We all live in our echo chambers but travel can seat us together with people from a different chamber. I had 90 minutes on a 6:00 AM flight to Seattle with a Trump supporter willing to talk. It took just a few opening sentences of “where are you traveling, and where do you live”, to figure out I was dealing with a person with a conservative bend.
I have nothing against conservative principles, life is too short to quibble over if God makes the rules for everyone, and if we should have small or large government, so I didn’t go there. But when he talked about the state of health and elder care for his in-laws (he was going to Florida to care for them for a while) I saw an opening to ask him a few questions that had to do with conservative policy making (i.e. no government supported healthcare). When he mentioned socialism in connection with my country of birth, the Netherlands, I enlightened him on social-democratic policies and the pros and cons of being taken care of from cradle to grave. In return he uttered platitudes representing his view on why things were awry in the USA: “people on welfare are lazy and need to get a job!” and “we need to give the jobs to Americans.” I couldn’t help myself and had to insert data about the relative small amount the government is spending on welfare recipients and the fact that when we give jobs to Americans in chicken processing plants, they quit after a day. He showed an awkward smile and admitted that certain jobs are just not fit for “Americans”.
I admitted to him it was hard to get facts based on truth by listening to the news and to people who are running for office. Did he get his info from FoxNews, I asked. He nodded, but added, “My wife listens to NPR.” He knew the difference. I asked if he ever watched the Newshour on PBS and explained that they try to present both sides of the political spectrum in discussions about current issues. I gave him credit for being an educated person who could think for himself (he liked that) and encouraged him to inform himself. “It’s hard”, I said, “to get the full scope of the issues in this complex world. It’s easier to believe the group with which you associate. He agreed that people gravitate to the familiar and stick with how they’re raised. "It's easier", he admitted. We parted with a friendly smile.
Can you make a difference when you talk with people from a different persuasion? Can you find common ground and hope the other will change their way of seeing things?
Travel to places where people see and believe radically different viewpoints shake up my complacency, but hasn’t changed my mind about human rights, altered my views on human nature, nor extinguished my hopes for a saner world. Actually, travel has made me more of a believer in the goodwill of ordinary people. Those in power do the damage: they manipulate ordinary people with promises they can’t keep and take advantage of the comfort-zone factor to which we’re all subject.
The Primaries have spoken. It’s gonna be a hard road to unseat the Republican congressional representative from my district. It’ll take a lot of talks like I had on the way to Seattle.
How do you break out of your comfort zone? Let’s have a discussion!
I walked in Morocco, at least 5 miles every day, while supporting a walk-fundraiser for girls and women in African countries; girls and women who have to walk 5 miles to get their daily water; to get to a plot of land they can farm; to get to school.
I saw groups of girls and groups of boys walking to their separate school compounds. The villages had one-room schools. Children walk to school at all hours of the day; 2 hour sessions solve the problem of a school shortage. I saw no schools in the desert. The mobile school project for nomad children failed a few years ago. Nomad children don’t go to school, they herd goats.
In the big city I saw women, dressed in abayas, long over-dresses, and hijabs, headscarves, walk to do their shopping with children in strollers. In smaller towns women carried their small children in a sling on their back as they did their shopping. Men managed the shops, men served in restaurants and tea shops. In the outskirts of the big city women with sneakers peeking out from under their abayas exercise-walked on a walking path.
In a small wheat field near an oasis a purple colored female figure bent over in the green, head covered, was weeding and gathering the weeds. I saw a woman dressed in bright red from top to toe, carrying a large bundle of greens on her back: evening fodder for the animals who don’t get enough when they graze the barren rocky landscape. A bundle a day to feed the animals. A walk to harvest the greens and a walk to carry the greens home.
In the rock desert a woman was sitting by a mirky looking water source filling a jerry-can, which she had to carry back to her settlement. In the doorway of a stone hut a young woman with a baby on her back and a bag in hand, took leave from an older woman and descended the trail we had just climbed. It was a 2 hour walk to the nearest village. We had seen no settlements or houses nearby.
I saw a woman washing clothes by a spring. I counted 9 children playing, or helping with the washing. When I passed, the children came up to me hoping for a candy hand-out; the woman covered her face and bent her head.
