If You Can’t Stand the Heat …

The tomatoes throwing a party in July for their rambunctious friends.

Sisyphus had it easy. All he had to do was push a boulder up a hill, over and over and over again.

I empathize with Sisyphus, although for me it’s not a boulder I’m doomed to fight, but a mudslide of misplaced horticultural enthusiasm. Each spring I start out standing, proud to plant anything I see, until I wind up weeding in a sweat down upon my knees. Gardening is a humbling pursuit.

The truth is nobody outgrows Mother Nature. She says “Grow” and it groweth. I nurture little seeds, feed them the best nutrients, plant them out in beautifully blended soil, water them faithfully, and then sit back and watch the slaughter. Because I eschew pesticides, I have no shortage of wormy bugs chowing down on the greenery. Not to mention the squirrels digging up the seedlings the minute they get settled in. And, of course, the rabbits. Feh.

Yet, in spite of all the pushback, the plants themselves don’t seem as discouraged as I would be in their roots. Somehow, once the garden gets going, roundabout June, it keeps accelerating until it hits some kind of jungle overdrive, rocketing high, wide and plentiful, as if it had only one season in which to say it all.

Well. This is nice up to a point, until the Sisyphian nature of Nature begins to tilt the game board. By late summer, unless we’ve been scorched by drought, I usually find myself in a different sort of battle, trying to rein in the madness. Anyone who’s tried to hack their way through a blackberry thicket in mid-July knows what I’m talking about. A suit of chainmail might protect you from the thorns and stinging flies, but it’s no picnic being steamed in your own sweat.

That’s where I am now. If it’s not global warming, it’s close enough for me. We’re not even through May and I’m already feeling August. Hah hah. Who needs a boulder?

Hot Foot

Dumb bunny?

So did you hear the latest extinction news? According to the most recent United Nations study on biodiversity there has been a “catastrophic decline” in wild animal species worldwide in just the last fifty years. At the same time, the loss of ecosystems worldwide has radically diminished the number of amphibians, marine mammals and coral reefs.

This can’t be good for humans. But at this point I wonder if the humans driving the planet into extinction overdrive are capable of putting on the brakes. It’s not like this is the first time overwhelming evidence has shown the folly of our behavior and the high cost of all our cheap disposable production. And, as Dylan once put it, “the hour is getting late.” There may one day be nobody left on Earth but us and the cows. And of course the chickens. We’ll be well and truly clucked.

I used to get very upset about this prospect, twenty, thirty years ago. I’d shake my head and wonder what was wrong with us that we couldn’t see what a mess we were making of this gorgeous planet. Lately I’ve been trying to envision a future that doesn’t require pixie dust or guns or gas masks in order for the human race to continue. So far, the best I can imagine is that, when the Blue Ridge becomes beachfront property, and the last honeybee has gone the way of the dodo, there may still be a few humans scratching out a meager existence in a cave somewhere. And if they can hang on for a millennium or two, maybe the oceans will recede and we’ll get another shot at this civilization thing.

Or, alternatively, we’re toast, and rabbits will inherit the earth. They weren’t my first pick in the survival lottery, but as a gardener I’ve been humbled by their relentless persistence. They’re fast running, fast breeding, and they’ll eat anything. Plus, they’re fine with living underground, which will no doubt be helpful once the ozone shield is gone and the surface of the planet becomes a hotplate.

So, there’s the future for our great-grandchildren. Living in caves, eating rabbit if they’re lucky. I don’t know if they’ll be happy kids. But they won’t know there was any other life, since there won’t be any electricity or other nifty technology to amuse them. Hopefully they’ll still have the moon and the stars to enjoy.

Unless we manage to muck up that neighborhood too. I’d sooner eat rabbit.

The One and Only

Drummer Reggie Brisbane, of the Claude Jones band, performs at Earth Day 1971 in Washington, D.C.
Drummer Reggie Brisbane performs with the Claude Jones band on Earth Day 1971 in Washington, D.C.. (Photo by Phil Geyelin)

So another Earth Day is upon us.

Earth Day is a sacred concept to me. I was, and still remain, a flower child, albeit a grey-haired one these days. However, almost fifty years ago, when the first Earth Day concert and rally took place on the grounds of the Washington Monument, we gathered to listen to the music and the speeches, energized by our passion for the cause, which was nothing less than saving the Earth.

