Playground Earth

Rock falls in ultra slo-mo beside the tumbling Lower Cascades.
Rock falls in ultra slo-mo beside the tumbling Lower Cascades.

The slabs of stone curve impossibly high above the ground, looming like some silicate tidal wave about to crash.

We were hiking in Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury, North Carolina, where lime green buds swelling in the damp spring air lit the forest with a glow of energy. I had come to see a few of the state’s multitude of waterfalls. We visited three in the short time we had earmarked for outdoor exploration, and each one offered a different note in the music of water flowing over stones.

Yet though I was delighted by the waters, I was astounded by the stones. Hanging Rock State Park occupies some 7,000 acres in the Sauratown  Mountains, sometimes described as “the mountains away from the mountains,” a range east of and apart from the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Ancient quartzite rocks worn down through millions of years frame every view with dramatic weight.

Blue Ridge haze to the west.
Blue Ridge haze to the west.

The beautiful oak and pine forest is interwoven with dark swathes of Canadian and Carolina hemlock. Groves of wild rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel and galax flourish in the damp understory. We were there too early for the blooms, but the promise of spring was abundant and intoxicating in every direction while massive rocks chiseled by time into impossible sculptural forms and graced with the delicate tracing of lichens, moss, and ferns kept me spellbound.

The Hidden Falls slip down stone stairs centuries old.
The Hidden Falls slip down stone stairs centuries old.

I had been keen to see some of North Carolina’s waterfalls after reading about them in various online guides to the state. But my itinerary wasn’t limited to natural sights. There was also what some might call the baseball agenda.

In my growing passion for the game, I’ve begun to branch out, adopting a kind of when-in-Rome policy. Thus, when we learned that the local Class A minor league Greensboro Grasshoppers would be playing the Delmarva Shorebirds while we were in town, I was determined to see a game. It did not disappoint.

The Hoppers currently rank number 2 in the Sally League, but I had a feeling that no matter what happened on the scoreboard I would enjoy the experience because of Babe and Yogi.

Nice work if you can get it.
Nice work if you can get it.

Babe and Yogi are two frisky black labs who work as batdogs for the Grasshoppers. They retrieve the bats at home plate efficiently and cheerfully, and add charm to the easy-going minor league atmosphere.

Even though there was a light mist falling throughout the game, the fans lingered and cheered, especially when the game went to extra innings and Grasshoppers pulled out the win in the 11th inning with a walk-off hit.

And then there were fireworks. Not just fizzling little streaks of colored light either. Booming rockets of exploding color for five solid minutes. Totally awesome, even if it was minor league. It was an up close and personal experience, like getting close enough to waterfalls to feel the spray on your face, or climbing hundreds of steps carved in massive stone old as the planet.

Tomorrow is another Earth Day, and we celebrate once again the miracle of our lovely planet. Sometimes I think it’s funny that it’s called Earth, when that substance is such a small part of the whole. The precious earth which provides our food and the trees that keep our air breathable occupies only a thin layer above the dense stratum of solid and molten rock that make up most of the planet. Yet each year we pave and pollute more of it, as if we thought that more earth can be manufactured. Humans can be such short-sighted beings.

On Earth Day, and every day, I am grateful for the trees and the rocks, the dogs and the waterfalls, the fireworks of life.

And still hoping for an 11th inning miracle for us and our season on this planet.

Vision Aerie

Room without a roof.
Room without a roof.

Last night I watched the first episode of the revived “Cosmos,” the legendary television science series created by charismatic astronomer Carl Sagan.

Sagan was less known for his scientific achievements than for his amazing ability to make science comprehensible, and even entertaining, to audiences not normally interested in hard-to-grasp facts and theories.

In 1980 when the series first aired on PBS, computers were only beginning to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Geeks and nerds hadn’t yet ascended on the social/cultural evolutionary scale. “Cosmos” helped to glamorize the pursuit of knowledge at a time when stunning photographs of the vastness of outer space were first being sent back by the Voyager satellites. Such images let us see with our own eyes how very small our little planet is in the Big Picture.

