed my expectations. I can no longer be the kind of ambitious that talks to lots of people, remembers their names, encourages them to get involved, and gives them marching orders. It makes me tired just to think about it. These days, on a good day, I might manage to blow a fanfare or wave a banner.

You who have your own limitations, especially invisible illnesses, know the adjustments necessary to self-image. We live in a culture that values achievement and high income.  One where “What do you do?” is a common rejoinder after the exchange of names. Those of us who don’t do much or earn any money are stung by the assumption behind the question.

So what do I do with the embers of my burning desire to change the world?

As the joke goes:

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

So I nibble on the problems of the world. When I can get my thoughts together, I write letters to the editor. I make sure that we take advantage of our relatively secure financial position and donate small monthly amounts to support non-profits. I am a faithful — if fitful– penpal to several incarcerated persons. I add my small bit to committees at our Quaker meeting. I compost. I recycle. I can still participate in the small things that, in the aggregate, make a difference.

Today, in this unseasonable November, I am tending caterpillars. I find black swallowtail caterpillars where the butterflies laid eggs on the carrots, fennel and parsley I planted to attract them. I confine the caterpillars to jars and feed them until they form chrysalises. I’ll keep the chrysalises safe over the winter so the new butterflies can emerge in the spring. Then the cycle will start over again.mermaid-1_1

Linoleum block reduction print/JBH

Not all of these caterpillars would make it to adulthood without intervention. Years ago, I  watched them on the parsley and wondered why I’d see a dozen one day and only three the next. Do birds eat them in spite of the foul-smelling orange horns they sprout when startled? Spiders?

A butterfly flitting by can lift the heart. And there are fewer of them than I remember as a child. As more gardeners use fewer pesticides and herbicides and plant more of the plants that butterflies need, we will see more butterflies. And my little guys and gals will be out there repopulating the world, lifting hearts wherever they go.

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“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

It is no small thing to lift a heart.