"Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity." Rachel Carson
Category Archives: Planet Earth
WHAT WOULD SMOKEY DO?
Here’s something I wrote for Storied Stuff about the west coast fires and smoke. As all the Storied Stuff pieces do, mine was inspired by a treasured object that brings back memories.
Huge swaths of the West coast are on fire. It’s that time of year in the Pacific Northwest when we are advised not to breathe the smoky air. The sun hides its face and ferries leaving Whidbey Island blow their foghorns over and over so as not to collide with each other in the haze. Stuck inside, I feel like clutching my Smokey Bear teddy bear and going straight to bed. To live in a beautiful place and not be able to go outside seems like a hardship, until I think of those who are battling the fires or trying to save their homes and loved ones from the flames.
WWSD? What would Smokey do? As a child, I was touched by the story of Smokey, a cub orphaned in a forest fire, so my parents gave me a stuffed Smokey Bear. I’ve kept him to this day. I also kept a U.S. Forest Service coloring book about Smokey, the honorary forest ranger who helps prevent wildfires. “Protect our forest and friends!” Smokey implores. He used to ask children to “never play with matches,” because even small sparks can start wildfires. He still does, but now he adds a modern message, “Watch your campfire, NOT your phone!”
I’ve internalized his message to protect nature and try to prevent problems before they get out of control. He has deputized each one of us: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” And he’ll give you a hug whenever you need it.
Barbara Terao grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, raised a family in Evanston, Illinois, and is now writing a cancer memoir and other nonfiction on Whidbey Island in Washington.
The spread of the novel Coronavirus has made me realize how nuts I am about scientific method. A friend tells me her church is people. I like that. The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness. I like that, too. My philosophical perspective nowadays includes both humanism and kindness, leaving plenty of room for science. Including empirical evidence is important to me because I was brought up to respect science and admire scientists and engineers. My parents’ idea of a fun vacation was to attend a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). My father was a mathematician and liked to have his information verified, preferably by empirical, scientific methods. Even watching television commercials, he’d demonstrate a healthy skepticism for the misleading statistics of four-out-of-five-dentists type claims and taught me to be skeptical, too.
With the rise of COVID-19, it’s clear that scientists are constantly working behind the scenes to understand viruses, prevent outbreaks, and deal with contagions. It was a woman named June Almeida who first identified the human coronavirus under a microscope, though she wasn’t taken seriously at first. It’s easy to sit back and speculate about an illness and its origin. Tracking it to its source, whether it is a chimpanzee in the case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or bats in the case of recent viruses, takes diligent, painstaking effort over the course of years.
Our neighbor, M.C. Kang, is a chemist who developed drugs for the treatment of AIDS. He noted that, “In a rough sense, it takes thirty years or longer to deliver a medicine from the first understanding of biology to the market. Identification of biological mechanism takes twenty years or so through basic research in biology in academia.” For instance, M.C. worked for ten years to bring a drug called Fuzeon (T20) to market for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Such breakthroughs, along with the work of Anthony Fauci, M.D., virologist David Ho, and others, save lives.
Dr. Fauci says that lessons learned while working on the AIDS virus were useful in tackling the novel coronavirus. “Viruses cause disease by binding to receptors on cells in your body, be they in your upper airway or in your lung, in the case of COVID-19. They then replicate at a rapid rate that triggers a variety of pathogenic processes. Targeting drugs to interfere at one or more vulnerable sites within this replication cycle is something that we learned with HIV.”
Now people all over the world need tests, vaccines, and treatments for COVID-19. Scientists and doctors are developing them as fast as they can. There will be mutations of the virus that require new vaccines and treatments. And there will be new viruses emerging. As M.C. points out, that’s part of nature. Scientific evidence indicates that the novel coronavirus came not from a laboratory but from nature. And it’s part of human nature to try to understand and cure viral illnesses and, when possible, prevent them. Like the AAAS, we can advocate for evidence and its integrity and hasten our victories over the virus.
It’s all about territory and who lays claim to it. Moles dig tunnels underground and live generally solitary lives. If the tunnel of one mole breaks into the tunnel of another, a fight to the death ensues. As Marc Hamer wrote in his surprising memoir, How to Catch a Mole, “Fighting is in the nature of things with territories.”
