Planting Trees is a TREAT

treeplantingPlanting trees with TREAT in 2014

By Jenna Gersie

Five years ago, I visited the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland to learn about the rainforest through the School for International Training’s semester abroad in Australia. Our professor asked us if we would prefer to spend our last day in the rainforest hiking or planting trees. Amongst the fourteen students in my group, the decision to plant trees was unanimous. We headed to a property where a planting site had been prepared in the red, muddy soil, with native rainforest tree seedlings laid out next to holes dug in the earth. We moved down the rows, putting the baby trees in the soil and packing the dirt tightly around their thin trunks. We had joined another group of students from the School for Field Studies, as well as many community members who volunteer with TREAT, or Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands.

I didn’t know much about TREAT when I planted with them in 2009, other than that it was a fun day, kneeling in the red mud and putting trees into the ground. The chance to plant trees was especially meaningful after spending the previous ten days learning about rainforest composition, disturbance, reforestation, and wildlife. While I was proud of my small contribution on that day, I certainly did not imagine that I would return to the Atherton Tablelands in 2013 as a staff member for the School for Field Studies, the other group we had met at the planting, and make volunteering with TREAT a weekly occurrence.

Early upon my return to Australia, I visited the Lake Eacham nursery, operated under a partnership between TREAT and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), to bring my group of School for Field Studies students to volunteer. When I introduced myself at morning tea (also known as smoko) and told the other volunteers that I had planted trees with TREAT in 2009, their faces lit up with pride. Their smiles at that moment were something I would encounter again and again, on Friday visits to the nursery and on Saturday morning tree plantings throughout the Tablelands. If the chance to put trees in the ground and the tasty post-planting barbeques weren’t enough to keep calling me back to TREAT, the friendliness I encountered within that community undoubtedly was.

TREAT was founded in 1982 by local community members who recognized a need to plant native rainforest trees on the Tablelands. The Tablelands were once completely covered with beautiful, native rainforest, but when land was opened to settlers in the late 1800s, there was a requirement to clear and cultivate the land as a condition of occupancy. Much of the rainforest turned to farmland, and giant rainforest trees were felled at a rapid rate. In the early 1980s, protest movements to protect the remaining rainforest, such as blockading logging trucks, began. Enough passionate people got together to ensure that the remaining rainforest would be protected, and in 1988, the Wet Tropics received World Heritage Area protection. That protection, combined with a grassroots effort to reforest the Tablelands, has meant that mature rainforests are returning to the Tablelands.

Furthermore, the community effort that led to the founding of TREAT is backed by science. Community members work with QPWS and rainforest ecologists to connected isolated, fragmented habitat to larger tracts of rainforest. With landscape disturbance from cyclones and the degradation of forest fragments from weed invasion and other disturbances, it is important to connect these high-value systems of forest for the long-term health of the environment.

One example of this type of work is found at Donaghy’s Corridor near Lake Barrine. This wildlife corridor links forest at Crater Lakes National Park with Gadgarra State Forest. Plantings began in 1995, and after 18,000 trees were put into the ground along 1.5 kilometers, the corridor connected the forests in 1998. The work done to create this wildlife corridor was among the leading tropical restoration work in the world at the time. And TREAT didn’t stop there; they’ve been creating these types of forest linkages all over the Tablelands ever since.

IMG_2273Plastic guards protect these seedlings from herbivory by pademelons

One of the main reasons to create these wildlife corridors is to support the amazing floral and faunal diversity of the Wet Tropics. A starring character of this diversity is the Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo, also known as the mabi in the local Aboriginal dialect. Because of these unique and rare creatures, the rainforests in the area have come to be known as Mabi Forest, though they are more scientifically characterized as Complex Notophyll Vine Forest. Reforestation efforts in the area have also led to sightings of the Southern Cassowary, a large, flightless bird who survives on rainforest fruits.

Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo in habitat

To support Australia’s native wildlife, TREAT members turn up at the Lake Eacham nursery every Friday morning to take care of seedlings, extract seeds from rainforest fruit, pot plants, and plant seeds. During smoko, announcements are shared, QPWS gives updates on their fruit-gathering efforts, community members share their exciting wildlife sightings, and tea and cake are enjoyed by all. During the wet season, TREAT members and volunteers meet every Saturday morning on various landholders’ properties to plant hundreds to thousands of tree seedlings. Following each planting, volunteers on the cook crew provide sausages and lentil burgers for the hungry planters. I would give a great deal to again be sharing a cuppa with Tablelands community members after planting trees on a misty morning, red dirt still under my fingernails.

