Planet Earth

Earth Day Persuasion

Debris tree

Debris tree

How do we do good without doing more harm than good?

 

My husband and I are in the habit of picking up litter as we walk along the path behind our house. As piles of snow melted away in March, piles of trash came into view, dotting the wetlands and prairie with the sheen of clear plastic, the bright colors of newsprint advertisements, and—most ubiquitous of all—shopping bags. We didn’t have to bring our own trash bags, simply loading up the ones we found before depositing them, plump as beach balls, into the trash bin along the trail.

 

Could we recycle them? Probably not, if they’re dirty. About 80% of newspaper is recycled while only about 7% of plastic is. More than 85% of plastic, especially if it’s soiled, goes to landfills. Lightweight as they are, bags often go sailing in the breeze to end up snagged on trees, in the ocean, or clogging storm drains.  (See the National Geographic article about plastic trash online.) One billion tons of plastic bags have been discarded in the last 60 years and will persist virtually forever. It takes centuries or longer to break down their high-density polyethylene, a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas, containing benzene and other toxic chemicals.

 

To sea turtles, the floating bags look like jellyfish, their favorite food. Turtles, birds, fish, and other animals die from ingesting or respirating the trash, or getting it stuck around their mouths, heads, or abdomens. Researching plastic bags online, I see that three hours of work yielded 1.4 million bags during the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day. Plastic bags were the second most common trash item found along lakes, streams, and beaches.

Turtle that tried to eat plastic trash

Turtle that tried to eat plastic trash

 

My biggest challenge at the duck pond behind our house was a plastic shopping bag mired in the middle of it. We saw it there all winter. The ducks and geese seemed to ignore it, but I didn’t like seeing that petrochemical flotsam in their midst. Last week, after the snow was gone but before the grassy banks thawed to mush, I stood at water’s edge, casting an oak branch toward the slimy bag. The branch was too short. I got some string from the house and tied it to the branch. I hung onto the string and threw the wood with all my might.  After a few flings, I lost my grasp on the string and the branch floated out of reach. I fetched it back with another branch. My husband, chuckling at the spectacle from across the pond, shouted, “Tie them together.” Good idea. The length of the two branches was sufficient to rake in the beige bag. I dumped out the mud inside and carried it away. The pond looks much better.

 

Collecting pound after pound of garbage is a good way to reflect on the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve been composing letters in my head as I walk through the dry grass, wondering if nearby residents would heed a reminder to be more careful, such as bundling up their recycling good and tight before setting it at the curb for pick-up. The winds blast at high speeds across this part of Illinois, scattering paper from recycling bins and assorted junk from trash cans. If such a letter were in our local newspaper, would it help decrease the amount of debris along the path? Or would it just annoy readers and earn me a reputation as an over-zealous nag?

 

A few years back, I was irritated by just such a “do-gooder.” We happen to drive a hybrid car. We bought a Prius when they first came out and still have our old one, the kind with the trunk before they made hatchbacks. Because our two children had active lives in high school with music and with equestrian and lacrosse teams, we also got a red minivan. It was the only vehicle we found that could carry our daughter’s string bass, not to mention saddles and sports equipment and players. One day I found a note tucked under the wiper on the van’s windshield. The typed words said that, wow, what a big vehicle we had! It then said that we should get a smaller, more environmental car.

 

Now who would leave that note? I pictured a woman a lot like myself, concerned with the state of the planet and wondering what to do about it. She had a brainstorm to deliver these leaflets to people like me, people she assumed had to be persuaded by her (or him) to change our ways. I should empathize with, or even applaud, such an activist! Instead I wanted to slap them upside the head for being so preachy and presumptuous. This is precisely the outcome I seek to avoid. I want to write about and protect nature without turning people off by sounding judgmental or shrill.

 

After all, one of my reminders to myself on a regular basis is to avoid “shoulding” on myself. I don’t want to “should” on others either, telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, “guilting” them into compliance. That’s one way to make people go suddenly deaf. I could do more harm than good.

