I have been messing about in boats all of my life, spending hours rowing my dory into sea marshes full of greenish mud and hermit crabs and sea gulls and herons. I fished for flounder and eel with a drop line and trawled for mackerel with a shiner. I caught blowfish for my mother, who considered their lower regions a great delicacy, and captured horse shoe crabs for my Aunt, who ate their stomachs.
As a teenager, I sailed with my friends up the New England coast, learning what it feels like to capsize, what tearing a hole in the hull sounds like as you go over the rock, and how bleak and cold and utterly without hope you feel clinging to the mast in a northeast gale.
I am fascinated by the way, throughout most of our historical development, we human beings have found ways to share our resources for the common good. Throughout British history, for example, villagers set aside arable and pasture lands and then carefully worked out rules for how they should be allotted.
It turns out that the East Anglian Fen dwellers, who were the basis for my Infinite Games adventure series about their resistance to encroachments of early modern capitalism, followed all kinds of regulations about fishing, fowling, island pasturage, and gathering material for baskets, mats, and thatching.
So that is how I spent the scholarly interstices of my winter (when I wasn’t running around advocating for our environment): researching the history of commons and land-use methods in American, American Indian, and British history. I was curious whether our long history of sharing land means that we can develop the will to avert the tragedy of our planetary commons.
We have had such a hard, hard winter – not piles and piles of snow, but cold and wet and drearily overcast skies, day after day.
Then, in April, it began to rain. And rain, and rain. My neighbor across the street sold her house as a tear down. It sat and sat, the City Inspector slapped fine after fine on the builder for leaving it standing until he tore it down, leaving a steel fence, piles of dirt, and a foundation hole with a pool of rain at the bottom.
And now it is May. Every night before bed, I go stand on my lawn to look at the stars, hoping for perspective; if it is (still) overcast, I raise my eyes to the lowering clouds and hope anyway. Last night it was slate gray clouds and a fine rain but, then, something else as well. A faint, almost undiscernible trilling at first, rising to a fine high melody from somewhere very close by, then fading into a silence more silent for having sounded. And then, again, the rising trill that heralds the thrilling hopefulness of importunate toads.
In 1853 Henry David Thoreau, after some “raw, cold and wet weather,” was passing a shallow pool where a new house was being built when a song “rang through and filled the air” that he recognized as “the dream of the toad.” It was a sound, he reflected, which “most people do not notice at all. It is to them, perchance, a sort of simmering or seething of all nature.” And that’s the problem: “How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we were made, clear— that it be not made turbid by our contact with the world, so that it will not reflect objects…Often we are so jarred by chagrins in dealing with the world, that we cannot reflect.” *
Sure enough, a couple of pages later he is lamenting how hard it is to be “serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle. The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks.”
I spent the whole winter fiercely composing articles on global warming, when I wasn’t rushing around from meeting to meeting advocating for water affordability bills in our Michigan Legislature and a carbon dividend bill in Congress.
I have been well and truly muddying my crystal well. But May is here, and it seems like a good idea to declare a “Unitarian Summer” for myself just as Thoreau and his friends might have done: I will shorten my to do lists, attend fewer meetings, and cut down on my frantic striving for social justice. Instead, I will get back to nature and take to my river cabin, where I will sit on my dock and do some serious staring at the ripples and even (strange thought for an activist) work as hard as I can at doing nothing.
*The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: 1837-1861 (New York Review of Books Classics)
With thanks to Cousin Sarah for her home made sausage photo
“What’s needed now is research on tactics and strategies at the organizational and societal levels: moving beyond public opinion and messaging to get elbow-deep in how the proverbial sausage is made.” Sarah DeWeerdt, “Climate research needs a better understanding of power,” Jan 8, 2019 in Anthropocene Magazine
Every day, protesters from our local resistance movement shouted outside our Republican Congressman’s office, demanding he hold a town hall and deploring his cowardice for not doing so by brandishing rubber chickens. If, as Deweert suggests, “What climate advocates need to know is how to build enduring relationships with political decision-makers,” was this the way to do it?
I didn’t think so, and that was why I was not among them. I had been visiting him for several years as a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, promoting carbon fee and dividend policy. CCL’s long term goal is to develop the political will of both citizens’ and legislators to reduce global warming. Our strategy is for local chapters to cultivate their Members of Congress; our tactic to that end is civil conversation. Here’s how that goes:
1. We start our meeting with a statement of gratitude for an action he/she has taken.
2. We ask for his/her views on environmental issues and listen as he/she talks for items we hold in common.
3. We speak from those common interests, then provide information on carbon fee and dividend policy.
4. We have one “ask” per meeting. For example, “would you consider joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives?
