Category: "Environment"

Standing inside what could be.

June 9th, 2017

To some, the place might have seemed like any big old woods. To me, it represented what we have lost, what should be, and what can exist when those with power recognize and protect a voiceless fortune that, if all men had acted sensibly, would never have dissipated. This wasn’t just a forest, this was a cathedral.

In the Forest Catherdral

After hiking through 11 miles of the northwestern Pennsylvania state park, I stopped to read the kiosk. It showed a photo from an old brochure. A man appeared pensively yet insignificantly among a glorious stand of substantial trees, only the tree trunks able to fit in the photo, the canopy towering far above the frame. The caption read, “The Last of ‘Penn’s Woods’; Save it for Posterity.”

Brochure Photo

Cook Forest State Park was dedicated in 1928. The memorial plaque read, “For years Anthony Wayne Cook, from whom this tract was acquired, with rare patience and idealism saved these great trees in hope and faith that they might become a public trust.” Of course, he didn’t do it alone. The “vision and zeal of Thomas Ligget” and other businessmen and citizens convinced the general assembly of Pennsylvania to appropriate $450,000 to preserve it, a healthy sum at the time.

Influential businessmen

Within a 171-acre section, some of the trees “remained untouched” by the booming lumber industry. Some trees there had been dated at 450 years old. Primarily the makeup was eastern white pine and hemlock.

Kiosk explanation

I have a penchant for hemlocks; they are my favorite kind of tree. Designated as Pennsylvania’s state tree, the number of living hemlocks around my home is dwindling, due in large part to an attack by a bug called the Woolly Adelgid. Man is not the only aggressor in nature’s collection. He is however, or should be, smart enough to control himself.

For me, seeing a forest of hemlocks standing hundreds of feet tall and more than thirteen feet in diameter was like peering into the tomb of treasures of King Tut.

One Big Hemlock
Mohawk Trail


Inside the cathedral area, some giants had recently fallen. A lumberman would most certainly shudder to see such precious material lying on the ground, destined to rot in "waste." However, I imaged the park staff, the appointed guardians, when they found the monarchs. They must have been saddened instead by the simple fact that these ancient trees had been brought down.

Fallen giant

Still, regeneration and renewal was taking place wherever the sunlight could reach the floor. Four hundred years from now, will any of these babies still exist? Will man have allowed it? Will he still appreciate their existence, their age, their contribution to the continuation of life? Will posterity have anything left?

Regeneration

My vacation to Cook Forest, five hours from my home, was what is referred to as a “bucket list” experience. It took some coaxing to get my husband to agree to spend his hard-earned vacation in an area where “there wasn’t much” in the way of things to do beyond outdoor recreation. He feared that we might get bored. Instead, we got tired out. We hiked 15 miles, biked 15, and kayaked (floating and paddling) about 9. More than anything, though, we stood still in awe, breathing in fresh pine and listening to the breeze, the call of the warbler, and the trickle of the stream, all the while, very often, looking up.

Looking up

Meanwhile, the area surrounding Cook Forest State Park provided a stark contrast. It bled with the ever-changing fluid of economic desire. This is where I found names such as Oil City, Petroleum Avenue, and Sawtown, adversaries of old-growth forests.

Billboards advertised legal assistance to coal miners whose lungs had turned black. Two hours outside Pittsburgh, resource-rich towns had been bargained by exchanging nature for cash. Titusville, the home of the modern day petroleum industry, where Col. Edwin Drake struck oil and birthed the industry, gleaned with its historic legacy. Good or bad? It depends on who looks, I guess.

Dissatisfied with simply being a destination of historical significance, Titusville recently developed a 134-page strategic plan for what it believes will be "the second energy boom": the natural gas of the Utica Shale. Over and over again the document begged, "Come back to where it all started. We've been drilling here since 1859. We get it!" Get what? The means of selling out, of cashing in, of turning precious earth into temporary opulence?

Minutes to the north of Cook Forest is the southern border of the Allegheny National Forest. The trees there are part of the nation's crop. Trucks loaded heavy with the latest harvest rumbled down narrow roads with such speed I could not help but imagine a disastrous scene should an emergency stop be necessary.