 

What does persuade people to act with the greater good in mind? Perhaps peer pressure. A sign was posted at a petrified forest asking people not to take bits home with them. Trouble is, the sign mentioned that pieces of petrified wood were disappearing from the park at an alarming rate. The message, for some people, was, “Everybody does it.” The rate of pillaging went up rather than down. This is why, instead of the “just say no” campaign, our kids’ high school started spreading the word that the vast majority of students do not smoke, drink, or do drugs. The goal was to normalize staying sober and healthy. Just say yes to intelligent norms.

 

How do we normalize diligent trash containment and also the use of reusable bags when we shop? (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/reusable-grocery-bags_n_1409065.html.) One thing I can do is clean up this patch of the world.  With no butts on the ground, smokers won’t see it as a giant ashtray.  With no random bags or papers stuck in the grass, people may just chase the next one that gets away.  It sets a standard.

I can write a letter, too, asking my neighbors to remember the land. Remember the birds.  Earth Day, April 22, is for everybody.

The pond is clear of bags

The pond is clear of bags

 

 

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Planet Earth

Ducks in Mid-Winter

A guy working on our roof said, “I see a hundred ducks down there.”  He is a hunter of ducks.

So are prowling coyote and the peregrine falcon, aka duck hawk, looking over the pond from a perch in the oak tree.  I’ve seen feathery remains under that tree. No wonder the ducks are so skittish.

As I approach them this morning, the sun is not yet up.  Their patch of water remains open though it is twelve below zero.  The marsh grass is coated with frost and I am out here with bare hands on my camera, trying to record the winter white.  As usual, the black ducks and mallards sense the presence of me and my dog and rise into the air en masse.

Some birds angle gradually out of the water.  But these are dabbler ducks.  Nature artist Roger Tory Peterson noted, “When they fly they do not skitter or patter like heavily laden seaplanes taking off, the way diving ducks do, but spring straight into the air, then level off.”  To see more pictures of ducks and hear their quacks, click http://artisanpeace.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/wings-of-winter/.

Someone from a warmer state asked if all the animals here die in the winter.  This year, it seems like a fair question!  It has been exceptionally cold in Illinois and the entire Midwest.  How do the ducks survive?  Whether in Central Park or our prairie wetlands, they can stay for the winter as long as they have open water and access to water plants for food.

For starters, they wear the same insulation I have in my coat: feathers.  Down can keep them warm to temperatures well below zero.  With their fat reserves and high metabolism, they can maintain an average body temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  Like us, they can shiver if they must.

Their scaly feet have specialized circulation that keeps them from freezing.  Ducks are also smart enough to take advantage of solar energy, turning their broadest surface–their backs–toward the sun.  Also, with their hair-trigger reaction to movement, they definitely get enough exercise to keep themselves warm!

We watch the birds arc to the east and then, noticing that the dog is lifting a paw in discomfort from the cold, we head for home.  Judging from the groundhog’s reaction yesterday, we have more than enough time in the weeks ahead to learn about winter survival.

Ducks at dawn

Ducks at dawn

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Planet Earth

Dad and the Atomic Age

GONE FISSION

On July 1, 1946 my dad, Sgt. Frank Wolf, sent a letter to his grandmother from Bikini Atoll with a special postmark for that day: “Atomic Bomb Test.”  “Be sure and save this envelope,” he wrote, “as it may some day be quite a collectors’ item.”

On July 1, fifty-four years later, Dad died of a type of cancer associated with radiation exposure.  And in July of this year, I received a letter informing me that the U.S. government is compensating our family for his exposure to nuclear fallout.

Dad was what we’d nowadays call a nerd.  A skinny guy, his nieces and nephews called him Uncle Peewee.  To his math students, he was Professor Wolf.  We four kids just knew him as Dad, the one who got us up early to go fishing and who couldn’t resist a bad pun.

He took keen interest in his work as an engineer in the Army’s technical division, producing U-235 from uranium—even if he was kept in the dark about WHY he was doing it.  Stories of the U.S. atomic weapons project came out after the fact—from Enrico Fermi’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago, until the first successful test of the bomb three years later.  Terms like “nuclear fission” were coined by scientists as they gleaned what the split atoms could do.   Secret nuclear research accelerated to a hectic pace with the events of World War II.

