Tag Archives: environment

Beautiful Biophilia: Savoring Awe

Mount Rainier at sunrise

            Can we get high on alpenglow and aspen groves? Yes—and, doctor’s orders, we should, for our own happiness, let transcendent experiences enrich our lives. When psychologist Dacher Keltner studied high school students’ experiences of awe on a white-water rafting trip, he observed biophilia, love of the natural world, in action. The teens made deep connections to their environment. One student commented, “What’s cool about awe is that it literally blows your mind!”

            Keltner noted, “In various studies we’ve asked people, ‘What’s running through your mind when you feel awe?’ And they’ll say things like ‘I want to make the world better,’ or ‘I just feel like being quiet,’ or ‘I feel like purifying things.’ It makes you humble. It makes you curious about the world.” Awe, attention, and appreciation are good medicine for what ails us.

            The humbling emotion of awe is most often elicited by raw nature, elevating our well-being, and sometimes even revising our assessments of the world. It is an energized pleasure that seems almost on the brink of fear, touched by infinity or at least something beyond us. For instance, Scott Russell Sanders wrote in A Brief History of Awe, witnessing thunderstorms provokes the feelings of awe and wonder in him. 

            One of my most awe-filled moments was on a twenty-mile hike on New Zealand’s Hollyford Track. The fern-choked trail led us past waterfalls, rivers, and mossy rocks as rain pattered on our yellow slickers. The deluge let up as we walked further into the beech forests of Hollyford Valley, and we felt a world away from ordinary life. But it was when we approached a rocky shore that my husband and I stopped dead in our tracks. There were Fiordland crested penguins (known as tawaki in Maori) on the beach, sporting their extravagant, yellow eyebrow feathers as they hopped from rock to rock! It was a moment I will never forget because I knew how lucky we were to see such rare birds.

            My husband and I observed the penguins from afar and then continued on our way, transformed by the brief encounter. It was as if I’d seen charming creatures from a fairy tale, they were so magical. As Jonah Paquette wrote in Awestruck: How Embracing Wonder Can Make You Happier, Healthier, and More Connected, our vision expands in such moments. “By learning to see ourselves through this lens,” he wrote, “we allow ourselves to feel a sense of greater cosmic purpose, to see ourselves as a link in the chain of history, and perhaps experience a sense of awe.”

            When I turn my attention to small miracles of smooth stones on the beach, pine fragrance of trees, or pink clouds at sunrise, I have gratitude. I believe in greater possibilities—and in the value of my own life.  Whether or not I reach the worshipful level of awe, I take time to savor.  And in savoring, I believe, lies the salvation of the world, because we take care of what we love. It’s part of what makes life worth living.

Poetry of Witnessing

Eurasian milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum)

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. In truth, the state has more than 14,000 lakes of ten acres or more. I enjoyed many of them as I was growing up.

At the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference last month, I attended a workshop on poetry of witness, a way of writing that holds up hard truths so they are not forgotten. Dawn Pichon Barron of Evergreen State College led the workshop and asked us to write about a troubling societal issue. She gave us 16 minutes to compose a poem of witness. As we read our resulting poems, we experienced not only witnessing but also a “with-ness” (Mitsein) with each other.

Here is mine, inspired by my love of lakes and the need to protect them.

10,000 Lakes Minus One

You may remember

the Minnesota lake

where you stepped in clear

cool water on a hot day.

You may remember glittering minnows

skittering away in the shallows,

bass and pike as you went deeper.

You may remember the faint hint of algae

as you swam out among the fish.

Now when you visit you wonder—

What has happened to this place?

And WHAT is that smell?

When you wade in for a swim,

you’re blocked by invasive seaweed,

a thick mat of Eurasian milfoil grabbing your legs.

The smell is of a suffocating, overgrown lake

that is dying.

Yet, if you stand on the high bank

and look east

you’ll see a single pink water lily

and its wide green pad floating,

shining in the light.

Lotus photo by Barbara Terao

Seaweed problems are not only in lakes. ABC News reported “Record amount of seaweed is choking shores in the Caribbean.” More than 24 million tons of sargassum clogged the Atlantic in June.