The Claude Jones band was among those on the Sylvan Theater stage singing songs of hope and courage that day. We may have been naive, but we were sincere as all get out. The Age of Irony hadn’t yet dawned.

Before the Earth Day movement began in 1970, there was no Environmental Protection Agency. Unregulated toxic chemicals were part of the landscape. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, “Silent Spring” helped spread awareness of the dangers of reckless pesticide use.

In the decades since those tumultuous times, the entire world has become more conscious of the need to protect the resources on which all life depends. Clean air, water, and fertile soil — the fundamentals. You might think this is so obvious that you wouldn’t have to make laws to ensure that some greedy developer or thoughtless tycoon won’t poison the Great Lakes or bulldoze the redwoods. Yet, as we have learned, not everyone gives a hoot about redwoods.

Thus, here we are again. Another Earth Day, still just the one Earth.

Recycling is great. Organic farming is good. Planting trees is helpful. But now the current administration is disabling protective measures put in place in the past few decades. They claim the problems are solved, and they want to revive outdated destructive practices rather than support creative scientifically proven new technologies for producing clean energy.


Okay, young people. Charge up your devices and prepare yourselves. It’s not going to be easy. But nothing worth doing is. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is not to win the Super Bowl, or the World Series, or even the next rigged election. No, the mission, is the same as it ever was.

Love one another. Take care of the Earth. It’s the only one we have.

Rain of Signs

D.C. has had record breaking rain this summer. Keep those umbrellas handy.
D.C. has had record breaking rain this summer. Keep those umbrellas handy.

When I was a kid there was no Weather Channel. The idea that millions of people might spend a great portion of every day watching news on screens was a far-fetched notion, worthy of a science fiction story perhaps, but not plausible.

Welcome to modern life. Plausible it may not be, but stranger than fiction it certainly is.

When we lived on the West Coast and were considering the challenges of trying to move back East, we had an imaginary white board on which we listed the pros and cons of the two coasts. Each has its merits. Each has its downsides.

But whenever the issue of weather came up, I would tell myself that wasn’t the main reason. Every place has weather. No place is perfect. Not even Hawaii, or Los Angeles, no matter what the locals may say.

It’s a matter of degree. In weather, as in body temperature, a few degrees one way or the other can spell the difference between delight and delirium. Also, there’s the issue of quantity. A couple of 100 degree days here and there, with low humidity, and you might think, so what? But if an extreme situation persists without letup, say, forty days of rain, or four hundred maybe, it’s only natural to start wondering if maybe Mother Nature is fed up and starting to clean house.

And we are the ants in the cupboard. No offense, Ant Man.

While governments and policy makers continue to drag their feet in acknowledging global climate change, the climate is changing so quickly now that even the Pope has taken note. Unfortunately legislators accustomed to giving lip service to religion have no qualms about continuing business as usual, allowing the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources in order to keep the engines of greed churning. If only that were science fiction.

I don’t read a whole lot of science fiction. I don’t have a lot of interest in distant galaxies although I enjoy watching them explode on the big screen. I’m only human.

However,  I picked up one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels because I was intrigued by the title: “Forty Signs of Rain.” Written in 2004, it reads almost as if it were taken from today’s news. Set mostly in a steamy summer in Washington, D.C., the story centers on the efforts of a Senate staffer working on environmental issues, while his wife works to solve the problems from the scientific side at the National Science Foundation.

The book is replete with scientific detail that I, quite frankly, didn’t bother to commit to memory, but the essence of the story is compelling and the scenes of weather-related chaos resonate in part because these situations are already happening with increasing frequency all over the world. The flooded zoos where the animals must be released to have a chance of survival, the outreach from the “League of Drowning Nations,” islands and whole cultures facing obliteration as the sea inexorably rises, the mega “100-year” storms happening every month.

Readers looking for a neat solution or an apocalyptic end won’t find either in this novel, but the scenario Robinson creates is vivid and entirely plausible, and coming soon to a reality near you and me.

You won’t need to watch it on the Weather Channel. Just step outside while you still can.

