Nature Walking around Capitol Lake

 

Polaroid of the Capitol from Across the  Lake

The Capitol from across the Lake

By Neva Knott

The Lake’s bottom has been exposed at low tide since the snow storm. Rocks, muck, and detritus are exposed about six feet out from from the shoreline. Today, Sunday, I saw a pair of Mallards pecking in the muck, duck behavior I’d not seen before. I’ve been watching Mallards since I was a little girl living on a different lake, here in Olympia. They were the first wild species I knew to recognize.

Today, Ted–my little black dog–and I are making our way around Capitol Lake. It’s a man-made lake that sits at the mouth of the Deschutes River as it meets Budd Inlet, part of Puget Sound. Before it was a lake, this waterway was tide flats, an ecosystem of river and brackish water. The path we take extends from the Capitol grounds on the south shore hill, weaves down switchbacks that open to a view of the Olympic Mountains far north, and then circles the lake for about a two-mile walk. We’ve been snowbound for over a week, so today I seem to be walking with renewed awareness of nature and place.

During the storm I pondered the importance of snow. I like how it forces quietude and a slowness of human busy-ness. I like the silent softness of a snowy night. I know the importance of snowpack in the water cycle and health of watersheds. This week, I pondered the importance of snow in the climate cycle and how it might work within the structure of global warming. I researched and learned that the snow’s reflection, its albedo, reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere, helping to keep the planet cool.

Capitol Lake was built in 1951 as a reflection pool for the grandeur of the Capitol building. The Lake has done its job well. Not only is it a spot of beauty at the city’s center, it has always been a gathering place. Each year, Lake Fair plays out in the shoreline park. As a teenager, I loved the carnival rides as they swung out over the water. When I was a little girl, we swam in the Lake, right from the shore down town.  Boating was allowed then, too. Even on a winter’s day like today, walkers, runners, families, and people with dogs circle the water. I feel a part of my community each day we make the trek.

Today, the ducks whose species name I don’t know, those with the velvet black heads, white shoulders and grey side panels, floated in a battalion, in formation across the lake’s surface. Then, on a mysterious cue, they’d take turns diving down, synchronized like swimmers in a show.

Some days, as the tide turns, the ducks float in a cluster, the whole bunch of them moving in circular motion as the water moves.

I wonder what the cold does to them.

Some days, in the ticket just along the shore at the bottom of the switchbacks, I see a blue heron. Today, as we rounded the edge of the lake near the road, a heron flew by, low to the water, magnificent wing span flapping. I’d had a feeling we would see one today.

What creates the lake is an earthen dam and concrete spillway at the north end. This is also where a bridge crosses the waterway, connecting down town to the west side. In college, in the late 80s, my housemate and I fished the salmon run from the “legal” side of the bridge. We were poor and happy to fill our freezer for winter with each day’s limit.

Many days, I see river otter near the spillway. Just one was there today, having toddled out of the water to nudge around in the bramble along the shore. There’s a bridge on the south end of the lake, too, and almost daily I count on seeing three or four otters there, swimming, playing, and when they notice us, watching Ted.

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River Otter, Christmas day

The lake has served good purpose in blending the beauty human architecture and natural. Not only has it reflected the values of community here, it also stands to reflect the changes–and challenges–in environmental science from then to now. Several decades ago, the lake was closed to swimming because of fecal matter from storm water. Too-warm water in the summer months increases algae blooms and makes for poor fish habitat. In 2009, New Zealand mud snails were discovered in the lake and it was closed to boating. And, because the river cannot pulse and flow through as it would in an estuary, sediment–the muck my Mallards were pecking in–is taking over the contents of the lake. As environmental science, particularly wetlands science, as advanced, it has become clear that blocking off river flow is detrimental.

In 2016 the State Legislature began drafting a plan for better management of the Lake. One idea is to take apart the actual lake and let the river remake the land as estuary. There is talk of a “hybrid plan.” And there is the option to leave the Lake as it is. Until change comes, Ted and I will circle the shoreline, watching the ducks, heron, and otters and the ebb tide at sundown.