That sentence got me thinking about habitat destruction and its role in the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world the last few months. What is an animal’s habitat if not a territory? Every species, and every community within each species, needs a territory, a place to call home. Looking under “W” in our World Book Encyclopedia, I read, “Conflicts over resources are the most basic and enduring causes of war. Resources include land, minerals, energy sources, and important geographical features. The world’s first wars probably were fought over resources.” That’s about as basic as you can get. When we violate the homes of our fellow creatures, they may not consciously go into battle with us, but the environmental and health consequences can be as dire as any war. After all, humans aren’t the only inhabitants of this planet, though we sometimes act like it.
Many of the worst viruses affecting humans are transmitted from bats, birds, and other animals. Epidemiology research shows that COVID-19, the source of our current contagion, with new fatalities every day, can be traced back to bats and possibly pangolins. We encroach on their environments or capture them for market, and thereby expose ourselves to new combinations of germs to which we have no immunity.
There is a story called Who Speaks for Wolf that has stayed with me for two decades now. In the face of our COVID-19 pandemic, it comes to mind once again.
The story begins as some people outgrow their living space and seek out a new one. In Paula Underwood’s way of sharing this oral history, she wrote, “Long ago Our People grew in number so that where we were was no longer enough.” Runners “were sent out from among us to seek a new place where the People might be who-they-were.” (I have added punctuation here and there to Paula’s words. She used very little.) A site was found that had space for the longhouses and for the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash. After much discussion, it was decided to move the community to this site.
As work began on the new site, a man called Wolf’s Brother returned to the village. “He asked about the New Place and said at once that we must choose another” because, “You have chosen the Center Place for a great community of Wolf.” Further, he warned, “I think that you will find that it is too small a place for both and that it will require more work then- than change would presently require.” This man was well known for understanding the ways of wolves and his words were respected but overruled, because the establishment of the new village had already begun.
“The People closed their ears and would not reconsider,” Paula wrote. When all was prepared and the people moved in, the People, as Wolf’s Brother predicted, had to constantly contend with Wolf. It was a challenge to protect their children and their food. “They soon discovered that this required so much energy that there was little left for winter preparations.” After trying this and that, they came to the question of the final solution, which was to kill off the wolves.
This is an ongoing question for human beings right now. Do we need to take over every corner of Mother Earth? More species become extinct or endangered every day. Is this the kind of people we want to be? Is this the kind of world we want?
In the story, Paula put it this way. “They saw that it was possible to hunt down this Wolf People until they were no more.” Such a thought gave them pause. “They saw, too, that such a task would change the People: they would become Wolf Killers, a People who took life only to sustain their own, would become a People who took life rather than move a little. It did not seem to them that they wanted to become such a people.”
In hindsight, the People wished that Wolf’s Brother had been included in the decision-making from the beginning. They admitted, “To live here indeed requires more work now than change would have made necessary.” From that time on, they included a question in every discussion, before a decision was finalized, “Tell me now, my Brothers. Tell me now, my Sisters. Who Speaks for Wolf?”
Wisdom comes from such challenges as these, when we take an honest look at the chain of cause and effect in which we have participated and make new decisions. We can broaden our perspectives and listen to a diversity of data, putting our heads together for better solutions.
Paula Underwood preserved the tale taught to her by her father and wrote it down as one of Three Native American Learning Stories (2002, A Tribe of Two Press). Before Paula’s death in 2000, many people studied with her in the high country of New Mexico or among the redwoods of California. She was a mentor to me and reminded us, through her stories and aphorisms, to listen to all species, not just our own. She invited us to listen to trees and wind. And our own minds.
My daughter, Emily, and I used to visit the International Crane Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and later worked there briefly as volunteers. We were fascinated, as were millions of people by the work of George Archibald and Ron Sauey to save endangered crane species, especially the whooping crane, from extinction. With only thirty known whooping cranes left in the world, it became crucial to breed Tex, a female crane in captivity. Trouble was, she was imprinted on humans from an early age and had no interest in flirting, much less mating, with her own kind. But George she liked.
So they would dance.
During mating season, George got up every morning and walked with Tex over a grassy hill of the Crane Foundation. She was, in her mind anyway, his crane wife, (also the name of a popular folk tale in Japan). The whooper was always delighted to see him. Together they would do deep knee bends and flap their appendages in the brisk Wisconsin air. Whooping cranes are four to five feet tall and have six to eight feet wing spans. Tex could hold her own with Dr. Archibald! The couple danced each spring for three years. Eventually, George’s assistant was able to artificially inseminate the bird as her attention was on George. George Archibald kept Tex company day after day and, like in the Japanese folk tale, his “crane wife” returned the favor. She laid a fertile egg! The egg hatched into a chick named Gee Whiz that carried on Tex’s genetic line.
