That done, I cut back the tall perennials, neglected for weeks with a distracted gardener. It’s an exercise in immediate gratification – I can liberate the plants and myself of past laziness, with visible results. Maybe that’s why the afternoon disappeared like the space between fingers tightening together around a narrow green stalk.
I spent a large portion of my youth in an untamed forest on the California coast–it was the 1970s, we lived off-grid, and our wood cabins were built in small clearings amidst bay trees, madrone, manzanita, and coast live oak. A fragrant forest of graceful limbs that rustled in gentle breezes and sang sharply during storms.
I was an avid reader of Greek mythology, of fairy tales, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – all stories in which forests and trees play a major role, either as protagonists or settings. It was easy to believe in magic in a place like that.
It followed that I was obsessed with stories of wood creatures and trees that could communicate, and much like young readers of more recent generations waited for their letter from Hogwart’s, I waited for the trees to come to life and reveal themselves in a more human form, or at least to speak to me in a language I could understand.
That they never did start talking to me is probably for the best, and it didn’t diminish my affection. It’s long been accepted that they have their own way of communicating, even if it’s not in ways we can always interpret into human terms. I haven’t always been able to explain my deep affinity for forests, and even for specific trees, in a way that doesn’t sound a bit unbalanced, so it’s a joy to see a book like the one Peter Wohlleben wrote become so popular.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World has been on the bestseller lists for months in a variety of countries, including its native highly urbanized and industrialized Germany.
From a review in the New York Times: “Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”
With a training in forestry, which taught Mr. Wohlleben how to think of trees as machines and natural resources, years of close observation taught him something else: How to see trees as fellow travelers.
Maybe his ideas make sense to me because he and I are of the same age, or because we both grew up in forests and in a similar era of environmental thought. Whatever the reason, it does me good to see someone articulate what I suspected all along, back when I was just a sapling of a treehugger: There’s more to trees than meets the eye.
One of the sharpest knives used to divide people and promote apathy is the instigation of the sense that nothing is shared across political or religious beliefs, that we are powerless, that we are isolated.
It’s a baffling fact that the issue of climate change, not to mention environmental policy and science in general, didn’t come up much during the recent presidential campaign in the United States. Mere days after the Paris climate agreement came into force on 4 November 2016, U.S. voters elected a man who has made plain his skepticism of climate science.
There has been plenty written on the assembly of a new administration based on donor rewards and loyalty rather than expertise in a given field, but this is fairly standard practice; I won’t waste time here discussing the appointment of climate science skeptics. Debating whether climate change exists is like having an argument over whether water is wet and having someone who wants to sell you ice insist that sometimes, when frozen, it isn’t. (To be as explicit as possible, if someone is denying climate change or climate science, there is a profit motive.)
More worrisome are statements that the new administration plans to distance itself from the climate agreement altogether in favor of expanding fossil fuel use, that funding for NASAs Earth-observation satellite project will be cut, and that environmental regulations will be rolled back in favor of promoting industry in the name of jobs as if the two ends – environmental protection and job creation – can’t be mutually beneficial.
There’s been a historical divide between those who consider themselves conservationists, i.e. those who see nature as a place of natural resources to be utilized, tended to and protected in the interests of humankind, and environmentalists, who tend to see any human impact on nature as something to be mitigated.
Whatever your inclination – and most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between the two approaches – the fact is we share an interest in maintaining a clean water supply, an ecosystem that permits ongoing agriculture, breathable air and sustainable soil. Regardless of what you believe about climate science or your political stance, we are undeniably in the midst of radical climate change and a large-scale extinction that is unprecedented in the history of human civilization. Sure, the planet has undergone huge changes before, but not while we were trying to survive on it.
It’s no surprise that those of us who support action being taken to protect the environment, who are committed to working against extreme climate change and holding our governments accountable when it comes to protecting habitats, are profoundly dismayed.
We need to find common ground, we need to redouble our efforts, and not just with the people with whom we agree, but with those with whom we disagree on a variety of topics. We need to reach across divides at every level, especially where it’s not easy. This blog has always attempted to promote understanding and curiosity, to inspire hope and encourage action beyond just enjoying a good dram of whisky now and then.
There is so much opportunity for progress, and humans can be at their best when confronted with adversity.
We were recently at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where we viewed an exhibition called You Say You Want A Revolution. It was a compilation of materials and installations that illustrated the upheaval in popular culture and music from 1966-70, and asked whether they impacted the way we live today and think about the future.
I was young but I remember that era well. There was a fire and passion to break down the stagnant structures of the past, to imagine a new future that respected people of all stripes and persuasions.