Ted, exploring the shoreline bulkhead

Cloudscapes

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If you’ve never stared off into the distance then your life is a shame…                                                Counting Crows, Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby

By Neva Knott

Redmond. This Central Oregon town hasn’t changed much since its founding a hundred years ago. It is a typical Oregon small town in the organizational sense; there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the south and there is a one-way leading in, through, and out of town to the north. There is an intersection with a highway to the west and one with a highway to the east.

I came to Redmond from Oregon’s big city, Portland, from the north. I came over snow-capped Mt. Hood, then across the dusty, sand-orange colored Warm Springs Indian reservation, dropping down into the Deschutes river canyon with the shimmering black-blue of the water, and ascending back up to the sage-covered plateau. After driving a long stretch across the res, I dropped back down and into the green agricultural town of Madras, a place that holds the scent of the garlic grown there. Continuing on, I passed the Smith Rock formation to the left, cross the Crooked River canyon, passed a red cinder rock butte on the right, and will then was welcomed to Redmond by a bronzed statue of a cowboy riding a horse.

The High Cascade Range of volcanoes creates a boundary between Central and Western Oregon. The Redmond side of the Cascades sits in a rain shadow which causes this drastic and immediate change from the Portland side thick and dense Douglas fir forest with its rhododendron, salal, Oregon grape, huckleberry, maple understory to a less dense mix of Ponderosa pine forest, Juniper trees, sage, and rabbit brush. Redmond sits upon an expansive landscape, the High Lava Plains, across which one can see for miles, taking in buttes and mountains.

This is a farm town. The Deschutes County Fair is here, ranching is the industry, and Big R is the place to shop. People here love the land, the hunting life, and outdoor sportsmanship.

I didn’t intend to relocate to Redmond. Nor did I intend to leave.

In Portland, I worked at the high-pressure college prep Lincoln High School. Due to constant budget cuts, lack of a district superintendent, and weak leadership from our principal, the general vibe of the school was increasingly dysfunctional. Professionalism was eroded. My colleagues were a group of stressed, strident, self-serving skitterers. The stress was eroding my love of teaching. I also had a personal reason for escaping both Lincoln and Portland. My partner, Adam, had died in a car crash two years prior.

After the accident, the Lincoln community and the structure of work provided me much support. But after a couple of years, I was tired of people looking at me with the unasked question, “Are you all right yet?” I gave my notice, intending to return to Maui to bartend for a year and sit on the beach, work on my photography and write, sort out myself.

I gave my notice on June 1, 2007. As I sat at graduation a few days later, I looked down the row of teachers, their slumped postures, wound tight faces, and bad hair dye jobs and thought, thank god I’m getting out of here.

I let go my Portland apartment, spent a week couch-surfing and saying my goodbyes, and then—I panicked. I’d fucked up my life. As much as I’m a traveller, adventurer, and espouse big dreams, I also value professional security. I grew up in a hard-working, work-a-day blue-collar family in which the job is a prime directive. I wasn’t trying to quit teaching with my leave-taking from Lincoln. I was burnt out, traumatized, and grieving, and I knew I needed a break to regain sense of self after my loss. Now what?

In desperation, I began applying for teaching jobs.

Redmond School District had an opening for an English teacher at the new International School of the Cascades. The description read as if it were tailored to my resume. Though I left Lincoln seeking a break, this was the type of position I hoped to find when I reinvigorated my career. At the ISC I encountered a friendly, smart, fit and worldly group of professionals and really nice, motivated students. I bought a sweet little ranch style house on the edge of town, near a llama field and the Baptist church.