5. We offer ourselves as resources on environmental questions and provide a notebook of carefully organized background materials as we say our goodbyes.
By no means a moderate, our Congressman came out against Pipeline 5, which endangered Lakes Michigan and Huron; he signed a letter to President Trump asking him to urge Canada not to dump Nuclear Waste near Lake Huron; he joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives and, to top it all off, co-sponsored The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act when it was introduced in the House of Representatives late in the 2018 session.
Did I mention that CCL is bipartisan? Our Congressman’s political will was undoubtedly influenced by a member of our group who had worked in his previous campaign. With local chapters conducting respectful visits with Members of Congress all over the country for a period of years, you can see how this tactic of civil discourse creates legislative results. That is how interest group politics works: think of the Sierra Club, for example, The National Organization for Women, The League of Conservation Voters, The NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In “The Path of Greatest Resistance,” a review of two books on the Resistance Movement, David Cole worries that demonstrations and marches do not, in and of themselves, create movements. “The challenge is this,” assert researchers quoted by Deweerdt: “in most cases, the null assumption is that activism becomes power at scale: that collective action is merely the sum of its parts, and the more people who take action, the more likely a movement is to achieve its goals.”
Historically, political sausage is made by mass demonstrations as the end result and public face of long term planning. Take the case of the Civil Rights Movement: the Selma March, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Poor People’s Campaign were effective public outcomes built upon years of organization. The timely dissemination of strategically worded press releases, careful decisions about who was to speak on TV and word by word crafting of their statements were tactics in a long term strategy designed to create national support for the desired legislation.
“Whether #MeToo and other progressive movements will achieve lasting reform,” Cole asserts, “will depend on these organizations working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls, and, most importantly, at the ballot box. We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.”
Wait a minute! Contemporary political movements use smartphones and screens to sharpen their messaging and widen their base; tweeting and posting, messaging and emailing are powerful and effective tactics of long term organizational strategies.
Flash back to 1967 when I set up the first National Organization for Women Chapter in Atlanta, Georgia. This involved telephone calls back and forth to Betty Friedan on our landline (a hard person to reach, which she made up for by calling us day and night), a telephone tree for letting members know about actions and meetings (extremely time consuming, as you couldn’t leave a voice message for fear you were talking to a misogynistic family member), and tons of slow moving snail mail to and from national headquarters.
Fast forward to 2019, when social media has exponentially strengthened political effectiveness. In the case of CCL the organization’s web site provides detailed instructions on such tactical items like how to set up a a meeting with your Member of Congress and what talking points to use. I am in a group that alerts me by email when to respond to a newspaper article with a Letter to the Editor, and also a Social Media unit which notifies me when a Tweetstorm needs to be raised or a Post needs a commented on and shared. Where in an earlier life I established newsletters for every NOW chapter I joined, now I administer the Facebook page for our local CCL.
From my experiences as a long ago NOW organizer and a present day environmental activist, it seems clear that the development of political will and the achievement of legislative success depends both on crowds waving rubber chickens and lobbyists making nice, on a strategic blend of rabble rousing and long-term planning.
Are you concerned with our environment but are not a political joiner? Do you love nature and want to learn more about it? Are you curious about the insects, animals, plants and fungi all around you? Have you been keeping lists in little notebooks, texts, and miscellaneous scraps of paper all over the house?
Since I wrote about “How I Became a Citizen Scientist” four years ago, the peril to life on earth has increased, but so have ways to transform your observations into environmentally useful data. A recent project, “Never Home Alone: The Wild Life of Homes,” lets you make your observations of spiders, ants, and other creepy crawlers sharing your home.
Here in Detroit, our previously polluted Detroit River has been cleaned up to harbor all kinds of birds, animals (even beaver), and fish stocks; you can see folks fishing for walleye (which they apparently intend to eat) all along the banks. This makes for lots of new opportunities for citizen scientists. In “Reconnecting in Detroit: The Transformative Potential of Citizen Science,” John Hartig lists “angler surveys, identifying aquatic invertebrates collected from river and lake sediments, counting birds, listening for frogs, spotting salamanders, collecting butterflies of dragonflies, or measuring water quality.”
