Earth Day Is Your Day

A few thoughts on what Earth Day means for all of us.

From my window right now, I can see two European magpies exploring my small garden – I mowed the lawn for the first time this year, and I suppose they are scouting for anything interesting that was revealed. The resident flock of sparrows is watching the magpies from the safety of a plum tree, and the cherry tree is casting a soft rain of white petals. I’m inside (for the moment), but that doesn’t make me feel any less a part of the scene just a few yards from where I’m sitting.

I’ve always been puzzled by the notion that caring about what happens to our environment is something humans can choose to do, or not to do. It’s one of our great shortcomings, I think, that so many people and cultures see humans as separate from nature itself; mankind is superior, the apex of creation, the eyes and the brains observing nature as if at arm’s length.

Scherer, plants, Earth Day, tapestries, earh art

Interwoven: Exercises in root system domestication (2016).
Soil and plant roots.
Artist: Diana Scherer via DesignBoom
The artist manipulates live plant roots to grow in complex patterns and tapestries.

And so we have Earth Day to remind us to think about how important Nature with a capital N is for our well-being. Those who honor or participate in Earth Day also try to remind everyone else that actually, every day is Earth Day. Those who don’t participate might see it as a waste of time for something that doesn’t concern them.

Regardless, we are all profoundly a part of nature – we are just as much a part of nature as a branch is a part of a tree. Nature isn’t ‘out there’ – it’s you and every interaction you have.

In the smallest and in the largest ways, individually and collectively, we are woven into the fabric of what’s around us. And everything we do, from eating to producing waste to reproducing, is a part of that fabric. For better or for worse. While there are certainly many people with few options at their disposal, so many of us think we don’t have the time or energy to make environmental choices – and by doing so, we’ve already made a decision.

Scherer, plants, Earth Day, tapestries, earh art

Interwoven: Exercises in root system domestication (2016).
Soil and plant roots.
Artist: Diana Scherer via DesignBoom

This year’s Earth Day theme is reduction of plastic waste – so what are you doing, today and every day, to increase or minimize the tidal wave of plastic that is quite literally suffocating your water supply, polluting the land that grows your food, and infiltrating your fellow creatures?

On Earth Day, which I feel obligated to say is actually every day, what are you, a part of nature, doing to impact the rest of your world?

Scherer, plants, Earth Day, tapestries, earh art

Interwoven: Exercises in root system domestication (2016).
Soil and plant roots.
Artist: Diana Scherer via DesignBoom



Feeling the Spin

When I was a kid, I used to lie on my back in Golden Gate Park, or on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, or in the meadows of the Marin Headlands, and feel the Earth turn.

I remember the feeling, spinning backwards (always backwards) through space. We hadn’t yet seen the images of the Earth from the NASA missions, that was still years ahead, but I swore I could feel us all, moving as one, on our orbit around the sun.

Into the woods.
Photo: Ellie Davies

My father told me this was physically impossible. He agreed that we all were, indeed, stationed on a moving object and that the object was rotating on its own axis while orbiting the sun. But because we were all moving at the same speed as our object, the Earth, we couldn’t actually sense its rotation or orbit.

I knew what I felt. It the sense of being part of a whole, and we were all in this together. I knew it then, and I know it now.

Today is Earth Day. I hope you can go out and feel part of the whole.

Photo: PKR

Built to Last

A few days ago, I came upon a technique for preparing chicken. It was a fairly simple thing, butterflying chicken filets, and I hadn’t even been looking up how to do that (I don’t know what I had in my search term anymore, but it definitely contained the word ‘butterfly’). There were a few images. Cut open the filet, open it, cover it with cling wrap and then pummel until tender. No big deal, as meat preparation goes.

And yet, the final image caught my eye.

Butterflying chicken.
Source: BBC Good Food

And I wondered: Why the cling wrap between the meat and the tenderizing roller?

This is a process that takes a few short minutes. Sure, the roller stays clean and the chicken meat perhaps a bit more shapely if cling wrap is used.

Consider this: That strip of cling wrap is only used for a few short minutes before being thrown away (and quickly, because it is covered in chicken remains and within a few hours can potentially infect anything it comes into contact with). Yet it will go on to have a life-span of anywhere from ten years to a few decades, depending on how it is disposed of. Unless it’s incinerated, in which case it might release toxic gases.