Though whooping cranes now number in the hundreds, they are still rare and endangered. You can see wild cranes in the wetlands of Wisconsin and you can see cranes of all fifteen species at the International Crane Foundation.
People over the centuries have no doubt observed the way newly hatched birds sometimes bond with humans. Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) specialized in studying this behavior known as imprinting. Working with greylag geese, he stayed with some hatching eggs until the goslings emerged from their shells so that he was the first animate object they saw. The goslings attached to him as if he were their mother, following him all around.
Emily’s fiancé, Alex, had a similar experience with one of their geese on their Duck Duck Goose Farm on Whidbey Island. One spring day Alex heard a peeping in the grass a short distance from the nesting area of the geese. He found a tiny hatchling, cold and wet, and wondered how he got separated from his mother. When Alex returned the little guy to his mom, she pushed him away. As Alex put it, he “shopped” the gosling around to the other geese moms and none would take him.
So Alex took the fluff ball inside the house, dried him off, and fed him. Once he warmed up, the little goose kept chirping for attention, so Alex turned on some music to try to calm him down. When a piece by Amadeus Mozart started to play, the gosling was entranced and peaceful. So Alex named him Mozart.
After that, Mozart liked being with humans and had to be babysat at all times. In fact, on Mother’s Day, Emily showed up for our celebration at my house, handed me the fluffy, peeping baby, and said, “Happy Mother’s Day!” He was my first grandchild, as it were. I tended to him while she and Alex cooked a nice dinner. At the Greenbank Pantry and Deli, you can see where Mozart’s image is painted (by our daughter Steph Terao) under the store sign on the side of the building. He’s now the mascot of the deli where Emily and Alex work, because he spent so much time in the yard there while they set up their new business.
This past spring, one-year-old Mozart bonded with a Roman tufted goose and she laid a nest full of eggs! Their offspring imprinted on their parents and followed them all over the farm. Even though Mozart is an excellent father and well-adjusted gander now, he still greets Alex and Emily with a big spread of his wings, happy to see them.
As one of my mentors, Paula Underwood, used to say, what may we learn from this?
From George and Tex, I am reminded to dance. Sometimes it’s more than fun and exercise; it can be a bonding experience and help continue the species!
Perhaps there is a warning in imprinting: don’t follow every animate object that catches your eye or soothes your vulnerabilities. It is disturbing to know that the Austrian Konrad Lorenz was an active member of the Nazi party during WWII. With that in mind, the charming photographs of him with lines of devoted ducks or geese behind him might conjure up the kick step march of German soldiers saluting Hitler. If someone appeals to our instincts and takes advantage of our innocence, we may be recruited as devoted followers. This is not usually done with our best interests at heart.
What about Mozart? He found no kindness in the nest as a gosling, but due to human kindness became an attentive friend and parent himself. When given a chance, we can fly higher than our upbringing and origins. With fluffiness and fortitude, we bring smiles to those in the heart of an island.
Where do I go to celebrate a milestone? A national park!
Spring wildflowers may be long gone from my part of Washington state in July, but in the mountains, they are just starting to bloom. On Thursday, I finished six weeks of radiation therapy for breast cancer. On Sunday, my husband and I caught an early ferry from Whidbey Island to the mainland and then drove two hours to Mount Rainier National Park. We had the whole day ahead of us to see flora, fauna, and mountains! With so much park to explore, we stuck to the Sunrise area in the northeast section.
Go left to get the best mountain views.
Our first stop was Tipsoo Lake parking lot, the starting point for the Naches Peak Loop Trail. The avalanche lilies at the trail head looked like a field of stars, guiding us into this national park of wonders.
Field of stars
The guidebook said the loop was three miles long, rising to 5800 feet altitude. Still recovering from radiation, I wondered if I could make it around Naches Peak and have enough energy to enjoy the rest of our visit. Some of the trail was rough with plenty of rocks to negotiate. Our walking sticks came in handy. With a new view or lake around every bend, it was not difficult to keep going.
