River People

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From an environmentalist standpoint, it can be a challenge to apply laws made for humans to the natural world, especially when many of those laws deal with nature solely as property with no inherent legal rights.

Most environmental laws have been crafted to deal with regulating exploitation or protection, but always from the perspective of human requirements or exploitation of resources, land and nature.

Mouth of the Ganges.
Image: Zastavki

But just as the intellectual property rights that were crafted to protect commercial interests have come to be used as a tool to protect indigenous and traditional knowledge from being exploited by commercial interests, so to are laws that surround legal personhood – such as those that protect the interests of companies  and other legal entities – being used to redefine the natural world.

The high court in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand has handed down a ruling that designates the River Ganges as a legal person. This designation was then extended to the River Yamuna, as well as the rivers’ respective source glaciers, Gangotri and Yamunotri, as well as other natural landscapes such as lakes, meadows,  jungles, forests, wetlands, grasslands, springs, waterfalls, and air.

Whanganui River.
Photo: Māori Party

This process took place first in New Zealand with the Te Urewera, an area of forested hills in the north-east that used to be a national park, which became a person for legal purposes in 2014, and the Whanganui River, the country’s third largest, in March 2017.

There have long been cultural and religious beliefs that respect natural elements as gods, deities, living beings worthy of the same respect as any other living creature.

The use of Western-based jurisprudence in this way leverages the human language of ownership by bestowing the fundamental rights we articulate for legal entities upon elements of nature that cannot speak for themselves in a court of law.

It means that, for example, legal action against a factory polluting a river doesn’t require humans to have been harmed or property to have been damaged in order for a river to be considered injured by pollution. The fact that the river is considered invested with fundamental rights means action can be taken on behalf of the river itself.

Yamuna River near Kalindi Kunj.
Photo: Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO

It’s a keen strategy, and one that could be very promising. Some have been saying that the Ganges is now considered a person, with all attendant rights. Considering what we humans do to one another, even within the law, this might not be the highest achievement.

But the Ganges and the Yamuna, their sources, the Whanganui River and other ‘persons’ of nature might just be more like something the law consistently protected with more reliability than it has individual people: They are like a corporation or company, legal entities our jurisprudence systems take very good care of around the world.

Full Bloom

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Kew Gardens, UNESCO World Heritage site, on a perfect Sunday, the fulfillment of a bucket list dream. There is so much more to the gardens than my few pictures show, and days could be spent wandering the further reaches of the massive site. This is just a snapshot of one day during one season.

The spring flowers beneath trees fringed in new green.

The lanes of rhododendrons and azaleas.

From a Kew Garden post on Monumental Trees: Lots of plants were discovered and described for the first time by British botanists, so many of the oldest planted specimens of a large number of plant species can be found in Kew.

In Kew living specimens of species that are critically endangered or already have become extinct in the wild, are grown and so Kew can be seen as a true Ark of Noah.

Daffodils, luminous against the morning sun.

 

The Hive, a large, walk-in structure that puts visitors inside a architectural version of a beehive: “The Hive is an immersive sound and visual experience. The lights you see and the sounds you hear inside the Hive are triggered by bee activity in a real beehive at Kew. The intensity of the sounds and light change constantly, echoing that of the real beehive. The multi award-winning Hive was inspired by scientific research into the health of honeybees. It is a visual symbol of the pollinators’ role in feeding the planet and the challenges facing bees today.”

The Hive from the outside:

I am so happy we got to see this early in the day when it was empty. We could hear the hum of activity, see the lights blinking in response to sensors embedded in a real beehive and activated by bees at work there.

The Hive from the inside:

And The Hive from below:

 

Kew Gardens supports over a dozen species of bees native to the UK.

The 18th-century Japanese Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) that looks like there should be a fairy tale door within the brick wall that holds up the tree’s trunk.

And finally, nothing so beautiful as a sunny day, a pristine magnolia, and excellent company. Thanks to my daughter for a perfect UK Mother’s Day excursion.

 

Waste Not

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Many years ago, I was on vacation on a small Caribbean island. The hotel was new, and a man from one of the neighboring rooms found out just how new when he turned on the bathroom faucet, only to have the water run from the sink straight on to his feet. The drainpipe hadn’t been installed. He immediately turned off the faucet. Of course, he got a different room, because a hotel guest can’t be expected to find a pot for used sink water.