All that for a few minutes of use, in a process for which it’s not even necessary. If it’s keeping the roller clean that matters, well…wash the roller afterwards. It worked for centuries, it can work today.

When I was a teenager and deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up (not realizing I would ever fully do either of those things), I considered a future in archeaology, the science of looking back. A friend invited me along on an archeaological dig along the California coast that was part research, part salvage mission.

The remains of a Pomo village located an eroding cliff above a beach in Humboldt county were crumbling, year for year, onto the sand below and being washed away by the Pacific tides. At least, I remember it being a Pomo village. Or Miwok. We found a lot of palm-sized notched stones, sinker stones used for weighting fishing nets, basket remains, net fragments. Much had already been reclaimed by the land and sea.

Sinker stones, Colombia River.
Source: Homestyle/Arrowheadology

One afternoon, I was sifting beach sand through a large sieve. What remained in the sieve was usually large bits of shells, rocks, seaweed. I remember very little plastic. This was in the mid-1970s, so I imagine there was plastic, but it didn’t stand out. What did stand out was a shiny shard of red obsidian, a stone that wasn’t otherwise found in that area. As it turned out, that little shard provided a sliver of proof that this village had traded with tribes to the east of California.

Everything we found had a utility, and we could trace it back to that specific utility. A tiny piece of beach-buried obsidian told us a story.

Now, consider this, a video by Sustainable Coasts Hawaii of another sand-sifting moment, decades and thousands of miles away from my own. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to be exact. Look what gets left behind in the sieve.

The vast majority of those plastic shards are now unrecognizable. They’ve degraded but not into something that can be considered safe – on the contrary, they are both useless and dangerous to sea and land animals. It’s safe to say that most of the plastic likely came from items that had a brief life in terms of usefulness for humans. Deodorant containers. Straws. Plastic plates or forks. Processed food packaging. Oh, all the one-use packaging. The stuff we use to carry other stuff once, maybe twice, then throw away so it can continue a life unseen, slowly falling apart, outliving all of us.

We build obsolescence into the things we need to last, like big appliances and phones, and build the disposable items as if we’ll need them forever.

Consider what we learned from a couple of weeks about a village by sifting along a beach and looking at what they left behind.

What will the world know of us, hundreds of years from now, when our plastic is still filling the world’s beaches?


*If, maybe in honor of Earth Day on April 22, you decide to make the move away from cling wrap, here’s a video on how to make a substitute. And before we lose a tear about the convenience of disposable plastic to our daily lives, think about how, once made, we never really get rid of plastic, and how inconvenient that is.

A Multitude of Voices

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.


Let It Grow

The garden lawn got its first seasonal trim yesterday, weeks after neighboring lawns around our place were abuzz with lawn mowers. Why do I wait so long and leave the lawn so untidy?

Over the past couple of years we redesigned the garden to use less water, so the green lawn area takes up much less space than it used to. The garden no longer a lawn dotted with flower beds, and is now a series of walkways with flower and vegetable beds, accented by a lawn.

Photo: PK Read

The grass cutttings.
Photo: PK Read

A large, lush lawn just uses too much water and is too product-intensive to make it a viable element for a lazy gardener and water miser like me. But laziness is only a small contributing factor to why the unruly lawn of winter and spring doesn’t get the flat-top treatment at the first possible opportunity.

In any case, our lawn is never golf-course perfect. Even mown, it’s a mess of green stuff and low flowers, all cut to the same length, with proper lawn grass in between. Fine by me.

I like seeing bees and other pollinators at work across the entire garden. At a time when many blossoms haven’t yet come out in full force, the various pollinators here are dependent on blossoming trees and small spring flowers. Our flowering lawn is alive with movement just above its surface.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

What a bee sees:
A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) photographed with the light spectrum
visible to humans (left) and bees (right).
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Finally, I enjoy the way it looks. I like the bright carpet of small daisies, violets, sundry ‘weed’ blossoms and yes, even the giant dandelions (at least before they go to seed).

When it comes down to it, the lawn is left long because I like working in the garden and walking through ankle-deep flowers. I like being surrounded by the mad life of springtime.