On the High Desert, I encountered an expansive landscape. Open. Clean. Qualities I was seeking in my life and in myself. As I struggled to re-establish the outward aspects of my life, my internal landscape became closed, obscured, and small. I felt lonely in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before. I photographed nothing. I wrote not a word. I didn’t make friends. That type of inertia is not me. As much as there is a line between the Portland side and Central Oregon, there seemed to be an imaginary boundary to what I set out to accomplish.

Some sort of tenacity kept me there.

Redmond is the type of place where, on a cold winter’s morning, before first light, a group of tough construction workers sits in Starbucks, conducting a Bible study. It’s a place where the coffee stand man knows your name and greets you every morning when you drive through on your way to work. Where people stop, smile, and wave as they let you cross the street. Where it’s effortless to buy local because every business is owned by someone born and raised here. The grocery checkers are always the same and chit-chat with you in a way that makes you feel you’ve participated in community.

The culture of Central Oregon is built around playing outside. Mt. Bachelor is a ski destination, the Chain Breaker is an annual cyclo-cross race that draws the state’s best riders, the Metolius and the Deschutes rivers provide some of the best fishing in Oregon, and Smith Rock is a world-famous climbing spot. I’m not an extreme athlete as are many I met there, but I hike with my dog. After work I’d choose a trail along one of the rivers or drive to the Ponderosa forest just outside of town. Within twenty minutes, I could be in wilderness, which is where I spent my weekends and school breaks. On one summer trip, out to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, I drove home after sunset with all the windows down. It took four hours to traverse the various ecosystems. I discerned changes in the landscape by scent and temperature; it was a tactile connection made between me and the Oregon I was travelling across in the night air.

I shaped my life there around the landscape. In the process, I found all of the attributes of the outdoors lifestyle I sought on Maui, and I found more—a sense of being grounded, rooted, part of a bigger place than just that which I inhabited. I felt bigger than work and chores and adult-life obligations. I felt bigger than what I’d lost.

Somehow, inexplicably, I needed the lack of familiarity I experienced in Redmond so that I could push myself forward into the shape I wanted for my life. Was I still the take-life-by-the-horns, make-it-what-you-want-it-to-be bad ass I fancied myself to be?

Then came the recession. In spring of 2009, twenty per cent of the teachers in the school district, myself included, were laid off. We were told not to expect to be called back to work in the fall. I’d gone to Redmond with just over ten years of experience; sadly, in Oregon one does not retain one’s seniority or years of service when one changes districts. I found myself at the bottom of the pile.

The bell rang and my students poured out of my classroom, on their ways to another. I took a quick break myself. In fact, I pulled myself up short with a life-changing realization while in the faculty bathroom, all in the few precious moments of passing time. As I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was going to work another 20 years. I was 47, and we’d all been given our lay-off notices that day. We knew they were coming—Central Oregon was reportedly the fourth hardest hit place in the nation in the “economic downturn” as this new devastating recession was being called. There had been talk of nothing else at lunch, for weeks. I think by the time the actual day came, some of us—I know I did—felt sorrow for our supervisor who had the horrible job of actually handing out the individual notices.

So that’s how I found myself washing my hands and talking into the mirror, making a big life decision in the four minutes of passing time. I told my reflection, “You’re going to work another 20 years, you know. And your whole career in teaching has been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. You have no seniority here—this will only get worse. Just try something different. You can do anything you want.”

So I did. I applied to a graduate program in Environmental Studies. I love the out-of-doors, nature. I had an idea of becoming a sustainability consultant, and of using writing and photography to help people understand how and why to live sustainably.

The following June, I returned to Redmond to participate in the graduation of the last class of the International School of the Cascades, the new school that held my dream job just three years earlier. The program had been cut in the budget shortfall. I wore the black robe and the mantle of my alma mater that signals my stature as an academic. I sat in the front row with my former colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire. I felt sadness and shame and failure about my professional experience there, and a longing for a life that I know I won’t have in this place of grandeur. I drove over Mt. Hood, across the reservation, through Madras. As I drove along the plateau, I looked at the sky. At once, across the High Desert, it was a dark and ominous grey, crossed by a swathe of blue-white. A mile off in the distance, a bright spot of sun shone through and illuminated the grey above me as it pulled the blue out from behind a pink-tinted puff of cloud. The sky’s colors and luminescence elucidated for me the meaning of my time in Redmond. As I looked into the distance, I knew that it was the landscape that allowed for my time of cleansing and expansion.

