A New Year’s Ode to the Tree

green trees
green trees
Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Events and humankind in general being iffy these days, this seems a good time to talk about trees. I am a tree-hugger to the core. With apologies to Joyce Kilmer for probably never writing a blog as lovely as a tree, herewith.

Other flora and fauna offer unique contributions to the planet and to us planet-dwellers, but The Tree offers food and sustenance, healing, shelter, mystery, wisdom and peace. What can I say? Actually, Fred Hageneder says it pretty well in the introduction to his latest book, The Living Wisdom of Trees. After listing things we humanoids aspire to such as “extending compassion, feeling gratitude, and love for fellow inhabitants of the planet,” Hageneder holds that trees show us “life is worth so much. Trees and humankind,” he points out, “have always had a symbiotic relationship.” (I’m going to hope I haven’t misrepresented the good botanist/ scholar/ author; he writes great books.)

There’s the Tree of Knowledge, for example, and do we ever need it today. Separating good from evil has unfortunately gotten terribly tricky.

Not to mention the Tree of Life (some people say the two are one and the same, but two trees are always better than one IMHO.) So many sacred trees run through human history they can boggle the mind – unless the mind simply relaxes into the notion that humans throughout history have tried to make meaning of things and trees help us do that. I mean, there they stand, firmly rooted and gracefully growing to the full extent that Mother Nature allows.

Brian Abeling, Iowa Road Trip.net

The cousin of a close friend is working on a tree-centric ancestry book, and gave permission for me to quote from it. Here’s what Mary Gilchrist of Iowa City, Iowa writes: “Arriving in Iowa in 1880, my grandfather’s grandfather and his brother were measuring their land and stuck a stick that the latter had cut for a walking stick into the ground in order to mark the boundary. As cottonwoods will do, the stick took root and grew to a majestic size. When the road was moved a bit, the tree was smack dab in the middle of the intersection. Prized on the Great Plains, the cottonwood tree was left in that intersection, nestled in the area which also housed members of the Troublesome Creek Gang, aka the Crooked Creek Cowboys, who terrorized the area until shootouts ended their rampages.” Those cousins still gather around that tree for periodic photo ops, and perhaps to give silent thanks.

My own affections are more fickle, as they jump from tree to tree. At the start of my MFA program (University of San Francisco, Class of ’00) we were assigned the task of writing an autobiographical narrative. An interesting project at any age, creating something essentially true and minimally boring at 60-something which I then was – whew. Fifty pages max. But it turned out at least essentially true and minimally boring.

pink cherry blossom tree under blue sky during daytime
Alexandra Dubinina on Unsplash.com

FAMILY TREES, it’s titled. Early on it tells about Willie Oak, the giant Virginia Oak around which my kid-gang gathered when I was six or seven or so. Named for Mrs. Inez Hatcher’s gardener (who could climb higher and swing farther than any of us,) Willie Oak was located on a large, grassy vacant lot next to Mrs. Hatcher’s house and centered an entire social system. It offered limbs to climb, a tire swing secured from a high branch, shelter on hot summer days and the freedom to create around these – pretty much out of sight of parents or passing grown-ups. Then there were the plum trees in our back yard whose fragrance was beyond glorious and whose fruit regularly made us sick because who can sit in a tree full of ripe plums and not overeat? And the leafy maples for sitting and reading in, while also eavesdropping on passersby who had no idea a small person was up there hidden and listening.

Later there was the elegant, matriarchal magnolia (which I also climbed, although 40-some years older by then,) in the front yard of a post-divorce Dutch Colonial. And lastly the majestic Monterey Pine my good final husband Bud had planted in a small basket years before. By the time I took up writing residency in a fourth floor studio it was flourishing outside my window, hosting bees and butterflies and lovely Anna’s Hummingbirds; if bees and butterflies and hummingbirds in tall pines can’t inspire a writer, nothing can.

Need a good New Year’s resolution? Hug a Tree   

The Luxury of Hope

sun rays coming through trees
Wonderlane on Unsplash

“We don’t have time for the luxury of despair,” said a recent political pundit. Because this space tries to avoid politics the source will remain anonymous. But the pundit had a point. 

Despair is easy to come by these days. Even if you’re not just a teeny bit worried about the future of democracy, or the loss of civility in today’s world, or fill in the blank: (homelessness) (pollution) (nuclear weapons) (immigration) (gas prices) (prejudice) (create your own fill-in) – despair hunkers down behind every one of them. And if none of those get to you, roam around California for a while and consider the thought of one errant spark sending the state up in flames. Planetary extinction can sometimes out-despair everything else you can come up with.

