Tag Archives: nature

Thoughts On Today

There is a little path near my office that borders a bit of wetland and forest. I walk that path every day on my break. I like to look at the trees, the murky water, and the ducks that show up in the warmer months. It’s a little bit of nature in the heart of my city.

Along this path is an informative sign with information about wetland areas, the animals that live in them, and why they’re important. These signs are everywhere and they strike me as among the most earnest things anyone ever thought to make. Hey, the signs seem to say, here’s some interesting stuff that the people who made me think is pretty cool. Maybe you’ll think it’s pretty cool, too.

The day after the election, a person defaced this sign. He or she (but probably he) crudely painted the name TRUMP across the sign in blackish paint. The block letters made it impossible to read the text beneath. The sign was ruined and the message was clear. The hour of things that are green and good is over. Make way for the bulldozer and the destroyer.

I’ve looked at those crude letters every day since then, because I still like to walk that little path. Each time I passed the sign, I felt anger and frustration. The sign was ruined and would have to be replaced by the city at some point, but let’s be honest; even earnest little signs are not exactly top priorities for most municipalities.

Today, I noticed something had changed. The paint the vandal used had started to flake off, perhaps in the rain. The damage was not as permanent as I had imagined. The vandalism could be cleaned.

Later, I returned to the sign with my wife and together, we started to scrape off the rest of the paint, carefully so as to not damage the text underneath.

Soon enough, the sign was restored, with only the faintest outline of dirt and grime where the vandalism once was. In time, even that outline will be gone (perhaps sooner, as we’re planning on coming back with a bucket and some soap to see if we can finish the job next week).

Either way, the earnest little sign about wetlands has been restored and TRUMP is little more than a faint, dirty outline, visible only in contrast.

I’m writing this not because I want to brag about what we did. This is, quite literally, a token act. Other people are doing more, risking more, and will achieve more. In the grand scheme of things, one restored sign will not change much of anything.

And yet.

Yesterday, there was something ugly there. An hateful word, a taunt, a mockery.

Today, it is gone.

It is worth remembering. Damage can be repaired. Wounds can be healed. A little sign about wetlands can be cleaned up.

My reverence for nature and the natural world comes from many of its qualities, but foremost of those is its ability to heal and recover from the harm inflicted on it.

A lot is going to happen that is ugly and painful and destructive, but for all that the new president will talk about erasing the legacy of his predecessor,  his is written in cheap paint; filth that can and will be scraped away when he is gone.

Cleaning up a vandalized sign is a small thing.

And it is everything.

Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing; the perfect blend of heartfelt, passionate, thoughtful, and scientifically interesting. Although I love trees (having moved to the PNW specifically to be in forests again), I’ve never really thought particularly hard about them, about what they’re doing. Trees are scenery; beautiful scenery, no doubt, but certainly not the most important part of the story, right? Stories are about characters, not backgrounds.

Hope Jahren’s book convinced me how wrong I was to think of trees and plants as mere background. They are active characters engaged in their own lives and their own struggles, and though it doesn’t play out in a timeline that makes sense to most humans, the stories of trees are just as interesting as our own.

Jahren’s book alternates between brief (but fascinating) passages about the lives and science of various plants; how they grow, how they struggle, what they’re doing, and each section is relevant to a bit of the narrative of her own life. Resiliency, love, achievement; each part of Jahren’s own human existence is related and connected to the lives of trees and plants.

This is a hopeful, thoughtful book that invites you into a world you’ve seen every day but likely haven’t stopped to consider. I found myself reading entire passages aloud to my fiancee, eagerly sharing with her the latest fascinating thing I’d just read, even though she’d already agreed to read the book herself when I was finished with my copy. But the feeling of discovery of a new world was so exciting, so marvelous, that I couldn’t help but share whatever I found. In that way, I found myself relating to the author more than I ever thought possible.

If you’re a nature lover, this book deserves to be on your shelf. But even if you’re not, even if you’ve never thought of a tree beyond that time you pressed leaves as a kid in school, let Jahren show you her world. Share her triumphs and obsessions and enjoy her very personal, very deeply moving story of what it’s like to be a woman devoted to science. But most of all, let her show you how interesting it is to think about trees. She and her trees might just surprise you.

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Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

Review: The End of Nature

The End of NatureThe End of Nature by Bill McKibben
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more comprehensive books about climate change out there. There are books with facts and models and hard science. There are scarier books, too, with more dire predictions about what will happen. It might seem hard to imagine what this little book’s niche actually is, its role in the ecologist’s reading canon, until you remember that it was written in 1989. It was written years before an Inconvenient Truth, years before Gore, years before Bush dismantled the Kyoto Protocol, and years before the age of global terrorism. It was a time when “global warming” was still more often referred to “the greenhouse effect.” This book was written in an entirely different era.

And for that reason alone, I feel it is required reading.

As author Bill McKibben notes in his new introduction (itself now ten years old, having been written in 2005), this book is a product of its time. It is uneven in places, alternating wildly between talking about the facts of global climate change and more poetic musings on the nature of, well, nature and humanity’s role within it. And yet it’s undeniably fascinating to look back on the state of environmentalism in the late 1980s and compare its predictions to what has happened in the almost 30 years since then. Unfortunately, there’s a strong feeling that we’ve been asleep at the wheel for too long. We knew about this stuff in the 1980s! How the hell did we late it get this bad?

And yet we’ve also seen some victories: Keystone XL, of which the author himself was a leading protester. Everyone knows about climate change now, even if many deny it. We’ve come along way from the fringe environmental movement, when this book was written. We still have a long way to go and it’s easy to feel despair, especially after seeing what we knew in 1989. Nevertheless, this book is a testament to environmentalism’s history and for that reason alone, it’s worth reading. Beyond that importance, it’s still a good read on its own merits; the idea of the end of nature might more accurately be described as the “end of wildness,” the end of nature as an untouched force, and regardless of whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s still interesting to consider.