I look out over the lawn, just mown yesterday, and see a scattering of flowers that escaped the blade and are raising their heads. Bees are harvesting pollen. The sun is shining. See you later – I’ll be out working in the garden.

Happy Earth Day 2015.

Fragile Horizons

Source: The Portolan

Source: The Portolan

Created in the first decade of the 1500s, the globe above is made of the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs, and was engraved by someone who was either influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, or worked directly in the workshop of the Renaissance genius. The globe  is the earliest known attempt to depict the Americas, Japan, Brazil and Arabia. It was based on the most cutting-edge knowledge of its time, information gathered from the explorers of the era.

According to The Portolan, the map journal that published a paper on the globe in late 2013, “The globe contains ships of different types, monsters, intertwining waves, a shipwrecked sailor, and  71 place names, and one sentence , “HIC SVNT DRACONES” (Here are the Dragons).

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) Source: Spamula

Dragon, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)
Source: Spamula


Only 7 of the names are in the Western Hemisphere. No names are shown for North America, which is represented as a group of scattered islands; three names are shown in South America.”

This would have represented the height of knowledge about our world, at least from a European perspective. The Dragons represent the very limit of scientific horizons, with tantalizing new unknowns just beyond, waiting to be found.

Our view of the the contours of our world has been changing, in flux from the time we first began exploring our surroundings and then trying to describe and understand them. Our Dragons now lay deeper, farther, higher than ever before, with a great expanse of knowledge still beyond.

Earth Day 2014: My hope is that we keep pushing forward to the horizon, and that the knowledge we gain will include the understanding that for all its complexity, beauty and mystery, our world also shares something else with the ostrich-egg globe of historical wisdom: Fragility.images




Living Archive

Photo: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

Photo: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

If you’ve ever had the good fortune to walk among ancient trees like the giant sequoia of Yosemite Park (some over 2000 years old), or perhaps seen The Sisters grove in Lebanon (an olive tree grove estimated to be over 5000 years old), or even an old-growth forest, then you know that there’s something special about a grove of trees that has been on the planet for centuries, or longer.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive project aims to reverse the loss of the great trees before they are gone. Founded by a family-run nursery in Michigan, the project first succeeded in creating clones of some of the oldest, largest trees that were felled over a century ago in Humboldt County, California. Some of the stumps of these trees still produce large basal sprouts. The Archangel team took cuttings of these sprouts and after thousands of attempts, were able to grow cloned offspring of what they call ‘champion’ trees.

Champions, for the people at Archangel, are those trees which lived for over 2,000 years before being felled, and which may have particular genetic characteristics which would allow them to survive all manner of harsh conditions. The non-profit group hopes to plant champion trees around the world to help combat deforestation and its effects through the addition of super trees into existing forests and near facilities that can study the trees as they grow. Given that more and more research points to plants and trees communicating with one another in previously undiscovered ways, perhaps it isn’t far-fetched to think that having particularly strong trees in a given ecosystem might improve that system’s overall robustness.

Micropropagation process Photo: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

Micropropagation process
Photo: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

Thus far, the group has cloned 75 species of North American trees, and they are now expanding to include trees from other areas around the world.

In celebration of 2013 Earth Day, the group organized a global planting project in which thousands of volunteers planted 18 inch (45cm) cloned ancient redwood saplings in forests in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

The mission of the tree archive, according to their web site, is to “propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone; archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries; and reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees to provide the myriad of beneficial ecosystem services essential for all life forms to thrive and to fight global warming.”

Whether or not champion trees have special genetic traits which make them particularly long-lived, this seems to be a remarkable and positive undertaking that honors the interdependence of ecosystems with the great trees that still live among them.


Archangel Ancient Tree Archive website

New York Times book review of The Man Who Planted Trees, a recently published book written by Jim Robbins on Archangel co-founder Dave Milarch. It is available for purchase on the Archangel website and the usual outlets.*

Co.Exist articleAn Archive Of Ancient Tree DNA Will Help Us Clone The Ones We Destroy by Ben Schiller

Out of the Fog blog post – Reforesting Earth, one clone at a time by Chris Palmer


* There is another book by the same title which looks at famous tree planting advocates.