The anti-despair forces point out that it is a crippling state of being, that nothing changes if we the despairing are pulling the covers over our heads, as we are some days inclined to do. Luxuriating in despair is the coward’s excuse for inaction, they say, a surrender to the bad guys. OK, we say from underneath the pillow, go tell that to (fill in the blank.)

As it turns out, though, there is an anti-despair mechanism lurking within most of us. It’s called hope. I got that word straight from Rev. Marci Auld Glass. After writing the above first two paragraphs on a Saturday night, my friend Marci threw out an unsolicited follow up on Sunday morning. “We’re wondering if we can hope,” she said (from the pulpit, for goodness’ sake) “because we are exhausted by despair. But we are not in the despair business, we are in the hope business.” The message here was obviously for me to go home and finish this essay.

 On Monday afternoon, a sentence or two farther along, the mail arrived. It bore this word from my friend Ally McKinney of Justice Revival. “The political violence of January 6th surprised me,” it began, “but it did not steal my hope.” Imagine. Among other things, Justice Revival is working to get the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution formally adopted. You thought the Equal Rights Amendment was a done deal? Actually, no. It’s been ratified by the required 38 states, but women (to cite one category of humankind) still have no constitutionally guaranteed equality here. Anyone working to finish a bill proposed to Congress in 1923, reworded in 1943 and first sent to the states for ratification in 1972 – who is still hopeful – that says a lot for hope.

Despair gets lonely; groups offer hope. Here’s where I find hope, in addition to the above: Climate One. Greenbelt Alliance. Trust for Public Land. Doctors Without Borders. Ploughshares Fund. Fill in your own nonprofit blanks. Throw in a little music and art and the ancient Sequoias still standing despite the drought and hope begins to win out.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces,” Martin Luther said, “I would still plant my apple tree.” Maybe we should all go out and plant a tree.  


 [FJ1]

The Joy of Walking in the Rain

person standing on sidewalk
Josh Wilburne on Unsplash

A walk in the rain! Among all glorious, inspirational, free things to do, I rank walking in the rain somewhere close to the top. I am admittedly a walking-in-the- rain nut; I don’t remember a time when sloshing along wet street and pathways, watching the ever-changing reflections, blinking away the water in my face wasn’t all-out delight.

Well okay, maybe not Hurricane Ida. There are differences between walking in the rain and trying to stay upright in a hurricane. As it happened, I arrived in Manhattan last September at the exact same moment as did Hurricane Ida. There being nowhere in the place I was staying to get anything at all for dinner – and because I just never turn on TV sets – I struck out in search of a pastrami reuben. Not smart. My 120-pound self was no match for THAT rain, and I barely made it back to the lobby and the streaming admonitions everywhere: Take Shelter. Stay Indoors. Stay Away From Windows. But I scored a pastrami reuben from one not-yet-closed shop. Walking in hurricanes and deluges is, for the most part, outside the scope of this essay.

The author preparing for a walk in her Do Not Hit Little Old Lady raincoat

Walking in today’s rains, if you’ve lasted through the parched months of the American west, is somewhat of a sacred experience: heightened rain appreciation. The trees drip heavenly mist. Delicately-scented moisture cocoons you. What can I say?

Nearing Rain Time recently, my friend Bob Dodge, who lives a few miles south in Portola Valley, began to despair. Downpours were predicted, but he waited throughout the night “for the sound of rain dripping from the oak leaves outside our bedroom window. Silence. I got up at right around 7:00, looking out to see overcast skies but no rain falling from those clouds. 8:00 came and San Francisco was hidden from view but the walkways were still dry . . . Where is the promised rain?!?” He thought first it might be that his fancy rain gauge on the roof was in the wrong spot, “but I am no longer allowed to go up on the roof of the house due to my advancing age.” At last report he was looking for volunteers to climb up onto the roof and move the rain gauge.

I have now checked in once more with the Portola Valley Rainman.

“The rains arrived in sheets and torrents and lasted for what seemed endless hours. Our total rainfall was about 8 inches, almost the total rainfall for the winter behind us,” he replied. I thought, knowing my reporter from the south pretty well, that he would have been out sploshing in puddles for sure.

