Monthly Archives: April 2016

Pleasant Perspectives (Mostly)

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I picked my first garden bouquet for the office vase. It’s the only flower vase in the house due to a flower-unfriendly feline, although at this point she’s getting too old to get at the highest shelves, so maybe we can allow a few more vases this year.

All photos: PKR

All photos: PKR

Forget-me-nots and rosemary in bloom, two of my favorites. The little forget-me-nots are brand new, the rosemary bush is ancient, a bush at the base of a house wall built in 1478. No, the rosemary isn’t quite that old. It dates several decades, though, its twisting, low branches thick as a tree.

Both flowers are often used to represent remembrance, love and fidelity, overcoming challenges to remain loyal.

The other good perspective on the weekend was the movie we went to see last night. Actually, not so much the movie, which we enjoyed. Even if the average age in the movie theater was under 18. That’s what we get for going to a Friday night showing of Captain America: Civil War.

Mumm. Not my very favorite, but tasty nonetheless.

Mumm. Not my very favorite, but tasty nonetheless.

But what made the movie all the more enjoyable was the delightful availability of champagne splits at the concession stand. Yes, with glasses. Plastic, sure, but no worse than at a picnic. Sure, it’s more expensive than popcorn and a Coke. But this is Geneva, Switzerland – the difference isn’t quite as much as you might think.

A little champagne during a movie can make bad movies less awful and good movies better by improving the overall experience. Kind of like having the right music at a restaurant meal.

Especially when the movie is about the good guys taking sides against one another. Differences over loyalty and history, big fights with cataclysmic outcomes. Grim stuff.

Glad we had a bit of bubbly for comfort. Good thing I’m practiced in pouring it in the dark, even with 3D glasses.

Rare Snow, Rare Rant

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It’s one of those days that confirm the thinking of both climate change deniers and the other 98% of us.

I wanted to go out for a run, and ended up wearing my spring running tights, a winter running jacket, and gloves. A fierce wind has been blowing from the north-east. The sky looks like late April but it feels like January.

Out on my run in the bright spring sunshine, a white mote floated down before me. A bit of cherry blossom? Underfeather fluff from an amorous songbird above? Maybe a glint of wing from the first small dragonflies in my path? After all, it’s almost May and spring has sprung.

The sparkling bit of something that floated down in front of me, and the many others that followed, were none of those things.

It was snow. Not much, just a light flurry, but most decidedly snow. Pretty, the way it caught the sunlight. The mountain range beyond lies under a late spring blanket, just after the end of the ski season here.

Spring blossoms against new snow. Photo: PKR

Spring blossoms against new snow.
Photo: PKR

Fodder for those who choose to deny what they still call ‘global warming.’ After all, how can snow in late spring be a sign of a warming climate?

Proof for everyone else, the rest of us who call this process what it is: human-induced climate change.

Sure, we’ve had late snows before, just not quite this late, and not after weeks of warm vernal weather.

And so we begin to speculate on what it all means.

I recently read a couple of articles in the Washington Post, the oldest newspaper in the Washington D.C. area, winner of dozens of Pulitzer Prizes.

One article, by Chris Mooney, was in the Energy and Environment section. It outlined some of the climate change expectations versus what is being observed on the ground right now, which could be summarized by saying that the climate is changing even more quickly than expected. It ends with a strong argument for putting a sharp end to deforestation, and for taking responsibility and quick action to stop further changes.

Several other articles and opinion pieces echoed this sentiment.

Winter skies move across an April landscape. Photo: PKR

Winter skies move across an April landscape.
Photo: PKR

The other, on the same day, was an Opinion piece by well-known and highly acclaimed conservative writer George F. Will. In it, he says that those who agree that the current era of climate change is caused by humans (i.e. pretty much everyone in the world except a tiny economically driven minority in a small handful of countries) are carrying out a “campaign to criminalize debate about science” by trying to reduce the noise made by deniers who call themselves skeptics. Mr. Will considers any refutation of this supposed climate ‘debate’ to be suppression of free speech and a move towards authoritarianism.