There were no women in the dunes. The men in indigo blue turbans lead the camels to the brown camel-wool nomad tents where we slept. Men cooked our dinner. Men served us. The next day, back at the hotel, I saw a woman with cleaning supplies who came out of the hotel room next to me. She smiled. Women clean the rooms apparently.
On our last night in Marrakech we visited a hamam, a spa. Women bathed and scrubbed us, men served us tea afterward. In our hotel the male manager served us dinner. I saw a woman in a room near the kitchen. Did she cook the dinner? On the big central plaza, a woman was getting a henna tattoo on her leg. When I wanted to photograph the scene, she became very upset and waved her naked leg with the half-finished tattoo in the air, saying, “No, no photo.”
There are women in Morocco. Without being locked away, they were hidden from me. Shrouded and living in the background they have the status of being revered and protected. Morocco’s women and girls live in the poverty of inequity. CARE Morocco pays special attention to youth and disadvantaged rural and peri-urban groups. Did the woman at the spring want 9 children? Does the woman walking for exercise want to wear a headscarf and abaya? Does the girl going to school with her girlfriend want to be with girls only? Does the woman carrying her big bundle want to farm and raise animals?
I walked in a foreign country to get to know it. I came back with questions. I didn’t have a chance to talk to women while I was there. I talked with men only. They smiled a half smile when I asked them why I couldn’t meet their women and didn’t answer. I wish I could have walked the desert with a Moroccan woman as a guide. A search for female guides produced a few women who offer guided tours of cities, not treks in the wilderness. It’s possible, it just hasn’t happened.
The fight for women’s rights all over the world is a long fight for freedom of choice; for freedom over their bodies; for freedom to walk as much or as little as they want. I walk enjoying my freedom. I walk to learn. I hope many women will follow.
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I went for a hike in the Moroccan desert. Tourism is one of Morocco’s main contributors to the economy (18.6% of GDP, compared to 2.7% in USA, 7.6% in France). People visiting Morocco means post-colonial progress as the people coming from elsewhere now pay for being in the country. The tourist industry can be seen as a get-back for past colonial plunder and suppression. I understand and don’t take offense when a taxi driver charges me double rate on a rainy evening ride from the airport. I’m paying the ancestral debt, small price for privilege.
To get away from the tourist scene in the big cities I have booked an 8-day guided hike on the Saghro plateau and in the Sahara dunes. The Saghro plateau in Morocco has a biblical feel, a landscape I envisioned when I was a child in Sunday school and heard about the Israelites roaming the desert with Moses as a leader: a barren, dry, difficult, exposed land; qualities of such a land represent my aging skin and body. It seems fitting to explore the desert at this stage of my life.
For five days we hike like nomads, driving beasts, carrying loads and sleeping in tents. Five days let me feel, smell and breathe the place; let me see the rocky, craggy landscape. We see occasional small stone dwellings, built from rocks and dirt in the landscape, that blend with the sandy, beige environment. Small plots of wheat and an almond tree orchard here and there add temporary brightness of color while sucking up what little water there is near a spring or small creek. When the temperatures on the Saghro plateau soar to122F in summer, the heat will dry up the water and force the people to move north to the Atlas mountains with their goat herds.
I see young girls and boys tending the herds, roaming alone all day, greeting an occasional passer-by. I watch a girl climb the spires to rescue a goat stuck on an outcropping, risking a 300 feet fall into the canyon below. There is no-one to rescue her if that happens.
Our days are regulated by the sun and moon, and by a prayer routine our guide and muleteers share with the non-nomadic Moroccans. After their evening prayer, the muleteers joke when they serve our meal using their arabic tongue to pronounce the guttural sounds of my native Dutch. We laugh and learn a few arabic words in return. They wait until we are done eating before they have their meal; honoring us as guests, or a remnant of servitude?
I think about my status as tourist-nomad. When I hike here, do I become an invader? I may not take over the land, but by hiking in this nomad land I change life for the people that live here. My money allows for incremental changes in their life style. The local handicrafts go home with me, the carpets will cover the floors in my home. I ask my guide why he chose to become a trekking guide. When he gives me his answer, I find that we share a love for walking and roaming in nature, a love for getting to know people of other cultures. Our sameness erases the guilt I have felt about entering his world with my money.
