My late grandmother had a shed out behind her house that was always lined with jars of summer preserves, but she was dismissive of her jewelled shelves. She claimed she did all the work out of pure habit. When she was a girl, they did real winter preparations. It was serious business, drying the grains, shaving corn, getting flour milled. It was the stuff of survival, not the modern day practice that was just in case they got snowed in for a few days.
She was born in 1910 and grew up on a farm in Washington State. During the summers I spent with her in the 1960s and 70s, she was still performing remnants of her girlhood training during WWI and then the Depression: Putting up preserves for the long winters. When she was young, preserving the harvest from the previous season also included the seeds of the next’s years crops. Properly dried, put up in sacks and hung from the rafters (at least, that’s how she described it).
By the time I was visiting her, she was using store-bought seeds for her gardening, and didn’t truly worry about not getting through the winter. After all, there were always freezers and supermarkets. By my time, people had started putting up preserves as a hobby, not as a means of survival.
These days, preserving last years crops has taken on a whole new meaning. Around the world, seed archives have been created to safeguard plant species in the face of the climate crisis. As habitats change and disappear, as the climate heats up and becomes less predictable, we are stocking our shelves for tomorrow.
My grandmother Helen passed at age 101, but she would have been fascinated by the new preserves, the stuff we’re putting away for the long summer to come. We are placing hope in our future selves that we will be able to protect biodiversity then, even if we are failing at protecting it now.
All the images here are from the portfolio of Dornith Doherty, who is documenting these archives around the world in her Archiving Eden project.
Unique examples of the world’s plant life, not just for our consumption. They may have to last a lot longer than my grandmother’s winter preserves.
World Environment Day has been observed every year since 1974. Which means we’ve known for at least 45 years that the environment needed to be taken seriously rather than taken for granted. This year, China is acting as host country with the theme of #BeatAirPollution, an appropriate choice for a country that faces some of the most extreme air pollution in the world.
World Environment Day focuses on what we, as individuals, can do. Every little bit helps. But with 9 out of 10 people in the world breathing polluted air, maybe the best thing we, as individuals, can do is grow hearts of green and demand the same of our policymakers.
Real change has to be as diverse as the environment itself. It has to break through the hard concrete of old habits, at all levels of society and across borders. And it’s something we can do, but we can’t wait for another 45 years.
Growing a Green Heart on my village road in France. Photo: PKR
If you hit up any social media platform in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, you’d have seen that the global outpouring of grief has been accompanied by an outpouring of outrage that this event, this destruction, has garnered so much more attention than (insert pet cause, from apocalyptic climate change to biodiversity loss) . Even as I grieve over the loss of one of humankind’s great constructions, this jealous husbanding of grief baffles me, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
Because climate fear and eco-grief are the big banana complaints of the moment, people demand to know what makes Notre Dame’s desolation more grief-worthy than, say, the clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. Or the imminent extinction of the squishily adorable vaquita porpoise. How can the Notre Dame reconstruction fund have amassed a billion dollars from wealthy and poor alike in under a day, while we allow the natural cathedrals of the world to be felled, while we fail to protect glaciers from melting, or the oceans from filling with plastic? Oh, and by the way, the big bananas we all know and love, Cavendish bananas, are also in danger of extinction due to the rampaging and as yet incurable Panama fungus. As the Extinction Rebellion is demanding to know, where is the financial and political will to rebuild those epochal ruins or halt their destruction?
It’s as if grief is a zero-sum emotion. As if when we are horrified and saddened by the loss of a great historical building, we might not have enough grief left over for a lost rainforest or the decline of the monarch butterfly. There’s resentment that a 20-million-year-old cetacean species is less worthy of attention than a human-built pile of stones erected in the last thousand years.
Well, obviously. Limited focus is in our nature. We aren’t very good at seeing beyond the horizon of our own immediate interests. Committed environmentalists and activists have their areas of expertise and action, be it on specific birds or bananas; it is only from outside those laser-focused studies and undertakings that it looks like everyone is worried about everything all the time. At the same time, from outside those bubbles, there’s no denying that while the fall of one beloved building is a tragedy, the demise of untold glaciers is a statistic.
Allowing yourself to grieve at everything threatens to become overwhelming, a rising tide of despair upon which you either need to learn to body surf, or it will consume you more quickly than Florida’s coastline. How much safer to splash in grief at one particular event, the magnificent fire-gutting of a church, than to take in the systemic collapse of current political and economic systems that might be required for the planet to survive the inferno of humanity’s touch.