Safe Harbor

Troubles seem far away in the serene view from Safety Harbor, Florida.
Troubles seem far away in the serene view from Safety Harbor, Florida.

When the waters rise over your own doorstep, climate change hits home.

Politicians who view this critical issue as simply another chip in the electoral poker game are gambling not merely with their own careers, but with the future of our planet. And I, for one, am fed up.

The factors driving global warming have been well understood by scientists for decades. Back in 1970, the first Earth Day was a call for sanity. Yet our flagrant destruction of the environment and our rapacious consumption of oil and coal continue. Now, we stand on the brink of irreversible climate change. And still naysayers persist in their blinkered resistance to even modest efforts to reverse the trend.

Most notably, Rick “I am not a scientist” Scott, the current governor of Florida, which is widely viewed by the scientific community as one of the most vulnerable places in the country in terms of sea level rising, has gone on record with his denial. Scott has said, “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change. Nothing’s convinced me that there is.”


Belief is a curious thing. If you believe some deity has everything under control, I suppose you sleep better. But if you’re paying attention to the data here on Earth, you may, at the very least, consider building your own ark.

Those who believe in modern science, and are grateful for medicines and airplanes and safe drinking water, to name just a few nifty science-based ideas, would like to see more emphasis on rational thought in our government.

Admittedly, it’s tough to be rational when you’re human. I know. I’m as irrational as the next person. I’d like to believe there’s a happy ending for every story, a perfect solution to every problem, a safe harbor for all the ships at sea.

But these days there are new pirates, and not only at sea. In our internet dominated world, invisible pirates can steal property, identities, and undermine security. The unsettling result of this sort of piracy is that it fuels a kind of knee-jerk paranoia. We don’t trust our government, our law enforcement, our banks. Yet it’s human nature to want something to trust, to desire community, to seek fellowship with our fellow humans.

Many humans rally around religious beliefs, which seems like a fine idea, until intolerance sets in. However, on the subject of global warming we really have to get over our intolerance of each other. We’re all in this thing together. When the seas rise, as they will sooner rather than later, we, or our children, will have to share whatever dry land remains.

On the west coast of Florida, where millions of people retire, lured by balmy temperatures, flat terrain, and low prices, life is quiet. Palm trees and pelicans define the landscape. Yet in the not so distant past the west coast of Florida was regularly terrorized by pirates. In the late 18th and early 19th century the threat of pirate attacks was real, so much so that the small city of Safety Harbor earned its name because it was situated so far from the pirates’ habitual route that it was considered a safe harbor.

These days the pirate history is celebrated with an annual festival in Tampa and Safety Harbor. Pirates, like parrots and piña coladas, are just part of the tropic ambience served up to tourists.

Picturesque cottages on the quiet streets of historic Safety Harbor offer a glimpse of Florida's charming past.
Picturesque cottages on the quiet streets of historic Safety Harbor offer a glimpse of Florida’s charming past.

The town of Safety Harbor is quaint in places. Giant trees draped with Spanish moss shade the historic district, where pockets of old Florida remain hidden behind newer super-sized waterfront development.

The town is 20 feet above sea level. For now.

Slow Burn

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

I am part of the problem.

I drive a car. I fly across country in fuel guzzling jets. And even though I make an effort to recycle faithfully, I am part of the dominant throwaway culture.

When the world succumbs to runaway mutant viruses and the ice cap melts and life as we know it vanishes without so much as one last desperate Tweet tapped into a dying iPhone, you can blame me and the millions of people like me, who feel concerned about global warming and the loss of habitat wrought by too many humans wreaking havoc upon the natural world but lack the ability to do much about it.

At times like these I turn to science fiction. Before the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the first authors to enjoy popular success writing about imagined worlds, there were always writers and thinkers who tried to see into the future.

But not until our own era, when powerful computers and vastly improved technology have given us the tools to actually see and measure some portion of the universe in which our planet is but a “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan famously noted, have we been able to really get a sense of what a mess we’re making of this former paradise.

Such a perspective could have made us take stock of the very small niche we occupy in the Big Picture. But you know how it is. The movie ends, you walk out, and within minutes hunger, boredom or fatigue divert attention from weighty ideas such as planetary survival.