Route 132

Here and there, steel mechanical arms pumped up and down to supplement the bank account with proceeds from the natural gas cow. Roads, pipelines, and power lines all cut through the fields of expertly managed, mature trees, none willing to share space with the other, each requiring its own scar, some growing old, others freshly slashed.

The towns to the west of the Allegheny Forest reeked of evaporated wealth, even if the odor smelled a bit different. “This place is suffering,” my husband said as we passed the vacant storefronts of Union City during our side trip to touch Lake Erie for the first time in either of our lives.

It's common knowledge that reducing expenses makes for bigger profits. And so, whether it was the boss man's quest to get even richer or the consumer's desire to save a buck, America stopped making the things it needed. An unwillingness to pay Americans for American craftsmanship overcame our sensibilities, trickling down to flood the zone in poverty.

Outside of town, I imagined the owners of the paint-pealed porches. Once highly valued, the people strong enough to get the job done—the hard-working, not-afraid-to-get-hurt roughnecks—now struggle to find a coin on our latest path, one being repaved for brains instead of brawn.

Monetary success is a fleeting, ghostly thing to chase. One minute its attraction is distinct and tangible; the next it's gone. What price must we pay to keep the wheel spinning? We passed a video rental store, possibly the last one in existence. How soon before its inventory is dumped into the landfill, forcing nature to swallow our unnatural, forgotten creations? What will it take for us to re-evaluate our priorities?

There is no denying that we are in an age when joblessness means starvation. The economy is our culture's sacred ceremony. None of us is capable of stopping this crazy thing. The boss man has been undercutting his workforce for as long as there has been a boss and a worker. And even after one grassroots campaign successfully limits the harm of a commercial endeavor, another scourge comes quickly to take its place. DDT became glyphosate. Coal mining transferred to fracking. River dams become beach nourishment. From the wind we removed ozone-depleting CFCs, only to release, however accidentally, plastic grocery bags.

Still, everywhere I found a community sentiment of historic determination and grit.

Historic quote
Erie, PA

On our drive to Erie, I did see quite a few dusty clues of manufacturing; some of the previous century’s brick buildings were re-purposed for modern day production; some operated out of fresh pole buildings. On our way home at vacation's end, we stopped for a short factory tour at BWP Bats. There the trees were turning into baseball bats. Being the busy spring season, their regular inventory was nearly sold out. Baseball loving employees were hand crafting bats that both little and big league players could swing with pride.

BWP Bats

People are growing weary of foreign-made junk. Around the country, a prosperous workforce is downshifting the economic engine into a gear better suited for the environment, without choking abundance or wellbeing. Socially responsible businesses are gaining recognition and a higher market share. Organic food is in demand. College students are graduating with degrees that will help them design an economy that is both profitable and eco-sensitive. Citizens are still marching, demanding protection of the planet.

This is where I saw Cook Forest as a profoundly invaluable "attraction," one that I needed to visit. It inspired. It reminded. It proved. It showed what nature will build when humans show restraint. By the hundreds, these ancient survivors stood in confidence. Where any DID fall—brought down by the storms of insects and wind—new growth had sprouted, ready to take over, the seeds and roots and flesh of the victims endlessly transferred to the lives of the future. I wish everyone could, at least once in a while, immerse themselves in the possibilities of a kingdom such as this.

Forest Catherdral

The kiosk back at the parking lot read, “As you leave the forest with memories of its struggles and endurance, commit to conservation. Begin a legacy of your own to last through the centuries.” Oh what could exist if only…

Fission or fussion? A look at the science of social change.

November 16th, 2016

I’ve been silent, I know. For one thing, I felt this blog would get lost in the election chatter. For another, I couldn’t come up with much to write, at least not much besides expressions of sadness or fear, and I was pretty sure you've had enough of that. But today I'm ready to challenge myself to look for the best in our current situation, despite the discomfort, pain, anger, and sacrifice that will likely come during the process. I'm ready because the future of this planet depends upon it.

Clouds can sometimes indicate change.