TESTS ONE AND TWO

In July 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, sent two of his fellow scientists a cryptic letter inviting them to join him for “our fishing trip.”  They knew what he meant: the new device called the Gadget was about to go off in New Mexico.

The blast on July 16 was equal to 15,000 tons of TNT, surpassing all expectations.  People in three states reported seeing the flash, including a blind eighteen-year-old named Georgia Green.  Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, a close witness, admitted that when the test began, “there was in everyone’s mind a strong measure of doubt.”  Its success “was a justification of the several years of intensive efforts of tens of thousands of people—statesmen, scientists, engineers, manufacturers, soldiers, and many others in every walk of life.”  He called the effects of the bomb unprecedented and terrifying, yet also “magnificent.”

The success of the Manhattan Project in producing and detonating its astonishing gadget meant it could then be used in Japan.  The atomic bomb let loose on Hiroshima was essentially the second trial of the new technology.

My husband’s cousin, Reiko, lived in Hiroshima.  She was at her desk on the morning of August 6, 1945 when the bomb fell.  She was eight-years-old.  The other third-graders rushed to the window to see what caused the big, white flash.  Reiko did not look up from her schoolwork until the glass in the window shattered.  As the atomic cloud swelled over Hiroshima, tens of thousands of her fellow citizens were already dead.  100,000 more were injured, including many of her classmates.  Almost half of the 320,000 people of Hiroshima would die from the effects of the bomb by the end of the year.

Reiko walked to her home on the outskirts of the city.  She and her mother went out in the evening and took food to the ash-covered people fleeing the devastation.

TESTS THREE AND FOUR

The next use of the atomic bomb was three days later in Nagasaki, causing more devastation and killing more than 70,000 people.  On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan.

The fourth use of an atomic bomb was the one celebrated with the special postmark on Dad’s letter, after the War.  Four days later, at a Paris fashion show, a new swimsuit named after the bombsite debuted: the bikini. A cartoon series depicting the atomic age of 2062 was developed called “The Jetsons,” imagining a tricked-out, high-speed world of the future: a hovercraft in every carport, a robotic maid in the kitchen.

Having worked at Oak Ridge laboratories for the Manhattan Project, Dad wanted to see the uranium-fueled technology in action.  For that fourth test, he was watching from the U.S.S. Haven beyond the lagoon.  With the lightning-bolt insignia of the Special Engineering Detachment on his shoulder, Dad must have felt part of the power surge carrying America into a new age, ready to apply his training.  He got his chance when he was assigned to be a radiation monitor for the next test in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll.

TEST FIVE: A MAJOR MISTAKE

Dad wrote about that day, “It was an interesting mix of people in the Radiological Safety Section.  My particular team of radiation monitors consisted of a Major from the Army Field Artillery, myself, and two others.  The Major was appointed senior monitor.”  This appointment, Dad told us, was based on rank and not expertise.  The Baker explosion (click to see photos and video) was detonated underwater in the Bikini lagoon at 8:35 on the morning of July 25, 1946.  Two hours later, Frank and his team entered the lagoon in their small landing craft, accompanied by a gunboat.  They had a Geiger counter and an ion chamber for measuring radiation.

The team headed for the middle of the lagoon, keeping their eyes on the Geiger counter.  Dad noticed, “As we got closer to the target center the readings went up.  Then rather suddenly they dropped to almost nothing.  I told the Major I thought we might be in heavy radiation.  He looked at the dial on the counter and said that I must be mistaken since the needle was at zero.  As we headed closer to target center, I decided that this was not the time to explain how Geiger counters work, ignored the Major, and went to the cabinet in the rear and got out the ion chamber.”

Radiation levels were actually beyond the capacity of the Geiger counter to measure.  When Dad got the ion chamber set up, its needle climbed and kept on climbing.  The Major saw they were in radioactivity ten times above the recommended limit and ordered the landing craft and gunboat to get out of there.

