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Sunday, September 17, 2023

A House For Sale

Our house is for sale. It’s been nearly forty years since we closed, and I remember it well. The home, the acreage, the outbuildings, captured our enthusiasm and spirits and promised to satisfy our wildest dreams. Taking ownership was seconded only by the birth of our sons, and our years occupying this speck of land have been extremely satisfying. We made a lot of changes— all for the better, we think— and still love the place. But it’s for sale. 

Not everything is included— not the 40 years of memories in raising a family, starting a business from scratch, creating a carbon neutral home. Not included is building ponds and watching them become an integral part of the landscape, in seeing abandoned crop fields become places of immeasurable value to local wildlife. Memories of moonlit excursions on cross country skis, hot saunas on frigid nights, the return of migrating birds, the sweet scent of fallen leaves piled on the deck, the explosion of rhododendron and crabapple and dogwood flowers in spring— these we take with us. Time has passed quickly. Trees planted as mere saplings now tower overhead. They are included in the sale but the thrill in documenting their incredible growth is ours to keep. 

There is a degree of self sufficiency here. A  grid-tied solar array provides electricity at essentially no cost. Organic gardens routinely produce a year’s worth of amazing vegetables. Most are canned, frozen, or dehydrated; some are stored long term in a highly functioning root cellar. Also included is ready access to wild raspberries and morel mushrooms, venison and fresh fish. With reasonable effort, a family can live here with few trips to the grocery.  

So why leave? Our motivation is driven by several factors— a desire to downsize and live closer to our sons chief among them. But there’s also appeal in the idea of living out our days in a different ecotype, exchanging hackberry, hickory, and black walnut for redwoods, Douglas fir, and huge forest ferns; trading views of unbroken industrial agriculture for ancient forests and a horizon where saltwater meets the sky; to live among big game and top predators and whales and seals and yet be within a few hours drive of snow-ladened mountains and prairies and deserts.  

How crazy is it to deliberately disconnect from the familiar and comfortable, to trade a place of proven satisfaction and contentment for the possibility of new adventure and experience? How reckless to move to an area with a higher cost of living and increased risk of natural disasters? It would certainly be easier to stay where we are, and maybe we will. There’s no guarantee we’ll find someone who appreciates this place like we do.

Today we canned up a batch of tomato juice— pulp heavy, rich color. Then we sowed winter rye on the part of the garden that gave us a year’s worth of sweet corn and potatoes and cucumbers and green beans. We harvested pumpkins— big, gorgeous, orange pumpkins. We took a bike ride along the river with roadside crickets cheering us on, saw redwings gathered in fall flocks, raising a ruckus. Friends are coming over this evening. We’ll sit on the dock and enjoy good ale and sort through the world’s problems, solving most. 

Tomorrow at 10 AM we’ll show the house again. Maybe we’ll get a full price offer and our lives will be forever changed. Or maybe in five or twenty years we’ll still be here putting up food, listening to crickets, and wondering what might have been.  We won’t be too disappointed either way. 

Saturday, August 5, 2023

We Really Do Have Everything

It’s early August and for lunch I’ll have a couple pieces of homemade buttered toast with sliced, lightly salted tomatoes and freshly chopped basil topped with whatever cheese is on hand. It’ll get broiled for four minutes then drizzled with jalapeño infused olive oil. Yes, it’s as simple and delicious as it sounds.  

The garden is in full production mode. The sweet corn is perfect, tomatoes are red and glorious, potatoes and onions and peppers are bursting with goodness.  In the kitchen the canner rattles daily, jalapeño sauce ferments on the counter, baskets of produce litter the floor— cucumbers, green beans, zucchini. Our cup runneth over.

We had to put down our beloved dog last fall and lost both a loyal companion and the Head of Vermin Control. Groundhogs, rabbits, and raccoons are now daily visitors and their impact on the garden is hard to overlook. We installed a perimeter electric fence which raccoons respect but groundhogs ignore. Maybe they are slow to associate thin metal wires with 3000 DC volts, or maybe the little buggers take the jolt in fair exchange for the ecstasy found in tender greens.  As for cottontails, they hop nimbly over the wires surrounding paradise and hide among the cucumbers and zucchini when they’re not munching green beans and parsley. They are remarkably tame and unconcerned by our presence. 