The fact remains that, now that the votes are in, I am even more saddened with the fear of grave danger. However, I’m also no longer forced to wait for choices of strangers. I can move back to thinking about today's reality in terms of what is or what surely will be, not what might hopefully happen. And in the vein of such knowledge, let me attempt to explain my analogy of what I see is the best, universal action for people like me by stripping it down to the atomic level.

The characteristics of any element is greatly defined by the makeup of the center of its atom. The usefulness of any one chemical element to a goal is often determined by the combination of neutrons and protons in its nucleus, its center. An example is uranium, particularly uranium-235, the stuff of nuclear energy.

The number of neutrons (neutral charge) and protons (positive charge) present determines how the element behaves during a change such as a nuclear reaction. When scientists forcefully introduce an overabundance of neutrality into U-235, nuclear fission . . . or division . . . occurs. This releases energy, but the result is also radioactive.

Meanwhile, crush enough "positivity" together (using hydrogen atoms) and the protons fuse, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process without evoking cancer. Positive charges that would typically repel each other are held close together in the presence of a super strong force such as gravity. This brings about fusion. . .or union.

What does this have to do with social change? Consider that we too are a product of our atomic makeup. And remember that the United States seems ready to split when we really need to fuse.

It is my position that individual Americans need not give up their positive, energized charges–-whatever the characteristics of their personal makeup–-in order that we come together. Neutrality, in fact, could be toxic. However, we do need a whole lot of gravity to force us to unify. Yes, apologies are required to clear the field of the relentless negative energy that keeps spinning around us. But I still believe we can unite, if for no other reason than to protect our future.

Most of us are in this emotional fight because of a positive reason. On both sides there is a quest for improvement. This might include safety, prosperity, or opportunity. Clouding our ability to see that is the curtain of negative disagreement on how to achieve those results.

Thus, fusion requires a strong force to emerge, one able to drive repellent charges to congregate. Of course not all elements are appropriate for achieving this goal. But among those willing, there are mentors and non-governmental leaders who commit to protecting the people and the planet with hope and ethical purpose. They can be that force. Or it might come from each of us adjusting our focus, our conversations, our outlooks. Whatever it takes, we don’t get our non-radioactive power back until things change.

What's that smell?

March 31st, 2016

Yesterday I cut some hyacinth blooms and brought them inside. Pretty as they looked, my real intention was to enjoy the smell while I worked at my desk. Now, the office is absolutely lovely.

Fragrance is an important part of nature. No matter how good manufacturers have gotten at mixing up concoctions that smell like beautiful things, the fact remains that scents--real, honest, natural scents--are crucial to life.

Flowers are the best example. The purpose of the smell is to attract pollinators; reproduction depends on it. Or in the case of the Venus fly trap, to attract a nutritious meal.

Good scents attract humans, too. Fresh peaches, clean air, a shady pine grove, or our partner's pheromones draw us in.

Bad scents keep us away. Toxic chemicals, moldy cloth, infected bruises, and rotting meat stink because they are dangerous conditions to be avoided or corrected and never inhaled.

Fragrance can also orientate and foretell. Have you ever smelled rain coming? Smelled smoke and discovered fire? Smelled salt and realized you were almost there?

Meanwhile, fragrance has become a serious problem. Its pervasive use to sell products is making us sick and narrowing our quality of life. Not only are the artificial, smell-mimicking mixtures harmful to our skin and lungs, they mask warning signals that would otherwise tell us to stay away, and they rob us of the instinctual attraction to the truth.

I once took the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep® guide into my bathroom as I cleaned out my toiletry closet. Using the database, I searched for the products to see how they stacked up on the EWG's hazard score. Any that raised a red flag did so because of the fragrance-related ingredients in them.

When a manufacturer adds a feature that does nothing to enhance the product's effectiveness or improve its performance, you can bet it's there to increase sales. Consider your favorite moisturizer. Does it work better because it smells nice?

We owe our smelling ability to cells in the nasal cavity. It's always moist there, because chemical receptors can only detect odors that are dissolved in water. Signals are then sent to the brain, where the processed information is stored in memory. When we meet the smell again, it registers as familiar.