The first humans were nomads. Nomad existence is in our DNA. The extremes of the desert bring me face to face with my reason for existing, teach me how small I am against the largesse of nature. The towering Pleistocene rock formations offer shade, a place for my animal body to hide from the burning sun. A brilliant star-lit sky on a wide open stretch of undulating sand dunes tells me that I’m just a speck of sand. These extremes enhance my aliveness, my appreciation of my surroundings. A hike in the desert fills me with wonder.
I’m home again sitting in a comfortable chair, with running water to make my cup of tea, with a small garden plot that gives me greens for my supper, and a hearth to warm me when the temperatures dip low. I know the season will change and I’ll answer the call of my nomadic DNA to roam and find what feeds my aliveness: the emptiness of a place, the sameness of a people.
Do you have Nomadic tendencies? How do they express themselves in your life? Let's have a conversation!
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A week of Horror, a week of Grief. Stunned faces. Angry faces. A gripping sense of safety lost. That is not the America I like.
I’m leaving for a month of traveling; four neighbors are watching and caring for my home in my absence. This is the America I like.
I can lose and find myself in the endless Wilderness. This is the America I like.
I am welcome, when I go to a pow-wow, meditate in a Buddhist temple, attend Shabbat in a Jewish temple, Eid in a Mosque. This is the America I like.
For a small fee, I can set up a business and market ideas, sell products to my hearts’ desire. This is the America I like.
Parkland High school students turned their grief into action, went to Fort Lauderdale and told their representatives, Never Again! This is the America I like.
This is a land of community action, a land of wild and beautiful places, a land of diverse spiritual practice, a land of opportunities, a land of freedom of expression. A vast land where you can move, if you don’t like the opinion of your neighbor, your co-workers. This is a land so big that cultures can exist like countries within countries. If you avoid TV, you can live somewhere and not know there is a way of life other than yours.
We are paying a price for diversity, for freedom of expression, for economic opportunity. We’re paying it to a divided government that can be bought; a government that bows to extremes in opinions, beliefs and interpretation of the constitution. We’ve entered the Wild West of governing. See a chance for gold? Grab it, claim it and deal with ownership later. Don’t like your opponent? Let the media kidnap him and hold him hostage on an embarrassing or incriminating behavior.
Government politics have evolved into a wild-west life of gold and guns. Wealth and power have become a necessary tool in the political survival arsenal. This political landscape won’t change until the people demand it.
People will have to decide that the Wild West times are over, every part known to all. It’s time to create a more civilized society. In this society not every member has to be armed to be safe. Let's establish a society where people care for each other, not out of survival instinct, but because there is enough to go around for all.
Countries transform because the people living in it, grow in awareness and change their interactions. Hanging on to gun laws based on living situations from 200 years ago, is a mistake and needs updating. Let’s bring people together and talk sense, one small town meeting after another. Americans are community-minded people who care about their neighbors and value their wild lands. Let’s keep our communities safe by banning assault rifles and hunt with less power and more skill. In November, lets vote out politicians who were bought by the NRA. I want to use the democratic process and like America again.
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At the time of writing this post, you have 358 days to make something of the year 2018. If you think in terms of years lived, a year is a solid time span to get something done, to change a habit, to have adventures, to bring a family together, to… to… to… you name it! Even if you, like the Epicureans, see seeking pleasure as your goal in life, and you commit to the Carpe diem motto Horace espoused by enjoying the moment, you still have to decide what comprises that enjoyment. Aren’t we all enjoyment seekers? I can’t imagine anyone wishes for a year of suffering, of boredom, a year of strife, unless your name is the ‘Drumpf’ or Ebenezer Scrooge.
Epicures didn’t encourage hedonism, but believed to find pleasure one had to curb desires, simplify life, and gain knowledge of the workings of the world. The philosophers from long ago had living figured out way before us, and we can learn from them.
So here we go, what do you want to do with your precious year 2018?
