Wanna Bet?

The calm before the protest.

It’s hard to sell the concept of global warming to folks digging out from a couple feet of snow.

However, the winter storm which silenced much of the Northeast barely frosted the windows here in D.C., where we’ve been enjoying a snow-globe kind of winter. Every couple of days a few flakes shake down from the clouds, but it never amounts to much. Kind of like our national approach to dealing with global warming.

This coming Sunday, February 17th, thousands of people concerned about global warming are expected to mass on the National Mall to bring attention to the rapidly changing weather patterns on planet Earth.

Naturally, in a country such as ours, where dissent is considered a birthright, there will likely be a contingent of outspoken global warming deniers, who insist that a couple of degrees here or there aren’t worth getting all worked up about, and certainly not reason to trade in our SUV’s for more modest vehicles.

Not being an expert myself, I can’t claim to understand the Big Picture. But I do think the key word here is “global.”

While it’s easy enough to read the mercury rising in a thermometer in your own backyard, it’s far more difficult to appreciate how the rise of one degree at the North Pole can lead to oceans swallowing coastal towns and island nations.

Yet this is what the data tells us. This is what all the computer simulations predict. This isn’t just one or two crackpot doom scenarios, or some completely random Mayan prediction of world-ending chaos. This is quiet, steady science—the same kind that brought you laser surgery, high definition television and the Internet. You believe in those, right? At least the first two anyway.

The problem is that for most humans that global perspective is tough to maintain. One minute you can see it—how we are all just tiny specks in a vast soup of cosmic possibilities; the next minute you’re hungry and the only bowl of soup you’re interested in is minestrone.

So, much as I’d like to think that Sunday’s demonstration will have lasting impact on policy makers, I’m doubtful of our nation’s ability to make the hard big decisions, and less than optimistic about the will of people like me when it comes to making those hundreds of small decisions every day that add up to climate change: whether to drive or walk, to recycle or throw in the garbage, to turn up the heat or put on another sweater, etc.

In the long run it may already be too late for us to reverse the course of the planet’s mood swing. The fact that most of us won’t live to see the way this all turns out makes it all too easy to ignore.

This past Sunday I went down to the National Mall, where the mild weather had brought out the kickball teams, the Frisbee tossers, and a smattering of happy tourists enjoying the sunshine and the wide open spaces. On such a day it’s easy to forget about polar bears running out of ice, and the tiny atolls in the Pacific which will completely disappear in a matter of decades at the rate things are going.

Maybe the complacent deniers will win out, and we’ll continue to burn through this planet’s resources as if there were no tomorrow. But even if we won’t take responsibility for the planet for ourselves, shouldn’t we at least do it for our children?

It’s their world we’re gambling with.

Shrink Wrap

Have houseboat, will travel.

So now that I’ve moved across country again, I’m sifting through stacks of boxes, most of them filled with paper – letters, photos, books, clippings and articles – and I’ve come to the realization that it’s out of control. I’d like to think I’m not a bona fide hoarder. But the argument could be made.

I trace the beginning of this to sometime after the birth of my first child, when, like so many first-time parents, I shot a lot of photos. A lot. And this was back in the days before digital cameras, so the piles of prints and negatives grew at an alarming rate.

Now that my kids have grown and moved out into the world, I’m left with these boxes of images of the little people they used to be. I also have their report cards, certificates, drawings, letters, etc. etc. I did winnow the piles before we moved. But not enough.

As another season of irrational consumption unfolds in our complacent nation, I find myself thinking perhaps this will be the year I try to be more creative and less acquisitive. I’m dreaming of a small Christmas.

In truth, we’ve been on a down-sizing arch for several years now, starting when we left the wide open spaces of rural Virginia and headed for urban Seattle, where tiny bungalows and cottages abound. The charm and practicality of making do with less is that it makes life simpler. With less to clean, less to maintain, less to heat and cool, there’s more time for the simple pleasures of life.

For me, that means gardening, and I’m downsizing there as well. There was a time when I thought I could manage ten acres of wild and wooly nature. Nature soon set me straight on that idea. Now my goals are more modest. A tiny backyard with a few flower beds, perhaps some beans and a contented cat, and I’ll be a happy camper.

The trend toward downsizing is catching on in these economically challenging times. A recent article in The Washington Post took note of the “tiny house” movement, which has been gaining popularity in the last ten or fifteen years. Most of these petite charmers come in under 200 square feet. I’ve seen bathrooms bigger than that in some of the more grotesque MacMansions blighting once-open spaces outside the Beltway.

Lovely old homes have their place in the architectural landscape. But the rash of blimped-out super-sized dwellings that have become standard in so many areas in the last twenty years has produced vast tracts of unwalkable “neighborhoods” where life without a car is unthinkable, and where there’s more empty space inside the houses than outside them.

