The Future of the Pacific Fisher: On Our Watch

Pacific fisher artwork by Megan Connelly

Pacific fisher artwork by Megan Connelly

By Shauna Potocky

January 5, 2015 will be a pivotal day in the future of the Pacific fisher along the West Coast of the United States. An extraordinary predator of the mixed conifer forest, the Pacific fisher was once abundant throughout the forested areas of the United States and Canada. Fisher populations rapidly declined due to hunting and timber extraction in the mid 1800 through the early 1900s. Today, the fisher is affected by development, timber extraction, fires, toxins and forest fragmentation—but the fisher’s story does not end here. In fact, there is a chance to write an entirely new chapter for the West Coast populations of fisher, focused on its future.

Previous attempts to protect the Pacific fisher under the Endangered Species Act have not resulted in it being listed, but soon that track record may change. Increased pressures on the West Coast population of fishers, along with consistent monitoring of the population by a wide range of professionals and stakeholders, have culminated in what may be an important review and opportunity to list the fisher as threatened via the Endangered Species Act. This may afford a new level of protection and suite of management strategies to help preserve the existing population and potentially assist in its eventual recovery.

USFWS Pacific South West Region photo via Creative Commons

USFWS Pacific South West Region photo via Creative Commons

The natural history of the fisher has made it uniquely susceptible to various human pressures. A member of the weasel family, also known as mustelids, the fisher is essentially the middle cousin between the smaller American martin and the larger wolverine. Yet, what might help one understand the appeal of the fisher, is that it is also related to the sea otter—and shares many characteristics of its remarkable fur. This fur is what made the fisher a valuable commodity during the settlement of the United States and the fur trapping and trade of the time. That, along with its dependence on forested areas as habitat, put it in direct competition with a young country looking to extract lumber and build its future infrastructure.

The result was that the fisher declined in many areas of the United States and went extinct along parts of its range on the East Coast. Reintroductions have helped to bring the fisher back to its historic range. Yet, today, there is a population of fishers still eking out a living on the West Coast—primarily in Washington, Oregon and California. Perhaps the most remarkable of these populations is the geographically isolated population of fisher in the Southern Sierra Nevada of California. Here, a small population of just several hundred individuals is hanging on—though, they are facing big odds. That said, there are many people working to explore the issues, find solutions and potentially turn the odds in the fisher’s favor.

Research groups are working to better understand the needs and critical habitat of the fisher, this work enables them to collaborate with and inform communities, businesses, agencies and other research groups on adaptive management strategies that can best support the fisher in its remaining habitat. Essentially, this work can help in effectively preserving or restoring habitat and potentially bridge or solve the fragmentation gap—thus reuniting the fisher within its historic range.

The Pacific fisher preys on small mammals such as mice, squirrels and is famously known for predating porcupines. It is generally found in close proximity to a water source and prefers a closed canopy forest. Perhaps most importantly, is its dependence on medium to large trees as an essential part of its habitat. Specifically, the female fisher utilizes cavities in trees as dens for resting, giving birth and raising her young, known as kits. Smaller trees generally do not provide den space—thus, the fisher is associated with forests that have larger diameter trees.

Photo courtesy of Mark Jordon

Photo courtesy of Mark Jordon

The fisher is well adapted for climbing trees; it has large paws that feature impressive claws, which aid in climbing. The fisher is also a skilled predator—it may look remarkably cute, but don’t be fooled, it is an effective hunter. Unfortunately, as an ironic twist of predator fate, the fisher has become the center piece of an emerging issue in forests and public lands, especially in California.

Illegal marijuana farms are permeating public lands throughout areas of the Southern Sierra Nevada. In these areas national forests, national parks and other remote forested landscapes have fallen prey to marijuana growers who have no regard for public lands, the forest, water resources and the wildlife that reside there.

Entire areas of forest may be cut or thinned in order to cultivate marijuana. Water is plumbed from streams and there is no remorse for killing wildlife—either for illegal hunting or to protect the marijuana crop itself. This second motivation has resulted in heavy poisons being used in forest landscapes in order to kill mice, squirrels and other animals that may jeopardize the crop. These poisons, known as rodenticides, bioaccumulate in the food web, and the fisher has emerged as a major victim.