There is no evidence of willful vandalism or gluttonous behavior and everyone seems happy enough with the arrangement, including ourselves. We miss the old dog but the locals are finding relative peace in her absence. It’s all good. 

The heat has been perfect for the tomatoes, peppers, and sweet corn while globally setting records.  The report that most caught my eye was the 100+ degree temperatures recorded in ocean waters off south Florida. Over 100 Fahrenheit degrees at five foot depth.  That’s within the preferred temperature range of hot tubs and exceeds what corals and other marine life can withstand.  

Recently, I came across a quote by Gus Speth, founder of the National Resources Defense Council: “I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science. But I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy.  And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

And then there was a post from our friend Beckie Menten who is working to build a decarbonization coalition in the green energy sector. She mentioned the 2021 movie Don’t Look Up starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, where two low-level astronomers go on a media tour to warn of an approaching comet that will destroy civilization. World opinion is divided with some believing the threat while others deny its existence, decry alarmism, or believe the comet is loaded with rare-earth elements that will be a boon to the economy.  The plot is meant to be a satirical portrayal of how our world is responding to climate change. 

In Beckie’s view the movie is a dead ringer at depicting the real life challenges in her world. She sees so much promise, but putting an end to the planet’s warming “is going to take sacrifice, money, and change on the part of people who are accustomed to having it all, and none of this will even make a dent without releasing our political system from the death grip of those who stand to profit from squeezing every drop of oil and every BTU of gas from our planet… I can't help feeling like we're just rearranging deck chairs on the titanic. I guess the point And buy your friends in climate work a drink. Trust me, they need it.” 

We respond to environmental threats every day. The decisions we make, from supporting local food to reducing plastics to choosing our mode of transportation, has an impact. It starts with awareness and becomes significant when enough people participate. The most wealthy and poorest among us are doing the least, and the latter are excused. Our greatest hope is that those in the middle, the majority of us, will force change. Ousting lawmakers who are beholden to archaic fossil fuel interests is the first step.

Today we’ll pull the onions and spread them in the shade of the barn to cure.  Some are so large a single slice will hide a piece of bread, so sweet they can be eaten like an apple. A year’s worth in three months' time. There’s more than enough sweet corn in the freezer so the hot wire is coming down and the raccoons can have their way with the remnants. At some point we’ll sit on the dock listening to bird song and cicadas, go for a swim in the pond, feel the healing sun on our backs. We’ll remind ourselves how good it still is, how threatened it still is. We’ll think of those on the front lines in the battle to save the planet and toast a cool beer to their unwavering spirits.  

Beckie compared the dinner scene at the end of Don’t Look Up with her own life, her search for normalcy with friends and those she loves, “while the world around (her) burns.”  In the scene, the comet has struck off the coast of Chili and its wave of destruction is spreading across the globe while the young astronomers and friends gather for what they know is their final meal.  They're making small talk about homemade versus processed food and their love for coffee from freshly ground beans. As the house shakes, lights flicker, and the end draws near, Leonardo DiCaprio says, “The thing of it is, we really… we really did have everything, didn’t we? 

Monday, July 3, 2023

Listening for Loons

We were in Canada a couple weeks ago at a place we’ve enjoyed for 24 years: a small cabin on a remote river once used by the voyageurs. It had been a while since we were there during June. Spring was just getting a solid foothold and the warblers and kinglets and thrushes were singing their hearts out. We saw old friends— fringed polygala, wild lily of the valley, sarsaparilla, blue bead lily. We filled our lungs with the essence of spruce-fir, floated lazily downriver casting for pike, saw an impressive moose in a river tributary, watched eagles and beavers and snowshoe hares. The mosquitoes were in peak season, but they are as much a part of the June north woods as the voices of nesting songbirds.  The experience would be strangely different without them. 

