I’ve written about my favorite birches, oaks, and redwoods, and even a post titled, “Have You Thanked a Tree Today?” Currently, I have another tree to thank and my gratitude reaches a new level, coming from the very marrow of my bones, even as that marrow struggles to make white blood cells. The leaves of Taxus Baccata, the European yew, are the basis of a drug called Taxotere (generic name: docetaxel) that is helping to save my life.
My Welsh ancestors may well have had such yew trees growing nearby, as they were favored in church yards. The toxic leaves repelled the cows, thus protecting the cemeteries from trampling. Nothing could protect the trees, however, from monarchs’ demands for springy yew wood to make longbows, depleting forests for 300 years until guns became the weapon of choice in the 1700s. But a few ancient yews, some more than a thousand years old, can still be found in the old church yards.
Now the trees contribute to my longevity as I take my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Of the four drugs injected into my system every 21 days, Taxotere from European yews (or Taxol from Pacific yews) is most common. It is apparently a reliable and accurate assassin of cancer cells and has helped shrink my tumor to a fraction of its former size. Due to its’ effectiveness in treating various cancers, there is a rise in demand from pharmaceutical companies that could again threaten yew populations. After all, cancer drugs are lucrative business. For instance, the United States saw $3.1 billion dollars in sales of Taxotere in 2010.
I wish the trees, and all those receiving their medicine, well. Yeah, they inhibit all the cells in my body, even the good guys like white blood cells, from dividing and make me nauseous and almost bald. I’m as sick as a cow in a graveyard, but I plan to get rid of disease, recover from the side effects and surgeries, and live cancer-free.
As I said to my nurse during chemotherapy, “You’re giving me poison in order to save my life.” She said that’s right. Thank you, yews. May we turn your cytotoxic poison into medicine so we can stand strong and live. And may you do the same.
Before there were pantsuits, there were bloomers. Before there were female presidential nominees, there was Susan Brownell Anthony.
Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 and grew up in Massachusetts. Her family, especially her Quaker father, Daniel, believed that everyone deserved freedom, education, and other rights, regardless of race or gender. So Susan received as much education as did the boys in her town. (On a personal note, Susan’s cousin, Sarah Anthony also received an education and in later years married my great great grandfather, Zaccheus Test.)
Inspired by news of the Seneca Falls, New York conference for women’s rights in 1848, Susan went to Seneca Falls herself a couple years later and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, anti-slavery and women’s rights activists. They were both wearing bloomers! The outfits consisted of loose Turkish-style trousers gathered at the ankles and covered by a skirt that came down just below the knees.
Bloomers may not look comfortable to modern eyes, but they were more convenient than most women’s styles of the 19th century. A woman in America back then typically wore seven layers, including a corset to mold her figure and a skirt so long and full it made everyday movement such as climbing stairs a challenge. Women could never count on making full use of their hands, much less the rest of their bodies, as they managed their hoops and layers. Bloomers freed them up considerably.
In support of such freedom, Susan B. Anthony wore bloomers–for about a year. When her clothing attracted more attention and ridicule than her lectures about women’s rights, Susan went back to wearing her usual dark blouse and skirt, with her hair pulled back in a bun. That’s how we see her in the photograph that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Susan, wearing her most conservative clothes, decided to test the voting laws in a national election. It was illegal for her to cast a ballot for either Ulysses S. Grant or Horace Greeley, so she was arrested and tried by a hostile judge and all-male jury. As the New York Times reported, “It was conceded that the defendant was, on the 5th of November, 1872, a woman.” She was ordered to pay a fine and never paid it. She continued her fight for equality throughout her life.
Fourteen years after the death of Susan B. Anthony, women won the right to vote. The 19th Amendment passed in 1920 and stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
That was 96 years ago. What will you wear to the polls on November 8 of this year? I’ll be wearing jeans and using a ballot with the name of a woman running for President of the United States. A woman wearing a pantsuit.