Some of the most important images of that era were taken from space, from missions to the moon. The space program was an immense achievement – but what happened with the astronauts looked over their shoulders was just as relevant. What they saw behind them, for the first time in human history, was our planet, a jewel floating in space.
I remember being impressed and inspired by these images as a young person. We were worried about ideologically-driven nuclear war, about over-population. My first published piece of writing was a letter to the editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go live in off-planet space colonies if it would help save the Earth. I was thirteen, and filled with sense of solidarity with both the planet, and with my fellow humans.
I had hoped to be writing this post with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, and instead find myself writing it to discourage any slide into despair. It seems in our fear and insecurity at where our institutions have taken us, we are drawing lines between each other, ever deeper in the sand and in minds, when we can and must reach across them if we are to keep this planet a place where we can thrive.
I offer this as a reminder that we are all in this together, all of us, every living creature. More than ever, globalization shows us how small this place is that we call home. Too small to be distracted by hate, by squabbling over borders that are, in the truest sense, imaginary creations on a little planet. We quite literally all breathe the same air, drink the same water, tread the same soil.
The science-fiction dreams of green, forested space colonies are unattainable imitations of what we have right here. When you look at the image below, you won’t see any borders, and like it or not, it’s what we all share.
Let’s look forward at the big picture, insist on working together rather than against each other, to take whatever size steps we can, to take care of one another and our home. Let’s listen through the yelling and find common ground.
These days, finding common ground with those on the other end of a belief spectrum feels revolutionary — yet whether we acknowledge it or not, we all share more than divides us. Let’s get to work.
We finally did it, we are through the atmospheric door.
After years of dire prognostications that we were reaching an historic tipping point, El Niño nudged us through the gate and we achieved what most scientists and environmentalists have been warning against: In 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were at 400 parts per million (ppm) on average across the year as a whole. This according to the annual greenhouse gas bulletin of the the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO).
The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer it gets. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the CO2 levels averaged at 278 ppm. The planet was a cooler place.
Furthermore, it’s not considered likely that the carbon dioxide level will dip below the new level for many (human) generations.
There are likely those who will point to the lack of immediate disaster as a sign that the crossing of this threshold isn’t a big deal, or that carbon dioxide levels aren’t the only factor in determining global climate. And those are good points. But considering the general trend in rising temperature, now is the time to take the matter seriously. In human terms, if someone is seriously ill, you don’t wait for the fever to spike dangerously before taking action on the off chance the problem will just go away.
WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas is quoted in The Guardian as saying that “the year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations. The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.”
What is our next threshold for action?
It’s the 600th post for champagnewhisky, a place I use to get an overview of what’s on my mind, as well as an opportunity to look at the minutiae of the world.
I’ll continue to provide words and images that will discuss all manner of topics, from sustainability and marine life, to running and travel, to my latest forays into the world of whisky and bubbly, in a way I hope is thought-provoking, inclusive and entertaining.
Thanks to all of you who stop by to read and share your own thoughts.
Looking forward to the next 600 posts.
I was out on my usual running loop yesterday evening when I heard the alarm blare from our local volunteer fire department. Minutes later, I heard the first siren, then another. Another few minutes passed, and I heard a helicopter approaching. As I ran down the long crest that leads home through recently harvested corn fields, I saw a medical helicopter landing in what looked like the center of our small village, and could hear its blades stop turning once it disappeared behind the tree line at the bottom of the fields.
From this auditory information, I gathered that an accident had occurred, and that at least one person had been seriously injured enough to warrant a helicopter rather than an ambulance. By the time I’d gotten back home, there was a silence of activity, the helicopter hadn’t taken off, no sirens approached or departed. And I knew what that meant.
Our human world is alive with auditory information, yet we only hear the smallest sliver of all the stories being told in any given place because, well, our range of hearing isn’t particularly impressive. And we aren’t very good at listening to anything but ourselves.
I’ve written before about the metaphorical symphony of the natural world, but the subject here is the actual symphony of life, the chorus of everything that we can’t hear, from the purring of the male wolf spider (Gladicosa gulosa) to the low ‘foghorn’ of the Black Jewfish (Protonibea diacanthus), to the kind of sounds we can, like wind blowing through summer oak (and if you listen to the recording here, you’ll hear a chorus of much more) or Arctic wolves howling (Canis lupus arctos) (again, if you listen, you might wonder if they are responding to the calls of a different animal entirely).