They were days well spent, unplugged from electronic gadgetry, living simply, tuned into solitude. Time in the north never fails to inspire and offer perspective. It gives us a chance to recalibrate and consider what has changed and what needs to. 

An article appearing in Nature describes a peer reviewed study on the planet’s health. A team of scientists looked at eight key thresholds and concluded seven have already been breached. The areas measured were climate change, aerosols (air pollution), surface water, ground water, nitrogen fertilizer, phosphorus fertilizer, intact ecosystems, and the functional integrity of all ecosystems. Aerosols were the only category not breached, but the team warned that no amount of polluted air can be considered safe.

Within 20 years projected sales of electric cars are expected to surpass combustion engine vehicles. A Washington Post article indicates that electric cars “require six times the mineral input, by weight, of conventional cars.”  The minerals have to be extracted and processed which invariably results in harm to workers, communities, and the local environment. In a separate article published in The Guardian, carmaker Volvo claims greenhouse gas emissions during production of an electric car are 70 percent higher than gasoline vehicles.  Both articles are irritating because neither mentions that upfront environmental costs in manufacturing EVs are readily offset by zero emissions over the car’s lifetime, especially when batteries are charged with renewable energy.  I love our electric car— roomy, peppy, economical to operate, almost zero maintenance. EVs are, at the moment, the most earth-friendly automobile option. 

We noticed as we reached the boreal forest on our drive north that our windshield became littered with smashed insects, something we no longer experience in the industrial heartland. The Indiana Economic Digest ran an article entitled Scientists, Advocates Decry Drastic Declines in Insect Populations in Indiana and Throughout the World.  In April of this year, a CNN report stated “between the climate crisis and high-intensity agriculture… insect abundance has already dropped by nearly 50%, while the number of species has been slashed by 27%.”  As I read the piece an ad popped up promoting a new and improved bug zapper guaranteed to make summer outdoor activities more enjoyable.  Seriously?

For the past several days we’ve smelled and looked through the haze of smoke from Canadian forest fires.  The air quality throughout the northeast and Midwest has been in the dangerous category, at times considered the most polluted in the world. It’s a record breaking year for fires across Canada with no end in sight as peak fire season approaches. 

A man that suffers a serious heart attack is likely to develop a sudden interest in the workings of the human heart.  In the same way, the health of the planet and the stream of ecological services that allow life to flourish will one day garner the respect and attention it deserves.  We need an epiphany before tipping points and feedback loops are fully engaged and everyone becomes grimly aware we waited too long. 

I turned 70 this year. There are some in my cohort who say our remaining decades are few and the environmental crisis is for the next generation to fix. Yet we’re responsible for the mess. We’ve spent our lifetimes supporting an economy powered by polluting energies and poisonous land use practices with little consideration of its uncertain end. We were warned early enough, but special interests and our own determination to carve out a slice of the American dream killed the messengers.  If anyone is obliged to make reparation it is the boomers, and we’re mostly dragging our feet. 

This morning a loon is calling on a celebrated waterway connecting James Bay to Lake Superior. The song is mournful and eerie and melancholic, and a sense of the wild and pristine is carried in it.  It’s a plea to review our priorities, an urge to slow down and look at how our living impacts the bedrock systems that support us. It’s a voice known to carry a long distance. Anyone listening can hear it. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A Good Casserole for a Better World

Dinner tonight is a casserole that starts with a mass of chopped kale and spinach, lightly salted and wilted in a hot skillet.  A pound of penne is cooked al dente and layered atop the greens.  Next, the cast iron gets a drizzle of oil, a large diced onion, and a couple pounds of sliced mushrooms (any kind will do, but it’s spring so we treat ourselves to plump morels). As the fungi  soften a pint of frozen sweet corn and several stalks of fresh chopped asparagus are added, seasoned to perfection, and spread evenly over the pasta.  Then comes the white sauce, rich and creamy, complemented with the remnants of mushrooms and onions, a dash of salt and pepper, a generous portion of shredded cheddar.  It is ceremoniously draped over the awaiting casserole and all goes in the oven until bubbly and lightly browned. Somebody pinch me. 