He frames the entire discussion as a government grab of individual and economic liberties, reminding me a bit of the fringe-thinkers who think the United Nations is actually a New World Order organization with a goal of world domination.

I’m not sure why the Washington Post, with its long and respected history, would choose to publish such a contrast on Earth Day. It’s hard to grasp why a tenacious group of people, some of them very smart, would choose to ignore such widespread agreement across the globe in favor of short-term politics – and for such a grimly nihilistic worldview, at that.

A recent study found that in 14 industrialized countries, the largest proportion of deniers (17%) was in Australia. The U.S. came in at 12%, far fewer than the number of Americans who think that the sun revolves around the Earth, or who haven’t really been convinced by the whole evolution thing.

A piece like Mr. Will’s in a newspaper like the Washington post is exactly the kind of thing that makes the head-in-the-sand stance look like there’s actually any kind of debate going on at all, and that in itself could be seen as an irresponsible environmental act.

Meanwhile, I’m watching pretty snowflakes settle on the spread of petite white daisies across my lushly green garden lawn.

A Multitude of Voices

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I had the windows open last night and listened to the wind blow through the trees and hedges around our home. We have a small stand of bamboo on one side of the house, a few fruit trees in the garden out front, and to the back, a high hedge of yew.

Not far down the road, old oak and cypress line the path down to a nearby river. photo-1_3From my window I can see stands of pine, alder, and until recently, an orchard of massive cherry trees left to grow to their full height.

The soft rustle of the fruit trees, the rush and creak of the oak and cypress, the whisper of yew and the rush of bamboo. Each of them has its own voice in the wind.

There were many more when we moved here. A wonderful old cypress that was cut down early one Saturday morning, illegally, a fine paid to the authorities so that a new house didn’t have the nuisance of an old tree where a straight hedge might be. Beech trees that were lost to a long, hot summer. Half a small forest to thirty new houses.

The cherry orchard was cut down this year to make way for ten townhouses.

The sheep next door in the cherry orchard. Photo: PK Read

Sheep last spring in the cherry orchard.
Photo: PK Read

At least we are still surrounded by a multitude of other trees that sing a raucous chorus.

There are 7.4 billion people on the planet today, and we take up a lot of space.

Today, from the Worldometer. Source: Worldometer

Today, from the Worldometer.
Source: Worldometer

The multitude of us has cleared multitudes of trees, and even when we replant trees, we tend to farm in tidy rows of mono-tree plantations that all whisper in a single voice.

The Worldometer, a constantly updated stocktaking of human population and impact, displays all 7.4 billion humans as if they are crop trees popping up on a tree plantation, each just like the other, with only empty space between, devoid of real life.

Hardly a representation of the messy, complex cultures and interactions that make life worth living.

A tiny section of the endless human population scroll of the Worldometer. Source: Worldometer

A tiny section of the endless human population scroll of the Worldometer.
Source: Worldometer

There are calls for the replanting of 7.8 billion trees, or just a little more than one tree per person on the planet. And not just any tree, but a whole bouquet of trees.

If I tend to write often about trees, it’s only a sign of just how important they are to us, and to our world.

After all, if we like to think that we value the different voice of each person today, why shouldn’t the trees have the same variety?

Earth Day, 22 April 2016.

Plant a tree. Or a few. Or help someone else do it.

 

Tactile Topography

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These maps, sold to Danish explorer Gustav Holm by Umvit native Kunit in the 1880s. Kuniit's wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, Greenland. Source: Visualising Data

These maps were sold to Danish explorer Gustav Holm by Umvit native Kuniit in the 1880s.
Kuniit’s wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, Greenland.
Source: Visualising Data

I came across some maps the other day and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since.

Carved wood maps are well-known Inuit instruments of cartography, made to navigate the coastal waters and inland areas of Greenland. The maps are read by feeling along each ridge, and are legible up one side and down the other for a continuous journey.

The tools are hand-held guidance systems for specific journeys that would be almost illegible to those of us accustomed to paper.