The world has changed a bit since those starry-eyed times. Some things have improved. Others seem to be regressing.

In our current era of “reality” television, widespread conspiracy theories and muddy thinking, irrationality appears to be gaining ground. It’s a bit disheartening.

But at least now we have astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, who hosts the new series, to rev the engines of hope and wonder and science. He’s the right man, on the right planet, at a critical time.

I’ll admit, I never watched much of the original “Cosmos” series in 1980. I had just given birth to my first child and was expecting a second. My world was very tightly focused. But I had a cursory grasp of the basics of “Cosmos.”  An infinite universe? Check. Evolution? Check. Room for improvement in the human interface with our beautiful planet Earth? Of course!

In the years since then I’ve had to cash in a few reality checks. Apparently not everyone fully accepts the fact-based discoveries learned through centuries of science. Though brave thinkers died for this knowledge, and the discoveries they made have improved life, at least for humans, immeasurably, this reality seems not to count for much with the crazy crowd.

I understand crazy. Been there, done that.

I prefer science. It’s more exciting, more fascinating, and far, far more hopeful.

Last week on a trip to the west coast of Florida I visited a nature preserve on Honeymoon Island State Park. The park aims to encourage native wildlife, as opposed to the sort of human wild life that thrives across the causeway, where bars and restaurants and gift shops cater to tourists and kids on spring break.

Honeymoon Island caters to ospreys. Eagles too, and also rattlesnakes, in addition to some snuffling armadillos and camera-shy turtles.

It’s quiet in the park. The high-pitched shrieks of nesting ospreys carry on the wind. The nests are easy to see, a hundred feet or more above the ground. You can see why the birds thrive there. The surrounding waters provide a steady supply of fish, and there aren’t any predators. A perfect place to raise offspring.

If you look at Earth objectively, from a scientific point of view, our little planet has all the fixin’s for the human species to raise its offspring. Yet we continue to be our own worst enemies, with whole generations killing each other off, century after century, as if there were no tomorrow.

If we keep it up, perhaps there won’t be. For us.

That’s why shows like “Cosmos” are so important. News broadcasts may keep us aware of some of the dangers we face, and other forms of entertainment may divert us from facing those problems, but “Cosmos” urges us to open our eyes and our minds and reflect upon how magnificent and breathtaking is the universe in which we live.

The show, which is airing on Fox (!) on Sundays for the next 12 weeks, will be repeated Mondays (tonight at 10 p.m.) on the National Geographic Channel. Catch it if you can.

Mom eagle keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters while Dad's out catching dinner.
Mom eagle keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters while Dad’s out catching dinner.


Apocalypse Wow

The Potomac has been frozen solid for weeks this winter.
The Potomac has been frozen solid for weeks this winter.

We’re starting to get the hang of it.

That first “polar vortex” caught us napping, dreaming our playful global warming scenarios, the ones in which we don’t run out of fresh water but we do get to have a beach ten minutes from downtown D.C.. You know, the kinder gentler apocalypse where somehow we pull a last minute yoo-ee and don’t wreck the planet.

But this latest “parade of clippers” paired with a brisk course of Arctic palette cleansers gave us all a chance to embrace our inner Yetis.

People in other parts of the nation, not including those rarified climates of California, Florida or Seattle, regularly have to put up with the sort of winter smackdown that we’ve been enjoying for the past month, so I don’t expect the residents of, say, Michigan, have much sympathy with whining.

There will be no whining here. Instead, I strapped on my camera and set forth to capture the wonderfulness of the frigid landscape. Unfortunately, I’m not the intrepid shutterbug I once was, and failed to come up with anything remotely dramatic.

Bright berries light up the snowy Georgetown Waterfront Park.
Bright berries light up the snowy Georgetown Waterfront Park.

However, luckily, here in D.C. there is no shortage of crazy weather nuts who make the effort and share with us all the most breathtaking sunrise and sunset and storm photos. Several of these guys also write for the Washington Post’s Weather Gang column, and they post their stunning pix there. Check these out!