When I was younger I was never much of a sci-fi buff. I read “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. I read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which, while not exactly hard science fiction, derives much of its humor from twisting the limits of scientific understanding.

We do know a lot more about the universe now than we did in 1898, when H.G. Wells wrote “The War of the Worlds.” Fat lot of good it seems to do us. Our inability to get along with each other remains a huge stumbling block to every sort of progress.

Some people have suggested that video games such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft help humans to work out their frustrations without shooting real people. I wonder. Some of us carry our anger around just under the skin. The slightest bump or scratch and out it comes.

As we enter what could be an end game era for our planet, it would behoove us to get serious about science. Beliefs can be comforting. But they can also lead us into states of confusion, and at this point, with sea level rising measurably every year, it’s time to stop ignoring the data.

This ain’t no video game. When the lights go out all over the world this time it will be a bit late to start brainstorming about brilliant ways to charge up the batteries.

I’m currently reading “The Windup Girl,” a disturbing science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi about a time on Earth after climate change and runaway gene manipulation have led to devastating loss of diversity and worldwide starvation. Not exactly a fun read. But as a cautionary tale it’s right up there with “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451.” When those books were written the ideas they described were considered far-fetched. Surely there would never be a time when a Big Brother government could follow your every move and thought, or when books would be banned for fear the ideas in them might spark revolt against tyranny.

The truly sobering facet of science fiction is how frequently science fiction evolves into science fact.

I am, of course, a dreamer. A Pollyanna in the face of peril. I’d like to believe that even now some brilliant team of nerds is working on a plan to reverse the carbon overload in the atmosphere, to turn back the clock on global meltdown.

Maybe it can only happen in science fiction. But at least that’s a start.

Tree Worship in The Fog Belt

Visitors whisper in the Cathedral Grove.
Visitors whisper in the Cathedral Grove.

After a few days of hectic activity in San Francisco, we slipped across the bay and made our way to Muir Woods, a place I’d always wanted to see.

It was a Monday, and although it was a holiday (Columbus Day, or, as it is known in Berkeley, Indigenous Peoples Day), we imagined we might have the place to ourselves.

Silly tourists. We got our first inkling that we weren’t the only ones looking to worship giant trees as we neared the park entrance. “Lot Full” read the sign at the first parking area. A park ranger was waving cars toward the overflow lot. Another “Lot Full” sign met us there. But an additional sign offered hope in the form of an arrow pointing to “Roadside Parking” up ahead.

We headed down the narrow roadway, made narrower by the steady stream of people hiking back to the park, presumably from the roadside parking. We soldiered on, bright with hope. After a mile or so we began to doubt. But there were still determined groups tramping in the dust at the road’s edge.

Eventually we found a narrow spot and parked. Then we joined the hikers. The day was warm and sunny, the air dry and dusty. We had neglected to bring water. Silly tourists. As we trudged along, I told myself it would be worth it, but I wasn’t completely convinced. So often much-hyped splendors don’t quite measure up to the imagined experience. Plus, I worried that the presence of all these people we had seen pouring into the park would destroy the serenity I sought.

Silly me.

Too big for any camera.
Too big for any camera.

The trees in Muir Woods tower high, wide, and mighty above the trickle of puny humans down on the forest floor. These ancient redwoods, many of which were old before Columbus stepped foot on the shore of the other side of the country, stand over 200 feet tall. Visitors, self-included, try in vain to capture the sheer magnificence of these redwoods with cameras, cell phones and other devices. It can’t be done. They are simply too big to be caught with our gadgets and toys. They transcend our limited grasp of time and space. They awe, in the truest sense of that word.

Look up. Look higher. Good luck with that.
Look up. Look higher. Good luck with that.

All forests have the capacity to restore the human spirit, to revive our hopes and replenish our souls. But Muir Woods does more. In the stillness of its shadows, in the soft fall of light between the massive trunks, it inspires reverence for the glory of creation. And I say amen to that.


Dock of The Bay

I paused for reflection at the end of the dock.
I paused for reflection at the end of the dock.

Something there is about a pier that leads us to walk to the end of it and stare aimlessly into the distance. There’s a metaphor floating around in there, no doubt, something to do with the brevity of life, the vanity of all aspiration, the transcendent beauty of the quiet sea.

