Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Buy Nothing Season

Thanksgiving 2018

The latest—and most dire—report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is notable for the fact that the authors propose for the first time a solution that has nothing to do with a tech fix. As described in the journal Foreign Policy, “an exciting new scenario . . . developed by an international team of scientists” can help us reduce carbon emissions fast enough to keep under a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees C. And the solution is . . . [drumroll]: “that we start to consume less.”

Well, yeah! I’m down with that. It’s not such a new idea after all. The patron saint of consuming less, Henry David Thoreau, issued his Walden manifesto in 1854, and the voluntary simplicity movement he inspired has been alive and well in the United States for at least the last fifty years. Our native peoples also knew a little about living within one’s means.

Yes, it’s fun to buy big houses and cars and stuff we don’t really need, but apparently we do so at the risk of passing along to our children’s and grandchildren’s generations more sea level rise, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, crop failures, drought-and-crop-failure-caused wars (like the one in Syria), and mass migrations of climate refugees. Anyone ready to give it a rest?

To be clear, we can do it “only if we’re willing to fundamentally change the logic of our economy,” according to Jason Hickel in his 18 October 2018 Foreign Policy piece entitled “The Hope at the Heart of the Apocalyptic Climate Change Report.” Here’s what he says that means: “It means moving away from disposable products toward goods that last. It means repairing our existing things rather than buying new ones. It means designing things so that they can be repaired (modular devices such as Fairphones rather than proprietary devices such as iPhones). It means investing in public goods and finding ways to share stuff—from cars to lawn mowers—shifting from an ethic of ownership to an ethic of usership.”

Sounds good to me. And I have an idea about where to start.

We could take the idea of Buy Nothing Day, which Wikipedia tells us was “founded in Vancouver by artist Ted Dave” and is now observed all over the world on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving, and expand it to Buy Nothing Season. Instead of giving manufactured goods to each other in an attempt to lighten up the darkest days of winter, we could go back to the old-fashioned ways of making crafty gifts or consumables like jams and cookies (vegan and sugar free, of course). Give tickets for live events or gift certificates for watering someone’s plants while they’re away. Donate to a good cause (like Wikipedia) in someone’s name.

And remember to take a walk outside and appreciate the beauty and sanity available to us free of charge every day of the year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Darkness, Darkness

Winter Solstice 2017

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow;
take my head and let me sleep.
In the coolness of your shadow;
in the silence of your deep.

Jesse Colin Young wrote those lyrics in 1969. Wikipedia says that during the Vietnam War, the song was considered an anthem to the soldiers, for it described what they felt while in the jungles.

I propose that it now be considered an anthem for December that instructs us in surrendering to the nonnegotiable tilt of the planet. It does seem like the urge to put little lights on everything is the life thing in us, and I do find a certain cheer in seeing the displays. But what if instead of trying to resist what nature is asking us to accept, instead of seeing darkness as something to conquer, we went with seeing darkness as a pillow or a blanket?

What if we saw darkness as part of the full spectrum of life’s colors and experiences, and honored it accordingly?

What if we saw the increasing hours of darkness as an invitation to lower our voices, dim our lights, and slow our pace? To stay home and reflect on the harvest of the year past and our hopes for the year to come? And to strengthen our faith in the return of the light even in the face of clear physical evidence that everything is going the other way?

At this dark hour not only in nature but also in our country, what if we noticed that darkness has never in the history of the world increased without end, that the turning point always comes? We might double our resolve to take action for what we believe in and trust that it will eventually turn the tide. We might learn to trust in the darkness and even take comfort in it.

Darkness, darkness, be my blanket;
cover me with endless night.
Take away the pain of knowing;
fill the emptiness so bright.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Coming to Our Senses

Spring Equinox 2017

Springtime is when color returns to Oregon. First, the bright yellow of forsythia and daffodils. Soon after, the soft pinks and whites of the flowering plums and pears. The lavender-blues of woods violet and hyacinth. Later, the magenta of the eastern redbuds. The neon blue of lithodora. The salmon orange of crabapples and the rusty orange of sunrose.

After a winter of flat gray skies and bare branches, of despondent and despairing thoughts about the future of democracy and environmental protection, we need more than anything else to come to our senses. We need to turn off the news and all other distractions and completely give over our attention to what nature is offering, one gift at a time. When I stop on my walk and stare up through the branches of a plum tree laden with frothy blossoms of deep pink, and when I bring full presence to the sight and the sound and the scent, I can feel something shift inside me.