In a population that is already facing great pressures from land use, resource extraction, vehicle collisions, an increased threat of fire, as well as geographic isolation—there is now an option to do something for the Pacific fisher.

January 5, 2015 is a fast approaching deadline. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is providing the public with an opportunity to weigh in on whether the Pacific fisher should be protected via the Endangered Species Act. Whatever your opinion, don’t sit silent—we are being given the opportunity to speak up and the future of the fisher is on us. Its fate will be determined on our watch.


Being Human, Being Caribou and Being Wild

Calving Grounds

The Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson. Therefore, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of a law which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Act further defined wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” One of our authors, Shauna Potocky wrote about the history of The Wilderness Act recently, Celebrating Wilderness: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

During the winter holiday season, my attention is drawn to a beast that receives considerable protection under The Wilderness Act in some, but not all, of its range. Reindeer, caribou, or Rangifer tarandus….by any of these names is still the same magical, hearty and wondrously unique species of cervid. It is the type of animal whose existence gratifies the primal and more complicated regions of my brain as only pack animals and other beasts of burden do. The wild of this species inhabit the last undeveloped frontiers of this small planet and serve as an important food source for many tribal communities, while the domesticated of this species are vital pack animals. If you view this as I do, you realize the delicately intertwined relationship between humans and caribou can help to insure the survival of both.

Domesticated caribou are known as reindeer. Caribou are well designed for Arctic conditions with a double-layered coat and large, concave hooves that function as snowshoes because they spread widely to provide support in tundra and also serve as paddles while swimming.  They are the only deer species in which both the male (bull) and female (cow) grow antlers, though the bulls possess much larger, massive, antlers than females.  Cows shed their antlers later in the season than bulls, in theory so they still have them for protecting calves.  Only cows still have antlers as late as December. (So all of Santa’s reindeer are probably cows.)

Line of Caribou bulls swimming. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Line of Caribou swimming.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

The world population of caribou is five million, and approximately 950,000 wild caribou live in Alaska.  Caribou range includes North America, Greenland and Northern Europe to Northern Asia in habitats including the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest.  The Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is distributed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon and the Northwest territories of Alaska, has a range largely protected under The Wilderness Act.

Many other animals are protected as well. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost destination of millions of birds from more than 130 species and comprises the most important onshore denning habitat for the entire Beaufort Sea polar bear population.  Musk oxen, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls gather on the coastal plain to hunt and den every year.

In 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which doubled the size of the Arctic Range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The entire refuge was designated as wilderness with one key exception: Section 1002 of the Act, a last minute compromise to ensure the bill passed, outlined additional research that would be needed before Congress could designate the area as wilderness. The “1002 lands” as this 1.5 million acre parcel is known, formed the most important part of the herd’s habitat and the core of their calving grounds, but were also suspected of harboring vast reserves of oil. In 1984, the Canadian government, in cooperation with the Inuvialuit people, protected their portion of the caribou calving grounds by establishing Ivvavik National Park adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Vuntut National Park, also in the Yukon, was created a few years later in co-operation with the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, thereby protecting vital spring, summer and fall habitat for the herd on the Canadian side.

In April 2003, two adventurers followed the Porcupine Caribou migration. They traveled on foot with the 123,000-member herd from wintering to calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and back again, traveling for a total of five months. When they completed the journey, they shared their story and findings with everyone who would listen in Washington D.C.  Their story is remarkable, but not nearly as remarkable as that of the Porcupine Caribou herd. Their documentary is available to watch online and I have embedded it below. After you watch it, I think you will agree that the calving grounds deserve designation as a wild place, now and forever, and should always be protected from oil drilling.

Hope? or another version of Maggie’s Farm?

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
Everybody says
She’s the brains behind pa
She’s sixty-eight, but she says she’s twenty-four
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more

Read more:

By Neva Knott

I founded this blog because I was frustrated by the the doom and gloom environmental messages. Doom and Gloom is even a thing in the environmental world…a thing I wanted to push against, contradict. I wanted to give voice to what is working to save the natural world from human destruction. I wanted to tell stories and publish stories of other writers that might help humans reconnect to nature and inspire them (us), all of us, not just those labeled environmentalists or tree-huggers, to live within the circle of life. I founded this blog to blow a hole in the stereotype of the aggressive and angry environmentalist.