There is much to be said about wholesome food prepared in a home kitchen, food that is unprocessed and grown without chemical inputs and free of preservatives or dyes or ingredients I can’t pronounce.  Too many highly processed items on grocery shelves are palatable but not actually food, and as a regular diet they can lead to a myriad of health problems. There’s an unavoidable string of environmental benefits attached to organic production and the quality of the final product is superior in nutrition and flavor.  According to Mayo Clinic, foods earning the organic label are also higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, likely higher in antioxidants, and lower in heavy metals and pesticide residues.

We had a meeting with our financial advisor, Brad. He’s worked at his trade for nearly 40 years and is good at it. He understands the market and the merits of portfolio diversification and has expectations based on historic performance. He is confident in his advice with one caveat: the mounting national debt and the looming economic hardship it promises. But not all debt are monetary. Within the first few months of every year we take from the planet more resources than can be replaced the same year. That is a debt that gets little attention and has been mounting for decades. Environmental bankruptcy can’t turn out well.  

I said, “Brad, do you rate climate change as a world threat?”  He answered swiftly: “If we don’t get the debt under control, we won’t have a world.”  

And there you have it: the economy trumping the environment. It’s nothing against Brad doing his job, and it’s not that we’ve totally ignored the environment in our zeal for growth. We’ve cleaned up rivers, added scrubbers to smokestacks, pollution controls to combustion engines, protected areas of wilderness and rich habitats. And while we seem to have less tolerance for blatant environmental offenses, we continue to overlook some of the most threatening— the loss of microbial life in soil, the worldwide decline in biodiversity, the record concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.

In March the ocean temperature off the east coast of North America was the highest ever recorded, more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981-2011 average, and scientists don’t quite know what it means. Wildfires in Alberta have already consumed 150 times more land at this time of year than in the last five years combined.  

Our visit with Brad was good, and he gave us a thread of confidence that what is left of our life savings might carry us a few more years. Meanwhile, as the US flirts with default on its debt and our representatives pretend to negotiate the matter (which by law is non-negotiable), proposals to cut environmental spending are brought to the fore, and as capitalism runs amuck and environmental threats are discounted, the damage continues.  There are so many great ideas— actions that would give ecological systems highest priority and offer genuine hope for a prosperous and more just world— but apathy, misinformation, special interests, and the status quo are hogging center stage. 

It’s May in the heartland, and the blue skies are whitened with smoke from Alberta fires. The other day on a walkabout, the Merlin app picked up over 50 birdsongs: orioles, warblers, vireos, thrushes, a bonafide symphony.  Birds still make a worthy show on our little piece of the continent, though nearly every species is experiencing population decline, as are insects, amphibians, and reptiles. 

But right now there’s a casserole, golden brown and bubbling with goodness, most of it made from what we grew or wild harvested, all of it prepared with satisfaction in our home kitchen. We know every ingredient, it fits our budget, and producing it did not contribute to the environmental or national debt. It is simplicity and wholesomeness and gratitude baked in a dish, hope with a cheese topping, common sense for a better planet. The world needs a good casserole.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

A City Then and Now

We drove to Indy the other day and were taken aback by all the construction.  New housing, cleared woodlands, new pipelines, improved roadways— everything that accompanies progress and an economy on the mend. 

Oliver Johnson grew up in Indianapolis with his parents and eleven siblings. His earliest memories were of a deep forest and a log cabin and meals of fried squirrel and cornbread. The family arrived in 1822 and settled on a piece of land that would one day be a part of the Indiana state fairgrounds.

The Johnson cabin measured 18’ by 20’ with walls of logs saddled and notched into place. The floor was made of wooden slabs pinned to log joists. Door hinges and latches were carved from wood. The hearth was a mass of pounded clay and its opening lined with bricks of soil and grass. The chimney was framed with a crib of oak limbs, then packed and smoothed with fine clay. On the roof was a series of overlapping boards split and held in place with “weight poles” notched into the gable logs.  Not a single nail was used. 