To answer this question, I’ve come up with a few questions to ask yourself:
1. Do my actions serve me? i.e. Leave me feeling better/vibrant/satisfied/accomplished/loved?
2. Do my actions serve the greater purpose of enhanced experience, enhanced living,
i.e. increase my awareness, improve my health, vitality, emotional balance?
3. Do my actions leave someone else feeling better/satisfied/loved/enlivened?
4. Do my actions serve others/the planet?
Let’s see how these questions could play out:
Question 1, How does this serve me, applied to sleep: In winter, I end up going to bed earlier, sleeping longer, skipping the late night snack and having fewer hours in a day to wrestle with calorie intake. In summer I get up earlier, go for an early morning hike, work in the garden or write before my brain gets clogged by news and other distractions. Winner!
Question 2, how does this enhance my experience? Applied to food and weight maintenance: If I ask these questions while I’m eating or preparing food, my chewing slows down, and I relish my food more (I am a foodie, no way around it); I chew my food more thorough, avoiding run-ins with my aging teeth, and improving my digestion. I’m not a lingering person, so I won’t be able to eat as much since I’m ready to move on to the next thing. Winner!
Question 3, Does this make someone feel better, applied to communication: Since talking is overrated in my book, a sort of chasing your own tale thing I’ve been know to do, I listen more when I ask myself the questions. Instead of talking, I end up asking others a question to bring out their stories. One pertinent question can evoke a long story. Others feel better because someone is listening; I use my brain thinking up pertinent questions and I get new material to write my blogs; writing blogs is more creative than talking. A winner!
Question 4, Does this serve others/the planet, applied to making and drinking homemade chai-tea: I enjoy the ritual of simmering spices before adding the tea, having a pot on the stove ready for anyone who drops in on me. No packaging (I use loose tea), or throwaway cups to litter the planet, no need for “air-fresheners”, the spices do the trick of making my house feel good and reducing inflammation. There is always chai on hand to put in a thermos when I go on a winter hike or long car ride, again, not using throwaway cups on the road. Used tea and spices will speed up my compost pile. You get the idea, and if you don’t enjoy chai-tea, substitute soup. A simple act, a winner in many ways!
What if DT asked himself these questions with regard to his Tweeting? With regard to playing golf with a security entourage every weekend, to watching Fox news to become “informed”? Yes, all his actions aim at making himself feel better, enlivened, and America Great Again, but forget about making him or others feel healthier, loved, accomplished, or emotionally more balanced. Oh, I could only wish!
If you are an engaged human, your days fill up with events, projects, family and societal obligations and (YES) distractions. To increase pleasure in living the next 358 days, take time daily to reflect on what and why you’re doing what you’re doing. I can’t expect others to transform their life by asking these questions, but I know some readers may want to give it a try. You’ll soon find that your actions take a positive course.
The Winning Point: You need not make a list of New-Year’s resolutions to improve your life!
Have a happy 2018!
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At 3 PM the sun sets behind the west ridge above our little town and I view the last of its rays in a red light show on the east ridge from my window. At the height of summer I stood on that ridge in the early morning hours to catch the delicate sunrise on its flowering slopes. The shorter days limit my outdoor activity and I’m on an inward trek. Around the winter solstice I shut down computer and TV screens, mute my phone with a do-not-disturb message and spend a few days focused inward to observe the subtler energies in my body .
The peak and valley of light-filled days are two polarities that hold life in between them. As I sit, I remember how, at the height of summer, I gathered the light in my fibers as I walked day in, and day out, sleeping in the outdoors. I remember how the resulting lightness of being stayed with me far into the fall. In the last month leading up to the winter solstice my body has felt dense, a denseness that no amount of exercise can shake. I seek warmth from food, hearth and covers. The occasional hike in the outdoors has been a snippet of summer, as the evergreens stand still on snowy ground, while dried grasses hang their heads around them. The absence of sound hangs telltale in the air, since most birds have gone south, water from snowmelt isn’t around yet to sing its gurgling song, and wind doesn’t find leaves to play with. An occasional crow cries out in the emptiness, stressing the hollowness of nature gone to sleep, curled in on itself as plants and animals survive the long cold nights as best as possible. I can only mimic nature and hurry home to the warmth of the hearth, soup warming on the stove, and, wrapped in a blanket, a meditation hour on my cushion.