Right now, and I don’t quite know how to define right now–is it the Christmas dash-and-grab? Is it the political fray over fracking and Keystone XL and Obama’s special climate deal with China? Anyway, right now, I am losing my positive mojo.

I have absolutely had it with America’s resource-depleting greed. I have absolutely had it with the climate deniers, whom we are now depicting as suited ostriches with their heads in the sand and asses high. I have absolutely had it with the irresponsibility and lack of common sense that drives the rhetoric, that insists we can continue the getting and the having and continue to exist. I am absolutely done with people like the woman at Target a few days ago.

The county I live in, Thurston County in Washington State, instituted a plastic bag ban in July. A huge positive, built on clear vision and common sense. It passed easily and quickly became habit for the masses (after the first month’s grumbling). This legislation is an example of how easily prudent change can happen, and stands in sharp contrast to the posturing and idiotic mumbo-jumbo going on about climate change and fracking and the need for “fast” consumer goods.

Anyway, this woman had a cart full of over-packaged plastic crap, what’s now called “fast” goods. Christmas gifts. She was demanding something-something because the store didn’t have the exact Frozen piece of crap she wanted. Then she began berating the cashier because Target “should bring back those big plastic bags, at least for the holidays.”

Her cart and her words are the symbol of all that is wrong. Until people stop holding onto that cart as reality, as an option, as a right, we are doomed.

That cart is filled through repetition of an unsustainable, poisoning circle. Each one of those plastic crap toys is made from toxic materials and by a process that pollutes the air and water and poisons the worker making it. Each piece is wrapped in petro-chemical based plastic that will not biodegrade for hundreds of years, if at all. Each pretty little Frozen doll was shipped from China. All of the energy it took to make plastic Elsa or plastic whomever is called embedded energy–the energy that goes into sourcing and manufacturing and transporting the finished good. Not only do products like these have a high embedded energy (which is bad), they very quickly go into the waste stream. So this circle is not the circle of life; it is the circle of needless resource depletion and waste, the circle that is poisoning our world. And for what?

Producing and consuming plastic crap is the modern-day job on Maggie’s Farm. The workers never get ahead, Maggie–or Elsa–is pretty and alluring, Pa is the fat-cat profiteer climate ostrich, and Ma, well, Ma is the voice of American consumerism, telling us all that our children deserve cheap plastic crap for Christmas.

So, where’s the positive story of the environment in all of this? There isn’t one on Maggie’s Farm.

But there is the beach on which I spent Black Friday, watching my two cousins marvel over whale bones we found buried in the sand.


There is Eld Inlet full of Mallard ducks this past foggy Sunday morning. There is the eagle I watched fly over a tree farm last Saturday.


One recent morning, while walking my dogs, I looked up and watched a gull fly.  The air was warm for December and a bit damp. It was quiet and peaceful, and I watched the gull, circling, within the patterns of the world around him, and I thought, that’s how we should be living. That is the circle of life.

Hope? Still not feeling it, but that gull is far from Maggie’s Farm.

Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Most people think of sea turtles as exotic creatures you encounter while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.

An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s ridleys, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

Owl Be Home for Christmas

Text and Photos by Maymie Higgins

Sundays are usually the only day I can afford the indulgence of sleeping until awaking naturally, instead of to the incessant beeping of a rude and shrill alarm clock. However, on a recent Sunday I was abruptly roused from a deep sleep at 8 A.M. by the sound of the doorbell ringing, which was quickly followed by the frantic barking of all four of my dogs. I am not a morning person. I have never been a morning person. I will never be a morning person. Thankfully, my husband is. Although he was also asleep when the doorbell rang, he managed to run interference while I remained snug under the covers. But it was not to last.

My husband answered the door and a conversation began. Though I could not make out the words, I did recognize the voice of my neighbor. Both of their voices faded and I thought, “Paul probably just needs Darren’s help with something.” I pulled the covers in closer and closed my eyes with impunity. But only a moment later I heard my husband coming down the hall. As he entered our bedroom, he began to explain how I was needed next door because an owl is caught in Paul’s badminton net. Animals are probably the only exception to my non-morning person policy. I was on the mission within two minutes.