To Become Such a People: Listening to Wolf

Wolf Gourd Drum by Dynva Todd

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. 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.

Drawing by Frank Howell

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, enabler of learning

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.

Nature’s Nourishment: Olympic National Park

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.


Shrink-Wrapped World: the Anthropocene

“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 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?

Geological Periods

Geological Periods

Basic information about the Anthropocene proposal and terminology are here.

Update 2022

With Modern Agriculture, Green Giant Not So Jolly

In southern Minnesota, the Jolly Green Giant soars more than fifty-five feet above Interstate 90.  Though modeled after the Green Giant brand “mascot,” he was erected by the Blue Earth community and stands for the prominence of crop production in the area.  Many farmers here make a good living from the soil, but often at a cost to the health of the environment and themselves that is not so jolly.

Green Giant

Green Giant

Through hail and thunderstorm, I drive over the flat plains of my home state.  In Martin County, I  talk with a resident who says, “This is the biggest ag’ county in the state, maybe the whole country.”  Evidence of agriculture is all around us in vast brown fields.  It’s April and the bare dirt awaits cultivation of corn and soybeans.

Average farm size around here is 443 acres.  The chemicals and machinery of modern agriculture mean bigger farms with fewer workers required.  The population of the 730 square mile county is just over 20,000 and has been decreasing.

Cancer, however, is on the rise.   The county lies west of Rochester, home of the famous Mayo Clinic.  “At Mayo Clinic,” the local guy says, “they see cancer and they say, oh, yeah, you’re from Martin County.”  Farmers here tend to make liberal use of insecticides, pesticides, and all those “cides” that can also lead to subtle, slow, unintended homicide and suicide.  They seem to be killing themselves and their neighbors with poisons.

Do such toxins remain in frozen peas and corn we buy at the grocery store?  That concern is one reason I buy organic when I can.

According to Scorecard that keeps track of pollution by area, Martin County is known as one of the worst counties in the United States for “air releases of suspected carcinogens,” along with endocrine toxicants and immunotoxicants.  In other words, substances designed to disrupt hormonal and immune systems in pests can affect us, too.

While people on huge combines and tractors profit off the land, they repay Mother Nature by altering just about every inch of her.  How do people earn an income while protecting an ecological system?  Is recovery possible?  Martin County is forever changed and will probably never be the prairie land it once was.  The bison and other factors that helped create the prairies are too long gone for that.  Poet Wendell Berry writes, As the machines come and the people go/ the old names rise, chattering, and depart.  We humans have the knowledge and ability to live well with the land.  Berry says, do not tell it to a machine to save it.  Reach back to other times and reach out to other cultures, beyond the corporate giants to people themselves.  The land teaches us, if we watch and listen.  If we take time.

Landscapes are slow to change, but we humans can change today by treating environments as our communities rather than our commodities.  In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold wrote that our land ethic depends on our attitude: “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.”  There is no separation between our health and the health of the soil, air, and water upon which we depend.

Let me end on a hopeful note for Earth Day (and Week).  The Martin County resident tells me he’s raising bees now.  He thought about the needs of the bees and started growing native plants for them to visit and pollinate.  One conscious, sensible, loving step leads to another, and that is jolly good.

Midwest farm

Midwest farm


Here’s the Kingsmen’s goofy song about the Green Giant, ho ho ho.

Wilderness Act Commemorated on Lake Superior

It’s Saturday, September 27, and we are boating from Bayfield.  I’ve never seen the Apostle Islands before, so I drove from Chicago to northern Wisconsin for this chance to have a cruise with fellow Sierra Club members and some knowledgeable speakers.  It is a beautiful day to see the fall colors and  the islands of Lake Superior.

Our ship, the Island Princess

Our ship, the Island Princess

The first speaker is Tia Nelson whose father Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin senator and governor.  Nelson established Earth Day and his daughter is a conservationist, too.  She explains how it wasn’t just her dad who created the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Act fifty years ago.  Many people worked together to protect this natural area.  Now, with a colossal Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine proposed for nearby Penokee Range that will pollute land, air, and water, Tia urges us to work together again to protect our resources that are not only aesthetically pleasing but vital to our existence.