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Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Pictures . . . And Here’s A $1000 Fine For Doing So

I know that it’s silly to assign values of good and evil to various government agencies, but I swear, sometimes those agencies really go out of their way to make you decide. And no, I’m not talking about the NSA who seem to actively delight in seeming evil and are probably reading this blog post right now. No, today my ire is directed at the U. S. Forest Service due to their new plan to charge a $1000 fine for taking pictures in a Federal Wilderness without a permit.

Don’t worry, though. The permits are a bargain: only $1500. I’m certain that won’t affect any student filmmakers or struggling photographers or, really, anyone else who might be operating on a tight budget. Hell, I’ve got $1500 in my back pocket right now.

Forest Service spokesperson Larry Chambers told the Oregonian that permits will cost up to $1,500, and those caught so much as taking an iPhone photo without clearance will be fined $1,000. Liz Close, the Forest Service’s acting wilderness director, told the Oregonian that the restrictions are following the Wilderness Act of 1964, which is meant to preserve the untamed character of the wilderness and prevent it from being used for commercial gain.

So, that sucks. But it gets even better worse!

The Forest Service would make exceptions for breaking news that “arises suddenly, evolves quickly, and rapidly ceases to be newsworthy.”

Beyond the media, the rule would apply to anyone who might use the photos or video to make money while in a wilderness area, be it a documentary film crew, nonprofit, or private citizen.

Sure, you could argue that it’s “only” recognized wilderness areas and not actually “all of nature.” On the other hand, I’m willing to bet that most people have no idea whether the outdoorsy area they’re in at any given moment is considered a wilderness area or not. And speaking as someone who does usually know and has a particular favorite wilderness area, the idea that it’s a finable offense is infuriating!

Oh, but the permit is only required for pictures used for commercial purposes, you say? Well, that should fucking solve it for everyone, won’t it. Wait, is this blog a commercial purpose? Is my picture of a creek that I took four years ago indicative of a violation? I don’t actually make any money doing this blog, but I’m also working on publishing a book, so there’s a very real chance that in a year or so this blog will have a commercial purpose. What happens then?

(Actually, it still wouldn’t be a violation since I took that picture in a State Park, but would you know that by looking at it?)

Maybe I’m overreacting. Certainly, we can trust the Forest Service agency not to abuse this authority to go after people for taking pictures of trees or . . .

I’m sorry, I can’t even manage good sarcasm right now. This is well and truly a shitty thing. We come full circle to my earlier assessment: the Forest Service is evil.

For what it’s worth, I consider the Parks Service to be their good counterpart. So there’s that.

A Not-So-Live Post From The Not-So-Wilderness

This post is being typed in offline mode. It’s Sunday, February 9. I’m sitting on a cold bench in a little campsite just outside of Payton, Arizona. There’s a fire going beside me and the sun is setting; already, the light has gone from “hey, it’s getting dark” to “the only light source is your laptop!”

Hilariously, although I don’t have Internet access out here, I do have three bars and my 3G connection on my phone. This is an unusual luxury for me since normally I tend to operate in areas where the cell coverage is best defined as “hell, no.” We’re not really in the wilderness here, though. The main road into town is about twenty feet from my tent and there’s a Wal-mart less than two miles from here. I know it’s two miles because we stopped there to get those enviro-logs for the campfire.

Like I said, this is a little bit different than what I’m used to. Having a laptop along is another difference, if you were wondering. Fortunately, the laptop is running on battery power. If I was able to plug this thing in, I think that’s the point in which I’d call it quits and just go stay at the nearby best Western.

My phone insists that the temperature is still 57 degrees. It certainly doesn’t feel like 57 degrees at this point. I can see my breath when I exhale and I’m wearing all my layers. The forecast calls for 37 degrees as the low tonight. That will be fun. I’m not overly worried; I’ve done winter camping before, with varying degrees of success. My sleeping bag is rated to 10 degrees. I’ll be fine.

A coyote just howled from somewhere off to my right. Pretty cool.

Does it sound like I’m miserable? That I’m questioning why I’m sitting here in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of a laptop screen, with a Best Western a scant two miles down the road? I’m not miserable. The truth is, I love this stuff.

I love being outside. I love the funny little ways that nature and technology intersect and dance around each other like middle schoolers at the spring dance. No wireless, no electricity, but you still have Internet access! And you have coyotes. The park bulletin board said there were bears in the area. Bears tend to not make much noise, though.

All I really want is for my phone to admit that it’s not the brisk 59 degrees that it currently claims. It’s also not “mostly sunny,” since the sun has already gone down in this part of the world.

In some ways, camping so close to a town is an unusual experience for me. I’m virtually always either backpacking to some remote destination in the mountains or camping in some site that’s three hours away from a town. Having civilization nearby is strange. I’m not sure if it’s comforting to have that as an escape route (if the camping is miserable, there’s a hotel nearby!) or ends up making me feel more forlorn. Hard to say.

I can’t say I’ll post this when I get back to civilization, since we haven’t really left. It would be more accurate to say that I’ll post when I have an Internet connection again. It’s funny; compared to the shoddy WiFi we had at last night’s cheap motel, I think I prefer having no internet access at all. Because at least then, it doesn’t get my hopes up before half loading a page and then crashing. Maybe not, though. We’ll see how I feel when I’m bored in my tent in a few hours and I can’t get Facebook to load.

Oh wait, my smartphone still works. I think I’m going to be fine.

Signing off now from the not-so-wild wilderness.