Along My Goat Path to My Bioregion

Text and Photographs by Neva Knott

As I make lunch, pondering the blog post I need to write today, a crazy rain begins. Moments ago it was sunny. I had the slider to the back yard open for the dogs, and all of the windows open to let in the clean fall air. Now, rain comes down in a fury. Large drops plash and make wide rings that jump back up off surfaces. Water flows over my gutters. I rush to shut the slider, only to find a stand of water on the floor. I mop it, and then move around the house, shutting windows and wiping floors–rainwater has come in through each opening. As I throw the wet towels into the washing machine, I remember reading something in my Facebook newsfeed about a typhoon that will sit off the west coast this weekend. I conduct a quick google search, and I find Typhoon Vongfong, headed for Japan, the biggest storm to hit the planet this year. One report suggests the west coast will get some blowback from Vongfong. I concur.

An hour later, as I sit down to write this post, the third wave of the storm hits. I had planned to write about bioregionalism, that intense commitment to living where one lives, but Vongfong has reminded me of the interconnectedness of all things, and the importance of global awareness. When I read of storms like this one, I am reminded that we’re all facing environmental disaster and that we’re all in it together. We–and by this I mean all humans on this planet–have got to find a way to change how we live in relationship to the natural world. Super-storms are going to blow and humans are mere mortals in the face of them. But the poisoning of the ocean from nuclear waste leakage from reactors at Fukushima or the desecration of the ocean via an oil spill like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are within human control.

So, even though global awareness is important because the interconnectedness of the planet’s life-sustaining systems is undeniable, bioregionalism is a fail safe in the face of today’s environmental threats.

Peter Berg, a Haight-Ashbury activist, is credited with coining the term “bioregionalism.” The website for his foundation, Planet Drum, gives this definition:

“A bioregion is defined in terms of the unique overall pattern of natural characteristics that are found in a specific place. The main features are generally found throughout a continuous geographic terrain and include a particular climate, local aspects of seasons, landforms, watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals. People are also counted as an integral aspect of a place’s life, as can be seen in the ecologically adaptive cultures of early inhabitants, and in the activities of present day…attempt to harmonize in a sustainable way with the place where they live.”

In my last post, I mentioned wanting to get to better know where I live, Olympia, Washington. I was born here. Then we moved overseas. We returned when I was in the eighth grade. I graduated high school here, spent about a year after working at a pizza joint, and then moved to Portland, Oregon, just two hours south. I lived in Portland for most of the next 32 years (except for a short stint back in Oly to finish my undergrad degree at The Evergreen State College).

But where to begin here? I know I live in the Cascadia Bioregion and in the Puget Trough ecoregion. Yet, as I sat down to write, my bioregion seemed too big to break down into a blog post. I looked through my graduate school texts and papers. I traced my steps to knowing Oregon, and I realized so much of my Oregon study was a continuation of the experiential knowledge I had of those landscapes, gathered over 30 years of road trips, hikes, camping, and beach walks. In that realization, I found my plot for this writing.

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Image: wiki commons

I decided to follow my goat path. My mom coined the term “goat path,” that route each of us travels daily from home to work, barn to fodder…

***

It’s Saturday. I begin the day by walking the dogs in the middle school sports field below my house. A buffer of mature Douglas fir, Big Leaf Maple, and Alder–all indigenous species–separate the row of homes from the track, baseball diamonds, and soccer pitches. As the dogs go on, sniffing for scents from deer and coyote, I look back at the trees and ponder subdivision development then and now. My whole neighborhood was build with tall trees left standing, whereas today’s developers clear-cut, leaving nothing but dust on the plat before they begin to build. Crows, jays, robins and bats live in my trees and killdeer find habitat in their understory. There’s a slight downslope between two parts of the field. In the rain it fills enough that Mallard ducks and Canadian Geese stop off to rest and swim.