Donald on the trail
Barb with Mount Rainier coming into view
Mount Rainier seen from Naches Peak
We also went to Sunrise and hiked on the Silver Forest Trail, stopping to hear the song of the White River along the way.
Our dinner at the Alpine Inn of salmon for me and a Bavarian pho for Donald was just what we needed to replenish ourselves.
I also got to ring the bell in the Crystal Mountain tower to mark the end of cancer treatment. A milestone truly celebrated! As if to renew our spirits even further, we saw a family of silver foxes playing near the Inn. How charming they are with their dark fur and white-tipped tails.
Nature knows what I need and is always conspiring to make me happy. My realist side acknowledges that this place I treasure is home to an active volcano and can be dangerous. Yet I agree with John Muir on this, that every location has its hazards. As Muir wrote, “Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” It is a healing place for me, with a radiant power all its own.
It’s three days since Aretha Franklin died and I’ve got her CD playing in my Forester. I drive from the mini-peninsula of Port Townsend across the tip of the broader Olympic Peninsula, singing to the firs and hemlocks, “You make me feel like a natural woman…” Oh, yeah, tree friends, wrap me in moss and slap me with river spray! Get me back to nature, baby. I turn onto Hurricane Ridge Road to go to the famed lookout point at the road’s end. This is both stupid and obstinate because there’s no view to be had. But I want to get outside and it’s on the way to, well, outside.
We moved recently and I’ve been inside unpacking boxes or out foraging thrift stores and garage sales. Although it’s gratifying to create a new home, I need a change. Western Washington is up in smoke from wildfires in Canada and elsewhere and we’re advised to stay inside and certainly not exert ourselves in the polluted air. My plan was to go on a leisurely beach walk with friends, but that isn’t enough for me. I want out and I want to go alone.
I get like this sometimes, when I’m hankering to wander and I’m not sure why. After the fact, I usually realize I was starved for a chance to catch up with Mother Nature and with myself. For me, that is best done in solitude (or with someone I know so well I can have lots of quiet time). So I don’t mind if I can’t see all the way to Mount Olympus, the highest (at 7,980 feet) of the Olympic Mountains. I’ll wave to Hera and Zeus through the haze.
Later I find a room for the night at Lake Crescent Lodge. I get some cauliflower curry soup and watch the sun set pink over the shrouded, ghostly hills. I feel lucky to be in this historic and, momentarily, peaceful national park.
Yet the sad truth is that the park, which sound tracker Gordon Hempton (whose book I described in a past post) identified as the quietest place he could find in America, is in trouble. The rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula are under acoustic assault and may not remain quiet for long. I’ve written our government representatives to try to keep it that way, without military jets shrieking overhead for training missions from Whidbey. There is more to be done.
Night dreams are an escalator down to my nether world and I head back to the woods as soon as I wake up. I am getting to that place of inner quiet.
My morning walk leads me to a mossy log where I sit for a while by the rapids of Barnes Creek. I seem to have the sacred space all to myself until I am joined by a companion in contemplation: a curious Douglas Squirrel joins me from the pew of her tree.
When I continue on, I am happy to also make some human friends on the way to Marymede Falls.
Then, inner haze somewhat cleared, it is time to go home. As the song goes, “I used to feel so uninspired… Now I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for.” Sometimes you gotta go out to go in, and get nourished by nature. And sometimes we have to speak up to keep the peace.
“Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company …with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity.” John Muir (1838-1914)
Follow Sound Defense Alliance on Facebook and see their website for information about protecting the Puget Sound area from noise and other pollution.
I’ve written about my favorite birches, oaks, and redwoods, and even a post titled, “Have You Thanked a Tree Today?” Currently, I have another tree to thank and my gratitude reaches a new level, coming from the very marrow of my bones, even as that marrow struggles to make white blood cells. The leaves of Taxus Baccata, the European yew, are the basis of a drug called Taxotere (generic name: docetaxel) that is helping to save my life.
My Welsh ancestors may well have had such yew trees growing nearby, as they were favored in church yards. The toxic leaves repelled the cows, thus protecting the cemeteries from trampling. Nothing could protect the trees, however, from monarchs’ demands for springy yew wood to make longbows, depleting forests for 300 years until guns became the weapon of choice in the 1700s. But a few ancient yews, some more than a thousand years old, can still be found in the old church yards.