To learn more about TREAT, please visit their website, or watch a short documentary, Wet Tropics – Restoring Communities, here. You can also read about Donaghy’s Corridor and other projects here.

tree3Planting trees with TREAT in 2009

 

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What if every person treated trees as if they symbolized life?

By Neva Knott

Yesterday, I dug up the white pine I planted two years ago at my mom’s memorial. Then, I put it along the line between her back yard and the neighbor’s, next to a mountain hemlock. A few months later, I put in the fence, and the pine is destined to grow too large now that it’s in a confined space. So I dug up the pine and moved it into the tree line, or mini-forest, between the back yard and the school’s field below.

Let me back up for a minute here. In 2012 I lived in Portland, Oregon and my mom lived in Olympia, Washington. In a house she bought when it was built in 1982. In May of 2012, she passed away. She didn’t want a formal funeral, but wanted family and “friends who are family” to get together and remember her. So my sister and I held a small memorial for her at her house. At the time, we were planning on selling it; at the time, I had no idea it would become my current home. Particulars changed as I closed my mom’s estate, so I moved “back home” that fall. I have dogs, thus the fence.

One “friend who is family,” Jim, collects scraggly, displaced trees he finds. He’d had this little white pine in a gallon pot for a while, just waiting for it to find a home. Knowing my love of trees, and my fondness for big pines like the white and the Ponderosa, Jim told me he’d save it for me until I knew where I wanted it to be. I was staying with Jim & his wife the morning of mom’s memorial. Over coffee I said, “let’s plant our tree for mom.” During the memorial, we dug a hole, planted the then small white pine, and left it to grow as a memento of her life in that house.

Yesterday, while working gently with a shovel and then my fingers to massage the tree’s roots out of the ground so that I could transplant it, I asked myself this question: What would happen if everyone treated a tree as if it symbolized a life (thinking along the lines of this pine symbolizing my mom’s life)?

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As I worked the root system out of the ground, un-planted the pine tree, and wrapped it in a wet towel to carry down to it’s new place, I worked through the implications of my idea: 

On a global level, the planet would be in significantly less danger from climate change. Deforestation is one of the root causes of global warming. Also, trees breathe in carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas. Tree root systems control below-ground water flow by stopping erosion, filtering and absorbing water as it flows through the soil they’re planted in, thus fewer extreme floods with more trees, and fewer droughts–worsening flooding and drought is linked to climate change.

Tree leaves also filter pollution out of the air, working to keep the air clean. Not only would climate change be much less of an issue, air and water would be cleaner.

Trees are connected to food production. Obviously, some trees bear edibles–fruits, nuts, seeds. Trees feed animals and birds and bugs as well as humans. Many types of tree bark are forage for wildlife. Trees keep rivers and streams cool enough for fish species to flourish.

On the community level, urban trees keep cities cooler, and help to counteract the “heat island effect,” something that happens when air temperatures rise because of streets, sidewalks, and buildings. Trees add aesthetic and economic value to neighborhoods. The more trees left standing when spaces are developed for human use, fewer animals such as deer and coyote wander into cities, looking for habitat and food, sometimes causing conflicts with humans. Trees make our parks shady and cool on a hot summer’s day.

Each person’s life is better because of trees. The air we breathe is cleaner, as is the water we drink. Studies show that looking at greenery lowers anxiety and alleviates stress. By being surrounded by trees, humans feel more connected to all of life. Trees also provide raw material for homes and furniture and wood to burn for heat and cooking. Trees increase a home’s value and decrease heating and cooling costs.

Trees have been called the lungs of the earth. Not only are they symbiotic with humans because they give off oxygen that we breathe in, and take in carbon dioxide that we breathe out and produce/emit in various other ways, they connect to the other aspects of nature that make life on earth possible.

As I tamp down the soil around the pine’s roots in it’s new spot, I think again, what would happen if every person treated trees as if they symbolized a life?

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Surrounded by Fire

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El Portal fire in July 2014 by Kirk Keeler

There are few elements, few phenomena that can inspire long talks of life and philosophy beside a hearth, fill a home with warmth and ambiance, or suddenly take one by surprise—instilling fear or dealing a blow of heartbreak. It is most certainly true that there are few elements in the world that can do what fire can do.