Meditation is supposed to create inner peace. It’s difficult though, to make peace with the state of a world that rewards money and power, a government that leaves compassionate action to the less well-off. How to make peace with a world where the military doesn’t protect people from invaders, but instead, within its borders, burns people’s homes, blows up their villages because the villagers are of a different race and religion? It’s maddening to think of a world where the sick get care based on their income not their need.
And yet, I sit, to make peace with life. The images float through me, as I breathe in, breathe out. I feel powerless because I want to do something, fix the state of the world. In summer I gathered confidence in living as I walked. In fall I harvested that confidence and turned summer bounty into products, that line my pantry shelves. In the deep of winter I share my herbs, sauces and salves with my neighbors, tokens of a life force that keeps on living, keeps on healing. I sit and remember the wildfires raging through the forests and know that nature seeks balance, even if it kills in doing so.
I have made my peace with nature and trust that the world will continue despite the despicable actions of humans on the planet. I will live on watching my breath come and go until it will no more.
Let’s honor nature’s cycles and celebrate the return of the light first with a candle, then with increased outdoor activity. Let’s make peace by offering compassion toward people around us, and lets raise our voices about the injustices created by governments snared by money and power.
Hike #1, November 24, 2017
I set goals that keep me engaged. So I signed myself up for the 52 hikes in 52 weeks challenge. I walk the first of 52 hikes. What will I learn by doing this? I have hiked 52 hikes several times in the last few years of my life. So why commit to an official counting and recounting? Walking and writing keeps me honest. Walking and writing about it can inspire others to take up walking. Walking and writing keeps me that much closer to the essence of living.
My first hike is familiar, a quick jaunt into the hills while the sun is warming the day for a while my sourdough bread is rising in the kitchen. I often choose this hike because I don’t have to get into a car to get to the trailhead, my breathing gets going strong as I go up and up to the top of Bandersnatch trail. I feel my body working, enough to shed layers and gloves. I’m healthy, I’m thankful, I love the feeling when my quads contract and move me up into the hills. The yellow light dances, filters through the evergreens and now bare black oaks, touch the tips of fine filigree ferns. The madrone trees ignore the seasons and shed their crisp leaves and bark in an ongoing brown and maroon symphony. I’m happy.
I meet the first dog on the Ashland Loop Road before I enter the trail. The owner grabs the dog’s collar to let me pass. I greet them. I meet the second dog, dressed in neon orange safety vest a little up on the trail. “Where is your owner?”, I ask because I don’t see a person following. The dog turns back around the bend and joins his owner. The owner puts the dog on the leash. I greet the owner. She unhooks the dog as soon as I have passed. Mm, why can’t people follow the rules of the trail? My dog-hiking sore spot is showing itself. I meet the second dog a little further up, owner talking on the phone. I ask if she can leash her dog. “Oh, I didn’t see you”, she says. She leashes her dog, I thank her for following the rules of the trail. She answers that she lets the dog off-leash by mutual consent. I’m not aware that I consented. I feel miffed, she’s playing with my head. I meet a father and daughter who have their dogs on leash and hold them close off trail to let me pass. I thank them. More people without dogs are enjoying an opt-outside day.
I’m on the downhill side of the trail now, enjoying the golden light through the trees. An overweight bulldog shar-pei mix with wrinkled skin ambles on the trail off leash toward me, another overweight small furry dog follows slowly with the owner. I stop and ask if she can put her dogs on leash. She puts the wrinkled bulldog on the leash and as I start to thank her, she says to me: “I shouldn’t have to do this if you could live without fear.” Now my simmering dog irritation is reaching the angry stage. “I’m not afraid of your dog”, I answer, I wish you would follow our community agreements. She walks on, I turn at the switch-back and see her unhook her dog again. I can’t contain my self and call out to her: “Yeah, make your own rules and don’t care about others on the trail!” Immediately I feel embarrassed for letting this issue get a hold of me. My happy equanimity is shot. I hike on wrestling with thoughts about people, rules and community-living on the trails.