Now the trees contribute to my longevity as I take my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Of the four drugs injected into my system every 21 days, Taxotere from European yews (or Taxol from Pacific yews) is most common. It is apparently a reliable and accurate assassin of cancer cells and has helped shrink my tumor to a fraction of its former size. Due to its’ effectiveness in treating various cancers, there is a rise in demand from pharmaceutical companies that could again threaten yew populations. After all, cancer drugs are lucrative business. For instance, the United States saw $3.1 billion dollars in sales of Taxotere in 2010.
I wish the trees, and all those receiving their medicine, well. Yeah, they inhibit all the cells in my body, even the good guys like white blood cells, from dividing and make me nauseous and almost bald. I’m as sick as a cow in a graveyard, but I plan to get rid of disease, recover from the side effects and surgeries, and live cancer-free.
As I said to my nurse during chemotherapy, “You’re giving me poison in order to save my life.” She said that’s right. Thank you, yews. May we turn your cytotoxic poison into medicine so we can stand strong and live. And may you do the same.
Spring in downeast Maine is slow to arrive. Arctic currents swirl in the Atlantic and frequent rains dampen visitors’ spirits. In spite of the warnings in the guidebooks, my daughter and I took a chance and booked our stay in Bar Harbor for early June. Some restaurants, such as the highly recommended Burnt Tree in Otter Creek, don’t even open their doors till mid-June. But it was the best time for our schedules, so off we went!
Boot sighting at LL Bean
Stephanie among flowers on Bar Island
We got lucky. The weather was kind to us and the people even kinder.
We stayed at Acacia Inn, fed well every morning by Anna and Ralph, and wandered from there to the water’s edge. When it was low tide, we walked from the town of Bar Harbor to Bar Island, both named for the sand bar that appears and then disappears between them every day. Beyond the spruce forest on the island, we came upon a field bursting with spiky lupine flowers, as if Miss Rumphius of children’s book fame had been there spreading seeds.
We purchased our $25 pass for Acadia National Park at Hulls Cove Visitor Center, good for seven days. A group of Corvette drivers had made it their destination for the day and departed as we arrived, engines purring. Perhaps they were acknowledging, as we were, the centennial of the National Park Service, 1916- 2016.
Acadia National Park entrance sighting
From Hulls Cove, Stephanie and I went straight to the highest point on Mount Desert Island, Cadillac Mountain. We parked our rented Ford Focus and hiked to the bare, rounded peak of pink stone, a type of granite named for the mountain. At 1,530 feet, we could see for miles in all directions and noticed Bar Harbor and Bar Island to the northeast. Clouds shrouded the Porcupine Islands beyond.
Bar Island sighting from Cadillac Mountain
At Jordan Pond, two Mi’kmaq men wove ash strips into baskets and a lone beaver wove sticks and branches into a home. Stephanie and I both tried our hand at the former but left the beaver to his own business.
Mi’kmaq artist sighting at a Cultural Connections program
Beaver sighting at Acadia National Park
For five days we explored the sights, sounds, and smells of this eastern national park, driving on the Park Loop Road and hiking on the (vehicle-free) carriage roads and trails. The Ocean Path took us from Otter Cliffs to the pounding waves of Thunder Hole and, eventually, to Sand Beach. Though the water was a chilly 48 degrees, we waded in the surf and let the coarse sand buff our feet. Our longest hike was the Triad Trail, taking the better part of a day and rewarding us with the woodsy scent, peace and quiet that come from wilderness, far from the popular paths.
Trail terminus sighted, whew!
Returning to Bangor for our flight home, we went to a Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band concert at the Cross Center. Ringo wore a red and black plaid shirt like the Paul Bunyan standing outside the building. Even my favorite Beatle was part of the Maine mystique as he drummed us out of our reveries of nature, back to our cities of Chicago and New York.
Ringo sighting in the Cross Center in Bangor
Paul Bunyan sighting at the Cross Center in Bangor
Some of my favorite characters are trees. With Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 29) coming up, I’m thinking of arboreal authors and their tales of trees and people who live in them, from Tarzan to the Swiss Family Robinson. Trees have played important roles, if only in the background, of many terrific books.