“Alas, I did not walk in the rain. But I did walk this morning in Lake Dodge, which appeared on our garage roof during the storm. The primary drain was clogged with leaves and other debris and needed to be opened up else the whole roof might collapse. So this 85 year older got out the ladder, informed his wife of his intentions and climbed up to do his job as he has done for the past 51 years at this location. Mission accomplished. Ladder put away. Rubber boots removed and stored again. Back inside to refill my coffee cup before sitting down with my latest book. Life is good.”

The joy of rain, reconfirmed.

Talking Peace in Turbulent Times

FEMINIST FOREIGN POLICY vs NUCLEAR WEAPONS

nuclear-bomb-explosion2

We began with a little deep breathing and the day’s mantra: I am a powerful being; I am a peaceful being. Not a bad way to begin a day. Or a discussion, for that matter. This particular discussion was initiated by one of my all-time favorite nonprofits, Ploughshares Fund. Check it out. When I get invited to anything Ploughshares I tend to accept.

The event was a Women’s Initiative Sunday Brunch with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Beatrice Fihn. Fihn is director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN,) which won the Nobel in 2017 for its work. That year 122 countries adopted the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. If you haven’t been following all this, to date 37 countries have ratified the treaty; once that number reaches 50 it becomes international law.

Notably absent from any such ratification list, of course, is the USA. And don’t hold your breath for Russia to sign. The U.S. and Russia together have about 90% of the current supply of nuclear weapons – say, 6,000+ or so each. It will only take a handful to blow up the planet.

It was against the background of the above that we started Sunday brunch with the powerful/ peaceful mantra.

Fihn was in conversation – via Zoom from her living room in Geneva – with Elizabeth Warner, Ploughshares’ Managing Director & Chief Development Officer. Asked how she got into the business of fighting for nuclear disarmament, Fihn said it was “kind of accidental. I was interested in justice, equality, human rights, women’s rights . . . And then I did an internship on nuclear weapons – and realized nuclear weapons are connected to all of these.”Nuclear explosion behind statue

The conversation quickly brought in Feminist Foreign Policy, an alternative to ‘male’ policies reliant on strength and threat – the “humiliate and dominate” approach to relationships personal and international alike that is currently popular. “I’m not one of those people who think women are more peaceful than men,” Fihn remarked. But the ‘softer’ approach – creating security for everyone through healthcare, education, gender equality etc – can be equally effective, she and Warner agreed.

About this treaty to ban nuclear weapons – which supporters, including this writer, believe will eventually gain the magic 50 ratifications and become law: Warner explained there is a three-step process required. First the government signs on, then necessary adjustments are made, then the treaty is ratified. To the obvious next question, “How much does it matter, really?” Fihn explained that “the idea behind (international law) is to create a new normal. We’ve done it with biological weapons and chemical weapons, and inspired the land mines treaty.” This writer well remembers an uncle who was gassed in World War I and never fully recovered; a world without chemical weapons brings solace. Imagining a world without nuclear weapons definitely brings peace.

After a crisis – climate disaster, pandemic, nuclear warfare – “Who cleans up the mess?” Fihn asked; and answered her own question: “Those people who make the least wages.” As this pandemic is making clear, she added, “those who really save us, in addition to the doctors and nurses, are the people who bring food and water,” and all the other service workers.

Warner pointed out that with other global threats – climate change, pandemics – the effect is felt, and then action is taken. But with nuclear weapons, once the effect is felt “it’s too late.”

Asked what gives her hope, Fihn said, “We’re at a point where women have more power, including women of color. More and more people are questioning the powerful. There are also growing calls for justice and anti-racism.” Plus, we’re only 14 countries away from having nuclear weapons be declared in violation of international law.

A final, hopeful note about the Sunday Brunch hosts: As of May 2020, the Ploughshares Fund Women’s Initiative had invested more than half a million dollars in 23 projects focused specifically on the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the nuclear field. Highlighting the interconnectedness of nuclear weapons, women’s rights and other social justice issues is a powerful way to speed us toward a nuclear-free planet.

Sun thru clouds

 

Which is a peaceful thought.

 

 

dove of peace

 

 

This essay appeared first on Medium.com, a fine site for ideas and information that I’ve been writing for in recent months. You might want to check it out too.

Parks: Heartbeat & Hope for the Future

Mountain Lake Park“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs knew a thing or two about parks – and cities. These days we are learning things of our own about parks and cities, a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Cities are where many of our hearts lie, but they aren’t so good for containing viruses. But parks? Parks are the totally good. You can’t lie to your neighborhood park because it knows the truth: I’m a space you need. That may not be exactly what Jacobs meant, but close enough.