A quarter mile later I realize I’m not seeing anything around me, I’m absorbed by the thoughts in my head. Then I remember what Thoreau said in his book Walking: "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. —………..— The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—-I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business do I have in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” I look, smell and take some deep breaths to return to the woods.
I finish my hike, crossing the downtown area. When I come to the undeveloped land where the railroad tracks run, I take the short-cut home as I always do and cross the tracks where the sign to the North says, Private Property, no trespassing. I cross the tracks and break the rule. I’m no better than the dog owners.
My summer nomadic life has come to an end. The flow of travel, trekking, packing, unpacking, trekking, planting, harvesting and gathering is no longer coursing through my body, no longer dictating my daily actions. I’m in one place, going out for day hikes, cleaning up in the garden and protecting winter crops from oncoming cold weather where needed. I could travel if I wanted but my body is responding to the longer nights and wants to sleep more, stay warm, eat and fatten up. Hibernation is setting in and I’m at odds with it, I miss the light.
I think about nomadic tribes. They hunker down for the winter months or wet season; they send their children to school, fix their gear, make hard cheeses that need months to ripen, they sleep and tell stories. Do they miss the open steppes, the high ridges where they herd their flocks? Do they miss the hardship of living outdoors, packing and unpacking their shelter in pursuit of new grazing grounds, as they settle in their more elaborate winter housing and face the hardship of winter or wet survival? I’d like to know.
I believe our vacation patterns are a remnant of the nomadic life our forebears lived, the appendix of our life’s digestive track. My recent forebears were farmers. Their vacations were a 3-day trip away from the farm to visit relatives. The farm couldn’t survive without them away for longer times. The animals, the crops needed them to be present. Since we’ve become less connected to natural cycles by living in cities and small towns and buy our food from a grocery store, we can close up our homes, turn down the blinds, and go away for as long as our jobs and pocketbooks allow us. Flying in a plane, sailing across the water, driving a car or motorhome down the road, or for some, riding a bicycle or carrying a backpack, we become temporary nomads.
I’ve wanted to explore and travel since I was young. The urge to see other places, meet other cultures has shaped my world view. I have often felt more at-home on the road than settled in one place. My at-home feeling isn’t dependent on a home. When I roam the world, move about from place to place, I feel connected to something bigger than family or a local community. I feel connected to life on earth.
Yet, every year at the end of summer, I return to place and home. The tension between sedentary and nomadic life is the paradox of human existence, the koan we are given to enlighten ourselves. The tension between the known and uncertainty. Experiencing that tension teaches us about the essence of living.
So when I settle in for a long winter’s night, I already know that my sedentary life is temporary. The temporal quality of winter hibernation puts me in touch with the temporal nature of things, and urges me to make the most of the now. It is the same temporal quality of living I experience when I travel, because the traveling day, the place along the journey, the experience of a new place is always a passing one.
I will take the hint from the nomadic tribes who use their winter or wet season to stock up, fix gear, sleep (repair of the body takes place during sleep), and learn new skills I can use when I go out on the road again. I will send this old body back to school, study languages, write and read stories, care for minor ailments that need attention. The dried herbs and colorful canned goods on the shelf, the frozen veggies in the freezer, give me a sense of accomplishment and security. I can join in celebrations of thanks, welcoming the season with those who form my tribe.
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Earthquakes, hurricanes and fires, are shaking and burning our world. The biggest storm flattening the USA however, is the current administration. What to do when the world-as-you-know-it, is coming to an end? I’ve been thinking about this predicament, because it’s happening.
I have found signing on-line petitions, holding signs in front of a library, financially supporting organizations that fight the political fight for us, dissatisfying.
“We must resist,” they say. “Really?” I say. You can’t “resist” an earthquake, a hurricane, a wild fire. The Jews couldn’t “resist” the Nazi regime. Neither are you “resisting” the current administration. Read “Stones from the River”, by Ursula Hegi and tell me again if you’re not one of those citizens who just walked along with what was happening, their speaking-out reduced to a whisper, a stone-faced silence while the “others” were hauled away.
What can I do while the world around me is burning up, blowing away, shaking on its foundations? Can I make a difference?
I’ve come up with a short answer: Live a responsive life.