I may never learn to love the cold, but I’m a sucker for beautiful sunrises and sunsets. And this bone chilling weather seems to lend an extra dimension of dazzle to the scenery.

I appreciate the quiet beauty of the season of ice and fire. And as a gardener, I’ve also learned to respect the value of a reliable blanket of snow. Nothing hurts plants more than an unseasonal warm spell followed by the sudden return of normal cold. Robert Frost, who composed many poems about the seasons, described this particular peril most eloquently in a few lines of “Good-bye and Keep Cold.”

No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
‘How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.’

We don’t have a lot of orchards here in the city, of course. But the principle is solid. Each year the people who bank on the Cherry Blossom Festival endure months of anxiety over whether or not a late frost or a turbo-charged spring will sabotage the blooms.

So maybe we’d best keep those earmuffs handy. And people who don’t like it can just chill.

Ripple in Still Water

The light in the forest casts a holy spell in George Inness Jr.'s painting.
The light in the forest casts a holy spell in George Inness Jr.’s painting.

What is it about Florida that brings out the crazy in people?

It can’t be simply the beaches and the palm trees, the warmth and the flip-flop-friendly lifestyle. All those things are abundantly present in many other places in the world where the tendency to Nutitude doesn’t seem so lushly present as it does in some parts of Florida.

I’m referring mainly to the touristy regions, of course. Never having lived in the state, I can’t testify to the mindset of the populace as a whole, but during the numerous visits I’ve made to relatives in different parts of the sunshine state, I’ve been impressed by the free-wheeling attitude that seems to thrive in the tourist zones.

Of course, since the days of the earliest explorers Florida has attracted people with an imaginative streak. Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth springs to mind. Get rich quick types have been trying to squeeze the sweetness out of Florida since the first orange groves were planted. And Disney demonstrated that if you build a fake castle in the middle of the sun belt, you can get people to believe their dreams will come true there.

Well, although I was raised on the Mickey Mouse Club and the world according to Walt, these days Disney doesn’t do it for me. On a recent visit to the Tampa area I had modest expectations of some quiet exploration and perhaps a discovery or two. But I never imagined I would encounter world class artwork hidden away in the tiny town of Tarpon Springs, a place best known for its once-thriving sponge business. Nowadays I’d bet the merchants along the sponge docks sell more Greek pastries than sponges. The sponge history still draws people there. Come for the sponges, stay for the galaktoboureko.

However, when we wandered off the beaten path we came upon the cozy Unitarian Universalist Church and happened onto a tour of their prize collection of “mystically tinged religious works” painted by George Inness Jr.

I had never heard of Inness Jr. before, but soon learned that he was the son of famous American landscape artist George Inness.

George Jr. also painted landscapes, but his are imbued with a spiritual subtext that sets them apart. I was mesmerized. In particular I was enthralled by the last work he painted, completed three days before he died. It depicts an endless forest bathed in glowing light. It spoke to me. That, of course, is what all art attempts to do—to communicate an idea, a feeling, a sense of place or person. The painting beckons the viewer to walk in the woods, not to get anywhere necessarily, but to enjoy the trip.

I tried to imagine what Florida must have been like in 1926 when Inness Jr. was creating these paintings. Back then there were no gleaming hotels in Miami, no plastic castles in Orlando, no captive orcas giving two shows a day. And there wouldn’t have been the miles and miles of strip malls and retirement communities. It was a quieter, wilder Florida.

That quiet wild part of Florida is still there. But it’s being pushed out, paved over and polluted by the crunch of careless development. And that’s a shame. In the peaceful pockets of old Florida you can get a sense of the wonder and mystery of the place. Along the back streets of Tarpon Springs we discovered a lovely still bayou, where the only sound was the occasional puffing of a manatee, sticking its nose above the water’s surface to grab a breath.

Down by still waters, the manatee is coy.
Down by still waters, the manatee is coy.

In recent years the gentle manatees have become poster creatures for all that is precious and endangered in the Florida wilderness. As we were waiting to catch our flight home the newspapers were leading with the story of the invasion of green anacondas into the Everglades. Previously it was thought that Burmese pythons, which have been breeding at an alarming rate and decimating the wildlife in Florida’s wilderness areas, were the problem. Now it appears that green anacondas, which get bigger and are more robust than the pythons, present a much greater threat.

