Friday, May 31, 2013

Throw a Better Party

Today's Menu: Still on my goose-chase for hope, I've found myself settling into a fantastic conversation in The Sun between Leath Tonino and the environmental writer John Elder. Elder, referencing Gary Snyder's ideas about the "Main Flow," says: "There is comfort to be the fact that balance has to be restored eventually. It might not happen in our lifetime. It might be restored cataclysmically...But one way or another there is a flow toward balance, and if we align ourselves with it, we're assured to be in the winning side."

He also calls this an era of grief, and says: "Whenever we suffer a great loss, there is an opportunity to create something substantial and meaningful and beneficial, not only for ourselves but for's an invitation to change."

And how do we get there? In the elder Elder's words: "The environmental movement needs to stop saying, 'Step out of the SUV, and keep your hands where I can see them,' and instead say, 'Here, taste this tomato. Taste this cheese. Taste this microbrew. It's delicious. What do you have that's good?' ...We want to throw a better party. We want to have more music, more food, more people."

I'm savoring these optimistic, hope-filled words on this first birthday of my boy Owen Cricket, who at one seems particularly aligned with that "main flow." This morning's air is full of sunlight, humidity and bird song, just like it was one morning ago today when Owen slipped out onto my bedroom floor. (Slipped...yes.)

He's been a joy ever since. Tonight we'll celebrate with local greens, local cider, music and loved ones. In other words, we'll give Cricket a big yes-this-world-is-alright party. The more so for him being in it.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Week of No-Plastic Consuming

I like challenges, especially ones done in collusion with others, and this photo display of weekly eating habits from around the world got me going on a new one. I was particularly struck by how much refined, plastic-coated food we first world nations are consuming, and how many fruits, vegetables and  beans many of the third world cultures are consuming.

And how little plastic.

With the hope of breaking some of my own bad plastic habits (too many disposable diapers, too many expensive, wrapped in plastic packages of gourmet cheeses and crackers), Avah and I decided to go a week without buying any plastic.

A week is nothing, I'm well aware. This amazing family went four months without a lot of home-made corn tortillas. Our household isn't at a place where either of us want to make a full-time commitment to the extra time preparing food that leap demands, but I know we can do a much job better consuming less plastic and, while we're at it, eat better. (And improve our microbial health, which, according to Michael Pollan and the folks he's been hanging out with recently, just might be the key to overall health.)

So after one week of not buying anything wrapped in or made out of plastic, what did we learn? 

~The bulk department at our local co-op is fun. I filled all the jars in our house with nuts, grains, beans and, because I was spending less money elsewhere, delicious chocolate-coated things. 

~When you spend less money on plastic-wrapped gourmet crackers and tea you have more money to spend on fruits and veggies.

~Homemade tortillas are easy to make, delicious, and make my daughter feel useful, productive, capable and...extraordinarily happy. 

~Just go out and buy yourself good cloth diaper covers. No more leaks, no more excuses, no more plastic coated shit in the landfill!

~I've said it before during our buy no new year, but limitations give me a sense of purpose, and a sense of purpose brings me satisfaction and joy. I like these opportunities for slipping out of the rat-race, for reminding myself of my values, and for sharing those challenges and values and that sense of purpose with my housemates who also happen to be the people I love most in the world. Avah especially took to the challenge. "But Mama, how will we buy Owen a birthday present if we can't buy plastic? We'll have to make him something out of wood!" The week ended yesterday, but I'm thinking we'll keep going for a while because, well, it's fun, and because I want to keep trying to eat like these people below from Bhutan do, and making tortillas with my daughter, and trying to make Owen Cricket his one-year birthday present out of salvaged wood. 

Want to join us for a while? 