The cause of the Notre Dame cathedral fire looks like an electrical short, because of course it would be something simple. Like the carpenter’s faulty spotlight, as was the case with the burning of Windsor Castle. Or the spontaneous combustion of linseed oil rags, the current theory behind what destroyed Glasgow’s iconic School of Art. What each fire had in common was an old building in need of, or undergoing, renovation. And then an avoidable but not unlikely spark. A bit of slow motion entropy that erupted into disaster.
For someone like me who has adapted to expand my grief at environmental destruction so it can also absorb the loss of a human habitat like Notre Dame (not to mention the entire medieval forest that burned within it), the process of watching ecological damage is similar to what happened when these buildings went up in smoke. Small beginnings, unwarranted nonchalance, and calamitous results.
Fossil fuel use. Resource extraction. Plastic pollution. Overfarming, overfishing, overpopulation. The slow greedy embers that cause climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution have been burning in their hidden pockets for decades, but the conflagration is only getting truly under way now. For anyone waiting for the fire department to arrive, each lost species, each lost forest, each ruined waterway, is like watching the cathedral spire tip to one side and then collapse, over and over again. How much can the environment take before its structural integrity is so compromised that we collapse along with it?
Oops. There we go again, heads underwater in the grief tsunami. Hope you took a good deep breath beforehand.
In any case, the heroic efforts of the Paris fire department saved the main structure of Notre Dame. It will be rebuilt. Considering the level of worldwide passion and financial donations, the reconstruction could even be dazzling in its speed and ability to draw people together. Not to mention the creation of hundreds of jobs. Paris, and France, have reinvented themselves more than once. The country welcomed me as a citizen. I am forever grateful for its ability to absorb ruination and re-emerge anew.
So, up on top and body-surfing the grief wave again, we can look to the rebuilding of an ancient cathedral as an inspiration to what we can do when we decide to rebuild on a vast scale. Picture the passion swirling around Notre Dame, and imagine that applied to reforestation, or ocean clean-up. Imagine the sense of achievement. Imagine the jobs. Most of all, imagine this cathedral of a planet surviving and us along with it. There are thousands of children out on the street every Friday, doing just this.
Inclusive grief, active grief, all-embracing grief is the first step towards not waiting for someone else to do the work. When it comes to the cathedral of the world in which flames bursting forth and fire is visible through the windows, we are the people raising the alarm. Grieve, and then be the heroic fire fighters. Grieve, and then be the intrepid investigators, the innovative architects. Grieve, and then take action as the determined carpenters and workers.
Let us be all that, instead of being helpless mourners, choking on grief and angry that others aren’t grieving enough.
After two weeks of warm spring weather, blossoms everywhere, bees buzzing…it snowed. A lot. The balmy temperatures plummeted, and I wondered what would happen to the plants and creatures that had emerged from winter.
It took a day or so for the snow to melt, and then I went out for a walk. It was cold, there was a brisk wind, hawks and woodpeckers hovered and swooped. No butterflies yet, but there were a few intrepid troopers, warming themselves on the path.
Readers, feel free to correct me, but I think this angry animal is a kind of rove beetle. Specifically, because of its elegant scorpion pose, I think it might be Ocypus olens, a Devil’s coach horse beetle. In any case, that’s a metal rock star name for a fearsome beetle, so I’ll take it.
This one didn’t get as huffy when I approached, but shone in emerald iridescence beneath the late afternoon sun. I think it’s a kind of tiger beetle, but which kind?
The bird feeders in the garden were all but empty, considering the abundance of food available. But once everything was covered in white again, I refilled and watched the dozens of winter visitors return.
It’s not that we’ve never had late snowfalls before in our region of eastern France. They’re rare, but we have them. What’s been strange this year is how very early the weather turned warm, and how far along spring had progressed before the snow fell. I don’t know what this cold snap will mean for flowers and insects that were developing weeks ahead of the usual season.
Then a day after heavy snowfall, spring was back with a vengeance. Branches that had been bowed by the wet snow were straightening, and buds burst forth again. Still waiting for the bees to return, though.