Rick Hanson in Hardwiring Happiness writes about how to overcome the brain’s negativity bias—its tendency to focus and dwell on what’s wrong—by fully taking in those fleeting moments of happiness and satisfaction that present themselves during our day. We can amplify those moments if we slow down just a little bit and let the wonderful in. All it takes is a conscious intention.

I’m doing it—slowing down and breathing in the beauty of the natural world. I’m letting it tutor me in joy.

This winter I read a book called The Moth Snowstorm by British author Michael McCarthy. The book proposes that although we may have left nature, nature has not left us, and the joy we spontaneously feel at, say, the sight of a field of red tulips is hardwired into us. More than that, in this time when the laying waste of the biosphere by humans is only accelerating, the joy we find in nature is the best defense—an even better defense, argues McCarthy, than the failed idea of “sustainable development” and the current ploy of putting a price on ecosystem services.

If enough of us slow down and come to our senses, if we linger in the presence of nature’s everyday miracles long enough to feel the joy kick in, surely we will protect every patch of daffodils and every blossoming orchard still left. Deep joy in the good earth could become a force more formidable than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. Let’s give it a try.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Recipe for Sanity

Winter Solstice 2016

I switch off the NewsHour feeling horrified and confounded. What can I do to help stop this slow-motion cataclysm? Signing a slew of online petitions expressing outrage does not satisfy.

I trudge out to the wetland through an inch of new snow. Little boys let out of school play hide-and-seek with plastic Uzis. (Yes, honestly, and this isn’t Baltimore or Chicago but Corvallis, Oregon.)

Sanity, anyone? I find it at the wetland. A fat thrush lights on the branch of a low tree and shakes some ice off the twigs. A small brown squirrel darts across the path, jumps onto the fence railing and dashes along it, and finally leaps into the brambles where little brown birds are flitting and pecking at seeds. This will go on. The world will go on.

Back home, I dig out the recipe for sanity I once composed and post it prominently on the fridge. Now more than ever, I want to take this to heart:

Remember the landscape of your birth. Love your body and its memory of this place. Know true north and follow the red cord of passion. Listen to tree talk, water words, the voice of raven and hummingbird, and trust these at least as much as human speech. When the trees drop their leaves, let go of all you have outgrown. When the earth lies cold and still, rest. Blossom in season. When they tell you that you must kill for your country, or pay for the killing, talk back. Be faithful to what you love. Celebrate beauty every day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Trending: Forest Bathing, Forest Loss

Fall Equinox 2016

When I visited the Mohonk Mountain House in the summer of 2004, it was like stepping into a fairy tale or back in time a hundred years. This enormous wood-shingled Victorian castle on Lake Mohonk ninety minutes north of New York City is set in a lush landscape that has been meticulously cared for since the resort was built in the late 1800s. Rolling lawns, orchards, gardens, cliffs, clear waters, and forests invite nature immersion. And now there’s a new offering on the activity menu there: for $160, Dr. Nina Smiley will take you on a fifty-minute walk through the woods and remind you to attend to the present moment and embrace your senses.

The Seattle Times explains: “In Japan, it’s called ‘shinrin-yoku,’ which translates as forest bathing. It’s the practice of immersing yourself in nature to improve your well-being, and interest in the concept is growing, with spas, resorts, retreat centers, gardens and parks offering guided ‘forest bathing’ experiences.” The Washington Post calls it “the latest fitness trend to hit the U.S.” and reports that “a number of scientific studies emphasize that reveling in the great outdoors promotes human health,” lowering stress levels, improving working memory, and causing people to feel more alive.

Duh. Until the era of “I prefer to play inside because that’s where the electrical outlets are” (Richard Louv’s finding in Last Child in the Woods), we just knew that. Edward Abbey, who blessedly left this plane in 1989 before the onslaught of email and cell phones, knew that and gave us this succinct admonishment: “Our suicidal poets (Plath, Berryman, et al.) spent too much of their lives inside rooms and classrooms when they should have been trudging up mountains, slopping through swamps, rowing down rivers. The indoor life is the next best thing to premature burial.”

It seems a measure of how far we have fallen from grace with the natural world that we need scientific studies and certified guides to remind us to go outside. Still, we’re told there’s reason for optimism: “‘I think about where yoga was 30 years ago and where it is today, and I realize that forest therapy is making the same journey toward cultural definition in a way that will mainstream the practice,’ said Ben Page, a certified forest therapy guide who founded Shinrin Yoku Los Angeles” (quoted in the Post article).