These are maps made for specific journeys, to be read by those who had been there and passed on, or rather, taught, to those who were going. Experiential maps based on being there rather than description. An object that contains sight, sound, touch, all ready to fit into a mitten.

Less a visualization than a finger-felt stroll through a long path.

In English, the caption reads: "Kuniit's three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik." Source: Topografisk Atlas Grønland via Nuuk Marlak

In English, the caption reads: “Kuniit’s three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik.”
Source: Topografisk Atlas Grønland via Nuuk Marlak

Consider the knowledge of place that is required to craft a map of this kind.

How many places do most of us know as well, using our conventional maps and paths through life?

When I was a teenager, I spent some time living in the dense forests of coastal Marin County, California. We lived in cabins that were almost a mile from the main road, up a steep and rutted dirt road that twisted and turned between bay trees and ferns, no grading or gravel. No electricity, no street lights. No neighbors.

Every so often, walking back from the closest village of Inverness, I would arrive after sunset.

Being a forgetful teen, I rarely remembered to bring a flashlight. Read: Never. So I walked the road in the dark. Barefoot, so I could stay on the soft dirt of the road and not accidentally wander off into the soft fringes of moss and low plants on either side. Once the road was gone beneath my feet, it was gone for a panicky while.

That happened only once, the first time. After that, I got to know the curves and switchbacks, the ruts and the touchstone trees, well enough make my way up the hill without incident. Read: Safe arrival.

Seeing these wooden Inuit maps, I wonder if I would have been able to carve that road into a tool that I could have used, even without bare feet. I knew the road well – but how deeply had I made it a part of myself, as these maps must have been to their makers and users?

The Greenland coastline described in the coastal wooden map, seen from a modern paddling perspective. A description of the trip can be found at the credit link. Source: Jim Krawiecki/The Paddler eZine

The Greenland coastline described in the coastal wooden map, seen from a modern paddling perspective. A description of the trip can be found at the credit link.
Source: Jim Krawiecki/The Paddler eZine

Covering Our Eyes

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The main centers of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) lay like a loose pearl necklace around the coastal edges of the nation.

I’ve never been to any of the NASA sites, but I grew up watching them from a distance.

As a child of the Sixties, the moon launches that took place were an invitation to dream of the stars. They made everything – anything – seem possible. It was just a matter of extending the grasp of our human hands by a finger’s length.

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions. Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt Text credit: European Space Agency

This spectacular skyscape was captured during the study of the giant galaxy cluster Abell 2744, otherwise known as Pandora’s Box. While one of Hubble’s cameras concentrated on Abell 2744, the other camera viewed this adjacent patch of sky near to the cluster. This parallel field — when compared to other deep fields — will help astronomers understand how similar the Universe looks in different directions.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Text credit: European Space Agency

With the passing of time, those dreams of exploration have expanded in unexpected ways. As it turns out, what we don’t know about space is matched in kind by what we don’t know about our home planet.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say what we don’t know and would like to find about the cosmos runs parallel to what we have chosen not to know, and would rather not find out, about Earth.

We’ve known about human-caused climate impact for a very long time. Even the fossil-fuel industry has known about the effects of its products for longer than any care to admit.

And a rise in sea levels is one of the main effects of a rapidly warming world.

So what to think about the story that many of the most iconic NASA facilities, those stepping stones to understanding our place in the universe and in the environment, are at risk of being submerged by the rising seas of global warming?

NASA and international space agencies around the world provide an array of tools and mechanisms for examining our world as well as others – those first photos of the blue planet bobbing in deep space inspired many to try and protect what turned out to be a rather unique place to live.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells. This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Caption/Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.

Viewed from space, the most striking feature of our planet is the water. In both liquid and frozen form, it covers 75% of the Earth’s surface. It fills the sky with clouds. Water is practically everywhere on Earth, from inside the rocky crust to inside our cells.
This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data

Those initial images have been followed by a myriad of eyes that look at our planet in self-examination. In photos, measurements, radar, NASA and its partner agencies have been building an ever expanding archive of information, deepening our understanding of the forces at work here on the surface.