Just when I thought autumn had finally arrived with a two-day rainstorm, the winds changed and summer is back. It’s as dry as ever, and no end in sight. In keeping with this year’s extreme weather, I noticed something different on my running loop.
Earlier this year, after a wet spring, a local meadow was in fine form. This is a stretch of grassland that is used to graze local dairy cattle. It sits between a copse of trees and a local forest, and is divided by a stream that usually goes dry in mid-August.
A local pasture in springtime. Photo: PKR
This year, the stream was already dry in July, despite the spring rains. It fills up briefly if we have a heavy rain, but then dries out again. This is the same meadow in early September.
The same pasture, four months later. Photo: PKR
What’s surprising to me isn’t that the grass is golden and dry. The new thing this year is that the grass has been harvested. In two decades of living here, I’ve never seen the grass harvested for feed. Usually, this meadow is openly grazed until snowfall, and then again as soon as the last frost has passed.
And then I noticed that two other meadows usually left untouched for open grazing had been harvested for grass. In fact, all the meadows surrounding my running loop had been cut down to the ground.
A nearby horse pasture. Photo: PKR
Some of these meadows are on private estate lands, and I’m wondering whether there’s some new local law to harvest grasses? More likely, I think, is that the feed harvest has been so bad this year that the local dairy farmers and horse stables are trying to access any kind of local feed to augment the bad crop yields – after all, the local crops were already fields of dry stalks by early August this year.
The only crop that seems to have done well around here is a field of soy that was flooded in early rains, and has since gone golden. Surprisingly, the soy proved resilient.
A soybean pod from the field. Photo: PKR
So now I’m wondering what kind of impact all this meadow cutting will have on local wildlife that usually depends on having a rich supply of winter grass to use for burrowing, eating, and general merriment. The times, they are a’changing.
We have a small flagstone terrace at the entrance to our old house in eastern France. It’s modest, and when we moved here, it was just flagstones surrounded by the gravel of the driveway. There was one additional element to it: An old millstone next to the front door.
The millstone is basically a big stone cylinder with a hole in the center, as if a giant pressed his thumb into the middle.
For years, I put potted flowers into the hole, but without drainage, any heavy rain left the soil waterlogged. Nothing lasted longer than a few weeks.
Because I am a slow learner and not decoratively inclined, it took me quite a while to come up with the idea of installing a recirculating water fountain. I took stones from a 19th century wall that had once bordered our garden, and put in a little solar-powered spout.
Even that took me a long time to figure out: If the water spouted up through the small head, it dispersed and the fountain dried out within a couple of hours. If I placed stones so that the water ran gently on the surface of the rocks rather than spritzed skywards, the little holes became clogged with the dirty water (there’s a lot of airborne dust that ends up in the fountain).
So this year, I had the bright idea of removing the fountain head and just letting the water burble up from the main spout and I think I may have finally hit the right combination. No clogging, the water spreads evenly over the rocks.
One of my great and unexpected pleasures in this whole process has been the number of small animals and insects that drink at the fountain. Lizards hop down from the neighboring wall to sunbathe and have an occasional sip, birds nip down for a drink, and the water fountain has become a gossip point for pollinators. Bees, wasps, butterflies – all take their turn.
I planted a couple of large lavender plants, accented by a few smaller flowers in pots, and the miniature garden is alive with butterflies, hummingbird hawk-moths, and bees for most of the summer. In the end, I didn’t expect this tiny terrace installation to become such a magnet for so many different creatures seeking pollen, shade, and water.
It took me a while, but I think I finally got it right.
The dirt track between vineyards on the shores of Lake Geneva looked nothing like a road, but my GPS system insisted this was the way to my destination. As it turned out, the tractor-rutted road did lead to my friend’s house, but the route was neither the most direct nor the best maintained. On my map, though, it looked like any other road. The GPS offered no insight into how the situation looked on the ground, but the horse-back riders were visibly annoyed that I had chosen this quiet local path instead of the regular street, just out of sight beyond the closest field.
Map of Discovery (1928): This 1928 map depicted the political boundaries of the time, created in the style of 16th century mariner’s charts. Artist/Source: N.C. Wyeth/National Geographic
This post itself might ramble a bit off the trail–I don’t really have a clear map for where it’s going. I know how to read the kinds of maps I grew up with, the flat ones with lines, the ones on spheres. But as it turns out, those were never really accurate.