The relentless exploitation of the body's remarkable sense not only fools the central nervous system, it dulls it. Who really knows what rain smells like after living with a manipulated alternative day in and day out? Lotions, shampoos, and toothpaste aside, what about candles, air fresheners, room sprays, cleaning products, detergents, and perfumes?

At what point does the brain figure out that the flowery chemical air freshener is bad? Could this have anything to do with why so many people are allergic to the outdoors these days? And what are we missing--what signals do we now overlook--because our sensitivity has been dulled by this hyper-infusion?

Still, the more we buy, the more they add. Meanwhile, fragrance-free products are labeled as being for people with sensitive skin. Don't they know we ALL have sensitive skin?

If you want your laundry to smell like fresh air, hang it outside to dry.

If you want to smell the spring rain, then go get wet.

If you want your house to smell like flowers, grow and clip flowers? Or take advantage of the wealth of organic essential oils on the market today.

If you want your husband to smell like musk, let him get a little sweaty.

If you want your toxic bleach to smell like lemons, well, then you've lost your mind.

Another Big Storm

February 19th, 2016

I had to figure out what was bothering me so. Why was it that, if I heard the word “snowstorm” one more time, I thought I might explode? Normally I favor snow. I’m one of those people who believes, if it has to be winter, we should get pretty and playful precipitation. I needed a little soul searching. Otherwise I might be cranky until spring.

First, like a nagging blister, the media wouldn’t shut up about it. Okay already; a big snowstorm's coming. I got it. They’d been at it all week. On the seventh day, I was looking for a hole to crawl in. There, I'd cover my ears and wait 'til it was over. It was the only way to escape the chatter. Every public place I went, the small talk was decorated with the clarifying statement, “Before the big storm tomorrow.”

“I’m returning this purchase, before the big storm tomorrow.”

“I’m mailing this letter, before the big storm tomorrow.”

“I’m filling my gas tank, before the big storm tomorrow.”

I’m all for being prepared. What I dislike is hype, worry, and anxiety, all of which lingered in the air like the smell of a chain smoker, to be inhaled by the next person in line.

Second, Nature has the ability to put miraculous kinks in our routine every day. Haven’t we learned by now that we should buy snow shovels in the fall?

Third, why is that, when it comes to a winter storm, the forecasters go from being the target of “they never get it right” remarks to the “word of the lord” Armageddon soldiers who shall be followed with such intensity, hourly updates just aren’t enough? What would we do if we couldn’t charge the devices that keep us tuned in? How else would we find out about the sky falling down?

Like I said, I was aggravated and I knew it, so I stopped to think about it.

That’s when I realized the hype wasn’t about worry and anxiety; it was about hope. Those people were rushing around like shoppers excited for Christmas. They WANTED to be stuck inside. I realized that each big storm holds some measure of promise that we could go back to a time when we adjusted our routines to the weather. Like a schoolchild glued to the five am radio, we all wanted a day off to play.

Finally, the Blizzard of 2016 came. For a few hours I enjoyed a cozy fire and watched the white fluff fall. I cooked lunch and worked on some simple chores and the time flew by. Since it was the weekend, I needn't worry about traveling. It was lovely.

My car.

Needn't worry? At middle age, you would think I would remember what it takes to keep a driveway open. After just a few hours, all my snowstorm shut-in plans melted into the endless task of shoveling, a task that had to begin before the storm ended and the sun made it heavy. Plus that was the only way I'd get it done by Monday.

Admittedly, I did find it enjoyable to have an excuse to face the blizzard—to bundle up, trudge through, and simply BE outside—but minutes turned to hours, and before I knew it, the sun had set and my hopes for other things had vanished. It was clear that the entire next day wouldn’t be about snuggling inside, it would be about shoveling a ton of show.

The start of a path.

Too exhausted to cook the heartwarming meal I had planned, I ate a microwaved dinner on a tray table in front of the television set. All the major networks were covering the big storm. “Stay home if you can.” “Don’t drive.” “It’s a mess out here.” The only reason I continued to watch was because each alert felt like a new promise: maybe we would have off on Monday.

But no. If there is one thing American society will absolutely NOT tolerate, it's a sputter in the economic engine. By Sunday morning, newscasters had already calculated the estimated revenue losses from the storm. Empty restaurants, empty movie theaters, and empty stores? That simple would not do.