It was not surprising the species entwined in the net was a Barred Owl. Almost nightly we hear the classic vocalization of these large, stocky owls with round heads, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you”? After explaining that the badminton net could not be saved and that oven mitts are insufficient protection from raptor talons, I threw a towel over the owl. The fellows pulled the net post up and we lowered everything to the ground. The net was then cut on both sides of the owl and I placed him, still bundled in the towel, into a pet carrier. I had the thought that I may be able to cut the netting away and that his or her wings appeared to be without injury but I wanted to make sure.


So off we went to the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at the North Carolina Zoological Park. The owl spent a week in the center, where the netting was cut away and he or she was thoroughly examined by a veterinarian twice, who then cleared the owl for discharge the following Saturday. Ideally, the next part of the journey for the owl would be a release at the same spot in which it was rescued, with no difficulties. There were difficulties.

The owl had been secured for pick up in a cardboard box, which we were to simply cut away tape at the opening, open the box and the owl pop right out. But on the journey home, and in spite of our complete silence for the 50 minute ride, the owl was very active. With all the rustling within the box, the scene in the movie Tommy Boy  where the deer comes back to life came to mind. We kept looking back to see if the owl had escaped his box, half way expecting it to be perched on the backseat of my SUV, clicking its beak at us.

Fortunately, the owl did not escape from the box but it had somehow gotten the end of one of its primary flight feathers stuck in duct tape on the inside of the box. Here is where it is important to remind readers that wild animals are easily stressed by the sight, sound, smell and touch of humans. If you are attempting rescue of a wild animal, be quiet and avoid looking directly at their face as much as possible. Having an owl taped to the inside of a cardboard box made both of those tasks impossible. There was profanity. There was staring. I had to figure out what to do.

Fortunately, my college ornithology class and comparatively limited experience with birds served me well…..and, more importantly, served owl well. I sliced away the very tip of the feather from the tape and then gently ejected the bird from the box. Not surprisingly, the owl just sat there for about five minutes, probably due to the stress of all this hullabaloo. Heck, I wanted to just plop down a minute too! But then the most glorious thing happened. Owl flew into our neighbor’s Magnolia tree, hopped up several branches, looking down on us with the proper level of disdain. He then flew over to our pine trees before taking a long, beautiful flight up the street.


Many birds moult, which means drop old feathers and grow new ones in their place. This involved only the very tip of only one feather and therefore did not impair flight at all. Eventually, the entire feather will be replaced and it will be as if this did not happen.

My understanding is that those few days owl was in the wildlife rehab center were likely not enough time for his or her mate to have abandoned their union. Since the release, I have heard again “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” which now sounds more like a happy couple than just a couple of birds to me.

If you would like to know more about Barred Owls, check out the information at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Also, check out the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where native North Carolina wildlife is given the best chance of returning to the wild.

Moments before taking flight.

Moments before taking flight.

A Place to Live, a Place to Die: Forging Deep Connections to the Land

The Starfield, a pasture in Trail Wood, the abandoned farm where naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale spent the last 21 years of his life.  His ashes were spread in the Starfield after his death in 1980.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2013.

The Starfield, a pasture in Trail Wood, the abandoned farm where naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Teale’s ashes were scattered in The Starfield after his death in 1980. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2013.

By: Richard Telford

The quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman, in the 1892 “Deathbed Edition” final revision of his opus 52-section “Song of Myself,” writes the following couplet in the poem’s final section:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

American poet Walt Whitman in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady, circa 1860-1865.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

American poet Walt Whitman in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady, circa 1860-1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was section 52 of Whitman’s resonant and deeply moving poem that I selected as one of two readings for my father’s funeral more than a decade ago.  In the poem as a whole, Whitman conveys a striking duality—he extols both our individual significance and insignificance.  Whitman opens the poem with his famous declaration, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume […],” but he immediately acknowledges thereafter that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  He ultimately articulates both the connectedness and the democracy of “Nature without check with original energy.”  In the end, Whitman argues, we are deeply connected to the land and to each other, whether or not we fully realize it; we are all “coaxe[d]” to “the vapor and the dusk” and ultimately “depart as air.”  And in this democracy of our return to earth—natural earth, atomic earth, final earth—there is, I believe, likewise a democracy of potential deep connection to the natural world, not just in the profound self-realization of facing our own deaths but in life, minute-by-minute life, from cradle to grave.  That sense of connection often lies latent, largely untapped, obscured by a parade of distractions—a truth not just for our era but all eras, though each manifests it in new ways as well as old—but that potential remains.  What is latent can be made vibrant, what is untapped can be tapped, what lies hidden can be made to rise—by our own conscious actions and by fostering such actions in others.  Whitman and so many others who have articulated a deep connection to the land offer us hope.  So too does the natural curiosity of childhood, an in-born impulse to explore which is often whittled away by the societal structures we impose upon it but need not be.  In a time when we face what Richard Leaky, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed The Sixth Extinction, the unprecedented anthropogenically-driven loss of biodiversity, the fostering of that impulse to explore, both in our children and in ourselves, is essential.

The author's two-year-old son romping under a sprinkler during the dog days of summer.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The author’s two-year-old son romping under a sprinkler during the dog days of summer. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

During the last two decades, place-based education—championed by Laurie Lane-Zucker, John Elder, David Sobel, and many others—has risen to the forefront of the effort to foster conservation-mindedness and overall wellbeing in the general public, especially children. As Mary Rivkin has written in The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside (1995), “For the long-term conservation of the world, it seems reasonable that children need a strong base of firsthand knowledge.”  It is the absence of such firsthand knowledge that has rightfully sounded alarms over the future of the conservation movement and of the natural world at all scales. The effects of this experiential gap have most famously, and in some circles controversially, been characterized by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (revised edition 2008) as Nature-Deficit Disorder.  The picture painted by Louv in his many writings, by David Sobel in Beyond Ecophobia and elsewhere, and by many others, is a dire one, as it should be, but I draw hope from the literary record, from the naturalist writers who achieved in life the deepest connections to the land, leaving for subsequent generations an instructive record of those connections.  If many of these writers have themselves faded from the public consciousness, it is, I think, simply one more reflection of the societal shift away from the natural world in deference to one marked by consumption, by largely vacuous electronic communication, by hollowness and unsustainability.  As we consciously work to foster and to forge the latent, ready, critical connection between children and the natural world, naturalist writers can provide us a model, a guide by which we may foster and forge those connections first within ourselves.  How can we otherwise give to future generations what is largely absent in us?

When naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale moved in 1959 to Trail Wood, the 130-acre home and sanctuary where he would spend the remaining twenty-one years of his life, he noted in a newly started journal, “We are more fortunate than Moses—we saw our Promised Land and entered it as well […]; our search was wide but in the end we found our Eden” (September 18, 1959).  Ten days later, in a subsequent entry, he notes:  “Here is place to live in and a place to die in, too.”  Despite having just arrived to the place that he would later document in two books, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) and A Walk Through the Year (1978), Teale had the vision to see the fulfillment, the sloughing off of the unimportant, that could be had in such a place.  We spend our lives seeking our own Edens, and the short-term targets of that search are often the illusory shadows of success as we are led to see it: material goods, social media adulation, the outward shows of status in all its forms.  What Teale and Whitman, Louv and Sobel, and many others knew and know is that it is through the permanence of the natural world, no matter how we alter it, that we can reconcile our own impermanence.  What better motive can we have for valuing, embracing, and ultimately conserving the natural world?  What better example can we offer to future generations?

In the early spring of 1921, naturalist writer John Burroughs was gravely ill, and he embarked upon a cross-country train trip in hopes of dying amidst his beloved Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.  He died en route, and a March 30 New York Times story reported that passengers aboard the train wept openly as the nationally beloved Burroughs was taken from the train.  Edwin Way Teale, dying of cancer in 1980, produced several rough sketches of a headstone to ostensibly mark his and Nellie Teale’s resting place, and to commemorate their only child, David, who was declared dead one year after going missing in action during heavy fighting along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945.  The following statement appears in penciled script along the top edge of one of Teale’s headstone sketches: “Ashes scattered over The Starfield at Trail Wood.”  Like Whitman, Teale wished to bequeath himself to the land he loved.  For both Burroughs and Teale, their deep connections to the land guided their lives to the end. Their final acts culminated lives deeply connected to the natural world and to the respective places that had profoundly shaped those connections. Such deep connections can be found in the work of living writers, as well;  consider Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Robert Michael Pyle’s The Thunder Tree or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Walt Whitman opens section 6 of “Song of Myself” with the following couplet:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;                                                          How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is any more than he.