Thursday, May 16, 2013


It's miraculously quiet here this morning. The semester of teaching over. The grant applications sent. The children at school or asleep in the bed upstairs. Which means, it's just me, this morning, at this kitchen table, with this cup of sweet and milky and bitter tea, with some books that are old friends, which I am pawing through in a lazy and breezy way, with a breezy and blousy heart I haven't known for a while. Too little in my life and I get lost, go crazy, head towards darkness. But these quiet, empty moments after the storm? They are startling in their perfection. In the way the windows are all thrown open. The way the sunlight is pouring down, kissing the slender pink blossoms on the peach tree, which may or may not have survived the frost. This is, I think to myself, what it would be like to be a poet. To wake each day with this kind of quiet, this kind of attention, this kind of reverent solitude, this tender heart, open-armed.

When I am sixty I imagine living like this. Oh the beautiful calm and self-love of all that gray.

And until then? I'll take these slivered panes of open sky, through which my rambunctious, speckled, unruly and ridiculously rich life is soon to come leaping.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

my mothers

Happy mother's day to all my mothers, who also happen to be my greatest heroes:

To my great-grandmother Olive who received a PhD in biology, knew her songbirds, studied natural plant dyes, taught biology at Marlboro College and raised four brilliant children, environmentalists all.

To my great-great-aunt May who was raised motherless on a gold mine in British Columbia and returned to that cabin on the fork of the Columbia River after a brief stint in the Twin Cities to live out her life with a pet bear,  her aging father, men's pants and those mountains.

To my great-grandmother Margaret,  model and cigarette girl at the Chicago World Fair,  mother (to my grandma) at the fair age of sixteen, who raised her four kids in tents and shacks in rural Arizona, Utah, California, Arkansas and South Carolina, who retired to Taos, New Mexico in the 1960s and whose turquoise rings I wear.

To my grandma Margaret, song-collector and song-singer and bread-baker and homesteader and lover of dollhouses and fixer-upper of houses and driver of rigged-up-vans and mother to five who said, a few years before she died, "I never want to be the kind of person who sleeps in hotels. That would just make me feel so damn old."

To my grandma Dorothy, card player extraordinaire, lover of cigarettes and sun, with long nails and a sharp tongue and fine legs.

And to my mama, my one and only true mama, who has driven the bus for all of my 35 years, who grows outrageously fruitful fields of blueberries and raspberries and tomatoes and greens, who once shot a weasel who was trying to get into her chicken coop with a shotgun while in a silk dress on her way to a tea party, who sided my parents'  house while nine months pregnant with yours truly, who loves the woods and the fields and is in those fields, from dawn 'til dusk, seven days a week for five months out of the year, unless it's Sunday morning, as it is now, in which case she'll be in her kitchen making buckwheat pancakes for her children and grandchildren, who she loves in a steadfast and unwavering and fiercely quiet way.

Happy mother's day, you guiding stars. And thank you.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Create a Refuge

I've been caught in a storm of worry over our climate-frenetic future of late. A handful of people I know and care about are suffering from climate anxiety (what should be a new psychological term, if it isn't one already). We should really all be suffering from climate anxiety. The fact that any of us are sleeping at night, or enjoying the unusually-warm spring sunshine, or gleefully tapping our fingers on the wheel while we drive 60mph is what's weird, rather than the other way around. I do all those things, regularly: cast off into a sea of oblivion where I gratefully forget what's on the horizon, and do so a lot more often since having children. 

Before having children I questioned, regularly, whether bringing more humans into this earth was morally sound (for both my children and for the world). I read Bill McKibben's Maybe One: A Case For Smaller Families. I read it prepared to be dissuaded from having any children at all and found myself, instead, convinced by McKibben that human beings need hope--that without it we will slip into the futility of despair--and that the most hopeful thing we can do, biologically and psychologically, is bear children. 

And so I did. Two of them, with cheeks like peaches and eyes like sky. They are amazing, these children. They wake me up extraordinarily early with sloppy kisses, breathy giggles and stories of their dreams. They fill my house and my mind with unfathomable amounts of energy. That energy exhausts me, on a regular basis, but it exhausts me in the same way that working in a field all day or hiking mountains exhausts people; it leaves little room for anxiety, doubt or existential despair. 