The dimensions were off from the beginning. We all know that Africa is much, much larger than Greenland or North America, but somehow, the older maps made them all look remarkably similar in size. And although the Earth is a sphere floating in space, most global maps were printed from a perspective that always put the North at the top.
A map developed by Hajime Narukama in 2016 approaches those problems be re-orienting a map that isn’t defined by north and south. What we get is a variety of maps in which the Earth can be viewed from any point of departure – a map of the world as seen from Peru, or Tonga, or Hawaii. It’s surprising just how disorienting it is.
Authagraph map (2016). According to its creator Hajime Narukawa, the AuthaGraph map “represents all oceans, continents including Antarctica which has been neglected in many existing maps in substantially proper sizes. These fit in a rectangular frame without interruptions and overlaps.” Source: Interesting Engineering
One thing about the old, traditional maps was that they had skewed perspectives that were more suited to navigating across seas (their main original purpose, I guess) than understanding a place that’s been a part of a culture’s history forever (like these amazing Inuit navigation maps made of wood).
Another thing was that even early navigational maps portrayed places as the map-makers wanted others to see them. Early European maps of the New World painted a picture of the resources there for the taking, and the strangeness of the people who lived there, as if there had been no history before these maps were made. As territory was mapped, maps were used to define the territories, the ownership, the laws.
It’s said that history is written by the victors. Well, the same might be said of traditional maps. (Online maps, it could be argued, are written by advertisers, but that’s a post for another day.)
It’s one thing to see a place on a map; it’s entirely another to be in that place. Sometimes, we need a completely different kind of map.
Will these maps help you find a specific town? Definitely not if you don’t already know where it is. That’s kind of the point.
I recently learned of a study that looked into how migrating birds find their way across continents, something we humans have only been able to do with any kind of accuracy for a fairly short time. Yet birds can aim for specific beaches on either end of the planet. What do their maps look like?
An international team of researchers has found that some migratory birds are using a magnetic navigational map, an internal compass that allows them to know where they are in terms of longitude. The study suggests that this internal magnetic map (which might be shared across many other species besides birds, such as turtles) could be combined with the experience of making the journey with adult birds, the night sky, and perhaps even smells, to provide guidance to animals finding their way to summer and winter grounds.
Magnetic Intensity and Magnetic Declination Form an Excellent Bi-coordinate Grid in Some Parts of the World. The map shows magnetic declination isolines (red; degrees) and total intensity isolines (blue; nT) based on US NOAA National Geophysical Data Center and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. The breeding range of Eurasian reed warblers is shown in yellow. The black curve indicates the autumn migratory route of a typical Eurasian reed warbler from the Baltic region based on ringing recoveries. Source: Nikita Chernetsov, et al./ Forbes
This is the visualization that the researchers made of the magnetic map possibly used by the reed warblers used in the study.
I wonder if we could even comprehend what a reed warbler’s map might really look like. In any case, it would be much closer to the Zuni maps of memory and story than our maps of lines and dots. There must be so much data and knowledge built into every little warbler’s mind map of the world.
What kind of map would the locals of the Swiss village where I drove down the wrong road make that could have kept this stranger from getting lost in the vineyards? What kind of map would chart the place memory of my old French village for all the newcomers and old-timers?
What if our maps could transcend their supposed objectivity and truly chart Memory Lane?
Journey of the Zuni Ancestors to the Land of Everlasting Summer (2008) Artist/Source: Duane Dishta/Emergence Magazine
A cold winter and a short spring have left a short window for many species of trees and plants to release wind-borne pollen – so they are doing it all at once. It’s an adaptation for them, and we have to adapt. Part of that adaptation, I suppose, is that all of our vehicles are now purveyors of pollen.
I washed the first batch of pollen off my car less than 48 hours before the image here was taken, and my grey car is already completely yellow again. Pollen. Some types of pollen have a remarkable ability to fold in upon themselves for their flight, allowing them to retain moisture, and then unfold upon arrival in a hospitable destination, ready to reproduce. My guess is that the folding pollen types remain folded on the hot roof of my car, waiting for a better home.
A variety of pollen grains in different stages of folding Image via ScienceFriday / Slow Muse
This isn’t the first year I’ve seen all the cars turned the same golden color, but it might be one of the most intense. And of course, it’s not just the vehicles. It’s on every possible surface. But then, I don’t generally suffer from hayfever – otherwise, my concerns would be elsewhere.