In his landmark book 1973 book Small is Beautiful British economist E. F. Schumacher wrote:

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success. The question is whether such causes can be effective for long or whether they carry within themselves the seeds of destruction.”

Schumacher’s wisdom inspired many of the environmental projects that have helped to raise awareness of our dependence on Earth’s natural resources. Our willingness to make changes in our own lives remains a critical part of the mission.

No one ever said it would be easy. Just thinking about it makes me tired, I’ll admit. But at least now that I have a much smaller house to clean, I have a little more energy to put to better uses.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the discipline to whittle my stuff down to the point where it can fit in 200 square feet. But at least I’m trying to lighten the load for the next move, wherever it may take me.

Taking Stock

Rock Creek in The Calm Before the Storm

The day after the super storm known as Sandy, we woke to find our electricity still on, our trees still standing, our flood levels not catastrophic.

All we had, in addition to the relief of feeling spared the worst of this extraordinary storm system’s brute force, was the ache of sympathy for those who weren’t so lucky.

The fickleness of weather is a gambler’s dream. People who build on sandy shores play a game whose odds are not in their favor, but as long as the sun shines and the breezes are soft and refreshing, beach dwellers enjoy the envy of many inlanders.

Not feeling much envy this week.

The after-effects of this nightmarish weather event will still be felt next summer, when the suntan lotion and beach umbrellas go back on the repaired beaches. The people who have suffered most from this storm will never forget it.

But for the rest of us, those of us lucky enough not to have had trees fall on our houses or cars or worse, lucky enough not have had the water rising inside our homes, the memory of even a storm such as Sandy will inevitably fade.

It’s human nature. It’s tough to dwell on frightening scenarios and carry on with the daily routines of life. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, we all gotta work and play until we die. Dwelling on misery doesn’t make it any less likely to happen again. So we do our best to manage the fear. We keep it handy, right there on the shelf with the batteries and candles and extra rolls of toilet paper.

Here’s hoping we won’t need to restock any time soon.

Lay Down Your Weary Trowel

Peach Chairs

Aaah. Summer’s end. Time for that final dip in the pool, walk on the beach, drink on the deck. Bittersweet, perhaps, but there’s something pleasurable about reaching the end of the row, the turn in the road, the fresh new page.

Labor Day is a freestyle holiday, relatively new as holidays go. Its traditions were never set in stone. It’s more of a do-your-own-thing kind of affair, which seems quintessentially American to me.

While the original concept back in the 1880s seems to have been grounded in some sort of political maneuvering to keep restless workers and labor movements from getting out of control, the modern holiday has succumbed to the default state of so many of our so-called holidays. It’s another marketing opportunity.

However, for those of us who garden, Labor Day marks the beginning of the end and the end of some beginnings. Autumn labors are of a different stripe than the joyful, optimism of spring planting or the fretful battles of summer against bugs, blights and drought. The harvest season looms.

This year I said goodbye to my garden in Seattle. As yet I don’t know where my next garden will be. But in the interim I have found peace and pleasure admiring the gardens in D.C. It’s an international community here, and that’s reflected in the gardens.

Whether they grow vegetables or flowers or herbs or fruits, all gardeners speak the same language. They get it.

Earth comes first. Always has, always will. If we take care of it, it will take care of us.

Garden Talisman

Slithering Toward Babylon

Python Fodder

What’s 17-feet-long, weighs 164 pounds and can swallow a 75-pound deer whole?

If you guessed Burmese python, come on down and collect your Magic 8-Ball. Outlook: Dubious.

The breathtaking speed with which this particular invasive species has decimated the native wildlife of the Florida Everglades has been making headlines for several years now. But you know how it is with headlines. A few hours after reading one you’re hungry for another.

I imagine the Burmese pythons feel the same way after snacking on deer. And here’s where the reptile meets the road.

Let’s suppose you’re among those carefree scoffers of the scientific method who consider global warming another half-baked liberal notion aimed at suppressing the great capitalist surge. Well, be that as it may, the data collected by weather analysts over the last 100 years suggests that at the very least the pattern of milder winters and significantly hotter summers is here to stay. And the thing about snakes is: they love the heat. Can’t live without it. Also can’t live on love alone.

In fact, it seems likely that, once they’ve finished off the deer, alligators and raccoons in Florida they’ll start slithering north to find food. Plenty of deer, rabbits and dogs in Georgia, South Carolina and points north.

Normally I’m a live-and-let-live kind of gal. Snakes have never been high on my list of cute pet prospects, but as a former country gardener I learned to value their place on the food chain. Snakes excel at rodent control, and although mice and rats enjoy a special niche in the realm of children’s literature, I never warmed to their presence in my kitchen drawers. Still. If it came to a choice between a Burmese python and an ordinary house mouse, I’d take the mouse.

However, if things keep going at the current rate that choice won’t be available.