In California and along the western coast of the United States, a surge in wildland fires is being observed—not just in their numbers, but also in their intensity. It is hard to imagine that after most of the United States spent the majority of its winter pinned down due to record freezing temperatures and stunning winter snowfall—that much of the west did not share in the bounty of the Polar Vortex winter, specifically, its water.

In fact, California is experiencing a record drought—with some of the hottest temperatures on record, experienced throughout the state in the last three years. And this is one part of an intricate story that actually began, “A long, long time ago…”

In California, and specifically in the Sierra Nevada, many of the forest ecosystems evolved with fire as an important aspect of their natural processes. Some species of trees, shrubs and flowers actually depend upon fire as a part of their natural history or thrive after disturbance by fire.

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Smoke from the Rim Fire in August 2013 reached the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias a significant distance away. Photo by Kirk Keeler

The natural fire cycle within the Sierra Nevada was due in most part to lightning strikes and appears to have occurred in five to ten year spans of time. This frequency of fire occurrence served several key ecological purposes. First, it prevented significant fuel build up on the forest floor—in a forest, trees drop limbs, needles, leaves, cones, and other woody debris, grasses die and this results in an accumulation of materials that can fuel a fire. Thus, this material is commonly referred to “fuel” or “fuel loads.”

Second, with frequent fire and reduced fuel loads within the forests, when fires did occur the fire intensity was lessened, meaning it did not burn as hot or with as much severity as we experience today. The terms “intensity” and “severity” are key when discussing fire behavior. These terms help fire officials and land managers understand the implications of a fire on a particular landscape.

Another benefit of fire on the landscape is the recycling or release of nutrients back into the ecosystem. Often forest duff or debris is rich in carbon, nitrogen or other elements that are locked up and unusable until the material decomposes and can be reused through natural processes either in soil, through living organisms, in the air or taken up by animals. When a low intensity fire moves through a landscape it can release these nutrients, making them available to be taken back up into the ecosystem.

Thus, fire is a healthy and natural part of forest ecology in the Sierra Nevada but, you may be asking yourself, “What happened? That doesn’t sound like the fires I see today.”

That’s a great question.

When Euro-Americans settled in the American west, they brought a cultural perspective with them that changed the landscape we live in today. The perspective at the time and which can sometimes still be observed today, is that fire is—take your pick—“bad,” “destructive,” “dangerous,” and the list goes on.

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El Portal fire at sunset. Photo by Shauna Potocky

This perspective is very one-sided, human-sided, yet, it is understandable how and why people felt this way. One example to consider is how many times the City of San Francisco burned down prior to having a dedicated and established water resource. There are countless examples of fire being seen as thoroughly destructive.

The result of this cultural norm is that as people settled in forested areas of California, when fire did occur, it was suppressed—put out. This single act, of suppressing fires for decades, turned into accumulations of generations of trees and shrubs and subsequently shifted the fire regime in these ecosystems. Today, many of the forests in the Sierra Nevada are overgrown. The trees are crowded and densely packed and have significant fuel loads residing beneath them.

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Rim Fire at night with stars. Photo by Kirk Keeler

Last summer, the Rim Fire jarred everyone to attention. From private citizens, land owners, public lands managers, fire professionals, ecologists, wildlife biologists, restoration experts, researchers, politicians and many, many more. On August 17, 2013 the Rim Fire began in the Stanislaus National Forest. This fire grew to become the third largest in California history and involved 257,314 acres. The fire was so massive its plumes could be seen in the Central Valley communities of Fresno and Merced. It burned with various levels of intensity and severity, resulting in various impacts on the landscape and subsequently the viability of the soil.

The fire also generated its own weather, creating pyro-cumulus clouds. It was nothing short of stunning.

French Fire Pyro-cumulus cloud as observed during July 2014.

French Fire pyro-cumulus cloud beginning to form during July 2014. Photo by Shauna Potocky

The Rim Fire burned into October 2013. Upon reaching areas of the forest where active fire management strategies had been put in place, such as management fires to reduce fuel loads or areas where forests have been thinned, the fire was slowed and burned with less intensity. Thus, demonstrating the value of proactive fire management strategies.