‘Like ancient pots spilled from a drowning ship, tube sponges bulge eerily’ (1993). Mixed media.
Artist: Panya Clark Espinal

I’ve been thinking about this story today, World Water Day. The theme this year is the importance of treating wastewater in the overall cycle of maintaining a viable freshwater supply. Currently, most wastewater around the world is allowed to flow untreated back into waterways, lakes, oceans and land. Not only is this a waste, but it contributes ever more to the pollution of existing freshwater supplies.

There are so many reasons we don’t properly treat wastewater, from lack of facilities and funding to the general human attitude towards natural resources: We assume they are virtually limitless until they are almost gone.

And so even those of us in regions with good access to water, and with advanced sewage treatment options lose sight of water’s value. We brush our teeth with the faucet open, we take long showers, we wash dishes with the water running, we use water-thirsty appliances, we irrigate recklessly, and still the water flows endlessly out of a faucet or a hose, to be magically whisked away by pipes to treatment plants most of us never see.

Like Ancient Pots spilled from a drowning ship, tube sponges bulge eerily (1993). Mixed media.
Artist: Panya Clark Espinal

We know there are areas where people stand in line for hours to get a bucket or container of water for cooking and bathing; we know there are places where there are no pipes to carry away sewage. One in ten people on the planet don’t have access to safe water or sanitary facilities. The rest of us open the faucet and let it flow.

Getting back to the hotel guest with the wet feet: If we all had to deal with the results of a running faucet and no potential for installing new pipes, would we be more attentive to how much water we use, and what we do with our used water before it drenches us?

 

Spring Unfolding

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Today marks the vernal equinox, and looking out at my garden, I’m eager to get outside and be a part of the day by getting my hands dirty.

The air over the past few days has been soft with warmth, spiced with the scents of new grass and turned earth, sweet with birdsong.

Nomadic harvest dress.
Artist: Nicole Dextras

My garden and I will be engaging in our usual dialogue, the one that starts when the snow melts and goes on until the snow starts falling again, usually some time in December.

It’s not a one-sided conversation; the garden talks more than I do, tells me what it wants or doesn’t want, and I try to come up with a witty or timely response. We don’t always speak the same language, and I know that’s my fault.

Cutting down a line of long grasses yesterday, I found the winter nest of some small mammal hidden beneath a particularly imposing clump. There was a thick ball of moss, leaves and grass that had been a home. I had just been telling myself that I should cut back these grasses in autumn for a tidier look; now I’ll be sure to leave them long as an invitation.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

I’d like to think I have some say in shaping the garden. Often enough, the garden laughs me off and does as it pleases. Mostly, the garden shapes me.

I wouldn’t call us friends, because I impose myself on the hospitality of this small space. I try to listen. I try to be companionable. I don’t always succeed.

I suppose that’s true for my life outside the garden, too. We are a work in progress.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

Felling Heritage

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People used to intimately know places like the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, the wild places that made us what we are.

Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.

This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.

In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.

Bialowieza Forest.
Photo: Emily Sun

Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.

The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.

But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.

Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Enduring Collection

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The image below, of bottles and some kind of a collection, immediately made me think of marine life. Maybe it’s the small, irregular pieces carefully arrayed beneath each bottle. Maybe it’s the size of the bottles and their tidy alignment, paired against the sandy randomness of their spilled contents.

 

I thought it might be a collection of sand types, something from the Sand Atlas.

Samples from various beaches, perhaps.

 

These are forams (Sorites), Cyprus.
Source: Sand Atlas

 

The round bottles also made me think of sewing and buttons.

Maybe these were shards of buttons that had been found in an archeological dig.

 

Buttons
Source: Tyrs/Wikimedia

 

Or perhaps the image is a tiny environmental art installation of natural materials.

 

The Darkness, an installation taken from part of a collapsed Sussex cliff.
Artist: Cornelia Parker

But no. The collection turned out to be none of those things, although each jagged piece will outlast almost anything else I had imagined. Each small piece here, even if it hadn’t been retrieved and catalogued, will endure for decades if not centuries.

I was correct about the marine life connection. The pieces had been battered and reduced from their original forms by water. But before they found their way into these lab bottles, each piece found its way into the mouth of a turtle hatchling, and each bottle represents the stomach contents of a hatchling either starved to death on a belly full of plastic, or that died as a result of damage caused by the plastic.

Stomach contents of deceased hatchling and post-hatchling sea turtle patients.
Source: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Larger turtles can survive some level of plastic ingestion, which includes everything from small debris to entire plastic fishing nets. The hatchings can’t pass the plastic through their systems.