In Oakland County, the northwest segment of the Detroit Metropolitan Region, I am astonished at what my nature loving neighbors get up to in the middle of winter. In mid-December, Oakland Audubon members range far and wide collecting data for their Christmas Bird Count. Right now, in the dead end of January, there is a stonefly search going on in the Rouge River. Organized by The Friends of the Rouge, this citizen science project helps volunteers examine cold, soggy samples of river detritus to count stoneflies. These are “a primitive group of insects named for their habit of crawling on stones in a river. They have high oxygen needs, which limits them to clean, well-oxygenated streams.” Since they hatch in the wintertime, that’s when data must be gathered.
Before it gets warm yet in March, The Friends of the Rouge also train intrepid little bands (some of them in their 80s) to recognize particular species of frogs and toads even when they are all singing together.
They go out in the dark of spring nights, scrambling around secluded ponds and river inlets to identify which species are singing and to get an estimate of their numbers.
As for me, I am sitting in my warm house counting the birds that come to my feeder, turning my scribbled little lists into useful data in the Michigan Audubon’s Winter Bird Survey. I haven’t reached the stage of collecting data about the spiders who come up my bathtub drain, the mealy bugs that burrow into my cornflakes, or the moths munching on my woolies, but it might come to that yet if cabin fever has its way with me!
“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills,” queried poet William Blake in dismay at the destruction that industrialization was wreaking on England’s “Green and Pleasant Land.”
Jonathan Greenberg’s America 2034: Utopia Rising, where the long-time President now calls himself Donald Jesus Trump, depicts the triumph of mercenary cruelty over human comfort. Like most dystopias, his book is dark and full of gloom; fortunately, he devotes equal time to what a better world would be like.
When I was getting ready for college, I expected that everyone would be sitting around under the trees discussing Plato. I could hardly wait; but when I got there, everyone was sitting around under the trees discussing “boys.”
When, after long years of graduate school, I finally landed a job as an Assistant Professor at a big university, I expected intellectual conversations among my peers. Although I facilitated philosophical discussion among my students, as the years went by my fellow faculty developed lockstep loyalty to a theory called deconstruction and were impatient when I refused to adopt it. If I asked a question like “What do you think is the meaning of life,” they answered that all meanings are “socially constructed” and reprimanded me that, if I thought otherwise, I was being deplorably “essentialist.”
When I quit all that to become a full time writer, I discovered, from a book by Christopher Phillips, that I might find stimulating intellectual conversation if I started a Socrates Cafe like his. He also developed Democracy Cafes and Constitution Cafes, conducting them not only on campuses but in elementary schools, prisons, and public squares.
That was in in 2007, and it wasn’t long before I enjoyed probing, explorative discussions on every topic we could imagine. Where in universities (and especially, in law schools) “Socratic Dialogue” involves such intense argumentation that it easily slides into attack mode, in Phillips’ style of discussion we avoid challenging, interrupting, or rebutting each other. As a teacher, I insisted that my students avoid that kind of viscerally verbal competition because it stirs up such strong fright and flight emotions that their brains are flooded and they can’t think at all. Phillips also finds that respectful discussion and active listening, rather than scheming your rebuttal in your head, opens rather than closes the mind.
The resulting atmosphere of open-mindedness, where opinion gives way to thought and one question leads to another, makes every participant a true intellectual. Anyone who wants to submits a question anonymously; then we vote for which one we will pursue that day. We don’t expect to find a final answer to our questions, just leave with a lot of new ones.
Here’s a random pick –
Where is your center? What is the center? What determines belonging? Define normal? Which truth is “truth”? What is Common Sense? What did Jean Paul Sartre mean by being “condemned to be free?” What is a fact? What is a good death and do we have a right to one? Why are we here? What is integrity? If we each have “our own worlds” how do we manage to get along? What is character? Can it be taught? What is “doing the right thing” and what is that all about? What is time!
A Gerontologist was helping me register at the Gerontological Association Convention in Boston.
“I’m 81,” I remarked.
“Don’t you know,” she replied sternly, “age is just a number.”
I was there at my Gerontologist daughter’s invitation to disprove certain stereotypes about aging women by talking about my present life as an “aging generative activist.”