Fast forward to today. California is another year into its significant drought—perhaps the most severe in California’s recorded history. Communities are struggling to manage water resources, reservoirs are shockingly low, and California’s forests are drier than they were last year—it seems we are in a remarkably challenging place.

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San Luis Reservoir at Pacheco Pass, California. Note the “bathtub ring” which indicates previous water levels. Photo by Shauna Potocky

And where there is a significant challenge, there is also a significant opportunity.

In one small community, situated on the edge of the Sierra National Forest and between the recent El Portal (4,689 acres) and French Fire (13,835 acres), something remarkable happened. These neighbors came together and utilized this intense fire season as an opportunity to do a few empowering things.

First, they got together to build a community of support, to ask and answer questions. They learned first-hand about where they live, the natural fire ecology of the landscape they live in, and the current fire regime shift. They learned how to minimize their fire hazards, how to live more in alignment with the native ecosystem and how to conserve water in order to use it where it is really needed. They also went further.

These citizens empowered themselves—by embracing each other as a neighborhood, as a team. So, instead of living in fear, they can be mindful of how to live in the landscape as well as be prepared. The community created a communication strategy to share information and look out for each other. They have meetings featuring experts in their field who have knowledge of the neighborhood landscape and can provide real input on what people need to know. They are seeking out opportunities to create their own Fire Safe Council and most importantly, they also help each other. When one neighbor needs a hand with fire clearance or hauling, they get to work helping each other.

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Current status of fire hazard is posted daily. Photo by Shauna Potocky

As many communities in California sit surrounded by fire, holding their breath as the last weeks of the California fire season eek by, there are things that can be done—it is an opportunity for citizens to learn and engage in the important aspects of fire ecology, to understand the historic role of fire on the landscape and the factors that have created the dynamics we see today, as well as understand important elements of fire behavior. It is also a time to empower people to come together to learn about their local ecosystems, deepen their sense of place by learning how to live in those ecosystems, as well as seek and support management strategies that will reduce fuel loads and return fire to the ecosystem—such as through prescribed or management fire.

In the long term, management strategies that help restore balance to forests ecosystems and embrace our understanding of fire ecology will also protect natural and cultural resources, wildlife, people and property. Ultimately, it will take every single one of us doing our part to help empower shifts in our historic ways of thinking.

Who knew fire could be so inspiring?

Resources:

CalFire: Wildfire is Coming Guide

CalFire: Fire Safe Council

Incident Information System (InciWeb): Current incidents

Every Path Leads Homeward

By Jenna Gersie

In August 2013, I spent about a week at home in northwest New Jersey, preparing for my ten-month stay in Far North Queensland, Australia. In between packing a year’s worth of my life into two suitcases, saying goodbye to friends and family, and taking care of the necessary doctor appointments and financial arrangements, I had some time to part with the oak and hemlock forests that I love, the Turkey Vultures soaring on broad wings above, and the beautiful late summer light that makes Sussex County so special to me.

In recent years, as I’ve begun to study my home place from an academic standpoint, I have grown more attached to my rural region of New Jersey, one of the places that give the state the nickname “The Garden State.” The more time I spend away from the place I grew up, the more it feels like “home” to me.

But I was off on a journey; I was returning to a place I had lived for a short while nearly five years before. In 2009, I studied abroad in Cairns, Australia, and connected with the rainforests and coral reefs of that region. In 2013, when my final flight from Sydney to Cairns approached land, my heart sang as I saw the rainforest-covered mountains that lined the coast. I felt like I was coming home.

Australia began to feel more and more like home to me as I got to know the community—human and non-human—of the Atherton Tablelands, about an hour’s drive from Cairns. I planted hundreds and hundreds of rainforest tree seedlings with TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands). I was welcomed to country by Aboriginal community members both on the Tablelands and down on the coast. I became friends with the locals, learned to identify the birds, and grew accustomed to the relentless terrestrial leeches.

IMG_0164The Atherton Tablelands

And while I was in Australia, I began to explore the meaning of “home” through the novels of Hermann Hesse. I had discovered that many of Hesse’s characters left the places where they had grown up to embark on journeys of self-discovery, only to later return to their homes or other places with which they had connected along the way. There I was, having returned to a place that I had explored five years before, and examining the actions of these characters and their own connections to nature and place.