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After the dog walk, I make a cup of tea, don my yoga clothes, and head down town to The Yoga Loft. En route, I stop at the co-op. I’ve had a membership there since college, since 1987. I grab a nut and seed cookie, chat with the volunteer cashier, pay and keep on. As I leave the co-op, which is just a mile from my house, on the corner in a residential neighborhood (but nonetheless a hub), I decide to take the back route down the hill.

I like the view–a part of the Port where lumber awaits shipment. Though deforestation is a significant environmental concern, logging is part of the cultural and economic reality here and, thankfully, the ways of the industry are changing in favor of sustainability, albeit to varying degrees.

Then it’s across the bridge over the confluence of Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet, both of which form the mouth of the Deschutes River as it flows into Puget Sound.

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Image: DERT

The salmon run just passed through these waters a couple of weeks ago on its way up the Deschutes to spawn. Each year, at least now, someone puts letters on the bridge rail, S-E-E T-H-E S-A-L-M-O-N H-E-R-E, an attempt at community environmental education, I guess. When I was in college, it was legal to fish on the Sound side of the bridge when the salmon were running, but not on the lake side. That’s how we ate one winter; each day, my housemates and I stood on the bridge and fished until we had the day’s limit.

I park along Water Street, and walk down to the lake. Mallard ducks fly over the water. Runners run, walkers walk–some with coffee. Dogs sniff. The wind blows. On occasion, I’ve seen a Blue Heron fishing off the shore. And, unfortunately, trash floats long the surface of the water.

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Of current debate is the proposal to remove the dam that makes Capitol Lake a lake rather than the estuary for the Deschutes as it enters Budd Inlet. It’s a man-made lake designed to be the reflection pool for the state capitol building that sits on the hill above it. The lake is currently closed to swimming and boating because of several ecological problems such as high levels of river sediment, fecal coliform bacteria, infestation by Eurasian milfoil the New Zealand Mudsnail. I swam in this lake as a child.

The Yoga Loft is in the old American Legion building. I don’t always know how yoga fits within my sustainable perspective, but today I am reminded. As class begins and the teacher reminds everyone not to go to the place of pain, she references the yogic principle ahimsa, do no harm. She actually says, “Usually we think of doing no harm to others, animals, and the environment…” and that’s when I connect.

After class, I pause before getting in the car, looking around my immediate surrounds. Much of the time I find Olympia to be boring. I’m used to the bright city lights, literally and metaphorically, and to the easily accessible Oregon natural landscape. As I pause this morning, I realize that this landscape–Olympia–is where I learned about the natural world, where I learned, from my dad, about living in accordance with nature’s rhythms and the planet’s natural resources. I vow to get to know this place better, in the here and now.

I take the main road back up the hill. Westside Central Park sits at main intersection before I turn right toward home. This corner plot stood abandoned and derelict for years. Last spring, someone bought it and donated it to the community. It now blooms and is slowly becoming a little respite in the flow of goat paths.

So back to this idea of the bioregion. It’s a place that shares biological features. Those features support life for all of its inhabitants. The inhabitants, in turn, promote the health of the bioregion by caring for it and by living within it. In a simple sense, my goat path carries me through my bioregion: through the trees left standing when my house was built, to the corner store where most of the food comes from local farms and all of it is made as sustainably as possible, past the waterways that carry the salmon that feed all the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. All points on my goat path intersect with like-minded, friendly people doing their parts to live more lightly on the earth.