The cabin stood in a clearing, and beyond it the black forest rose from a thick layer of dank and molding leaves.  There were few roads, so men and their wagons carved and slashed their way through great stands of timber and brush.  The streams were ripe with fish, the forest abundant with game. Oliver once shot 18 squirrels from a single tree without changing position. 

Buckskin was the standard dress among pioneers, but not the Johnsons. Oliver’s mother owned a spinning wheel and gathered armloads of flax that grew along wetland edges. From the cured stems she spun fiber into strong thread, then bartered with a neighbor who owned a loom and fine linen was the result. Mrs. Johnson saw to it that her family wore nothing less. 

Clearing land for grain production was a primary objective. The work was arduous and continuous and wherever mineral soil was scraped clean, corn was planted. Eventually wooden plows gave way to steel, and old stumps rotted and more land was cleared and more corn planted. The corn not ground into meal was sold or fed to livestock. When fat hogs were ready for market they were herded overland to slaughterhouses on the Ohio River, a destination requiring more than two exhausting weeks to reach. 

Young Oliver loved it all— the days of hard labor, the tending of livestock, the hunting of game. He relished the deep woods, appreciated its abundant and varied life and never felt alone in it. But his concept of land use differed from those who had occupied the region for thousands of years before his family arrived. He was bent on carving out a piece of wilderness and transforming it from what it was to what it could be. His ambition was shared by all settlers and their combined efforts brought change to the landscape that was reinforced by succeeding generations. A mere two centuries later and the White River winding through Indianapolis might be the only landmark those early settlers would recognize. 

We are a reckoning force, and our resolve to build a better world has often been with little consideration for long term consequence. The sixth great extinction is underway and it’s no less life-altering than an ice age or comet impact. It’s happening due to our land use, manufacturing processes, and utilization of resources.  Some studies estimate current extinction rates 10,000 times greater than historic norms, and a UN Report concludes that one million animal and plant species are threatened. 

Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of global deforestation and relies on a cocktail of poisons which destroy soils and kill invertebrates and disrupt food chains. What we eat and how it’s produced can be vastly improved by shifts in diet and the use of farm practices proven beneficial to local ecologies.  If everyone in the US ate a vegan diet for one day, it could save 190 billion gallons of water (enough to supply every household in the country for a week) and the equivalent of 78 million gallons of gasoline. Our reliance on carbon rich fuels, our rampant use of petroleum-based plastics, the environmental contamination from persistent chemicals, the immense volume of waste going to landfills— all point to a short sighted civilization. 

Oliver Johnson likely considered the forest and the resources it held inexhaustible. The concept of sustainability would have been foreign to him, and few people of his time could have anticipated what lay ahead.  Now, with a clear understanding of multiple environmental threats, few of us are responding with justified urgency. 

A warm front moved in and overnight the lawn became an uninterrupted sea of green.  The wood anemones have opened, buckeye leaves are unfurling, wood ducks have claimed the nest boxes.  It’s spring in the northern hemisphere and our planet responds as it has for millions of years, ushering in a glorious season of renewal.  This blue sphere is a life-sustaining marvel but offers no guarantees.  

Oliver could not have anticipated what his city would look like in 2023– the infrastructure and machinery, the technologies and comforts we take for granted.  We are equally uncertain of our future and are deciding whether or not we’ll have one.

Reference: A Home in the Woods, Pioneer Life in Indiana.  Indiana University Press. 


Tuesday, March 21, 2023

All Hail Patagonia!

March arrived with sunshine and warm southerly breezes but then had second thoughts. Within a week the peepers and turtles crawled back in the mud and the daffodil buds were white with frost. We were dealt a string of days with drizzling rain and snow squalls as the sun stayed buried in clouds and temperatures hovered near freezing. They were days not conducive to tending the flower garden or washing the car or getting enthused about much of anything. 