For many of Hesse’s characters, a sense of homesickness pervades their feelings as they travel away from their homelands. Peter Camenzind misses the lake and mountains of his native place; Goldmund thinks often of the old chestnut tree and cloister walls of the place he spent the second half of his childhood; Knulp imagines the gardens of his father’s house; Siddhartha returns again and again to the river of his childhood; and Hans Giebenrath daydreams of fishing by the riverside in his hometown. For me, the Black Kites had replaced the Turkey Vultures, the oaks and hemlocks were substituted by Atherton oaks and Bunya pines, and the sunset in the west shone in different colors from my rainforest porch. I thought often of home.

I also thought of the idea of “reinhabiting”—both of returning to a place one has connected with, and of getting to know that place inside and out: its streams, trees, animals, people, seasons. In LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice, Robert L. Thayer writes, “People who care about a place are more likely to take better care of it. And people who take care of places, one place at a time, are the key to the future of humanity and all living creatures.” By getting to know one’s life-place, one begins to care more about it, and therefore take better care of it. I knew the bleeding heart tree seedlings that I planted in Australian soil and the Pale Yellow Robins that fluttered through the trees on my way to work. I cared about them.

But now I am in the process of reinhabiting. I have left one home behind for another. Hesse wrote, “A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward…” I said goodbye to the rainforest trees that had become my home, so that I could return to my original home. Now I look out my window and see the oak trees and Turkey Vultures I had missed. Like each of Hesse’s characters who return to his home place, I have returned to my home in northwest New Jersey. I am beginning to relearn the natural history of this place as I spend time outdoors. I have put aside my Australian bird guide for a North American one. I am homesick for the Tablelands, to be sure; but I have returned to the place that knows me as well as I know it.

IMG_2437Sussex County, New Jersey

Where ever you are, you have the opportunity to connect to place—to make the place you are living your life-place, to care for that place, and in caring for it, to take better care of it. Meanings of home are ever-changing, but I believe they are founded on one thing: sense of place. How well do you know your home place? What does “home” mean to you?

Native Plants And Incidental Entymology

All text and photos by Maymie Higgins

While browsing for climbing vines and just for intellectual edification, I glanced over the plant information label for a plant I already have, Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), aka Star Jasmine. Ten years earlier, I had purchased a Star Jasmine at this very nursery, while honeymooning in Charleston, South Carolina. It grew very well on a trellis on a southern facing wall and I have even propagated more plants from cuttings. Two friends now have the vine established in their gardens from plants I gave them. But I couldn’t believe my eyes as I read the card. “Native to China?!”, I exclaimed in surprise and disbelief. I continued to shake my head and secured a wagon to haul out the six large vines I would be purchasing at Abide-A-While Garden Center in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. But this time, I would be purchasing a native plant, Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), aka Butterscotch Jasmine, aka Yellow Jasmine.

The author and her husband in front of Confederate Jasmine in Charleston, South Carolina.  Confederate Jasmine and Climbing Fig are the only two climbing ornamentals allowed around historic homes in Charleston because their vines do not damage masonry and other structures.

2005: First anniversary photo in front of Confederate Jasmine in Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate Jasmine and Climbing Fig are the only two climbing ornamentals allowed around historic homes in Charleston because their vines do not damage masonry and other structures.

As I selected six vines, an employee, a nice gentlemen in his late sixties or early seventies, approached with a smile and said, “You’re planning to cover some real estate”. I explained that thanks to the recent ice storms, I now have a sunny fence line that used to be a shaded fence line. Mother Nature downed quite a few trees in March at my house, including six Loblolly pines and five Leyland cypresses. Not to mention countless large branches that broke off and required hard pruning.

As I went on to confess my embarrassment about previously selecting a non-native plant and how it is important to select native plants to your region in order to support the native wildlife, the employee reached around in a fatherly manner and briefly squeezed my opposite shoulder. He was proud that I had learned that lesson.

Plants and animals rely on one another in many ways. Animals rely on plants for food and shelter. Many insects have very specific plant host requirements for laying their eggs and for nectar host plants for nutrition. When we plant non-native plants, we are losing an opportunity to support native wildlife. If those plants happen to be invasive, their quick propagation can begin to choke out native vegetation and create deficiencies in resources for native wildlife. Animals adapt to the local plant life over evolutionary time so it is unreasonable to expect all of them to adapt to new plants quickly enough to avoid extinction. One cannot merely replace one plant with another and expect it to provide the same support to wildlife. It is far more complicated than that.