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

There are about 136 passengers on board.  We visit the snack table and talk with each other during our two-hour cruise.  Devon Cupery tells me about the film she produced about the mine issue.  Neil Howk, a park ranger with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, describes each of the islands we pass.  All but one (Madeline Island) of the 22 islands are part of our National Park system, so they are no longer clear-cut for timber or quarried for brownstone but are left for wildlife and people to enjoy.  The boat pauses by Raspberry Island so we can take pictures of its lighthouse.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

The last speaker, Mike Wiggins, is a compelling storyteller, painting a broad, almost mythical picture of the issues at hand.  I stop taking photos out the window of the boat and listen to him talk about protecting this rich land of fresh water, forests, and wildlife.  Mike is Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe whose 125,000 acres of reservation would be hugely impacted by the taconite mine.  Their wild rice beds and Lake Superior itself, the holder of 10% of the world’s surface fresh water, would be polluted by mercury and other run-off from the mining process.  Chris Cline of GTac and the governor of the state eliminated laws and rules regulating the disposal of toxic mine wastes, following Cline’s pattern of destruction in other states and countries.

Mike calls Cline a windigo, a ravenous giant from Ojibwe tales.  He always wants more.  “Chris Cline is so hungry, he ate the state of West Virgina!  After he ruined that place, he took bites out of Illinois and now he’s coming for Wisconsin,” Mike says, explaining that windigo is the spirit of excess and can be vanquished by the powers of love and cooperation for the greater good.  Both humans and Mother Earth, he says, are endowed with an energy from the Creator, and when we call on that, there will be no mine.  Mike and the other speakers are role models for challenging the motives of greed and profit.  We can do better, they tell us.

I remember the Gordon Lightfoot song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The 29 lives on board that Great Lakes ship were lost partly due to greed.  The Fitzgerald was carrying 4000 tons more taconite iron ore than it was designed to hold, making it hard to maneuver when pounded by waves in a storm.  It sank in Lake Superior in 1975.  As the lyrics go, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/ When the gales of November came early.”

Will our natural resources be chewed to the bone by  storms of windigos?  As Tia Nelson said, it’s up to us to appreciate and protect what we have.  And on this September day, what we have is spectacular.

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Cormorant on the pier

Cormorant on the pier

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Ancient Advice for Sustainable Harvests


The passenger pigeon named Martha was kept in a Cincinnati zoo.  This September 1 marks 100 years since her lonely death as the last of her kind.  I attended a forum reflecting on Martha and other extinctions at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  One speaker I wanted to hear was Robin Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman and Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology, SUNY.  I also wanted to get her new book, an Orion award finalist.  She is  an expert on moss, among other things.  The heart of her talk was what she called the Honorable Harvest, principles by which we can interact sustainably with the world.  She called these ancient tenets “rules for those of us who can’t photosynthesize,” because really, when you think about it, all life relies on the sun and we rely on those forms of life that can harness solar energy and pass it on to us as food.  Let us not take them for granted.  And let us not take more than our share or, like the passenger pigeon, they will be no more.

Here are some wild harvest guidelines I gathered from Dr. Kimmerer’s talk.  She also has a chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass on “The Honorable Harvest” in which she says that these things are not usually written down but “reinforced in small acts of daily life” and apply to all “the gifts of Mother Earth–air, water, and the literal body of the earth: the rocks and soil and fossil fuels.”  These “small acts” can be practiced every day in some form or another.

1.  Never take the first one you see.  How do you know it’s not the last one?

2. Introduce yourself.  Approach the fungi or roots or whatever you’re gathering and tell them your intent.  Ask permission to take them.

3. Listen for their answer.   There are ways to communicate and receive an answer.  If you are quiet enough, you can hear (or feel) it.