My new favorite place! As Grace Swanson explains, Langley, a beautiful, sleepy village by the sea, is full of interesting people, critters, and places. Discover some of the things that make this town truly unique. 1. Bunnies Galor…
Spring in downeast Maine is slow to arrive. Arctic currents swirl in the Atlantic and frequent rains dampen visitors’ spirits. In spite of the warnings in the guidebooks, my daughter and I took a chance and booked our stay in Bar Harbor for early June. Some restaurants, such as the highly recommended Burnt Tree in Otter Creek, don’t even open their doors till mid-June. But it was the best time for our schedules, so off we went!
We got lucky. The weather was kind to us and the people even kinder.
We stayed at Acacia Inn, fed well every morning by Anna and Ralph, and wandered from there to the water’s edge. When it was low tide, we walked from the town of Bar Harbor to Bar Island, both named for the sand bar that appears and then disappears between them every day. Beyond the spruce forest on the island, we came upon a field bursting with spiky lupine flowers, as if Miss Rumphius of children’s book fame had been there spreading seeds.
We purchased our $25 pass for Acadia National Park at Hulls Cove Visitor Center, good for seven days. A group of Corvette drivers had made it their destination for the day and departed as we arrived, engines purring. Perhaps they were acknowledging, as we were, the centennial of the National Park Service, 1916- 2016.
From Hulls Cove, Stephanie and I went straight to the highest point on Mount Desert Island, Cadillac Mountain. We parked our rented Ford Focus and hiked to the bare, rounded peak of pink stone, a type of granite named for the mountain. At 1,530 feet, we could see for miles in all directions and noticed Bar Harbor and Bar Island to the northeast. Clouds shrouded the Porcupine Islands beyond.
At Jordan Pond, two Mi’kmaq men wove ash strips into baskets and a lone beaver wove sticks and branches into a home. Stephanie and I both tried our hand at the former but left the beaver to his own business.
For five days we explored the sights, sounds, and smells of this eastern national park, driving on the Park Loop Road and hiking on the (vehicle-free) carriage roads and trails. The Ocean Path took us from Otter Cliffs to the pounding waves of Thunder Hole and, eventually, to Sand Beach. Though the water was a chilly 48 degrees, we waded in the surf and let the coarse sand buff our feet. Our longest hike was the Triad Trail, taking the better part of a day and rewarding us with the woodsy scent, peace and quiet that come from wilderness, far from the popular paths.
Returning to Bangor for our flight home, we went to a Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band concert at the Cross Center. Ringo wore a red and black plaid shirt like the Paul Bunyan standing outside the building. Even my favorite Beatle was part of the Maine mystique as he drummed us out of our reveries of nature, back to our cities of Chicago and New York.
Some of my favorite characters are trees. With Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 29) coming up, I’m thinking of arboreal authors and their tales of trees and people who live in them, from Tarzan to the Swiss Family Robinson. Trees have played important roles, if only in the background, of many terrific books.
As much as I loved Mary in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I never became much of a gardener. I loved Sam Gribley’s home in a tree far better. Mary cultivated the titular overgrown garden at an old Yorkshire mansion and made it her refuge, sharing it with the invalid, Colin. Sam, on the other hand, ran away from his family’s New York City apartment and lived in the woods of upstate New York with a falcon in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. That’s the life for me, I thought when I read it in fifth grade at about the same age as the woodsy character, Sam. I was a tree-climbing girl though not as experienced at living off the land as Jean Craighead was. She grew up in a family of naturalists and her first pet was a turkey vulture. She gave her main character many chances to use survival skills, from harvesting wild foods to hollowing out a tree with fire to make a home.
In a tragic, true tale, a young woman named Sara sought out her favorite tree, known as the Senator, and built a small fire there one January night in 2012. Sadly for her and the world, the fire spread and she accidentally burned down the 3500-year-old bald cypress, the largest tree east of the Mississippi. Writer Julia Shipley asked Sara if she’d been inspired by My Side of the Mountain when she got in the habit of visiting the Senator and sitting inside it. “No,” Sara said, “But do you know The Giving Tree? That’s one of my favorite books and that’s how I look at what happened.”