So, where does this leave Florida? Hoping for a miracle? Looking for a way to cash in and turn the problem into a revenue stream?

Anything is possible. Except for the Fountain of Youth thing. That’s total hooey.

You can sip a brew at the Neptune Lounge while trying to figure out where to draw the line between old gods and new.
You can sip a brew at the Neptune Lounge while trying to figure out where to draw the line between old gods and new.

This Is Your Life

Every rainbow is a small miracle.

Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age Of Miracles takes off from a simple premise, the sort of “what if?” that has inspired science fiction writers for decades. What if the Earth’s rotation slowed? What if, gradually, but unmistakably, the sunlit days grew longer, the dark nights correspondingly longer, and cooler?

From this seed of possibility any number of mutant futures could be imagined. In these days, when young adult dystopian fiction is the leading edge of publishing trends, such a plot could have been milked for a franchise by a writer less concerned with exploring the subtleties of human nature under stress. But Walker, a deft and capable plot spinner, is also a thoughtful and caring observer of the paradox of human existence. Just because we know we’re doomed doesn’t mean we have to believe it.

Through the eyes of the 11-year-old narrator Julia, a lonely girl in Southern California, we see the hairline cracks in society widen as the days lengthen to 30 hours, 50 hours and beyond. When the government steps in to try to impose order on a world which no longer runs on clock time, the divisions between schools of thought lead to irreparable fractures in families and communities. However, no government can impose order on the natural world, and as the food supply and all living things including plant life are imperiled by the slowing, a miasma of gloom settles over much of the world.

But of course, to a lonely girl with a crush on a boy, all the world’s problems are mere background. Up to a point.

Walker’s brilliance shines in the way she shows her young protagonist coming to terms as she navigates not only the ordinary uncertainties of adolescence, but the terrifying new normal of loss.

For a while as I was reading the book I almost lost heart. I usually get my fill of depressing ideas reading the daily news. But I stuck with Walker, hoping she might have some miracle planned for the ending. And even though she didn’t give me the candy-coated over-the-rainbow finish I might have chosen, she left me with a lot to think about.

As her sensitive and warm-hearted heroine recounts the tale from her perspective as an adult, the story is saturated with the sense of “if we’d known then what we know now,”  a common enough phenomenon among those who’ve experienced the bittersweet sensation of 20-20 hindsight. By pointing out the amazing beauty of the world which vanished during her lifetime, Julia reminds the reader that that same amazing world is still here now. We might even still have a chance to save it if we don’t kill each other off first.

Many of us live in a state of constant expectation, looking for miracles or waiting for them on the horizon of some afterlife. But in the meantime we overlook the everyday miracles with which this planet is blessed. Sunrise daily, starlight, trees and birdsong, breezes and butterflies, babies of all kinds. Music.

We already live in an age of miracles.

Whose Woods These Are

Berkeley artist Deborah Harris created the block print for the covers of The Greening trilogy.

Leaves have already begun to fall in my backyard. The sunflowers are still smiling on their ten-foot-stalks, seemingly unaware of the change in the tilt of the planet, yet the leaning season has begun, when autumn exerts its downward pull on all the growing world.

There’s something strangely invigorating about the autumnal shift. Perhaps the shortening days, the cooler nights, are meant to remind us that the clock is ticking.

Mother Nature’s countdown is stately and subtle, but the message is clear. Our time on Earth is finite. Whether or not Earth itself is finite is another question, one hotly debated in environmental and scientific circles. But for those of us who take a more abstract, romantic view of life, the possibilities for Earth’s future offer a ripe area for speculation.

In my new alt-fantasy series The Greening, I imagine a slightly less dystopian vision than some. I’d like to think that future generations won’t be condemned to live in a dark dank world overrun with mutant cyber-human hybrids whose idea of a good time is drinking themselves to death in some seedy bar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s your cup of tea. But as for me, I’ll take the road where the jolly innkeeper isn’t a psychopath.