Lee and I were knocked down by Covid a month ago.  The coughing, congestion, and lack of energy are hanging on, and we’re shivering in a seventy degree house trying to satisfy appetites that have suddenly grown ravenous.  Cushy chairs, bowls of munchies, stocking caps and blankets, aren the main attraction. It’s a challenge to get ourselves out the door for a walk along the river. 

I read a piece in The Guardian how Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, is forging ahead with its commitment to be an earth friendly and sustainable company. It is now making grants available to support activist organizations that work on the root causes of environmental problems. Founder Yvon Chouinard is a visionary, and leads Patagonia with the mantra: Profits Can’t Be Made on a Dead Plant. Imagine the likes of ExxonMobil, Monsanto, or JPMorgan Chase adopting such a creed. Imagine consumers and investors demanding nothing less. 

My friend Jack retired to Sanibel Florida a few years ago. He and his wife had been vacationing on the barrier island and were smitten by its shell-littered beaches, its warm gulf waters, its lush vegetation. Almost seventy percent of the island is permanently protected against development, set aside as a National Wildlife Refuge or private conservation foundation. Building regulations limit height to two stories, landscaping favors native plants, billboards and gaudy, flashing lights are prohibited. The result is a carefully developed island paradise that has not lost its essence, a subtropical destination with an abundance of undisturbed land and more than enough natural beauty.  

Hurricane Ian ravaged the island last September. The average elevation of Sanibel is three feet above sea level. Ian’s surge was ten feet. The causeway connecting the island to the mainland was breached and sections of the road washed away. 

Water swept through Jack’s kitchen, living room, and lower level bedrooms.  I spoke with him after the event and he made it clear they would rebuild.  “It’s too perfect here,” he said. “We were due for a hurricane. This is Florida. It happens.”

A growing number of forward thinkers believe Sanibel is prime for a “managed retreat”, a planned community relocation that comes with government support. It’s a challenging and time consuming process that’s not popular with the folks of Sanibel, most of whom, like Jack, plan to stay. The reality of sea level rise and the threat of more intense and frequent hurricanes do not compete with the appeal of living on a lush subtropical island. 

I’m reminded of a novel, The Light Pirate, where a coastal Florida town is hit hard by a hurricane, and before the town is rebuilt, it gets hit again. In the years that follow, storms and rising seas become the norm. The local government goes bankrupt. Services and jobs disappear, businesses close, residents flee. Only those that planned for this inevitability stay, and they watch their beloved community grow unrecognizable with collapsed buildings, flooded roadways, and windrows of trash and debris. The grid is down permanently. Cell phone and internet towers are nothing more than surveillance perches for raptors. Midday temperatures exceed human tolerance. Excursions to gather food, collect fresh water, glean soap and matches and anything of value from the moldy shelves of flooded big box stores are carried out at dusk or during total darkness to avoid the intense heat. 

It’s a novel that describes in tangible detail a Florida that scientists predict if climate change is not abruptly addressed.  Already, in a growing number of coastal neighborhoods, flooding has become routine. Raising roadways and adding lift stations to failed stormwater sewers are underway. Some city councils are considering moratoriums on new building construction. 

This morning we pushed ourselves out the door into a moderate snow driven by a steady west wind. The first mile required determination, then the sky partially cleared, our cores warmed, our strides lengthened, and we felt more alive than we had in weeks. 

Our family physician tells us everyone will eventually get Covid. Just as surely, everyone is experiencing a world being changed by rising global temperatures and failing ecological systems. The virus caused world wide disruptions in employment, supply chains, and economies. A planet that’s losing the ability to sustain human life will experience havoc of far greater magnitude.  Remedies will likely take generations, not just because the challenges are extremely difficult, but because they lack political will and broad corporate and public support. A new UN report says there are many feasible and effective options to avoid worst case scenarios and they are available now, but urgent action is needed. 