4. Respect the answer.  If permitted to harvest, take only what is needed.

5. Minimize harm.  Be careful how you harvest and how you move around the area.

6. Use everything you take.  “Do eat food that is honorably harvested, and celebrate every mouthful,” Kimmerer writes.

7. Be grateful.  “The practice of gratitude is a radical act,” Dr. Kimmerer said.  It is humbling and it is part of reciprocity, giving back.

8. Share what you’ve taken.

Similarly, Anishinabeg (Ojibway) elder, Anne Dunn, let me know that wild rice is harvested with gratitude and “cherished as a gift from Great Spirit” and will “flourish and feed many generations of countless people” as long as it is treated with appreciation and respect.  The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) gave an address in 1977 in Geneva, Switzerland, “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” noting, “The Western culture has been horribly exploitative and destructive of the Natural World.  Over 140 species of birds and animals were utterly destroyed since the European arrival in the Americas… The air is foul, the waters poisoned, the trees dying, the animals are disappearing.  We think even the systems of weather are changing.  Our ancient teachings warned us that if Man interfered with the Natural laws, these things would come to be.  When the last of the Natural Way of Life is gone, all hope for human survival will be gone with it.”

Robin Kimmerer said at the May 2 Nature and Ethics forum, “It is not land which is broken but our relationship to land.”  She said we are in the time of the seventh fire, at a fork in the road.  Honoring our plant and animal relatives, “we can light the eighth fire of kinship” and heal some of what we have broken.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chicago Botanic Garden

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Chicago Botanic Garden

Have a healthy harvest and enjoy!

Earth Day Persuasion

Debris tree

Debris tree

How do we do good without doing more harm than good?


My husband and I are in the habit of picking up litter as we walk along the path behind our house. As piles of snow melted away in March, piles of trash came into view, dotting the wetlands and prairie with the sheen of clear plastic, the bright colors of newsprint advertisements, and—most ubiquitous of all—shopping bags. We didn’t have to bring our own trash bags, simply loading up the ones we found before depositing them, plump as beach balls, into the trash bin along the trail.


Could we recycle them? Probably not, if they’re dirty. About 80% of newspaper is recycled while only about 7% of plastic is. More than 85% of plastic, especially if it’s soiled, goes to landfills. Lightweight as they are, bags often go sailing in the breeze to end up snagged on trees, in the ocean, or clogging storm drains.  (See the National Geographic article about plastic trash online.) One billion tons of plastic bags have been discarded in the last 60 years and will persist virtually forever. It takes centuries or longer to break down their high-density polyethylene, a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas, containing benzene and other toxic chemicals.


To sea turtles, the floating bags look like jellyfish, their favorite food. Turtles, birds, fish, and other animals die from ingesting or respirating the trash, or getting it stuck around their mouths, heads, or abdomens. Researching plastic bags online, I see that three hours of work yielded 1.4 million bags during the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day. Plastic bags were the second most common trash item found along lakes, streams, and beaches.

Turtle that tried to eat plastic trash

Turtle that tried to eat plastic trash


My biggest challenge at the duck pond behind our house was a plastic shopping bag mired in the middle of it. We saw it there all winter. The ducks and geese seemed to ignore it, but I didn’t like seeing that petrochemical flotsam in their midst. Last week, after the snow was gone but before the grassy banks thawed to mush, I stood at water’s edge, casting an oak branch toward the slimy bag. The branch was too short. I got some string from the house and tied it to the branch. I hung onto the string and threw the wood with all my might.  After a few flings, I lost my grasp on the string and the branch floated out of reach. I fetched it back with another branch. My husband, chuckling at the spectacle from across the pond, shouted, “Tie them together.” Good idea. The length of the two branches was sufficient to rake in the beige bag. I dumped out the mud inside and carried it away. The pond looks much better.


Collecting pound after pound of garbage is a good way to reflect on the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve been composing letters in my head as I walk through the dry grass, wondering if nearby residents would heed a reminder to be more careful, such as bundling up their recycling good and tight before setting it at the curb for pick-up. The winds blast at high speeds across this part of Illinois, scattering paper from recycling bins and assorted junk from trash cans. If such a letter were in our local newspaper, would it help decrease the amount of debris along the path? Or would it just annoy readers and earn me a reputation as an over-zealous nag?