The first volume of The Greening trilogy starts At The Root, where all forests begin. The tale centers on the struggles of a young woman who sets off on a quest to find her missing father and stumbles into a world of magic and mayhem. But really, at its heart, it’s about growing up and finding your way through the forest. And, like a ten-mile hike in the great Northwest, it’s more fun than it sounds.

I floated an earlier version of this story out on the web for free last fall, as an experiment. I learned some things from it. One of which was that the story I wanted to tell was too big for one volume. And that I wasn’t content with an e-book only project. This slowed the process considerably, as it led to more extensive editing and design considerations, but now, here we are, and the paperback is in stock at Amazon. An e-book version will follow in the coming months.

So, if you’re looking for something leafy, green and not too filling for your leisure reading, consider a walk in the Green Wood.

Don’t Bug Me

Imagine the onshore breeze, the quiet whoosh of waves.

So after a week at the beach during which we set aside our usual trunk load of complaints, anxieties and issues, and concentrated on putting on enough sunscreen and minding our manners, I found myself applying a different definition to daily challenges: First World problem.

I don’t recall the first time I heard it, but I know that even in that first hearing no one had to explain the concept. When confronted by the inevitable minor vexations of ordinary life, more and more the phrase “First World problem” seems a just and clear-eyed assessment. If you run out of mayo for your tuna sandwich, that’s a First World problem. If you have no safe drinking water, that’s a Third World problem. If you have no toilet paper, that’s a First World problem. If you have no toilet…

This led me to wondering about the situation in the Second World, wherever that is. So I searched for it on the internet and found more than one “answer.” However, among the rants and raves I came across the One World Nations Online site, which seems to offer a fairly reasonable breakdown of the terminology. According to the site, the Second World was originally defined as all the countries inside the Soviet Bloc, or controlled by it. Obviously a lot has happened since the 1940s. Times change. Definitions shift with the tide of fortune.

On a beach vacation the problems of the Third World rarely intrude, unless it’s hurricane season. But here in D.C. one particular Third World menace has been gaining ground. When I was a kid in the region in the 50s and 60s, there were some mosquitoes. They mostly came out at night. You might get a bite or two if you lingered outside on a warm summer evening. But during the daytime the mosquitoes weren’t much in evidence. Now there’s a new mosquito in town.

Asian Tiger mosquitoes arrived in this country in the mid-80s in a load of tires. They are tiny but relentless. They bite in the daytime, and, to make matters much worse, they carry a whole bevy of diseases that the old garden variety biters didn’t. If you get bitten by an Asian Tiger mosquito, along with the painful, itching welt comes the threat of West Nile fever, dengue fever, yellow fever, two types of encephalitis, and something called chikungunya virus—it doesn’t kill you but makes you feel dead anyway, according to this article on Live Science .

As global trade and travel accelerates, we must be prepared to share the problems as well as the bounty of all the worlds within our shared world. Since these Asian tiger mosquitoes don’t like to fly at night, bats can’t help us on this one. Unless we can figure out a way to breed sun-loving bats. I’m betting that even now, in a garage laboratory in the hills of North Carolina some enterprising genius is working on it. I’d gladly contribute to his Kickstarter fund.

Putting Perspective on the Past

The airy courtyard has been the setting for eighteen Inaugural balls.

Cities have lives of their own.

People come and go, trends change, history rolls on. Cities that last for more than a few centuries acquire a patina of age that can add to their charm or diminish it.

Washington, D.C., has weathered a bit of history since it first took shape as the nation’s capitol in 1790. Compared to many European cities, ours is still an upstart, a mere teenage town. Like most teenagers, D.C. manages to make a lot of noise and generate a lot of controversy.

But visitors who flock to the massive monuments, museums and government buildings which dominate the landscape downtown sometimes miss the softer, sweeter side of the city: the lush canopied neighborhoods, the quirky streets and hidden gardens that sustain District residents when the going gets sticky.

Well-known attractions such as Georgetown, Capitol Hill and the Dupont Circle area get their share of sightseers. But there’s always more to discover.