“We headed back to the entrance of the lagoon as fast as we could go,” Dad wrote.  Their boat, it was found later, was so contaminated from radioactive fallout it could not be used again.

My father, in his youth, was optimistic about the possibilities of the Atomic Age.  As he grew older and worked for peace and environmental causes, he would have agreed with Enrico Fermi who said that scientific advances have certainly “led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. […] What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.”

We now know the horrifying consequences of nuclear warfare and can, with maturity, wisdom and united effort, prevent its use in the future.  May we make good use of the knowledge and powers we’ve acquired and work together for a peaceful, healthy world. 

news of Dad at Bikini Atoll

news of Dad at Bikini Atoll

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Planet Earth

Geese at the End of Summer

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

It’s supper time and there’s nobody on the lake.  Just me and some geese.

I count 31 of them.  Now and then they honk or rise up and flap their wings a bit, but mostly they just float.  I’m not sure how they do it, but they float in two straight lines.  Are they practicing formations for migration?  I want to paddle closer to them but I don’t want them to be disturbed and fly away.

I steer clear of the birds and go north to the lily pads.  They look tattered and wind-blown this time of year.  The best of summer is over, I guess.  I pluck out a Coke can and some plastic debris and throw it in the back of the boat to discard at home.  Then I allow myself to drift back towards our dock.

Suddenly the geese are on the move.  First one group takes off in a flurry of splashing wings and then another.  I expect them to form Vs as they fly away but they fall into lines again and undulate northeast over the pine trees.

I am reminded that the whole summer has gone by and I’ve hardly written a thing.  Sadly, we had a dog sicken with Lyme disease and die.  Happily, we had a daughter get married.  Plus we moved.  Now I want to find my way back to my desk and get some lines down on paper, let my thoughts fly.

Here are some parting “words” from geese in flight: http://ibc.lynxeds.com/sound/canada-goose-branta-canadensis/calls-pair-flight

September reflections

September reflections

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Planet Earth

Ecology and the Road

A good place to walk

A good place to walk

It seems that the more we improve our roads the less hospitable they are to people.

I remember hearing an engineer at a town hall meeting reveal his proposal for an “improved” road by our summer home.  Our neighbor, Mrs. Miller, stood up and said, “Over my dead body!  I will lay down in front of your bulldozers before I let you turn our road into a four-lane highway.”  As a child hearing her words, I pictured her soft body on the earth, gray hair nestled in fallen pine needles, as heavy machinery roared toward her.  I believed her—that she would lay down her life to save the forest—and I have come to understand her passion.  She loved that land like life itself.

Mrs. Miller fell in love with the north woods of Minnesota by tending it for all of her years.  For me, I fell in love with trees.  I am happiest when I am climbing a tree, or at least sitting by one.  Every trail I walked and every fort I made out of meadow grass brought me closer to the land.  I was wooed by the peace and beauty I found there.  It got harder to go play outside as I got older, but now I am trying to make it a priority.  Just as our mothers told us, I am telling myself: go out and play.  And here’s another childhood mantra: stop, look, and listen.  I try not to rush through my nature walks, but, rather, take time to open my senses.

To know the land is, usually, to love it.  I believe that loving nature is the beginning of conserving it.  Caring about it makes me want to care for it.  It seems to me that ecology is an inside job. “Environment” may be defined as something outside myself, but the seed of environmentalism is found within me.  How do I care for myself and how do I care for the planet?  Mother Earth offers me her talents and, in turn, I use what small gifts I have to protect, enhance, and appreciate her. 

Mrs. Miller brought her passion.  My father brought research about road regulations that he’d gathered at a university library to prove that the requirement for the width of the road was not as the engineer had claimed.  My family and our neighbors loved that land and we showed it.  The road was repaved but remained two lanes, and trees and meadows were saved.  And it is still a good road to walk or bicycle along.