These are visions that aren’t necessarily what I would call the stuff of dreams, but they provide a portal to action in a way that perhaps moon launches didn’t for the average earthbound human.

These are images taken from the perspective of celestials, given to the earthbound. They promote an awareness of what the planet it doing, we are doing and maybe, what we can do it better.

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997. Credits: NASA/Goddard

Strong El Nino events have a big impact on phytoplankton (in green), especially when the warm water pushes far to the east of the Pacific Ocean, as in 1997.
Caption/Credit: NASA/Goddard

The United States launch pads, were built near coastlines for safety reasons. But latitude plays a role – these are the southernmost regions of the country, and thus closest to the Equator, where “the greater diameter of the planet provides a slingshot effect that gives each rocket more bang for the propulsion buck.” (NYT)

What to say about some of our best technological achievements being inundated by the technologies and habits we can’t seem to quit?

The Marks We Leave Behind

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Today’s first real post-winter foray into the garden reminds me that I’m a messy gardener. Late, as usual. But I’ve got a special packet of seeds to plant this week, and they’ve inspired me to be more attentive this year.

This is the effect of the person who sent me the seed packet, my guru of gardening, my aspirational green thumb.

Entrance to my friends' garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All photos: PKR

Entrance to my friends’ garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All garden photos were taken in Alaska.
All photos: PKR

I tackle gardening tasks in fits and starts, I spend hours one day until I’m sore, and then I won’t be back for a few days while I recover, even if the weather is ideal or the season quickly pressing on.

My drip irrigation system has been a work in progress for years, I plant up and tend and then I leave for a week and everything dies. I plant new things. It’s a fraught relationship. I’m still a beginner after twenty years.

Our garden was taken over from a French family that was abjectly devoted to the little square of territory (and I do mean little).

Before them, there was an English lady with a similar  passion. Before that, parts of the property were still taken up by the village stone oven (demolished to universal disapproval by the English owner to improve her view of the mountains beyond), the rest populated by number of fruit trees.IMG_1604

Our tiny corner of village has been worked and built and redone since the 15th century, when our house was first constructed.

Whenever I work the garden, I find evidence of what went before. No matter how many times I turn the soil, there’s always something new. Old coins, the outlines of the old oven, a long-buried heap of small animal bones. An old cooking pot, completely rusted through.

There’s been a recent story in the news about satellite images of a patch of land in Newfoundland, Canada. On a small peninsula that looks nothing more than windswept and wild, careful examination by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak revealed small and unusual variations  in vegetation patterns on the land.

 A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures. Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe


A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures.
Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe

Specifically, Parcak identified straight lines of certain kinds of vegetation that could be the result of buried ruins, ancient walls that alter the amount of moisture retained by surrounding soil and thus, the grasses that grow there.

An initial archeological dig has turned up promising evidence that this site at Point Rosee might just represent the second known Norse settlement in the New World.

All based on the way the grass grows, a thousand years after the settlement was abandoned.

Could the people of Point Rosee, assuming they really were Norse settlers, have ever dreamed in their wildest sagas that tufts of grass could indicate their presence after a millennium?

Back to those seeds I need to plant.IMG_1614

They were sent to me by one of the most gifted gardeners I know, a long-time friend who moved away over ten years ago. We became close friends here in France, then she returned to Alaska over a decade ago.

We don’t get to see much of each other these days. The ten-hour time difference makes phone call scheduling a challenge.

It would be easy to let this friendship wilt, easier than maintaining it over the distance and years. Far simpler to let it go its way and replant with a new one. But, for all the fits and starts, some relationships are worth it.

These are the relationships that leave deep marks, that alter the soil around hidden walls and make the vegetation grow differently.IMG_1633

The seeds – some of her favorites, she writes – will go into the garden. If I do my job right, I’ll get to spend time next to them as they grow over the season, and watch them blossom and bear fruit, and enjoy the close proximity.

And maybe, like many of the plants in our garden, they’ll keep coming back, year after year, a mark of our time here.

Secret signs of long distances in time and place that people have gone to live, to thrive, to make friends, to leave again.IMG_1619