The Trust for Public Land (a great national nonprofit I hope you’ll consider supporting) maintains that “Everyone deserves a park.” It’s hard to argue with that. TPL believes that even everyone in cities – rich or poor – should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Hard to argue with that, either. On the poor end, in rich San Francisco, are most of the 40,000 residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood who live within a 10-minute walk of Sergeant Macauley Park. (More about Sgt. Macauley and his eponymous park later.)

On the rich, poor and everything in between end are the happy hordes of walkers, runners, bird-watchers, tiny soccer-players-in-training, birthday partyers, picnickers and playground rompers at Mountain Lake Park. And it is the thing I miss the most, quarantined here in the geezer house: Mountain Lake Park. A little gem of a San Francisco city park, it features (among other things) a Par Course fitness trail that for decades has doubled as my personal outdoor gym, serenity space and yoga substitute. I might as well admit that I failed yoga. Although I stuck it out through the entire course at Temple Emanu-El across the street from my house a few years back, within the first ten minutes of every session, while everyone else was Zen’d out, I just wanted to be outside in the sunshine on the Par Course at Mountain Lake Park.Mountain Lake 9.9.18 The park itself borders on Mountain Lake, a spring-fed lake from which the Spaniards, and Native American tribes before them, happily drank. But in the 20th century thoughtless pet owners dumped their turtles and goldfish into the lake, and the gunk and runoff from an adjoining stretch of Highway 101 finished off the job of turning it into a virtual cesspool by the 1990s. Because Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio though, now a national park itself, your tax dollars helped restore it to a haven for natural grasses, native fish and wildlife, and varieties of birds and waterfowl. Mountain Lake Park is approximately what I envision as paradise.

Parks are, as evidenced by the above, a lot of things to all people. Sergeant Macauley Park, a tiny, one-fifth urban acre in San Francisco’s low-end-of-the-socioeconomic-spectrum Tenderloin neighborhood, first opened in 1983, intended as an oasis for the thousands of kids within its 10-minute-walk radius. It was named for a popular young San Francisco police officer who was shot and killed the year before while making a routine traffic stop. Despite its optimistic opening, Macauley Park’s young users were quickly displaced by others who found it ideal for arranging sexual encounters, dealing drugs and taking care of public bathroom needs. Most of us, certainly Jane Jacobs, would agree these are not ways to reason with a children’s park. Beleaguered Macauley Park was closed in 1995 during a major project to evict its underground residents, a colony of rats who had moved in, multiplied and disbursed throughout the ’hood like a coronavirus. It reopened in 2000 with an optimistic ceremony I well recall, and it struggles, through ups and downs, to continue offering neighborhood kids an open space in which to play.

Birds in treesMacauley and Mountain Lake are just two parks in just one city, which is blessed with dozens of others in between, of every size and imaginable variety. But maybe they represent our hope for the future: spaces with no entry fee, no barriers according to race, gender, politics or fitness level.

Here’s one piece of extravagantly good news: when we emerge from the confines of Covid19, America’s parks will be right where we left them.

Hallelujah.

(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for exchange of information & ideas I’ve been posting on. You might want to check it out.)

 

 

 

On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

The View from the Top of the World

Arctic - approach
The Arctic from above

Sailing around icy fjords in the Arctic Circle? In June, when it’s 24-hour daylight, not even a twilight, let alone darkness? Which means you don’t even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You are, however. guaranteed to freeze your nose and burn your face from the sun and snow unless you bundle into parkas and slather on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen. Who would do such a thing?

Well, it turns out, yours truly. My late, greatly beloved husband died on February 15th, his voice ringing in my head with recollected snippets – one of which was: If you didn’t have me to look after, you could go on this wonderful trip to XxxxXx. Not my favorite snippet, but there it was. So thanks to some bizarre urge that a highly trained grief counselor might be able to analyze, I found myself saying – on about February 25thwhy not?

Arctic - Fran on mtn
Fearless explorer

Conveniently there was a Commonwealth Club expedition to the Arctic Circle with a bunch of climate people, even including a casual acquaintance interested in a roommate. It was somewhat of a cruise (read: too much elegant food, drink and royal treatment onboard) but it promised firsthand views of what we humans are doing to this beautiful planet. Plus countless lectures about millennia past and (hopefully) future by impressively credentialed people. So off I went. San Francisco to Paris to Longyearbyen, Norway to the Arctic fjords, the last leg aboard the small but lovely Ponant ship l’Austral. This is the first of what may be several reflections from the northernmost tip of the globe.