According to Jack Lighton, head of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Florida where these samples were collected, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if a sea turtle has ingested marine pollution,” it’s now a question of “how much the turtle has ingested.”

And because it’s not just turtles swallowing our garbage, but all manner of other animals on land and water, it’s something to consider in our ongoing world of packaging, non-reusable items like straws and plastic forks, plastic bags and plastic furniture.

 

Divestment Transparency

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Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

We like to think we can see the true nature of the world around us, or at least, that we have a chance of understanding it. In February, the Irish government took a big step towards revealing how the fossil fuel infrastructure really works. How? By halting all public investment in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas from the €8 billion (US$8.6 billion) Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.

When it comes to the environment and protecting it for our own health as well as that of the planet, it helps to try and see through the obvious arguments about why we are still using so much fossil fuel, even though we know the damage it does to the climate. After all, Shell Oil made a film about that damage to the climate by fossil fuel use back in 1991, so none of this is new.

So after decades of discussions, why aren’t we further down the road to renewable energy use?

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

One key reason is because some of the largest modern governments are so profoundly intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. Massive subsidies go towards supporting supply security, but also fund environmental protection by reducing emissions. A 2016 report published in World Development estimated that direct fossil fuel subsidies averaged 6.5% of the global GDP in the years 2013-2015, with over half the subsidies going to coal (China is the largest subsidizing country by far).

Subsidies of renewable energies are a small fraction of this amount, particularly if one folds in the indirect subsidies of maintaining fossil-fuel infrastructures, and the lack of holding fossil fuel companies all along the production chain financially accountable for damage done – for example, clean-ups of damaged water systems or land polluted in oil spills, or ecosystem rebuilding following mining activities.

These subsidies are public funds that are paid to support what is already one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

By becoming the first country in the world to fully divest from fossil fuel subsidies, Ireland shines a light on how the system really works. Knowing how much any given government is paying to support fossil fuel use instead of more sustainable energies can provide real insight into policy decisions – and if that country is a representative democracy, that knowledge can guide voters’ choices.

This divestment gets down to the hidden structures that keep a dangerous addiction both strong and intact.

Untitled, (lily)  (1932), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Untitled, (lily) (1932), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

 

Stone Cold Facts

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Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.

But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.

Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.

Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

Tsunami stone.
Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr

And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.

Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.

For data to be politicized for immediate or short-term goals is to put society in peril of running headlong in the wrong direction. As an example, the new administration has also just removed regulations that restricted the dumping of coal mining waste into rivers and streams; without regular monitoring of water quality and access to this data, who will know in eighteen months how water quality has fared?

Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.

 tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location.
Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin

Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.

Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.

Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.

The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don't worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. Uphill. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill!
Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal

 

Clepsydra Elegy

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It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest tools humans used to tell time was water. After all, it’s what we are, what we need to live.

A clepsydra is an ancient clock system that, at its most basic, uses two bowls, one nested inside another. The outer bowl is filled with water; the empty inner bowl has a hole at the bottom which allows a controlled flow of water to seep in.

Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient Persian clock in qanats of Gonabad, Zibad.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Once the inner bowl has filled with water, it is emptied and placed on the surface of the water again until it sinks.

Timekeepers as early as 500 BC kept an eye on the water flowing from one bowl to another to determine fair distribution of irrigation resources between farmers (in ancient Persia, by using water channels known as qanats). Needless to say, the position of timekeeper was important, and subject to oversight by other village elders to ensure parity.

Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago. Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

Ancient water clock used in qanat of Gonabad 2500 years ago.
Source: Maahmaah/Wikipedia

We’ve had a water clock of sorts on a planetary scale for as long as long as humans have recorded history, and beyond.

We call them glaciers. They rise, they retreat. The bowls are biggest at the two poles, and for the duration of what we know as human civilization, the Arctic and the Antarctic have been keeping time over the procession of the seasons and climate that have allowed our species to farm and flourish.

It’s only recently, over the past century or so, that we have realized these clocks are not static. They are what water always is: in a state of flux. We’ve known for decades that the melting of the ice at the two poles could spell a new era, one in which the inner bowl of the clepsydra stays submerged and our measure of time is changed.

The level of Arctic sea ice is, once again this year, at its lowest recorded level.

What we need, maybe, are more vigilant timekeepers.

Here’s one of my current playlist videos, performed against the backdrop of calving Arctic ice. An elegy is a lament for something that has already passed away – let’s do everything we can to work against that scenario for the Arctic.
Listen for the crash at the beginning: