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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Perceived Wasteland

October 17th, 2014

Seven months ago I sat in on a conference presentation that had to do with flood risk. The presenter brilliantly began by showing a series of five photos. As each one was projected onto the front wall she asked, "Is this a flood plain?"

The audience was made up of the kind of people who would squeeze themselves into school desks and devote a beautiful Saturday to learning about environmental issues. We fumbled for the answer. "Come on folks," she encouraged. I shyly spoke up, "Yes." She shook her head in agreement and continued.

"Is this a flood plain?" she asked again. The scenes grew dryer and dryer until the last one depicted Arizona's Grand Canyon. By then we were on to her, and the entire class confidently said, "Yes."

Her point was that, like the Colorado River carving the wondrous canyon, water leaves its channel eternally. It's up to us to determine the risk associated with that fact. We build and live alongside waterways based on the likelihood and frequency of the aquatic escape.

We talked about the Federal Emergency Management Association's (FEMA) flood insurance and flood maps as well as flood catastrophes, flood preparation, and flood mitigation. Wendy Lathrop amazed me by the depth of her knowledge and the patience in her explanations.

Amidst all the data and technicalities and rules and guidelines, one point stood out: We need to rethink our beliefs about floodplains. "This is not wasteland," Wendy stated passionately.

A floodplain is a floodplain whether it has water in it or not. Frequent visits to the stream that flows behind my house have shown me just how drastically different the same waterway can look from one day to the next.

On Tuesday, I walked down a 300-foot stretch of Swamp Creek. Not on its banks, but right down its middle. It was a river of rocks. Every so often I'd pass a small boulder that was one to two feet tall. Almost square, they looked like gray, damaged boxes fallen from a plane.

[image:3:]

On Thursday after a day of heavy rain, I visited again. There would be no walking down the center. A strong current about 40 feet wide had overtaken the channel and, except for a few tops, the boxes were gone from sight.

[image:4:]

Come spring, when the snow melts, the edge I stood on Thursday will be creek bottom. Come thunderstorms, the footprints that I made in the silt on the pathway to get to the creek will be washed from the surface so far back from Thursday's waterline it is simply inconceivable.

It's marvelous to stand in a scene where nature is untouched. Your wildest imagination cannot picture the same place filled with snow, covered in ice, or flooded with rain. What barely trickled between a channel of rocks will raise up to the cliff banks before my next birthday. Water will work its way into the natural ravines and eddies for a rest, always on the level, unable to contract, seemingly able to expand.

On the days between floods, the wildflowers will dare to survive. The sun will warm the silt, the seed with germinate, the plant will grow, the bee will visit, and more seeds will fall, all with a slight sense of urgency, for there is no certainty as to when the next rise will occur.

"Is this a floodplain?" you ask. In some cases the answer is obvious. The landscape is easy to identify. Flood debris and flattened trees liter the wide area of low ground on either side of the stream. In others, where the flood levels could reach the window tops, we look to FEMA and topography maps to answer. Which scenario is wasteland? That may depend on what happened last night or what is forecast to happen tomorrow.
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If you want to learn more about the FEMA process, particularly FEMA buyouts, you can watch a similar presentation of Wendy's, given at the 2013 Watershed Congress Along the Schuylkill. To do so, click here.

Stop Telling Me What to Do

October 10th, 2014

When my husband frames a good suggestion in a directive statement such as "Eat that yummy casserole in the fridge," I jokingly respond, "Don't tell me what to do." It's my way of holding on to my inner-teenager, I guess. He knows my response is in good fun. But almost every day, on the other end of the email, strangers get me saying the same thing in earnest. When men and women write subject lines that say, "Tell your senator..." or "Force them to..." or "Stop the..." I delete each one with a defiant click.

I join a variety of email lists to see what environmental issues are being worked on today. Whether it be a coalition to protect our national parks or an advocacy group for the respect of climate scientists, most of them send regular emails as promised, to keep interested parties informed. And most of them, it seems, have limited their campaigns to that of the activist's tone. Their announcements all lead with - as the marketing advice says - a direct call-to-action in the subject line, one that's designed to motivate me.

But I'm not part of the group of people who need to be moved and directed. And I act because I care, not because a communications manager told me I should.

I already know that my elected official needs to hear from me in order to understand how I want him or her to vote. I agree that the next march against fracking won't be worth its existence if nobody shows up. And I realize a nonprofit cannot be effective without my support.

The sad part is any email I deleted may have deserved my attention. It probably said which bill the senate was soon voting on or what territory the oil spill has seeped into. I would have appreciated the news and taken down the information about the steps required to make a difference. But since it came at me shouting, telling me how to act before it explained why I should, I reacted to its clear attempt at manipulating my kindhearted nature.

Activists are needed because they vigorously get people in motion. But they lose many opportunities to rally support when they begin telling well-informed, mild-mannered, unaffectedly realistic people what to do. It all comes down to understanding and writing for your audience. We cannot forget that sometimes the best way to reach people is to stop instructing and start informing.