“Activity and agency are associated with youth and manhood,” states her panel abstract, “while their opposites – passivity and dependence – are linked with old age and womanhood.”
I told the audience that age has brought me a perspective on my lifetime activism, and gave them some advice on best practices for their own engagement in the public sphere – things like choosing only one cause at a time, not working alone but with a well-organized group focused on that cause, and utilizing their particular talents rather than trying to be something they are not.
In detailing my particular adaptations for continuing my activism into old age, I pointed out that with more frailty I tire easily and so march less and tweet more, posting and networking, blogging like mad and engaging in conference calls and on-line meetings.
Then I took a hard look at that pesky term “generativity,” urged upon the aging by authorities like Erik Erickson as a developmental stage when you ought to guide the next generation and act upon concern for people outside of yourself and your immediate family.
Enough of that already! Erikson is a man. Calling for a burst of old age generativity from a woman who has spent her whole life doing for others looks like same old same old to me. Instead, we retired women need to develop tons of self-compassion before we fill our schedules with activism, a balance between time just for ourselves (self-generativity) and time spent contributing to our communities and our world.
My daughter used consciousness raising groups for our question period. During the chit-chat before we started I heard one (very accomplished) older woman say to another, “But you don’t look 79!” Even here, apparently, the idea that an oldster acting (or looking) “younger” than the number that marks her age is admirable managed to creep into the conversation without any challenge.
If you praise me by implying that I am acting youthful by being active, aren’t you subtracting an essential element of my existence? I am old. I am also deeply engaged in environmental activism. Both those facts define me. Also, by some weird cognitive quirk that could reverse itself overnight, I am smarter than I have ever been before. Sometimes, reading an author I could never get my mind around when young or proofing an article that is so complicated I can’t believe I wrote it, I can feel the little neurons in my brain fizzing away merrily just like they did during my first cognitive surge at age 14.
These are realistic descriptors of the way I am now, integral parts of my authentic being. I am not somebody’s stereotypical idea about a number, but I am 81. I am not a societal construct but an aged activist woman immensely grateful to have made it whole into the present moment.
Last summer I wrote an essay about whether climate warming will cause the extinction of the human species, so when I came across an article by Lucy Jakub on “Wild Speculation: Evolution After Humans,” I was interested in her startlingly idiosyncratic take.
I spend many happy hours facilitating Socrates Cafes, where people ask philosophical questions and examine philosophical premises in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. As I read Jakub’s survey of speculative writing about the end of the species, I found myself querying the writers’ premises about how we got to this pass.
Geologist Dougal Dixon (who assumes in those innocent years that it is a new Ice Age that will do us in) devotes his 1981 After Man to a scientific study, based on evolutionary genetics, of life forms that might evolve when we are gone.
“Humans go extinct because we lose our evolutionary advantage by adapting our environment to our needs, rather than the other way around. When the resources needed to maintain our civilizations run out, we are unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Crucially, nothing takes our place, and the planet reverts to an Edenic state, uncorrupted by knowledge.”
Let’s look at this philosophically: Dixon considers our capacity for adaption the fruit of our advanced cognition, which isn’t advanced enough to prevent us from depleting our own ecosystem. But if this is so, is it our knowledge that corrupts us or poor choices about how to use it?
We did not all make those choices. Only a small (if powerful) elite of westernized humans – mostly male and mostly industrialists (think of Wordsworth! Think of Dickinson!) propose such a preposterous idea. Their presumption that human beings are separate from and in control of nature serves their bottom line and profit motive, while the rest of us have come to realize that we are more like ruinous genes running amok within it.
Jakubs describes the “Speculative world-building,” of science fiction as a way to explore solutions to our environmental predicament. But Pierre Boulle, in his 1963 Planet of the Apes, is less worried about what is happening to the environment than what is happening in the pecking order, namely “man’s fall from dominance,” while Brian Aldiss, similarly, frets in his 1962 novel Hothouse that human beings have ceded control to (of all things) vegetation.
Do you see the pattern here? Nature (apes, plants) is a terrifying external force usurping human power/over everything.
As we move into recent decades, however, Jakub notes that the “bourgeoning environmental movement led to a new genre, Eco-fiction, whose authors -Ursula K. Le Guin, Louise Erdrich, and Barbara Kingsolver- are especially beloved – mourned not the fall or humanity but the degradation of nature and our lost connection to it, and whose utopias didn’t necessarily include humans.”