Sara had been addicted to meth for eight years and getting in trouble for incinerating a national treasure forced her to get sober. “Basically the tree saved my life,” she said.
Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, is for all ages, showing how a tree can nurture and support us throughout our lives. Silverstein’s simple drawings convey a human lack of reciprocity that could be shameful yet is somehow touching. The trees give so much to us and now and then we pause and notice and appreciate it.
A 1942 book called Tree in the Trail charmed me in my youth with its Native American version of reciprocity with a cottonwood tree and how such a tree could “witness” 224 years of history. But reading it now I cringe at the stereotypes of Indians, Spaniards and others depicted by Holling Clancy Holling.
A better source for Native American stories about trees is Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. They write, “Living in balance, in many Native North American cultures, means to live within and honor the circles of life. A circle of giving and receiving becomes part of our relationship with the natural world when we take only what is necessary to survive and return the remains of plants and animals to the earth with gratitude.”
A Seneca thanksgiving for trees is included in the book, ending with “Let us put together our thoughts that we will always be grateful” for the medicine, firewood, and other gifts of trees.
As for picture books, The Happiness Tree: Celebrating the Gifts of Trees We Treasure by Andrea Albin Gosling and illustrated by Lisa Burnett Bossi is lovely in every way and suggests values we can learn from the trees. For instance, a White Pine stands for courage. The last page recommends, “Plant a Happiness Tree on Arbor Day.”
Another good one for Arbor Day is Janice Udry’s A Tree Is Nice. Marc Simont’s illustrations show the many things children like to do among trees. My favorite is, “We can sit on a limb and think about things.” The book won a Caldecott award.
I’ll end with a quote from a 2015 novel for young adults, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe. An edgy book about a strip-mined town, the main character fights for her life in a devastated landscape. Yet she finds renewal in her Kentucky hills: “The trees and the roll of the earth held me up like the ridge holds the cloud from passing so it can pour down rain. The vines and the rabbits and the squirrels and the orange lizards out on the rocks after a storm–all those things I’d forget when people dragged me down–I needed them close and always.”
“If all the plastic in the last few decades was clingfilm, there would be enough to put a layer around the whole Earth,” said paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, quoted in this month’s Economic Times. “We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years.”
Not only have we “shrink-wrapped” the Earth in plastic, we’ve paved and entombed huge portions of it in cement. More than half of all concrete ever made was produced in the last twenty years. Our construction and convenience products are taking over the world, with only 25% of ice-free land left in its natural state. Rates of wildlife extinction are rising.
British geologist Colin Waters, co-author of a Science article on the subject, says, “What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”
Scientists are discussing whether we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by human activity. Just as the Holocene Epoch can be seen in Earth’s sediment as the end of the last ice age, humans have, in a very short time, created sufficient significant markers to call for the naming of a new epoch. Some say it started with the Industrial Revolution while others mark its beginning with the presence of isotopes, measurable all over the planet, from nuclear weapons testing after WWII. Plastics and concrete are other lasting markers.
Remember looking at layers of sediment in geology class or while visiting someplace like the Grand Canyon? It’s awesome to realize we are looking back in time at evidence of events long past. Future generations, if there are any thousands of years from now, will be able to look back at what we left behind and measure time as well. What will they think of the choices we made?
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law, Lily (or Yuriko) Terao. She was mugged by a purse-snatcher near her home in Los Angeles and died from her injuries November 8, 2005. As a nisei (second-generation) Japanese-American, Lily was born in Seattle in 1920 and returned to Japan many times in her life. In fact, she went to high school in Japan, then returned to the United States to work.
Due to the events of World War II, Lily was sent to the desolate Gila River internment camp in Arizona in 1942. She was imprisoned there merely for being Japanese and had to destroy her Japanese items, including her high school diploma. Anything Japanese was suspect at that time. Fluent in both Japanese and English, Lily was soon recruited to go to the University of Michigan and teach Japanese to intelligence officers and others. She saw her chance to get out of the crowded, makeshift camp and she took it.