A few years back, I was irritated by just such a “do-gooder.” We happen to drive a hybrid car. We bought a Prius when they first came out and still have our old one, the kind with the trunk before they made hatchbacks. Because our two children had active lives in high school with music and with equestrian and lacrosse teams, we also got a red minivan. It was the only vehicle we found that could carry our daughter’s string bass, not to mention saddles and sports equipment and players. One day I found a note tucked under the wiper on the van’s windshield. The typed words said that, wow, what a big vehicle we had! It then said that we should get a smaller, more environmental car.


Now who would leave that note? I pictured a woman a lot like myself, concerned with the state of the planet and wondering what to do about it. She had a brainstorm to deliver these leaflets to people like me, people she assumed had to be persuaded by her (or him) to change our ways. I should empathize with, or even applaud, such an activist! Instead I wanted to slap them upside the head for being so preachy and presumptuous. This is precisely the outcome I seek to avoid. I want to write about and protect nature without turning people off by sounding judgmental or shrill.


After all, one of my reminders to myself on a regular basis is to avoid “shoulding” on myself. I don’t want to “should” on others either, telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, “guilting” them into compliance. That’s one way to make people go suddenly deaf. I could do more harm than good.


What does persuade people to act with the greater good in mind? Perhaps peer pressure. A sign was posted at a petrified forest asking people not to take bits home with them. Trouble is, the sign mentioned that pieces of petrified wood were disappearing from the park at an alarming rate. The message, for some people, was, “Everybody does it.” The rate of pillaging went up rather than down. This is why, instead of the “just say no” campaign, our kids’ high school started spreading the word that the vast majority of students do not smoke, drink, or do drugs. The goal was to normalize staying sober and healthy. Just say yes to intelligent norms.


How do we normalize diligent trash containment and also the use of reusable bags when we shop? (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/reusable-grocery-bags_n_1409065.html.) One thing I can do is clean up this patch of the world.  With no butts on the ground, smokers won’t see it as a giant ashtray.  With no random bags or papers stuck in the grass, people may just chase the next one that gets away.  It sets a standard.

I can write a letter, too, asking my neighbors to remember the land. Remember the birds.  Earth Day, April 22, is for everybody.

The pond is clear of bags

The pond is clear of bags



Dad and the Atomic Age


On July 1, 1946 my dad, Sgt. Frank Wolf, sent a letter to his grandmother from Bikini Atoll with a special postmark for that day: “Atomic Bomb Test.”  “Be sure and save this envelope,” he wrote, “as it may some day be quite a collectors’ item.”

On July 1, fifty-four years later, Dad died of a type of cancer associated with radiation exposure.  And in July of 2013, I received a letter informing me that the U.S. government would be sending a check to me and my siblings in compensation for our father’s exposure to nuclear fallout.

Dad was what we’d nowadays call a nerd.  A skinny guy, his nieces and nephews called him Uncle Peewee.  To his math students, he was Professor Wolf.  We four kids just knew him as Dad, the one who got us up early to go fishing and who couldn’t resist a bad pun.

He took keen interest in his work as an engineer in the Army’s technical division, producing U-235 from uranium—even if he was kept in the dark about WHY he was doing it.  Stories of the U.S. atomic weapons project came out after the fact—from Enrico Fermi’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago, until the first successful test of the bomb three years later.  Terms like “nuclear fission” were coined by scientists as they gleaned what the split atoms could do.   Secret nuclear research accelerated to a hectic pace with the events of World War II.


In July 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, sent two of his fellow scientists a cryptic letter inviting them to join him for “our fishing trip.”  They knew what he meant: the new device called the Gadget was about to go off in New Mexico.