***

When I first read this passage from Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River, I thought, that’s my bioregion, spelled out:

“Neawanaka has been a settlement of one size or another for perhaps five thousand years. Human beings lived here for all the normal reason you can name: it is well watered, with small but persistent creeks to the north and south, a small but serious river running right smack through town, and an Ocean. There are trout in the creeks, salmon and steelhead run up the river and creeks seasonally, and perch and halibut and cod and such swim not too far offshore; there are so many fish of so many kinds in and around the town that for perhaps five thousand years the name of the town was So Many Fish in the native tongue spoken here. There are deer and elk in the spruce and cedar forests. It hardly ever snows in winter and hardly ever bakes in summer. It does get an unbelievable amount of rain…and the rain starts in November and doesn’t really end, as a continuous moist narrative, until July, but then those next four months are crisp and sunny and extraordinary times, when every living creature, from the pale cloudberry close to the eagles the size of tents floating overhead, is grinning and exuberant.”

After reading this passage, I thought, no need for anything from elsewhere–this place can support itself. This is the point of bioregionalism–it precludes reliance on goods and services from outside. Bioregionalism is steeped in regional relationships that support sustainable use of natural resources for  all the needs of all the region’s inhabitants. And this is why I call bioregionalism a fail safe for the resource-depleted times to come.

***

They say, when the worst happens, that climate refugees will come here to the Pacific Northwest, largely because we’ll still have water. Though the sky has turned back to crayon blue in the time I’ve been writing and the clouds are once again puffy and white, today’s storm is a reminder that climate change is upon us, and that nope, we’ll not run out of water in these parts any time soon.

And as the world continues to change, here in Olympia, we’ll continue to adapt. We’ll better understand that man-made lakes might make pretty mirrors for man-made buildings, but that clean water and viable habitat is more important. And I’ll continue to hope that all the climate refugees will not come here. Instead, I hope everyone begins to understand how to live bioregionally–to find find their own versions of a healthy salmon run and their own versions of an inhabitable, clean-water estuary, so that they can feed themselves from the bounty of the places they live.

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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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.

Daughter of the Earth and Water: A Syllabus for Environmental English

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By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Better than all treasures/That in books are found . . .

–from To A Skylark by P.B. Shelley

When Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) needed some inspiration, he read the works of meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864), whose essay on clouds evolved into the classification system that weather professionals use today. The weather was Mr. Howard’s hobby, but he loved nature and wrote about science. The world was Mr. Shelley’s hobby, but he loved science and wrote about nature.

Fewer and fewer of my students become English majors. Their brains are immersed in science and math and technology; they want to become doctors and engineers. Many of them achieve their goals which are good for those of us who need the research done before we pick up our prescriptions that keep us alert enough to go to work and before we play outside in clean and sacred spaces.

Remember, and I shudder to write this, when these students leave my class, they may never read another poem or short story for the rest of their lives. What a world we live in when students spend most of their time on their phones or video games and do not go outside and look up or breathe fresh air or hike in the woods or notice clouds. How can we understand poetry if references to natural wonders are lost on the reader?

So, this year, I thought I would work with the HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) teacher and devise a syllabus of topics that would immerse them in science and math, capturing their minds while I tried to capture what was left of their literary souls. Here is this year’s assignment and reading list:

Find the scientific, mathematical, and/or medical themes in your reading: patients’ rights, doctors’ rights, holistic medicine practices, right-to-die issues, AIDS, environmental justice and influences, Alzheimer’s, the role of government in health issues, addiction, poverty, medical care, philanthropic care, memory, sick societies, and preventative care.

Summer Reading, 2013-2014

Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen (nonfiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (nonfiction)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (nonfiction)

Outside-of-Class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

August: Poboy Contraband by Patrice Melnick (nonfiction)

September/October: The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas (collection of essays)

November/December: Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver (collection of essays)

January-February: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA fiction) and

                               The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa (short fiction)

March-April: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (fiction)

In-class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Wit by Margaret Edson

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Long Day Journey’s Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

and one million poems and song lyrics and short stories

Okay, maybe not a million, maybe not even Shelley, and if I could, I would have my students subscribe to the paper editions of The Sun and Orion every year, to be able to appreciate the beautiful photographs and the exquisite nature writing. Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, on watching a grasshopper up close and personal is the first poem I teach every year.