To live a responsive life, you have to be able to respond to changing circumstances. Easier said than done. Here are some ways you can become more “responsive”.
The current administration can’t take away my desire for living. Natural disasters can’t squelch my joy in the experience of nature. A new world order can’t erase the survival skills I’ve gathered over a lifetime, deny my community building experiences. I can lose my home, but with help I can rebuild, the earth can be scorched, but plant life will come back. My money may become worthless, but I can make and grow things I need. I can walk, meet people and embrace them, travel to a different part of the world and start over again. If that happens, it will be true transformation travel!
Smoke is in the air everywhere, from hazardous to moderate on the air quality scale. Everyone is waiting for the rains to give us back the fresh air we depend on for our health. But the rains will not give us back our forests. Or will they?
I have hiked for days in Oregon through areas of burned forest, called snag forests, lamenting the loss of green trees, the endless sticks on the horizon, the small size of evergreens even five years after a fire. How much evergreen forest will we lose this year? Climate change doesn’t look good.
Listening to the radio while driving North on I-5 and pondering my options for a fall hike under these smoky conditions, I heard an interview with a wildlife biologist on Community Radio. The radio interviewer mentioned the John Muir project. The name of John Muir always grabs my attention. What did they do this time to preserve the wilderness in his name? “Snag forests are a good thing” the biologist said. A good thing? All those dead trees a good thing? She continued: only 2% of our forests are snag forest and that percentage isn’t enough to provide habitat for a multitude of species who depend on the dead and decaying trees for nesting, depend on the new plant life that erupts after a fire, depend on the food chain provided by insects, small and larger critters who live in hollow trees and under decaying wood, who bore in the dry wood, and eat the beetles who lay their eggs in the boring tunnels.
The current practice of harvesting the snags decreases biodiversity, even with re-planting. The monoculture of re-planting doesn’t provide the environment many plant, bird and small animal species need to survive. A good forest is a messy forest, even though it’s counter intuitive. People like order. But a groomed forest as I experienced walking in Germany, doesn’t allow for the greater diversity a wilderness forest provides.
I listened and it all made sense. Nature takes care of itself if we leave it alone. The enormous wilderness I love can survive these fires, as threatening and devastating as they may seem. I learned from this interview that green trees burn hotter than dead trees and allow fires to spread faster. Patches of snag forests halt wild fires or at least slow them down.
The Jan 2003 issue of Science published a research paper by graduate student Dan Donato. Dan made a case against the efficacy of post wildfire logging, and quoted his research of the Biscuit Fire in Oregon. Sarah Gilman in an article on the value of post fire logging in the High Country news, Feb 2006, says: “The new study is part of a growing body of literature that questions the ecological value of post-fire logging. Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund, says that there is an emerging consensus among scientists that logging burned areas can exacerbate soil damage and erosion, harm waterways, increase fire danger, and hinder natural forest recovery by killing seedlings. More importantly, it removes the big dead trees that contribute to habitat diversity and critical forest processes such as nutrient cycling.”
What You Can Do
The current forest practices haven’t caught up with the new science and snag forests in the Sierras are still being harvested. It is important that the new science gets out there, that new forest management policies are created. We can help by spreading the word, by writing to our representatives, and by sharing the information about a film the John Muir project supports, “Searching for Gold Spot, the Wild after Wildfire”, an Indie movie which documents the science of snag forests and the rare black backed woodpeckers. This movie will debut at the Monterey Birdwatchers festival September 23. https://www.facebook.com/Searching-for-Gold-Spot-Black-backed-woodpeckers-the-Wild-After-Wildfire-1676889475900932/?hc_ref=ARQZcZlatACRz4ENvLRzCqc9JIeBK72MeSnZYAt0REjEatIX-05-UeuYjy0YbLe0iAA&fref=nf
You can watch a trailer of the movie on U-tube to get you enthused.
This is not a movie to save a rare bird. This is a movie to help us understand how wildfire is a good and necessary part of the big cycle of natural change.
To know this helped me overcome my dread and despair in this smoky part of summer. I look forward to seeing rare bird species and appreciate the large cycle of life, when next I hike through a snag forest. I will let my representatives know what needs to be done with our forests. You can too!