It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been able to hear, really hear, a wealth of sounds that are outside our own limited range. There have been countless conversations taking place just outside our perception, and we have yet to interpret most of them. After all, we’ve been listening to dogs, cats and birds for millennia and we still aren’t very good at figuring out more than the food/pet/love basics without anthropomorphizing.
I was able to realize the event of an accident without ever hearing the accident itself, and able to interpret the gravity of that accident without necessarily knowing who had gotten hurt or how. As it turned out, I was right about both the accident and the severity: A bicyclist had been hit by a car at the main crossroad of our little village, and it hadn’t gone well for the cyclist.
In a similar way, those who have been recording the sounds of the natural world over the past decades might not be able to say exactly what is being said between individual species, but they can say this with certainty: The world is getting louder with humans and quieter with everything else. Recordings made by soundscape ecologist and musician Bernie Kraus and others demonstrate a reduction in diversity that reflects what we can actually see and count, but goes further.
Kraus looks at how geophony, the non-biological sounds that occur, wind in the trees, water in the streams, and biophony, the collective sound that is made by all the species in a given habitat, can get lost amidst our distraction with anthrophony, human generated sound.
The California drought, for example, has resulted in a great silencing of acoustic diversity. For the first time in four decades of listening to spring unfold near his home, Kraus recorded a spring without birdsong or the sound of a nearby stream.
Kraus: ‘How noisy the world is with human endeavour; how important it is to quiet it down and listen to the sounds around us. It’s the sound of life.’
We talk about noise pollution, but maybe we can stop listening to the loud sound of our own voices for long enough to slow the growing silence around us, lest we be left the only ones talking.
Thank you, Summer, for your heat and color.
Thank you, September, for your rain and cooler air.
Happy Autumn Equinox.
Welcome, season of decay and renewal.
I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.
I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.
In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).
The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.
I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.
NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.
As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.
A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?
Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.
The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.
Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.
Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.
We were sitting at the Sooke Harbour House overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca of Vancouver Island, British Colombia, sipping a martini made from local ingredients: Sheringham Gin, Tugwell Creek Solstice Metheglin, Bittered Sling Lem Marakesh. I recognized very few of the words.
I’m more of a whisky person, but I’m coming around to gin these days. And this was a bright, nuanced gin martini with both floral and salty marine flavors, just like our surroundings. The garnish of a pickled fir tip was truly something I had never considered possible, much less tasted before.
We learned that Sheringham Gin was distilled just up the road from Sooke, in the community of Shirley. We decided to search for the distillery at the end the next day, after a lazy day of touring the coast by motorcycle, a pistachio and cream-colored dream re-issue of a vintage model. It’s been decades since I sat on the back of motorcycle, but I remember now how much fun it was.
We got a little lost looking for the road to the gin place, not that there are many roads; we were following verbal instructions from the night before rather than a map. We asked a couple of guys chatting roadside if they knew of a local gin distillery. They laughed as if that was a stupid question. Of course they did – this is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone.
Two double-backs later, we’d found our way – a steep-ish gravel road through forest and blackberry bushes heavy with fruit.
It’s always a joy to see people create their own slice of paradise. Here is a place that distillers Jason and Alayne MacIsaac have made just the way they want it: A hand-built house, a lush garden overlooking the water, and a craft distillery out the back. The real deal. There was a vintage custom motorcycle out front to complete the picture.
We just showed up with no warning on loud bikes, and we were offered an extremely warm welcome.
Both Jason and Alayne came out to greet us, and Jason took us on a tour of their establishment.
Like the majority of distillers on Vancouver Island (there are almost 40 of them), the MacIsaacs make their own alcohol. Jason says they prefer the taste of locally produced organic white wheat and malted barley, and gives us a sip to prove it. It’s fresh, like a cool breeze.
The gin recipe involves the addition of orris, angelica, coriander and juniper. With dashes of orange, lavender, rose petals and lemon – and a dash of hand-harvested local winged kelp(!). It might sound crazy, but we could taste every one of those ingredients. Lovely.
A further twist of the screw results in aqvavit, something I haven’t had in almost as long as I’ve been on a motorcycle. After tasting the Sheringham version, I’ll be returning to this drink more often.
When people talk about small craft distilleries, this is what they mean. It’s a lot of work and a massive amount of determination, but look at what it can bring forth. There is a commitment to authenticity, to quality, and to the life that goes with this work on every level.
I’m sorry to say we didn’t have time to visit the nearby Tugwell Creek winery to taste their honey mead – which is what the metheglin in that martini turned out to be.
Sheringham Distillers just started production over the past couple of years. Here’s hoping this is just the start of something beautiful.