And so we, the employees who turn that wheel worried and fretted and shoveled the day away to ensure arrival at work the moment the morning bell rang. There would be no tardiness, no excuses. Be there or be unemployed.

My husband making progress on Sunday.

All our hopes for a cozy, winter holiday then turned into a rage against the plow. For the next week, journalists flipped rocks for stories of side streets that weren’t yet opened. “My street's not done! Where is he!?” Town leaders took heat as if they’d launched a conspiracy to get residents fired. And the ecosystem drank salt, tons and tons of salt. The more the better. Spread it on thick, just to be sure.

It’s the same scenario every time one of these nor-easters comes around, and I'd finally realized this whole emotional roller coaster was what I wanted to avoid: Scurry around before the deadline only to find that on blizzard morning, there’s no time for hot chocolate and movie watching and book reading and game playing and cuddling. All hands must suit up and get the transportation corridors cleared. Free every inch of concrete and macadam from its snowy prison, and be quick about it, before it melts. There’s no time to enjoy it, only time to make it go away.

They're calling for a big storm next week. And the moment I heard about it, my hopes got in line for another ticket to ride.

Would the Real Terrorist Please Step Forward?

January 15th, 2016

With the world under attack as it has been, we're rightly worried about stopping the terrorists. We may have different opinions on how to do that, but we're unified in that they must be stopped.

Dissent comes when we start talking about a craftier terrorist. It lives here, at home. It's been living here for ages. And the terrorist is so cunning, we've been funding its endeavor, sending it money ... regularly ... every month for most of us. This terrorist is the Energy Giant.

I'm not just speaking of the BPs, Enrons, and Exxons of the world. I'm talking about every commercial enterprise that has gotten so fat from sucking the insides out of the earth it cannot roll over and see the warning clouds in the sky. I'm talking about the perpetrators of durable pollution who can't tell a rainbow from the steam plume of nuclear reactor. I'm talking about the generators, distributors, regulators, lawyers, marketers, and spin doctors who steal from under the feet of humanity and then sells it back the loot. I'm talking about an industry that brings such things into my world as NOAA's Gulf Oil Slick Forecast or Limerick Nuclear Generating Station's community-preparedness siren that blares so loudly for so long during its six-month test that I'm sure all the birds that nest nearby are deaf.

I'm talking about court cases and backhoes and mudslides and access roads and obliterated mountaintops and wastewater pits and acid mine drainage and exploded bats and cancer clusters. The Giant that covers a desert in mirrors, a vista in turbines, and a riverbank in concrete is the same cold-blooded bully as the one with the fossil straw.

Consider that...

Isis (today's enemy number one) chops heads off in front of the camera.
The Giant hides behind an oversized veil, then administers poison slowly.

Isis radicalizes fearmongers to obtain support for its way of thinking.
The Giant deceives kind people, making them think it keeps them safe.

Isis kills those who might believe differently.
The Giant manipulates what everyone believes.

Isis launches an extremist jihad.
The Giant launches a political career.

Now, be sure, I am not making light of the evil in religious terrorism. What I am doing is poking a hole in the curtain so that we might see the dark warning clouds that the Giant has summoned for us.

Once we realize how manipulated, beaten down, held back, controlled, and walled in we are by the same people who tell us the impact of their work is worth it for the ravishing benefit of more power, how do we change anything? We can unleash our military on Isis, but what can we do about a virus that has infected every corner of our culture and way of life?

What do we do? We make it so that it doesn't matter if the lights go out. We figure out a way -- a dozen, hundred, million ways -- to make it so that it doesn't matter if the lights go out. We build, test, and use every strategy necessary to make it so that it DOESN'T MATTER. Then, we roll up our sleeves and unplug the lights; we tell the Giant to go away. It's not so absurd, you know? Just as unsettled countries have used our military aid, supplies and training against us, colleges and technical school graduates can use their education to pursue a future that deems us independent, not just from foreign oil, but also from The Giant and its Grid lock.

As for tactics the military should use against Isis, as I said, we have different opinions. Most importantly though, the enemy has been clearly identified.