As much as I loved Mary in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I never became much of a gardener. I loved Sam Gribley’s home in a tree far better. Mary cultivated the titular overgrown garden at an old Yorkshire mansion and made it her refuge, sharing it with the invalid, Colin. Sam, on the other hand, ran away from his family’s New York City apartment and lived in the woods of upstate New York with a falcon in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. That’s the life for me, I thought when I read it in fifth grade at about the same age as the woodsy character, Sam. I was a tree-climbing girl though not as experienced at living off the land as Jean Craighead was. She grew up in a family of naturalists and her first pet was a turkey vulture. She gave her main character many chances to use survival skills, from harvesting wild foods to hollowing out a tree with fire to make a home.
In a tragic, true tale, a young woman named Sara sought out her favorite tree, known as the Senator, and built a small fire there one January night in 2012. Sadly for her and the world, the fire spread and she accidentally burned down the 3500-year-old bald cypress, the largest tree east of the Mississippi. Writer Julia Shipley asked Sara if she’d been inspired by My Side of the Mountain when she got in the habit of visiting the Senator and sitting inside it. “No,” Sara said, “But do you know The Giving Tree? That’s one of my favorite books and that’s how I look at what happened.”
Sara had been addicted to meth for eight years and getting in trouble for incinerating a national treasure forced her to get sober. “Basically the tree saved my life,” she said.
Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree, is for all ages, showing how a tree can nurture and support us throughout our lives. Silverstein’s simple drawings convey a human lack of reciprocity that could be shameful yet is somehow touching. The trees give so much to us and now and then we pause and notice and appreciate it.
A 1942 book called Tree in the Trail charmed me in my youth with its Native American version of reciprocity with a cottonwood tree and how such a tree could “witness” 224 years of history. But reading it now I cringe at the stereotypes of Indians, Spaniards and others depicted by Holling Clancy Holling.
A better source for Native American stories about trees is Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. They write, “Living in balance, in many Native North American cultures, means to live within and honor the circles of life. A circle of giving and receiving becomes part of our relationship with the natural world when we take only what is necessary to survive and return the remains of plants and animals to the earth with gratitude.”
A Seneca thanksgiving for trees is included in the book, ending with “Let us put together our thoughts that we will always be grateful” for the medicine, firewood, and other gifts of trees.
Haudenosaunee Tree of Peace illustrated by John Kahionhes Fadden
As for picture books, The Happiness Tree: Celebrating the Gifts of Trees We Treasure by Andrea Albin Gosling and illustrated by Lisa Burnett Bossi is lovely in every way and suggests values we can learn from the trees. For instance, a White Pine stands for courage. The last page recommends, “Plant a Happiness Tree on Arbor Day.”
Another good one for Arbor Day is Janice Udry’s A Tree Is Nice. Marc Simont’s illustrations show the many things children like to do among trees. My favorite is, “We can sit on a limb and think about things.” The book won a Caldecott award.
I’ll end with a quote from a 2015 novel for young adults, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe. An edgy book about a strip-mined town, the main character fights for her life in a devastated landscape. Yet she finds renewal in her Kentucky hills: “The trees and the roll of the earth held me up like the ridge holds the cloud from passing so it can pour down rain. The vines and the rabbits and the squirrels and the orange lizards out on the rocks after a storm–all those things I’d forget when people dragged me down–I needed them close and always.”
“If all the plastic in the last few decades was clingfilm, there would be enough to put a layer around the whole Earth,” said paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, quoted in this month’s Economic Times. “We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years.”
Not only have we “shrink-wrapped” the Earth in plastic, we’ve paved and entombed huge portions of it in cement. More than half of all concrete ever made was produced in the last twenty years. Our construction and convenience products are taking over the world, with only 25% of ice-free land left in its natural state. Rates of wildlife extinction are rising.
British geologist Colin Waters, co-author of a Science article on the subject, says, “What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”
Scientists are discussing whether we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by human activity. Just as the Holocene Epoch can be seen in Earth’s sediment as the end of the last ice age, humans have, in a very short time, created sufficient significant markers to call for the naming of a new epoch. Some say it started with the Industrial Revolution while others mark its beginning with the presence of isotopes, measurable all over the planet, from nuclear weapons testing after WWII. Plastics and concrete are other lasting markers.
Remember looking at layers of sediment in geology class or while visiting someplace like the Grand Canyon? It’s awesome to realize we are looking back in time at evidence of events long past. Future generations, if there are any thousands of years from now, will be able to look back at what we left behind and measure time as well. What will they think of the choices we made?