For college students, the following syllabus is a little more academic as well as full of experiences: they choose an environmental justice issue to research. They volunteer hours to their new cause. And, this is the delicious part, we can have class in the open or in lab or a greenhouse or a park or a farmers’ market, at the botanic gardens, or in the science building.

Course Title: Environmental Activism: Discovering the Literary Influences

Course Objectives: 1) To analyze social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and spiritual factors that shape writers’ ideas about nature. 2) To discuss the literary art of nonfiction in environmental texts. 3) To consider environmental writers in choosing models for activism.

 Syllabus of Readings

Week 1: Inter-relationships: humans and the environment

Introduction to Course, A planned walk

Loren Eiseley, “The Angry Winter” from The Unexpected Universe

Robert Root, “Place” from The Nonfictionist’s Guide

Annie Dillard, “Heaven and Earth in Jest” and “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

E. B. White, “Once More To the Lake” from Essays of E.B. White

Week 2: Bioregionalism

Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place” from The Sense of Place

Barry Lopez, “The Stone Horse” from Crossing Open Ground

Week 3: Environmental Justice

Eileen Gauna, “An Essay on Environmental Justice: The Past, the Present, and Back to    the Future” from Natural Resources             Journal

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac

Week 4: Effects of Globalization

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed

Week 5: Resources and Conservation

Wendell Berry, “Conservation is Good Work” from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” from The Practice of the Wild

Joe Wilkins, “Out West” from Orion Magazine

Week 6: Overconsumption

Eric Schlosser, “Your Trusted Friends” from Fast Food Nation

Bill McKibben, ” Green from the Ground Up” from Sierra Magazine

Week 7: Pollution and Toxic Exposure

Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats

Week 8: Agriculture and Food

John McPhee, “Oranges” from Oranges

            Michael Pollan, “What’s Eating America” from Smithsonian

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

Week 9: Concerns about water

Midterm Exam

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

 Week 10: Indigenous Cultures

Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination” from The Ecocriticism Reader

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

Week 11: Visions of present and future environmental conflict

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

Week 12: Grass-root Movements and Setting New Courses

Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Letter” from The Sound of Mountain Water

Edward Abbey, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Words from the Land:Encounters with Natural History Writing

Bill McKibben, “Where Have All the Joiners Gone?” from Orion Magazine

Week 13: Visions of Future Sustainability

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Week 14: Final Week

Thich Nhat Hahn, “Bathing a Newborn Buddha (Washing the Dishes)” from The Sun My Heart

Turn in Activism Project Paper, Final Exam

I did not get to Long Day’s Journey Into Night this year because of time, but I prefer to leave my students, not in the foggy coastal clouds of morphine addiction, but, instead, in the essence of the literary celebration of nature, just as Howard left Shelley in the throes of wind patterns, water cycles, and cloud forms.

All students of the world need recess where they can look up at a clean sky. All students of the world need to read the words that try to capture that beauty, a 10,000-year-old task, attempted by writers who understand that human beings struggle with the immensity of outside.

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Haleakala–House of the Sun and Home of the Silversword

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By Neva Knott

4 AM, Maui, Hawaii, 2014.

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awaken me. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch; Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we’re going on adventure. We need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. The air smells clean and musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence of the darkness.

Twenty minutes later, we’re all ready to go. It’s still dark as we pile into the rental Jeep. Dark, as in not yet dusk–no hint of sun. That’s good. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to the top of the volcano; we’re going there to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, why we’re up so early.