By the road in Minnesota

By the road in Minnesota

 

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Planet Earth

Wonder Walk: Hiking for Health

Hiking in Costa Rica

Hiking in Costa Rica

The first Wednesday of April is National Walking Day.  This is one way the American Heart Association promotes habits that keep our heart happy.  Whether you walk alone or with others, the idea is to get moving.  If you can connect with nature while you’re outside, so much the better.

Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh leads walking meditations at his retreat center among the sunflowers of Bordeaux, France.  In Peace Is Every Step he reminds us, “Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth.  Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

Librarian Ann Vogl and English teacher Cheryl Gorsuch decided to hike the Ice Age Trail–all 1000 miles of it.  It took them five years, getting together on weekends to do a bit at a time.  They often talked while they walked and got to know each other very well.  They also got to know thirty counties of Wisconsin as they followed the edge of the last glacier!  Upon achieving their goal this month, Gorsuch commented, “I think you see so much of Wisconsin at a personal level, foot by foot, step by step.”

Mark Hirsch is another inspired Wisconsinite.  Every day for a year, he walked to a 163-year-old Bur Oak, took a picture of it, and got to know it very well.  It became “That Tree” project, completed just two weeks ago.  (See www.facebook.com/photosofthattree.)  People who saw his photos posted online got to know the oak, too, and shared their stories of special trees.   So whether we hike a thousand miles or walk to the same place every day, there are benefits from the physical exercise and the connections we make.

Though I like taking sociable walks with friends, I pay more attention to flora and fauna if I go quietly by myself.  I can pause and watch birds to my heart’s content or lean against a tree until I have set down roots alongside it.  For heart health, a rapid pace is best, and I do like race-walking.  But for peace of mind, I like to pause and appreciate my surroundings.

Kathleen Dean Moore of Oregon writes in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature of walking along a river by the Cascade Mountains.  She couldn’t help but take her stress with her.  “Already,” she says, “just a few hours into the weekend, time feels short.  I hurry to relax before I have to go back to my complicated life.”  She pauses to watch the river, a tortoiseshell butterfly lands on her arm, and her awareness shifts.

“Lucky.  If I hadn’t stopped to watch the river, if I hadn’t worked up a sweat in this unlikely sun, if I hadn’t pushed my sleeves up past my elbows, I might never have discovered how to drink in the peace of this time and place, every warm drop.”  Moore continues, “This is what a human brings to the world–the ability to take notice, to be grateful and glad, glad for the river swinging by, for the sun warming my shoulders, for the breeze lifting the hairs on a butterfly’s back.”

May you get lucky on April 3 and every day.  Don’t hurry to relax.  Take your time and have a heartfelt walk.

 

 

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Planet Earth

Procupine Discovery

North American Porcupine

North American Porcupine

I was face-to-face with a porcupine that lay so still in the crook of some pine branches that I wondered if it was dead.  Thrilled to see wildlife, I was also startled and scrambled back down the tree as fast as I could go.

I didn’t know porcupines could be that big and I didn’t even know they climbed trees!  Maybe it looked so big because each one has about 30,000 quills.  And maybe it was sleeping during the day because porcupines are nocturnal.  They climb trees with their long claws, eat pine needles, and then, apparently, take a nap.

I was nine and I’d crossed the road from our northern Minnesota house to sit in my favorite spot by Goose Lake.  The prickly rodent must have liked it, too, perched in the tree with an excellent view of the lake.  If I’d known more about it’s kind, I would have had the confidence to climb back up the tree and take a second look.

Jamie Sams (Medicine Cards, p. 85) says, “Porcupine is a gentle, loving creature, and non-aggressive.  When fear is not present, it is possible to feed a Porcupine by hand and never get stuck by its quills.”  Searching on Word Press, I, indeed, saw a porcupine named Thistle fed by hand.  (The video has had millions of hits, because it is pretty darn adorable.  Plus, the critter has hiccups.)  Thistle could be an ambassador for what Sams calls its special medicine: “the power of faith and trust.”  This tells me I have some things to learn from these prickly critters.

I just hope we don’t run into one with our dogs.

Quills in a dog.

Quills in a dog.

Quills ready for defense.

Quills ready for defense.

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