But there's more. They are also just so damn full of exuberant curiosity and hope, how could one not, looking into their eyes, feel the contagion of that innocent optimism? How could the world really be all bad when children start out as these ones do? When the going gets rough, won't the better side of humanity, the parts I see reflected in my children's eyes every hour of every day, also come shining through? 

I'm no optimist, but my children do coax me into envisioning a tenable, even joy filled radically altered future. They convince me of the innate goodness of human nature. I have also adopted a few "hope bibles" during this time of radically uncertainty. One is Paradise at the Gates of Hell by Rebecca Solnit, who is no romantic innocent. In it she demonstrates how disasters, rather than bringing out the worst in human nature, as we all presuppose, actually bring altruism, solidarity, purpose and joy. I've also returned several times to the article, "Dark Ecology" by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion Magazine. Kingsnorth is self-designated pessimist. He doesn't believe in the neo-environmentalists' assertions that technology will save us. He doesn't believe that activism will bring change fast enough. But he has, out of that wasteland, culled five things he does believe are worth doing. Those five things have become my little private bible, and so I'm sharing fragments of them here with you: 

One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out"....Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray...Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong...Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place...
Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. 
Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. 
Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature.  In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?

My personal goal is to create one of those refuges, in one way or another. I'm still figuring out what my role in all of this will be, and how to best use my particular blend of skills and passions, as I hope each of you are working out how to best use your particular blend of the same. What a maze we are all in just now, blindly seeking the light. I am so utterly glad that you are all on this path with me, amidst this still astonishingly beautiful, blessed and--call me crazy but I have faith--resilient green earth. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

weeping cherry

Rakusan Tsuchiya, woodblock print, "Weeping Cherry and Japanese Bush Warbler (Mid Spring)"

I've been thinking a lot about weeping cherry trees of late. About how stunningly beautiful they are this time of year (in Vermont). About how I'd like to plant one in my yard. About how Owen Cricket's placenta is still in the bottom drawer of my freezer, waiting to be planted under the perfect tree in just the perfect place (as my placenta is buried under a 35 year old apple tree in my parents' field and Avah's  is buried under a four-year-old star magnolia outside my kitchen window).

I've also been thinking about the end of the world as we know it (reminded by this) and how now is the time to start planting edibles--apples, pears, peaches--and that an ornamental cherry is a beautiful but superficial relic of an another time, a time when we could afford to spend money and time planting trees and bushes and flower that look pretty but won't feed us or those we love when the going gets tough.

I also went for a birthday shop this morning, using my gift certificate to the local bookstore to buy myself a couple new books of poems to carry me through the summer, including Come, Thief, by Jane Hirshfield, whose book The Lives of the Heart was one of the very first books of poems I truly knew and loved.

And so when I brought the book home and opened the cover I was delighted to read this poem, which by no-means answered my cherry tree dilemma but helped illuminate the intense specificity of my yearning. Once you've read French Horn I hope you'll let me know what kind of tree you would buy, water and plant in your yard atop your son's placenta in the cusp-ish and rocky year of 2013 (and maybe go buy yourself a book of poems too, for if life as we know it is coming to an end, I certainly want a bookshelf well stocked with words like this).


French Horn

For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
shoulders perfection.
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.
What in this unpleated world isn't someone's seduction?
The boy playing his intricate horn in Mahler's Fifth,
in the gaps between playing,
turns it and turns it, dismantles a section,
shakes from it the condensation
of human passage. He is perhaps twenty.
Later he takes four bows, his face deepening red,
while a girl holds a viola's spruce wood and maple
in one half-opened hand and looks at him hard.
Let others clap.
These two, their ears still ringing, hear nothing.
Not the shouts of bravo, bravo,
not the timpani clamor inside their bodies.
As the plum's blossoms do not hear the bee
nor taste themselves turned into storable honey
by that sumptuous disturbance.

-Jane Hirshfield