Last week I finally visited the National Building Museum. Housed in what used to be the Pension Building, this magnificent structure built in 1887 has some breathtaking features, including an exterior frieze of Civil War soldiers, massive columns, and an awesome courtyard. Like many buildings of that era, it was gradually used for other government offices and its future was uncertain until 1969 when it was listed on the National Register of Historical Places, which revived interest in the space. In 1980 it was reborn as the National Building Museum devoted to all aspects of architecture, including the impact of architecture on the quality of human life.

And if that’s not enough to spark your interest, they’ve also got mini-golf.

The seventh hole celebrates imagination.

The two nine-hole indoor courses were designed by architects and design firms to illustrate environmental and architectural problems and solutions. It’s a great way to get out of the heat and chill out with some quality putts.

I like a government building that offers inspiration and renewal all under one roof. At the National Building Museum it’s par for the course.

Green is Timeless

This photo by Darius Kinsey taken around 1900 in Washington state shows what a cedar can do when it's got the right conditions.

What could be better than planting a tree to celebrate Earth Day?

Planting two trees? Perhaps.

But if you really want to take the long view, you may wish to follow the trail blazed by the dedicated folks who manage the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. These guys are serious about replanting the magnificent trees that have been lost over the past couple of centuries due to over-enthusiastic logging and other human development pressures.

Today being Earth Day, the Archive made headlines by launching its Global Earth Day Planting Event, the result of decades of work cloning seedlings from some of the last remaining cells of trees such as the giant sequoias and redwoods of the great western forests. Some of these trees were thousands of years old when they were cut down.

The clones are being planted in nine locations: Germany, Ireland, Wales, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Oregon and California, areas selected to increase the trees’ chances for survival in the face of anticipated increasing stress from global warming.

It’s a bold and optimistic program. To plant trees of any kind requires a kind of faith. To plant a tree with the capacity to live several thousand years requires vision and optimism and a certain generosity of spirit.

As Nelson Henderson famously wrote: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Of course, in that sense, a tree represents a lot more than a spot of shade. But if global warming lives up to the scientific predictions, our great-grandchildren may be truly grateful for any long shadows we leave behind.

The Earth Remembers

Landscaping at the National Museum of the American Indian reflects harmony with nature.

On the razor-thin borderline between the new and the old, we the people balance on this elusive current moment.

It changes constantly, as do we. Our efforts to hold onto the moment, to capture the past, or predict the future, generally fall short. Yet we keep trying. I like that about us.

Here in D.C. there’s a lot of emphasis on the present, in the form of news. Yet the rush of time is such that nothing has a shorter shelf life than news. Today becomes yesterday, and the ravenous public looks for what’s next.

Among the more inspiring aspects of life in the nation’s capitol is the reverence given to our shared history—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is easier to take, of course. The glories of the art museums, the beauty of the landscape, the pride in our heroes—these things are evident in the war memorials, the grand presidential monuments, and such.

But those parts of our history which are more painful and shameful to recall are also on display, lest we forget the cost paid by some, and the debts we can never repay.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), one of the relatively newer structures on the National Mall, stands out from its mostly marble neighbors. Its striking golden stone facade and sweeping curvilinear architecture instantly bring to mind the grandeur of the American Southwest. But inside, the scope of the museum extends even farther, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, representing the collected histories of all the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

It’s an overwhelming subject, and for someone like me, of Scotch-Irish heritage, something of a guilt trip. The native people who lived on and cared for this land we all love were systematically forced off it by the pioneers, most of whom came from Europe.

We who have overrun this land in the past four hundred years haven’t done such a swell job of preserving it. The Dust Bowl springs to mind.

But for this very reason the NMAI is an invaluable resource to educate and preserve the history and the spiritual heritage of the remarkable country in which we all live.

Monuments to heroes are all well and good. But even more important are the memories and history of our shared past. Where we will end up remains a mystery. But if we can at least remember where we came from, and how we paid for the trip, perhaps we can be mindful not to waste what we have left.

The newest totem poles in D.C.