The Compromise of Fall

October 3rd, 2014

When the nature lover John Muir worked together with hunting enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt, great things happened. For example, President Roosevelt expanded the protection of Yosemite National Park after spending time there with Muir. Muir inspired Roosevelt to act on his personal convictions and to use his elected power for the benefit of future generations. Roosevelt delivered to Muir the permanent protection of (at least a portion of) a wilderness to which Muir was profoundly devoted. It's a darn shame environmentalists and hunters don't get together more often.

Muir and Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, c.1906, via The Evolution of the Conservation Movement/Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division.

Sadly, the two groups are usually at odds. Their reasons are complicated and many. At the heart lies differences of passionate opinion about Nature. But like Muir and Roosevelt, as far as I can tell, both the environmentalist and the hunter want the same thing.

They both want Nature to be protected from the wants of industry and over consumption. Both want the right to live in a way that fits Nature's design. Both spend time sitting quietly outdoors, and so both are aware of what goes on there. These are the people who best understand the need to reserve some of Nature's spaces so that life on earth can continue.

Tomorrow marks the opening day of archery season here in Pennsylvania. That means I must begin to be very careful about where I hike. During this gorgeous season, before I answer the forest's loud and brilliant call...

Fall

...I must distinguish myself from the species on which the hunter preys.

Meanwhile, the hunter must follow the regulations set forth to keep humans safe and animals abundant. These are compromises we must make. This land shall be shared. And I can think of no one better to share it with than a person who is connected to the source of his or her sustenance and appreciates the ecology of the mammalian existence. We both understand the connection between clean water and diversified habitat, between diversified habitat and abundance, and between abundance and well-being. Why then should we not be friends?

"During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt signed into existence 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and 150 national forests," according to the Sierra Club, of which Muir was a founding member.

Muir spent his adult life confronting the differences of opinions between men, both foes and adversaries. “This forest battle," he wrote, "is part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong. . . . sooner it is stirred up and debated before the people the better, for thus the light will be let into it."* Discussion is what transformed Muir's love of a thing into Roosevelt's protection of it. Together they achieved more than they either could have done alone. May we continue the conversation they started long, long ago.

*Source: http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/life_and_letters/chapter_18.aspx

The Contradictions of Being Human

September 25th, 2014

It's natural to want the many qualities of a good life. But quite often one desire is in direct conflict with another, and that can make the intended happiness elusive.

Below is a short list of such contradictions. Pause briefly on each word to best understand how the next is opposite.

Awareness and Bliss

Love and Independence

Vigor and Serenity

Wealth and Humility

Structure and Freedom

Community and Individualism

Order and Boundlessness

Safety and Adventure

Speed and Mindfulness

Friendship...

and Solitude

 Solitude

 

We find ourselves at odds with ourselves and thus at odds with those around us. There is no cure; it is part of the human condition. We all require flexibility, compassion, and understanding in order to find the contentment that exists in the in-betweens, in the diversity of life. Offer this to yourself, and you will have offered it to the world.

What contradictions do you struggle with today?

Pausing in Place

September 5th, 2014

How many times have you been told to reach beyond your comfort zone? It's popular advice that I hear often. It echos in my mind whenever I am challenged to try something new. I know opportunity awaits in the shadows of the unknown, and a journey there rarely turns out to be as scary or difficult as it seemed when I first started out.

But despite all this, I cannot forget the occasions when success requires a different approach. Sometimes it's better to simply stay where I am -- to remain in the zone -- until I achieved that pleasurable comfort.

Years ago I posted a series called, "What I've Learned From Playing the Piano." Like the posts then, an example of a life lesson revealed itself while I was practicing. I was learning (or rather relearning) a challenging, big-band inspired song from 1941 called the Chattanooga Choo Choo. I'd been able to play it before, but "play it" was more of a "get through it" experience than an enjoyable one.

The song steamrolls along, like a train. Even at a moderate pace, spitting out the lyrics ("is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?") can be as tough as hitting the right chords. Determined to play it properly, while no one else was in the house, I practiced the tricky passages over and over again. "I'm going to repeat this until accuracy is comfortable," I said out loud in frustration after I kept hitting the same old wrong notes. I was training my brain through repetition, and I was doing it because the previous method of scrambling to find the next note wasn't working any more.

I remained on some measures for twenty or more passes. Since I hate repetition, that was not a pleasant experience for me. But it was needed if I wanted to get it right. I had to think like the virtuoso who repeats and repeats and repeats until the entire piece can be played in his or her sleep. It doesn't matter if the goal is to play a masterpiece or an old pop song like the Choo Choo. The process is the same: get so good at or so accustomed to doing something you don't second-guess yourself. Thus, success requires comfort.

So yes, kudos to the quest for uncomfortable-yet-fulfilling experiences, but don't believe that should be your only endeavor. Like many catch phrases, we tend to dwell on things, as if life were a one-sided coin. Like me, only you know when it's necessary to pause and pay attention, when it's time to stop pushing yourself to catch the next train. Give yourself permission to listen to YOU first, before you act on another's advice. The result could be music to the ears.

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