Pollen horizon: A golden blanket of pollen atop my car. Photo: PKR
If their pollination season is usually spread over several weeks, and they’ve all released at the same time, what impact does that have on the various animals or plants that interact with them according to a seasonal schedule that has been drastically accelerated?
I had to learn two very different skill sets as a girl: needlepoint and geography. Who would have thought that at one time, girls were expected to learn the two together? What an unexpected interdisciplinary education!
Among the women in my family, right up to my generation in the 1970s, needlework and yarn work were considered part of a girl’s education. Cross-stitching, needlepoint, embroidery, crocheting, knitting, darning, quilting – I had my own set of embroidery hoops, knitting and crochet needles, a range of needlepoint needles and a rainbow of thread by the time I was 10. And yet, my grandmother was disappointed that my lace-making skills had been completely neglected – a real shortcoming on the part of my mother, who to my knowledge never finished a single project. Mom hated every stitch, but it was just something she had been expected to do – and she expected me to have the same skills.
A Map of the World from the Latest Discoveries (c. 1790-1815) Silk embroidery on silk backing. Made by Mary Ann Wood. Source: George Glazer Gallery
What else did we have to learn? Geography. Specifics for the United States, generalities for every place else. I still know my Fifty Nifty United States song to help memorize all fifty states in the Union – drilling the names of the capitals and main rivers of each state was a prerequisite to finishing fourth or fifth grade. I remember enjoying poring over our Atlas of the World, a massive tome that required its own shelf. Back then of course, it was all drawn maps on printed paper, not satellite images on a screen.
But if needlepoint and textile abilities have always been expected of girls – as much to keep them busy as for practical reasons – then geography and education were out of their reach for a very long time.
From the late eighteenth century until about 1840, schoolgirls in the British Isles and the United States created embroidered map samplers and even silk globes…that were designed to teach needlework and geography. (…)The events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries stimulated an explosion of interest in geography. The American and French Revolutions, the wars between France and England, the War of 1812, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the explorations of Lewis and Clark made the study of places exciting and important. (…)In this light, map samplers and embroidered globes represent a transition in women’s education from ‘accomplishments’ in the eighteenth century to challenging geographic education and conventional map drawing in schools and academies of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Globe sampler (1815) Ink and silk embroidery on silk and wood. Made by Ruth Wright, Westtown, Pennsylvania Source: Common Destinations
I’m assuming that boys of the period were simply given pencil and paper to learn geography – then as now, I have a hard time imagining them being given a needle and thread and expected to make a map.
At any rate, the good news is that these artefacts survived, and offer us a wonderful window both into women’s crafts, and the history of cartography.
The past 48 hours or so have brought about several changes. Most of them I expected. One of them I didn’t.
First, the mirabelle plum tree in the garden.
In just the space of less than two days, it went from this:
The mirabelle tree on the cusp of blossoming. All photos: PKR
The sky was a little cloudier, but the tree itself is a cloud of white blossoms.
And someone must have told the bees, because the entire tree is thrumming with pollinator excitement. This particular tree makes me especially happy, because when we moved here it was just a dry stump. We tended to it, and as a reward, we started getting plump, sweet yellow mirabelle plums. Not to mention this luscious display of blossoms in spring.
The other expected change was along my running route. I’m so grateful that our region of France stopped using pesticides and herbicides to keep country roadsides clear.
Violets that might not be native, nestled among other flowers that probably are. A tiny corner of roadside biodiversity.
Every few weeks from spring through late fall, large trimming tractors cut back any green growth like massive herbaceous shavers, cutting back everything from grass to weeds to tree branches in the fauchage. I’ve rarely seen any roadsides in the world as tidy as those in France.
Tiny native orchids that enjoy the altitude and cold winters of our mountainous region.
In the inbetween times, this approach allows the growth of wildflowers along the roadsides, which is good for plants and pollinators alike.
The one unexpected change brought by the warm weather and the past day was the fencing in of my running route. There had always been a grazing pasture one one side. Now, the path is flanked by a second pasture for the first time in the twenty years we’ve lived here.
The fence to the left forms a new boundary to my regular running path.
At least, I’m assuming it’s a grazing pasture because of the electrified fence. Every year, this field has rotated wheat, corn, clover and other crops – I guess this year, grazing dairy cattle is more profitable than any of those crops.