When we planned this trip, going up top for sunrise was my one request. Though I’d lived on Maui years ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala translates to house of the sun. The three of us are on Maui now as a celebration–Jim and Gail and I went to high school together, were close, but lost touch after I moved, went to college, their son was born–after adult life took over. We’ve recently reunited. They helped me remodel my mom’s house after she passed, and this is my way of saying thank you–for the support, the sweat equity, and for saving me so much money by doing work I would have had to hire done. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see Maui on a more local level, to see this beautiful island come alive.

Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a more residential jungly part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads. We make our way to the main roads, roads I know. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up via an s-curve two-lane road, up to 10,000 feet. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request is similar to that of the demigod Maui’s mother. Legend tells that Haleakala crater is where Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish so he let it return to the sky.

We are a bit late this morning–the sky is getting light as we snake up the last few miles. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony as we make our way to the rim, arriving just as the sun peaks through the cloud layer and burst into orange, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existed, nothing accept the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of this new day.

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4 AM, Kaho’olawe, Hawaii, 2003.

The pu sounds, and I rustle in my sleeping bag. I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–turning it on will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Kaho’olawe is the uninhabited island eight miles southwest of Maui. It’s a privilege to be here, to stand on this sacred ground. Before we arrived, we learned traditional cultural and protocals, one of which involves rising before dawn. A group leader blows the pu, or conch shell, to signal it’s time for the day to begin. Then, we make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean sweeps away negativity, worry, guilt, exhausting, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day, the day to begin when the sun rises as we chant our prayer to its climb from ocean to sky. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach. The water is shallow and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash to cover our skin in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I do this every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

Kahoolawe Fire

After our dip we gather at the fire the kuas, our leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline steepe to watch the sun come over Haleakala, Maui’s volcano, the house of the sun.

For the half hour or so it takes the sun to rise, we chant, e ala e:

E ala e Ka la i kahikina

I ka moana

Ka moana hohonu

Pi’i ka lewa

Ka lewa nu’u

I kahikina

Aia ka la.

E ala e!

 

In translation:

Awaken/Arise

The sun in the east

From the ocean

The ocean deep

Climbing (to) the heaven

The heaven highest

In the east

There is the sun

Awaken!

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6: 45 AM, Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, 2014.

The cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I put on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–we wrap ourselves in them and stand in awe, watching. The sun is up, and as it shifts higher and higher, the colors in the crater change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green.

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The Haleakala Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense ) is a unique plant, charismatic even. It grows only here, in these volcanic soils. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet or so. The silversword flowers only once in it’s life, then dies. The charismatic nature of the plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the 100-500 flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life.

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The plant almost went extinct–as the story goes, visitors often picked the silversword as a symbol of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that, for awhile, it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck, everybody does it…to roll the ball shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. Before Haleakala was a National Park, it was used as rangeland. Consequently, in addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle helped to diminish the silversword population. By the 1920’s, according to Haleakala Park scientists Lloyd Loope and Arthur Medieros, there were only 1437 of the plants left in existence. Conservation efforts have restablished the health of the plant’s population. Now about 50, 000 individuals grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.

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The silversword’s rare nature has also made it a research subject. According to the Park Service, scientists are studying to attempt to understand how it might react to climate change. In one regard, it’s a plant that is sturdy and able to survive in harsh conditions with irregular water; contrastingly, it dwindles when its habitat is disturbed. The silversword is a desert plant; most desert plants store carbon dioxide differently than non-desert dwelling vegetation. As scientists work to understand how Haleakala’s floral celebrity will handle increasing temperatures, the silversword becomes not only a charismatic species, but an indicator species as well.

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It was too dark to see much on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren alpine aeolian zone of the summit and through the subalpine shrublands along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Both the North Shore and the South Shore are visible from this altitude. As we descend, we watch the island awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we get into Makawao town. We have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Unanimously, almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go again tomorrow, and we’ll be up top on time.

 

Photograph of Haleakala Silversword in bloom courtesy of the National Park Service.

All other photographs by Neva Knott.