That’s nice. But I wonder if there will be any forests left by the time the practice is mainstreamed. Deforestation has been proceeding apace for three thousand years, and according to 2016 figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, forests are being lost worldwide at the rate of 3.3 million hectares per year (a hectare is about 2.5 acres or roughly the size of two American football fields)—at least in part so that forest bathers can live in wood houses and eat meat. One wonders if at some point the two trend lines will cross: more forest bathers than forests to bathe in.

I can only offer this suggestion to budding forest bathers: take the $160 that’s burning a hole in your pocket and send it to TreeSisters or Plant-for-the-Planet. Then step outside, bring your attention to the present moment, and open your senses.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Full-Spectrum Living

Summer Solstice 2016

Last Saturday had been a day of downpours interspersed with sunshine, but by early evening the clouds had dropped to the horizon and the sun was warming the land. I decided somewhat tentatively, since the past two weeks had been mostly cloudy and cool, to swim my laps in the unheated outdoor pool at the health club. At first splash, I knew I’d made the right choice. Yeah, the water was brisk, but I could feel the sun warming my skin as I shot up and down my lane like a bullet.

Ugh. I hadn’t wanted to use that simile. The point is, I was pretty focused and intent on counting the lengths. Then here came another woman to join me in the pool. After a while, I noticed that she was just kind of lollygagging up and down her lane, making smooth, slow strokes. Whoa, I thought, I wonder what that feels like. I slowed down. I started to really feel the water caress my skin. The warmth of the sun’s rays began to feel delicious. I fully took in the deep blue sky, the nearby treetops waving in the breeze, the dried grasses dancing just beyond the fence.

We are taught to move with purpose in our postmodern machine culture. We sit or stand purposefully at computers, drive purposefully to the store, eat purposefully with an eye on the clock. Being able to focus in that way is good and necessary, but not all the time. Also within our capabilities is pleasure. We can take pleasure in movement. Wouldn’t it be sweet if we were also encouraged to notice what feels good as we move through the day?

I’ve been reading Tabitha Jayne’s book The Nature Process. She proposes these rules of engagement with life, based on natural attractions:

1. Stop doing things that make you feel bad.
2. Start doing things that make you feel good.
3. Harm neither yourself nor others.

That last item is to ensure that you don’t become a promiscuous, hedonistic lush. Short of that, I think we could all afford to give more time to pleasure to balance out the overabundance of purpose in this world. I’m going to go for the full spectrum this evening as I stretch and breathe during the alfresco full-moon solstice yoga class I’ve signed up for.

Monday, March 21, 2016

This Beauty

Spring Equinox 2016

Early morning, early spring, I circle the wetland on the boardwalk. On this cloudy day, the roar of traffic from the highway a quarter mile away is the primary sound in the air, but if I make a conscious effort, I can tune in to the birdsong instead. There’s a lot of it this morning, sneet-sneet-sneet, wheerly-urrrr. Soon I’m not listening to the cars and trucks at all but only to the orchestra of life at Jackson-Frazier.

In her essential book The Earth Path, Starhawk writes that the tools of magic include the skill of listening to “the great conversation, the ongoing constant communication that surrounds us.” She says: “Most of us who live in cities, who are educated to read, write, do arithmetic, and use computers, live our lives surrounded by that conversation but are unaware of it. We may love nature, we may even profess to worship her, but most of us have barely a clue as to what she is murmuring in the night.”

We walk through the world paying attention to the wrong things. We let the manufactured and built realm occupy us entirely. We squint at tiny screens in our palms and miss the beauty of the living creation everywhere at hand. This beauty could feed us so deeply we wouldn’t need to reach for greasy foods or stuff we don’t need. But instead we eat greasy foods and buy stuff we don’t need. I know. I’ve done it.

Would you believe me if I told you I saw a double rainbow as I walked home before most people were even awake? I did. A chartreuse light bathed the budding trees as the rainbow materialized and I looked hard, speaking the order of the colors to myself: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red. Really? In just that order, always, all around the world? Who thought that up?

This earth, this beauty, could blow our minds if we let it. But it wouldn’t increase any corporate profits, so no one’s going to tell you this. You just have to find it out for yourself, if you have the courage to unplug and leave the herd behind.