In these lines, Whitman captures the natural, exploratory curiosity of childhood.  He likewise articulates well how comparatively small our understanding of the natural world truly is, rendering us, if we are honest with ourselves, always explorers.  In that sense, perhaps the sum of what we don’t know can drive us to keep the good impulses of childhood that we often shed too readily.  It is these impulses that allow us to make deep connections to the land, both in living life and leaving it.

Zawadisha: Creating Change, Inspiring Action in Kenya


By Shauna Potocky

What if one of the best solutions to social and environmental change came in the form of empowerment? What if that empowerment was gifted to the most disenfranchised members of society? What if, in their empowerment, family units, communities and whole economies began to change? What if with that change, came the benefits of education, stable family economics, clean water, clean air, and entrepreneurial businesses operated from the heart while also based on sustainability? In such a paradigm, how might lives, economies, and ecosystems change?

The answers to such an empowerment paradigm are known and the non-profit organization, Zawadisha knows first-hand how profound the changes can be.

Zawadisha, (which meaning “to give a gift”), is focused on empowering women in Kenya with the means, training, mentorship and supportive structure needed to not just lift themselves up but to thrive as an emerging economic force in their home communities. Through an innovative and well informed micro-lending program, designed to set its members up for success, the program also requires the women it engages to create sustainable businesses. In doing so, it transforms women from not only being the backbone of their family structure but also empowering them with the tools needed to become an active part of the local economy. As women emerge into this new role, it shifts and shapes the economic and environmental stability of their community.

Group Meeting Zawadisha 2

Group leaders participating in a leadership development workshop held in 2014. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

In particular, by employing a culturally relevant and safe micro-lending program, Zawadisha has honed in on a successful focus, one that Jennifer Gurecki, the Chief Innovation Officer describes as, “pro-poor, pro-women and pro-environment.”

Specifically, Zawadisha leverages several critical factors into its successful program model; the first is that it fully engages the participants it serves by completely integrating them into the management of the program. Participants are engaged as members and actively participate in the fiscal and business management of the micro-lending program. This active participation and engagement translates into a partnership that members feel passionate about, resulting in a high degree of personal investment in the program outcomes. This empowerment results in an impressive success rate in the repayment of loans while supporting the much needed disbursement of products and services into communities with significant need.

Zawadisha meeting

Zawadisha’s Opportunity and Empowerment Director, Cindy Mayanka, facilitating a workshop with the Neema Women’s Group. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

There are two other elements that make Zawadisha’s program outstanding. Once the loans are dispersed and the members are engaged by a peer chair-lady, who organizes monthly meetings, the members also benefit through access to both leadership and business training opportunities. These opportunities further advance the women’s potential for success, ensuring that beyond financial investment in their business, they also have the additional tools needed to be successful in their endeavor.

Solar Light and Bright Smile Zawadisha

A solar lighting system and an opportunity for a brighter future. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

In addition, Zawadisha is taking a clear environmental approach to empowering its members. Current members are being “grandfathered” into a new vision, one that will offer training on sustainable business practices. The vision for future members, is that as requirement for obtaining a micro-loan, the women entrepreneurs must demonstrate that they are developing an environmentally sustainable business. It is clear that in communities where businesses are grown based on environmental degradation—future problems arise. Although there may be a short-term economic gain for the community—in the long-term, jeopardizing water, soil or air resources are not a good investment—for anyone. In recognition of this, Zawadisha will only invest in projects that build on sustainable practices or services—most of which are related to solar power lights, rain water catchment tanks and soon-to-be launched, eco-stoves for cooking, which will reduce dependence on coal.