ExxonMobil is showing record profits while being fattened with subsidies from taxpayers and bankrolled by JPMorgan Chase et al.. Monsanto, with its endless stream of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, is contributing mightily to a long list of environmental woes while convincing its customers that poisons are in their best interest. Patagonia is producing high quality clothing while becoming ever more sustainable and using its success to keep our planet from dying.  

Not often does a corporation continue to build value not just from quality products and service but from the thoughtful and purposeful way it shares profits.  Patagonia is getting it done. 


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

When So Much Seems So Right

In early January, rainfall in California led to historic flooding as storm systems lined up across the Pacific and brought wave after wave of atmospheric rivers ashore. Reservoirs, long critically low, overflowed. For much of the state, the grip of the megadrought lessened, at least temporarily. 

The event brought snow to the Sierras, more than 300 inches, and the forecast promised additional feet! South Lake Tahoe was buried under billows of powder, its streets flanked with snow banks reaching 8-12 ft or higher. We stepped out the door, clipped our boots into cross country skis, and traveled city streets and sidewalks to the shore of the largest alpine lake in North America, a lake whose crystalline waters run deeper than Superior’s.  We skied among the ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, their boughs heavy with snow, radiant in the sun. They stood in sharp contrast against a blue sky enriched by the blackness of space.  High altitude blue is a color all its own. 

The elephant seals hauled out onto the beaches of coastal California. Breeding bulls gathered harems. Cows gave birth. For several weeks an ancient scene played out as bulls fought and pups were weaned and females were bred.

We hiked the headlands north of Bolinas and stood on a bluff at the edge of the continent. Below us a shale reef parallel to shore was speckled with resting harbor seals, a mix of gulls, a few cormorants. Behind us, within the boundaries of Point Reyes National Seashore, lay pastureland flecked with coyote brush and pocket gopher mounds. A coyote appeared, rolled onto its back to scratch in loose sand, pounced unsuccessfully at something, then strolled past us within 20 feet, showing scant regard.  We saw northern harriers, kestrels, coopers and red tailed hawks, groups of bluebirds and white crowned sparrows, mule deer, a black-tailed jackrabbit, a burrowing owl. 

We happened upon a couple biologists trying to determine the southernmost range of the mountain beaver. When they learned of our Midwest connection one asked about fireflies, and the conversation shifted to a European study showing a dramatic decline in overall insect populations.  “The animal that is the foundation of the food web,” the biologist noted, “is in rapid decline worldwide, and few are talking about it.” He shook his head resolutely before disappearing in the headlands to resume his work.  

We drove to Mount Tamalpais and hiked a canyon trail. A cool rain was falling on the redwoods. The canyon waterways raced and leapt and cascaded among misty ferns and primeval forests. 

So much can look and feel right when so much is wrong. The benchmarks we use to define environmental quality are always in a state of flux.  Populations of birds, insects, fish, mammals, the number and extent of areas wild and undisturbed, the health of soils and oceans, are nearly all in steady or dramatic decline. We look at what we have, recognize the good, adjust the benchmark and resume living as we do. 

Lee and I recently realized that in the past year we saw fewer house flies than butterflies, and far fewer butterflies than usual. We saw no more than a few dozen grasshoppers, a smattering of snakes and frogs, zero June bugs, and the number of insects drawn to the summer evening porch light was slim. As of mid February, ice covered only six percent of the Great Lakes, compared to an average of 41 percent, and sea ice globally was the lowest on record. In the past 50 years, world animal populations have decreased nearly 70 percent. 

We made a road trip to west coast destinations and in the process pumped over 9000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. We returned to find canada geese showing interest in nest islands, to sandhill cranes winging northward, to an intensity of bird song that seemed unusual for mid February.  And, this morning, a single golden eagle winged its way over the pond. 

Finding the good in our environment is a healthy habit and a source of hope, but recognizing what has been lost and what we’re losing keeps our objectives grounded in reality. It shows us what happens when destructive practices are not abandoned, when opportunities for curative actions are missed. It allows a truer perspective when so much still seems so right.