“I took a loyalty test to get out of camp,” she said in an interview transcribed by our daughter, Stephanie. “Then I was sent to Michigan to help teach soldiers Japanese. The student soldiers would come [for one year] and we would speak nothing but Japanese to them. I mostly taught military intelligence.”
I once went to the University of Michigan and got a copy of a document written in 1943 by Marine Major Sherwood Moran, Intelligence Division. It revealed what Lily was working on back then at the University, along with revealing a stark contrast between Moran’s approach and our recent treatment of prisoners, such as at Guantanamo Bay. Moran’s attitude toward interrogation, or “interviewing” as he called it, was more about befriending than brutality.
A June 2005 Atlantic Monthly article, “Truth Extraction,” by Stephen Budiansky explained the impact of Moran’s work, revealing that “abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.” For instance, James Corum, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare, noted that the cruelty of Abu Ghraib personnel was not a case of the ends justifying the means. “The torture of suspects did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted.”
Moran’s attitude was, “I am a human being talking to a human being.” And, he noticed time and again, that human being wants to tell his story. He believed that “those interrogators who tried the hardest to break down the morale of POWs were actually revealing their own fear.” Such “hard-boiled” tactics rarely yielded results.
What was effective during WWII was following Sherwood Moran’s suggestions, recruiting second-generation Japanese Americans, including Lily, and having them teach both language and culture to interrogators. The interrogators could then get to know the prisoners and help them open up to the point where they’d share important information.
Lily made friends with the other nisei women in Ann Arbor and enjoyed teaching the young men how to speak a new language. According to James Corum, “the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945.” For instance, it only took Marine interrogators 48 hours to obtain the complete Japanese battle plans in the Marianas in June of 1944. Perhaps some of them were Lily’s students.
I was once asked to teach a course called “Stress and the Family.” Besides being a redundancy, what did that course title mean? Stress was such a loose concept that we could go in many directions, and my students did, writing papers about everything from anorexia to xenophobia. I taught them how endocrinologist Hans Selye developed his concept of stress in the 1930s while studying lab rats. He injected various substances into his subjects and noticed that the health of all the rats deteriorated, regardless of what was injected. He finally determined that the trauma of the injections themselves led to ulcers, illness, and early death. He called the rats’ experiences “stress” and applied the concept to humans.
Selye made a distinction between distress (bad stress) and what he called eustress (good stress), but that distinction was largely lost over the years. Instead, psychologists developed questionnaires that assigned stress points to major life events, such as moving to a new home or losing a loved one. Since many of those events are unavoidable, lots of us started to worry about our accumulation of all those “points.” Were we destined to get ulcers and high blood pressure? How would we manage?
Kelly McGonigal’s 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is changing how we think about our life challenges. (For a quick overview, the book’s main points are beautifully summarized in her TED Talk.) As a Stanford University health psychologist, McGonigal had been telling people that stress makes you sick, as I had been telling my students as well. She changed her tune when she read a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States after asking them about their stress levels and whether they believed stress was bad for you. Among those who reported high levels of stress in their lives, risk of dying was increased by 43%, but ONLY in those who believed stress was harmful to their health.
What about those with lots of stress who did not view their stress as harmful? McGonigal says, “they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” These results and others that McGonigal dug up for her book call for new approaches to dealing with difficulties. By interpreting our stress and anxiety differently, our bodies and minds react differently as well.
The clear and compassionate message of the book changed the way I’m dealing with stress in my life. For instance, several studies have shown how tending-and-befriending can be a healthy alternative to the fight-or-flight response that Selye described. In fact, one of the ways to transform stress (page 149) is to “turn self-focus into bigger-than-self goals.” We cope better with huge challenges when we recall our values and remember WHY we are doing what we’re doing, such as caring for others and contributing to the world.
Maybe we need a new stress inventory that for every big life event says, “Congratulations! You have another chance to challenge yourself, excite and delight, and tend and befriend, along with the rest of humanity.”
Like your early family life, and your birth for that matter, stress is the beginning, not the end of the story. The plot is up to you.