How transformational can solar lighting, a rain water catchment tank or eco-stove be in a women’s life? Subsequently, what can the effects be on her community? Consider these remarkable examples that come directly from the women served in the environmentally impacted community of Maungu, located five hours south of Nairobi. Of note, Maungu is a community situated in a landscape that has suffered from desertification. The women of the community report that, “thirty years ago the area was covered in trees.” Today, the trees have been removed and the landscape suffers from a lack of water and is characterized by dry red dirt and low-lying shrubs. In such a scenario, here is how transformative an investment in what the women say they need, can be.

Maungu landscape Zawadisha

Maungu landscape and the future site of the Neema Women’s Group native tree nursery. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

When a woman receives a loan for a solar light, she directly changes two key aspects within her home—she eliminates the greatest health risk to people within their living quarters related to the use of paraffin burning lamps, which is known for its toxicity. Paraffin is directly related to elevated respiratory issues and significantly impacts the young and the elderly. Beyond elimination of this health hazard, she increases the productivity hours within the home, allowing her to focus her efforts on beneficial aspects of household management and significantly shift household expenses. Paraffin is costly to the household and can be offset by the use of solar lighting. One solar light loan is equal to the cost of a one month supply of paraffin, thus, the solar light can pay for itself within one month of use.

In addition, an unexpected benefit of the new household investment has emerged. Women who have received the lamps have indicated that they have been treated with more respect and support from family members as a result of their contribution to the household.

Rain water catchment tank Zawadisha

A rain water catchment tank can provide increased food security and help transform the landscape. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

For a woman who has received a rainwater catchment tank; her daily life is significantly changed—she no longer is required to spend six hours each day, walking to obtain water. This allows her to focus her daily efforts on activities that can continue to transform her living situation. In addition, with water catchment located at home, many women have started kitchen gardens that are able to supply food to the household and provide food for market, which translates directly into increased food security. These women have also indicated that they too have benefited by increased respect and support for their efforts in transforming and significantly contributing to their households.

JG and Group Zawadisha

Pictured here: Jennifer Gurecki, Chief Innovation Officer and group leaders; together they distribute or manage micro-loans on a financial scale that for $100, can provide a loan for either one rain water catchment tank, four solar lights, or new in 2015, four eco-stoves. Photo Courtesy of Zawadisha.

New for 2015, Zawadisha is excited to begin providing loans for eco-stoves. These stoves will provide a positive alternative to high coal consuming stoves, which have significant impacts on people and the environment. One significant difference in the roll out of the stove program as compared to other microfinance institutions (MFI) is that Zawadisha spent a significant amount of time listening to the women of the community to find out what the women needed and what type of stove will truly work for them. This is critically important because it has been observed that some MFI’s have provided products to communities without investigating the needs of the people and the products to be provided, in order to assure a beneficial match to the end user. This has translated into products being delivered into communities that subsequently were not utilized, as it did not meet the need of the people they were meant to serve. Zawadisha has been very mindful of this and has diligently inquired into the true need of the people regarding cooking alternatives. As a result of the investment in knowing what the women will truly benefit from, the new stove loans will become available to Zawadisha members in 2015.

Garden Zawadisha

An example of landscape transformation, this garden was the result of a rain water catchment tank. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

The coming year also offers another exciting development. Zawadisha will also assist the women of Maungu in establishing a native tree nursery. This nursery will supply seedling trees to the restoration market that is generated by local national parks and through the nongovernmental organization, Wildlife Works.

The women of Maungu represent many of the women of Africa, they are strong, family-minded, and community building. They are not defined by the demographic statistics reported to us and throughout the world. They are the smiling faces, the jovial laughs, the cultural shepherds and entrepreneurial spirit of their communities. They are also the game changers—when provided with the opportunity to empower themselves, without jeopardizing everything in unsafe loans; when they are given a truly supportive opportunity to change the economic expenses of their household, shift the environmental impacts of traditional supply chains, what emerges is a shift in health benefits, the obtainment of food security, and positive impacts on the environment and the local ecosystem.

The women of Maungu represent a deeper hope for all of us. They prove that impacted areas of Africa can be transformed and healed through the vision of its own women. They demonstrate for the world that many of the issues facing communities today can be addressed by engaging and empowering the members of society who may frequently be overlooked—a lesson we can all learn from.