I now have eighteen Carolina Jessamine planted along fence lines and cannot wait for the intoxicating fragrance to overtake my backyard in the future.

Yellow Jessamine leaf with native caterpillar.

Yellow Jessamine leaf with native caterpillar.

If you are interested in using only native plants in your garden, there is a great resource for determining the plants to select. Former first lady Lady Bird Johnson became concerned about the loss of our nation’s natural beauty and the fact that as much as 30 percent of the world’s native flora is at risk of extinction. So, in 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes founded what became the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in order to protect and preserve North America’s native plants and natural landscapes. In 2006, the Center became an Organized Research Unit of the University of Texas at Austin. The Wildflower Center has helped to preserve and restore the biological richness of North America and has become one of the country’s most credible research institutions and effective advocates for native plants.

If you are interested in learning more about the importance of native plants, please visit Bringing Nature Home to view a video interview with Dr. Doug Tallamy and/or read his book by the same title.

Here is my own goofy biology lesson, filmed spontaneously when I discovered a caterpillar on my right shoulder after spending time in the garden recently.  As you can see in the background, my cat Larry was not impressed.  Also, I returned the caterpillar to the plants outdoors.  If you know what this species is, please comment.

In Praise of Native Wildflowers

By Rebecca Deatsman

Wildflower season is in full swing here in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. There’s always plenty of doom and gloom for anyone who follows environmental news, but sometimes it’s nice to take a step back and enjoy the beauty that’s still out there, so I thought I’d share some of the wildflower photos I’ve taken this spring.

If you’re interested in learning more about native plants like these, many areas have native plant clubs with regular meetings and field trips. This list of native plant societies around the country may help you find one near you. There are also (of course) plenty of resources available online to help with wildflower identification. I found this Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest site especially helpful when figuring out what exactly I’d been taking pictures of.

Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Triteleia

Triteleia

Panicled Death-Camas

Panicled Death-Camas

Lupine

Lupine

Shooting Star

Shooting Star

Glacier Lily

Glacier Lily

Windows to the World

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To survive we’d all turn thief and rascal, or so says the fox, with her coat of an elegant scoundrel,
her white knife of a smile, who knows just where she’s going . . .
                                                            — from Margaret Atwood, Morning in the Burned House

By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

            She was biting on her hind leg for what seemed like a long time to a church congregation who had long stopped listening to the minister. The fox, sitting, pondering, on the grass was not interested in the two hundred people behind the glass wall who look out upon the Mississippi River every Sunday morning. She (I surmise) was more interested in the river, the rain, and the brushy hedge than disturbing the Unitarian zealots in the pews. To be accurate, we are more radical about rivers and beasts than God; most of us find the divine in the serendipity of a foxworthy glimpse.

Having been the attention victim of many foxes and coyotes, some with their furry young ones, the minister knows that he must wait until the parade of creatures darts away out of sight. Then we can go back to listening to his sermon. But we are thinking of that fox. We are relishing that fox. We anticipate with all the joy in the universe when that fox (and it would be prudent to remember that over twenty-five years that I have attended this church that myriad generations of creatures have appeared and disappeared) will again appear with a longer tail or a brighter coat or three cuddly pups that we know need a safer home than the one they now possess.

The Mississippi River passes along the downtown Memphis river bluffs; therefore, this hairy creature is an urban fox that must contend with tourist traffic, tornado threats, lost musicians, barbeque eaters, flooding waters, basketball lovers, and festival crowds.

I bet she contends with the raccoons and their packs that dance through our city like gangs from West Side Story. The children of the fox and the raccoon are both called cubs, but a fight between them would not be pretty, their claws and teeth like switchblades.

She takes her delight in feeding herself, the husband, and the kids with park leftovers, not yet ravaged by pigeons or city rats. She gobbles up a pigeon or a squirrel while basking in the late-day rays of the sun setting over that big river water. She might find the divine in the flow of water or in that sun or in that rat. I believe in my heart that she finds, as I do, that squirrels are the henchmen of the devil; they are nasty rats with cute tails. Their marketing plan, however, has been too good down through the ages: humans tend to want to cuddle squirrels and shoot foxes, even if there are very few chicken coops around downtown.

To see wildlife in any city’s downtown, many believe, is an unexpected and joyful gift. Many people also believe that their spiritual life takes place at The Church of The Outside. Foxes, I pray, do as well.