When push comes to shove, and it’s predicted that it will within the next fifty years, the earth’s wrestling match at the Cascadia subduction zone is bound to wreak havoc along the Pacific coast of the United States. Kathryn Shulz wrote an article in the New Yorker called “The Really Big One” that lays out a scenario of earthquakes and tsunamis as one planetary plate gives way to another. That sobering prediction sent me in search of some better news about the dirt under my feet.
Probably the coolest things the layers of the earth can cough up are fossils. Last week I saw a bunch of magnificent fossilized bones (and casts of bones) at the Burpee Museum in Rockford, IL. Some of the critters swam around here during the Cretaceous Period when shallow seas covered this land. Their shells and bones helped form our limestone and other sedimentary rocks. I especially enjoyed the fossils of little turtles and one huge guy, as you can see below.
A couple days after visiting the museum, I went to Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds, WI, and saw some more fossils, including a six-foot long shell in the ceiling of the cave. That’s another cool thing about deep earth: caves.
Caves are literally cool. It was 90 degrees outside on July 30, yet the cave was 50 degrees, as it is all year round. That’s how our geothermal heating and cooling at our cabin works. We have pipes going 150 feet straight down, till they hit rock, and we make use of that temperature difference to control the comfort of our home.
This particular cave was discovered August 4, 1939, while blasting the hillside for limestone. Because the cavern was enclosed before that discovery, there are no bats, blind fish, or albino spiders in there, like in some other caves. The only life forms are the tiny spring tail insects that seep in with the rain. I saw specks of their nymphs in a pool of clear water.
With all the stalactites and stalagmites growing toward each other in that cave, you can see how the earth is always changing, both on the surface where we walk around and deep inside where we rarely notice Mother Earth’s activities until they erupt to the surface. No wonder many people consider Gaia, our planet Earth, to be alive.
As that big turtle, archelon ischyros, found out, changes happen. Let’s prepare for the bad ones and appreciate the others. May you stay safe through it all.
It’s a buggy time of year and I’m feeling swarmed and itchy. Mosquitoes are in the family Culicadae and a common genus around here is Anopheles. In Greek, ano means “not” and ophelos means “profit.” By that term, mosquitoes are defined as “useless.”
The persistent critters seemed worse than useless to me when I was a kid trying to sleep and, no matter how many I swatted, there was always one last mosquito in my room humming the lullaby of the damned. I’d wake up with more itchy bumps the next morning.
Those bloodsuckers (ectoparasites) are the female mosquitoes. They need the blood to produce eggs. The male sticks to sipping nectar and then swarms with the other guys at dusk until a female enters their midst to mate, an aerial bar scene. A couple weeks later, they die.
I like to think that all the species in nature have their purposes and that we would miss them if they became extinct. Bugs and other pests probably inspired humans to create shelter and clothing, so maybe architects, builders, and the garment industry should feel beholden to them. Also, without female mosquitoes, there would have been no Jurassic Park! Their little bodies embedded in amber were the vessels for the DNA of long-extinct dinosaurs, brought back to life, or so the story goes.
I set out to look for arguments on behalf of mosquitoes and couldn’t find a single convincing one. Instead I found some widespread consensus that mosquitoes would not be missed if they were eliminated from the earth. According to experts, their ecological niche would be filled in no time. Certain animals that have evolved to eat the insects and their larvae, such as the mosquitofish, would miss them for a while until they found other prey. Animals that I thought depended on a diet of mosquitoes, like bats, would not be all that affected. When scientists examined the contents of bat bellies, they found mostly moths and only 2% mosquitoes in there.
A million people die each year from malaria carried by mosquitoes, and that is just one of many deadly diseases they spread. In the Midwest, we worry about getting West Nile virus. Will we ever wipe out disease-carrying mosquitoes or will they wipe us out first? We can tell them to buzz off and zap them with insecticide and, within a few generations, within less than a year, their species can develop resistance to it.
The Culcidae tribe has been around for at least 79 million years and it looks like they’ll be buzzing around our ears for a few zillion more.