Is it just a coincidence that the three authors she cites are women? Or is the premise that nature is a degradable “other” less universal than it seems?
When women novelists write about nature there is a significant gender difference in our premises. In the 1980s I analyzed more than 300 novels by women to compare women heroes’ quests to those outlined (for “man”) by Joseph Campbell. What I found was that while his male hero took women as both “other” and embedded in an alien and dangerous realm of nature,” women saw themselves as deeply integrated in and interdependent with the green world around them.
In recent years, both men and women have embraced the Gaia hypothesis that our planet is an organism within which we and all other life-forms live and must maintain a mutually beneficial balance. Meanwhile, Eco-fiction has become a widespread and popular genre to the extent that Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fictionlists more than 1000 volumes from all over the world.
Mary Woodbury, its most thoroughgoing curator, describes “Eco-fiction (as) ecologically oriented fiction, which may be nature-oriented (non-human oriented) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature). . .Eco-Fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us – our natural habitat.”
Ecology deals with the interactions of organisms within a system and takes human beings as one of those organisms. Eco-Fiction. in Woodbury’s definition, is connective and understands nature as our commons. How we are to do the work of that connection and how we are to take our rightful place within that commons are questions this excitingly speculative new genre raises in our minds and hearts through the deep truths of storytelling.
Henry David Thoreau felt that he would become “the laughing stock of the scientific community” if he tried to tell them what “branch of science” he pursued, because they would have no use for the philosophical (specifically, transcendental) basis of his observations. He was convinced that humans are not superior to the material world but endowed with the same spirit; his passion for nature had to do with the feeling of wholeness it instilled in him as a participant in rather than an outside observer of natural phenomena:
“I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me,” he wrote on November 4, 1852. “My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.” (The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1836-1861 The New York Review Books and Classics).
His refusal to hold himself apart from nature did not prevent Thoreau from using the scientific method in his observations, taking detailed notes on natural objects and devising experiments to understand them better in order to arrive at viable hypotheses. That is what he and some friends were up to in September of 1852, trying to figure out how honey bees went about their business:
“We were furnished with little boxes of red, blue, green, yellow, and white paint, in dry powder, and with a stick we sprinkled a little of the red powder on the back of one while he was feeding — gave him a little dab,— and it settled down amid the fuzz of his back and gave him a distinct red jacket.
He went off like most of them toward some hives about three quarters of a mile distant, and we observed by the watch the time of his departure. In just twenty-two minutes red jacket came back, with enough of the powder still on his back to mark him plainly.
He may have gone more than three quarters of a mile. At any rate, he had a head wind to contend with while laden. They fly swiftly and surely to their nests, never resting by the way, and I was surprised—though I had been informed of it—at the distance to which the village bees go for flowers.
The rambler in the most remote woods and pastures little thinks that the bees which are humming so industriously on the rare wild flowers he is plucking for his herbarium, in some out-of-the-way nook, are, like himself, ramblers from the village, perhaps from his own yard, come to get their honey for his hives.”
Honey Bee Endangerment
Alas and alack, these are the very bees that human civilization, which Thoreau so distrusted, has endangered under the belief that we can do anything we want to nature without suffering such consequences as the “colony collapse disorder” now decimating the bees upon which our agricultural depends: 10 million North American bee hives died off between 2007 and 2013 ”from “a combination of agricultural chemicals, diseases, parasites and stress.”
Nonetheless, every time I step out into my modest flower garden on a sunny day there are bees everywhere and of all different sizes, tiny bees in the tiny flowers, medium sized bees in the medium sized flowers, and bumblebees rummaging around in the hibiscus. Then, being a transcendentalist myself, my ego vanishes into the sunshine and I feel myself, as did Wordsworth, part of “something far more deeply interfused” than my day to day chores.
Although some larger wild bees like the bumble bee are also in distress these days, many smaller wild bees that are native to our countryside seem to be doing quite well, and one of those is the Blue Bee frequenting the blooms of almonds and fruit trees in our national’s orchards.
Blue Bees to the Rescue
The United States Department of Agriculture informs us that “In recent years, the blue orchard bee (BOB) has become established as an alternative orchard pollinator in North America. With a strong preference for fruit trees, BOBs are highly efficient pollinators; in fact, just 250-300 females will pollinate an entire acre of apples or cherries. BOBs forage and pollinate under cloudy skies and at lower temperatures than most other bees. They are easy to manage and rarely sting.”