The blast on July 16 was equal to 15,000 tons of TNT, surpassing all expectations.  People in three states reported seeing the flash.  Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, a close witness, admitted that when the test began, “there was in everyone’s mind a strong measure of doubt.”  Its success “was a justification of the several years of intensive efforts of tens of thousands of people—statesmen, scientists, engineers, manufacturers, soldiers, and many others in every walk of life.”  He called the effects of the bomb unprecedented and terrifying, yet also “magnificent.”

The success of the Manhattan Project in producing and detonating its astonishing gadget meant it could then be used in warfare.  The atomic bomb let loose on Hiroshima, Japan was essentially the second trial of the new technology.

My husband’s cousin, Reiko, lived in Hiroshima.  She was at her desk on the morning of August 6, 1945 when the bomb fell.  She was eight-years-old.  The other third-graders rushed to the window to see what caused the big, white flash.  Reiko did not look up from her schoolwork until the glass in the window shattered.  As the atomic cloud swelled over Hiroshima, tens of thousands of her fellow citizens were already dead.  100,000 more were injured, including many of her classmates.  Almost half of the 320,000 people of Hiroshima would die from the effects of the bomb by the end of the year.

Reiko walked to her home on the outskirts of the city.  She and her mother went out in the evening and took food to the ash-covered people fleeing the devastation.


The next use of the atomic bomb was three days later in Nagasaki, causing more devastation and killing more than 70,000 people.  On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan.

The fourth use of an atomic bomb was the one celebrated with the special postmark on Dad’s letter, after the War.  Four days later, at a Paris fashion show, a new swimsuit named after the bombsite debuted: the bikini. A cartoon series depicting the atomic age of 2062 was developed called “The Jetsons,” imagining a tricked-out, high-speed world of the future: a hovercraft in every carport, a robotic maid in the kitchen.

Having worked at Oak Ridge laboratories for the Manhattan Project, Dad wanted to see the uranium-fueled technology in action.  For that fourth test, he was watching from the U.S.S. Haven beyond the lagoon.  With the lightning-bolt insignia of the Special Engineering Detachment on his shoulder, Dad must have felt part of the power surge carrying America into a new age, ready to apply his training.  He got his chance when he was assigned to be a radiation monitor for the next test in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll.


Dad wrote about that day, “It was an interesting mix of people in the Radiological Safety Section.  My particular team of radiation monitors consisted of a Major from the Army Field Artillery, myself, and two others.  The Major was appointed senior monitor.”  This appointment, Dad told us, was based on rank and not expertise.  The Baker explosion (click to see photos and video) was detonated underwater in the Bikini lagoon at 8:35 on the morning of July 25, 1946.  Two hours later, my dad and his team entered the lagoon in their small landing craft, accompanied by a gunboat.  They had a Geiger counter and an ion chamber for measuring radiation.

The team headed for the middle of the lagoon, keeping their eyes on the Geiger counter.  Dad noticed, “As we got closer to the target center the readings went up.  Then rather suddenly they dropped to almost nothing.  I told the Major I thought we might be in heavy radiation.  He looked at the dial on the counter and said that I must be mistaken since the needle was at zero.  As we headed closer to target center, I decided that this was not the time to explain how Geiger counters work, ignored the Major, and went to the cabinet in the rear and got out the ion chamber.”

Radiation levels were actually beyond the capacity of the Geiger counter to measure.  When Dad got the ion chamber set up, its needle climbed and kept on climbing.  The Major saw they were in radioactivity ten times above the recommended limit and ordered the landing craft and gunboat to get out of there.

“We headed back to the entrance of the lagoon as fast as we could go,” Dad wrote.  Their boat, it was found later, was so contaminated from radioactive fallout it could not be used again.

My father, in his youth, was optimistic about the possibilities of the Atomic Age.  As he grew older and worked for peace and environmental causes, he would have agreed with Enrico Fermi who said that scientific advances have certainly “led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. […] What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.”

We now know the horrifying consequences of nuclear warfare and can, with maturity, wisdom and united effort, prevent its use in the future.  May we make good use of the knowledge and powers we’ve acquired and work together for a healthy, beautiful world. 

news of Dad at Bikini Atoll

News of Dad at Bikini Atoll