It is incredibly beautiful, this planet.

Arctic - wildflowers
Wildflowers on the tundra

At its northernmost tip there is a breathtaking expanse of blue, gray and white: snow, ice, sea ice (salt water turns to ice at about 28 degrees,) azure blue skies streaked with gossamer-gray clouds melting into the sea – which itself changes from shades of sapphire to emerald-blue in an instant with the shifting skies. The fjords are defined by mountains fronted by stretches of tundra and permafrost – the differences between which (tundra has vegetation, permafrost is permanently frozen) were carefully explained to me.

Accompanying our group, in addition to the impressive lecturers, were about a dozen naturalists who appeared (to this octogenarian) to have a median age of about 15. But they had PhDs and post-doctorates in things like polar ecology,  bioscience and glaciology. One of them left me with an unforgettable phrase and indelible image that sums up the Arctic experience for me. I wish I could videoconference the moment with every climate change denier, every fossil fuel enthusiast, every deregulation proponent and every grandparent who believes – as I continue to do – that our grandchildren will save the planet.

Arctic - walruses-ship
Walruses, & sea where once was ice

We had come to shore to study the wildlife (a clump of resting walruses) and wildflowers (there are over 400 varieties of tiny flora in the tundra) via inflatable rubber boats called zodiacs. Zodiacs  could navigate the distance – in this case it was about a quarter of a mile – from ship to shore.

“You see where our ship is?” said my naturalist friend, pointing toward the sea. I nodded. “This time last year, that was ice.”

 

 

 

 

Staying Secure in the Digital Age

Security - dr licenseThis space is proud to announce my having passed the California driver’s license test. Which means – if my eyes and my car hold out – I’m good for another five years, with a valid ID in my wallet. Or so I thought. Turns out I neglected to apply for a Federal Compliant Real ID driver’s license rather than a regular old driver’s license. Who knew? As of October 2020, unless I go back to the DMV and successfully complete whatever I inadvertently omitted, this lovely new license will not get me through the airport. If I knew not, I know now: Instead of the golden bear signifying this is a Real ID Driver License in the upper right corner, my brand new license bears the small print: Federal Limits Apply. No getting into the Federal Building for me. Sigh.

At the moment I am headed out of the country and into an exploration of the Arctic Circle (more on that later, when we find out how many glaciers haven’t yet melted, and after I return to internet access territory.) My new license, combined with my old but still valid passport, almost got me into the security check at SFO. Security - TSA preWould have, actually, except the TSA lady said my boarding pass didn’t have the green check for my TSA Pre-check. As I was not about to join the mile-long non-TSA Pre-check line, I returned to the Air France people and eventually procured a new boarding pass with the magic green check. Happily I had my Trusted Traveler number with me.

A few years ago I drove (legally) out to the TSA place and spent the best $85 I’ve spent in a long time getting finger-printed, answering a bunch of questions and – after I got back home – waiting a few months before I learned that the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security thankyouverymuch had satisfied itself that I was not much of a threat to public safety. Ever since, I have happily skipped the endless lines waiting to get through airport security in favor of the quite manageable (usually, unless it’s Hartsfield-Atlanta) TSA Pre-check lines.Security - Gl EntryTSA Pre-check will get you out of the country, but good luck getting back in. One emerges from a wearying international flight to be greeted by the endless lines waiting to go through Customs.

But I now have Global Entry!! Like TSA Pre-check, Global Entry is a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of this overseen by the Homeland Security people. If our homeland is not secure, I don’t know why. (Well, yes I do, actually, but Mr. Putin told Mr. Trump that everything is fine, so we shouldn’t worry about Russia.)

On my return I guess I’ll trudge back to the DMV and apply for a Real ID to go with my TSA Pre-Check, Trusted Traveler number and Global Entry card and – well, I do have a Social Security number, and a U.S. passport and a Brazilian passport (possibly expired now but still . . .) and 4 pages of saved passwords somewhere, if I can remember where I filed them. All of these, with luck, will be all the global security protection I need in this modern day and age.Security - Univ Enroll It is tricky to keep track of it all. One has to hope that our planetary borders are secure.

And meanwhile, God bless us every one.

Planet earth

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