Farmers trying to manage Blue Bees quickly learned that they are much more Thoreauvian in their love of autonomy than the more social imported Honey Bees. Here is they are instructed on:modernfarmer.com:
“Blue orchard bees might be efficient pollinators, but they’re terrible employees.
What makes blue orchard bees enticing to farmers, aside from the fact that they’re inherently cool and native to this country, is that they’re actually much more efficient pollinators than honey bees. This is partly as a result of their solitary nature and partly a result of the fact that they collect pollen with their abdomens, rather than their legs, which is what honey bees do; BOBs perform this goofy sort of swimming motion within the flower to get pollen to stick to them. This swimming motion is really great for spreading pollen from one plant to another, if not quite as great for actually collecting pollen to give to their broods”
If, like Thoreau, the farmers had painted their Blue Bees red, they would not have observed them returning to village hives but, as he to his beloved Walden, to autonomous little dwellings – holes in the ground, actually – more suitable to their distaste for bee socialization and theirlove of solitude
And so it is that modern farmers have learned to poke Blue Bee larvae into the ground near their orchards or to bury carefully measured little tubes here and there where mother bees can lay their eggs in the solitude they so cherish.
You would think that when I am at my river cottage in Northern Michigan I would sit back, close my eyes, and relax. I have the most comfortable deck chair you can imagine, fitted out with the most sybaritic of cushions, but I keep leaping up to see what is splashing in the river or to examine a flower I have suddenly noticed growing on the bank.
This summer I have read three books, dipping into each as the whim possesses me: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861, Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.
“How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact! Suggesting what worlds remain to be unveiled,” exclaims Thoreau on April 18, 1852. “That phenomenon of the Andromeda seen against the sun cheers me exceedingly.
I think that no one ever takes an original or detects a principle, without experiencing an inexpressible, as quite infinite and sane, pleasure, which advertises him of the dignity of that truth he has perceived.”
Leonardo Da Vinci’s “curiosity,” notes Isaacson, “like that of Einstein, often was about phenomena that people over the age of ten no longer puzzle about.”
Leonardo’s puzzlings are scribbled over 7,200 pages of notebooks that Isaacson deftly organizes by topics. “My favorite gems in his notebooks,” he acknowledges, “are his To-Do lists, which sparkle with curiosity.”
From Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do Lists:
“Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.”
“Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heaver and thicker than the air?”
“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”
“Why is the sky blue?”
“Why can our eyes see only in a straight line?”
“What is yawning?”
I am way over the age of ten, but I retain a ten year old’s curiosity. I am always trying to figure out what is going on in nature – slogging through the wetlands to see what the beaver are up to, chasing up and down the river after sandpipers, or lying flat on my belly trying to figure out what Kimmerer means about the structure of mosses.
And what a joy I feel to see my sixteen year old grandaughter and thirteen year old grandson bent over their nets and collecting jars, closely examining crawfish, dragonfly nymphs, minnows, and tiny river lampreys – curious as ever about the diverse and fascinating abundance of river life.
There is a lovely swathe of emerald, velvety moss right in front of my cottage that brings joy to our bare feet as we race down to swim in the river. After reading my book on mosses, it has revealed an eternity in itself.
Biologist Kimmerer and her assistant crouch on the forest floor, devising multiple experiments to figure out why Dictanum Flagellare shares space with Tetraphis pellucida rather than compete with each other, as might ordinarily be expected of different moss species. Is it the wind? Is it slugs, they ask themselves, and create a sticky surface to see what might be crawling around. The answer, after two long summers of mosquitoes, sore backs, and discarded hypotheses? Chipmunks!
“Part of the fascination of working with mosses,” writes Kimmerer, “is the chance to see if and when the ecological rules of the large transcend the boundaries of scale and will illuminate the behavior of the smallest beings. It is a search for order, a desire for a glimpse of the threads that hold the world together.” P. 58
All three of the authors I read this summer – a nineteenth century New England naturalist, a Renaissance genius, and a Potawatomi scientist – focus on minute particulars, tiny details like how a curl of hair resembles a river eddy (Leonardo), the motions a great blue heron’s wings make as it takes off (Thoreau), and the tiny sharp outgrowths that allow dried out moss to conduct raindrops to its ovules (Kimmerer). They possess an intense curiosity, an eye for the details of minute particulars, and a tendency to joy in nature.