The geometry of movement and stillness, reflection and shadow, produces a captivating grid.
The geometry of movement and stillness, reflection and shadow, produces a captivating grid.

It’s quiet on the dock in the early morning, before the sailors and fishermen begin the rock and roll of boats in motion.

Another postcard moment unfolds.
Another postcard moment unfolds.

Take a deep breath. Take another. Time drifts on the silent tide.

Birds on the bay share the view every day.
Birds on the bay share the view every day.

Birds may have tiny brains but they know how to drink in the moment. I’m still working on it.


Shell Game

The gopher tortoise is faster than it looks.
The gopher tortoise is faster than it looks.

The air was hot and still, the ground dry and sandy. High above in the clear blue sky the shrill cry of an occasional osprey broke the silence.

We were hiking along a secluded trail through the slash pines and palmettos when we noticed something moving rapidly through the sparse undergrowth.

My first thought was rattlesnake. The park signs caution visitors to stay on the paths to avoid this danger. But our son was with us, and he’s been throwing caution to the winds since he was very young, so off he went.

We caught a glimpse of the creature, a tortoise, motoring with surprising speed over the sand. We tried to keep it in sight, but within seconds it vanished.

Then I happened to see a tunnel entry, perhaps a foot wide and tall, only slightly obscured by the rough grass growing beside it.

I was elated to have finally seen the Florida state tortoise in the wild. Sightings are more rare than they once were, as the gopher tortoise, like so many other Florida native species, is endangered. Threats include loss of habitat, predation from other creatures, and humans, who continue to catch the tortoises to keep as pets or to eat, even though both these activities are illegal.

No wonder gopher tortoises spend most of their lives in the tunnels they dig. Often ten feet below the surface and as much as forty-eight feet long, the tunnels are used by hundreds of other small animals. Because of this the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species. Its presence in the neighborhood has a ripple effect that supports the entire local ecology.

I guess the humans who trap and eat gopher tortoises don’t care much about such issues. I wish they did. I wish that mere legislation were enough to stop the damage we humans continue to wreak on our splendid planet.

I realize that in the big picture a small tortoise doesn’t grab the public imagination the way, say, a horde of zombies, or a deadly contagion does. We humans tend to be self-centered and hot-tempered, a lethal combination. We treat each other with such savage disregard, I shouldn’t be surprised at our cavalier attitude to the environment which sustains every living thing.

A gopher tortoise looks for all the world like a little tank. You’d think that would be enough to keep it safe.

If things keep on the way they’re going, we may all wish we had our own personal tanks.

A baby gopher tortoise is as cute as any panda.
A baby gopher tortoise is as cute as any panda. Photo by Steve Beger.

Now Hear This

Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.
Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.

When I lived in Seattle one of the things I missed most about the East Coast was the musical sound of songbirds.

Some diehard Seattle boosters may insist that Seattle has warblers of its own, and I’m willing to believe it. But in the six years I lived there I never heard one. The signature tune of that misty city is the quark and ratcheting caw of crows.

I’ve got nothing against crows. Although it’s a little spooky how smart they are. I read somewhere that crows can recognize human faces, and it doesn’t take much imagination to take that idea a step further and start to recognize the quirky personalities of the crows themselves.

But getting back to songbirds, the D.C. metropolitan area is serenaded by a variety of local songsters, such as mockingbirds and finches. Mourning doves wail in the shrubbery. Orioles pass through on tour. It’s a harmonious scene. If you grew up around here you could close your eyes and recognize the locale by the spring soundtrack.

On a recent trip to the Florida Gulf I noticed a few familiar bird calls. But Florida’s warmth and water attracts a whole different group of birds, not least of which are the ospreys and pelicans, hunters and clowns, neither of which could be mistaken for a songbird.

Fine feathers feast at low tide.
It’s a moveable feast at low tide.

Yet the birds that speak most eloquently to me when I’m in Florida do it silently. The herons, egrets and ibis, with their impossibly long necks, their graceful ballet moves, and their delicate manners, seem to embody a stillness that pairs well with silence.

I assume they must have vocal chords, though I’ve never heard a peep out of them. But that’s okay by me. Something in the way they move speaks volumes, without making a sound.

I could listen for hours.