Currently there are an estimated couple hundred thousand Burmese pythons on the loose in Florida. The fact that the government has belatedly banned their importation is a bit of barn door slamming long after the horse is out of sight. The pythons already here are breeding at a blistering pace. That 17-footer mentioned above was carrying 87 eggs.

Eighty-seven. Do the math.

So, maybe the drill-baby-drill types don’t care about spotted owls or delicate forest ecosystems or even coral reefs. The Burmese pythons don’t care either. They’ll just eat your dog, your cat, possibly your toddler.

Government can’t fix all the problems we bring on ourselves. But I sure as hell hope they get a handle on this python thing, or it’s Maine, here I come.

Echoes of an Infinite Scream

It's a big planet; someone has to pollinate it.

Too long for a science fiction title, you think?

Yeah. In these attention-challenged times it would need to be shorter, sharper.

But I have to say when I read that Edvard Munch’s beloved work “The Scream” sold for $119.9 million at an auction on Wednesday, I felt a kind of primal rage.

I understand the appeal of the work. Surely we’ve all been there, felt that. And Munch’s depiction of a soul in torment is subtle in a florid sort of way. Unlike the works of other more literal artists (Hieronymous Bosch springs to mind with a pitchfork), Munch didn’t illustrate actual nightmarish scenarios. “The Scream” instead reflects the existential horror which lurks just below the conscious level of thought. You never see the monster under the bed, after all. The imagination has no limits.

I love art. I think life would be immeasurably diminished without it. But there’s something obscene about that amount of money being spent on a small pastel. If we had already solved all the world’s problems, eliminated famine, war and pestilence, then, maybe, we could earmark a bit more for decoration. But I realize that’s not how the world works. It’s supply and demand everywhere you go. And as my husband commented when I began ranting about the price of the painting, “They’re not making any more of them.”

Yeah. Well. I get that. But I feel that way about Earth, and the sense of urgency doesn’t seem to be universally shared.

One reason this particular “Scream” is said to be worth more than the average poster is that it has a few lines by the artist describing his inspiration for the work hand-written within the frame:

I was walking along a path with two friends — the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red — I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence — there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety — and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

Now it makes sense. Munch, it appears, was an environmentalist, waaay ahead of his time.

In 1962, back when the word ecology was something new and many people thought recycling was a kooky fad, Rachel Carson wrote “The Silent Spring,” a prescient warning on the unchecked use of pesticides and chemicals. Many people thought she was a kook too.

But now, when bee colonies are disappearing around the world because of exposure to the toxins spread by corporate farming, when frog species are vanishing as pollutants poison once pristine habitats, and the toxic clouds forming above cattle feedlots can be seen from space, it’s time to wake up and smell the methane.

Yes, I am a tree-hugger, haunted by the silent screams of disappearing nature.

Earth is the Big Tree and we’re killing it. If it falls, we all go down with it. Probably screaming our heads off.

Where is Munch when we need him?

Otter Bliss

Mama and child, rockin' in the ripples.

“Look at the baby beaver!” Face pressed up against the glass, the little girl stared wide-eyed at the furry creature nestled on a ledge at the side of the tank.

“Stay behind the line,” cautioned one of the volunteers monitoring the otter exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium.

It had been a little more than two weeks since Aniak, one of the aquarium’s female otters, had given birth to an adorable three pound ball of fur. Crowds have been arriving by busloads to see the baby. You have to act fast when it comes to baby otters – they grow so fast. The new pup has already doubled in size, and soon her baby fur will be replaced by a sleek coat like her mother’s.

Those sleek pelts were what led early explorers in the Pacific Northwest to hunt the once thriving sea otters into local extinction. Fortunately, in the last few decades, with protective laws in place and concerted efforts by environmental agencies, sea otters have been making a comeback in the Great Northwest.

And the Seattle Aquarium has played a significant role in that process, by caring for orphaned sea otters, educating the public about marine life, and in 1979 the aquarium was the first to successfully breed sea otters in captivity.

I had never seen a sea otter before I moved to Seattle. At my first encounter with them at the Seattle Aquarium six years ago I was enchanted, thrilled and completely smitten. The experience inspired my most recent novel, The Goddess of Green Lake, the story of a young woman whose life takes an unexpected turn after she rescues an orphaned baby sea otter.

The other day as I watched Aniak cradling her baby on her chest while she paddled serenely around the small pools at the aquarium I felt that same sense of enchantment. Waves of children and their camera-toting parents came and went, ogling the otters for a while and moving on to other exhibits. The little girl who mistook the baby for a beaver wasn’t alone. Probably beavers are a more familiar animal to most kids. After all, when you think about it, there aren’t that many mammals who make their homes in the water aside from beavers and muskrats, and when was the last time you saw a muskrat?

Certainly few animals seem as at ease in the water as sea otters, who sleep, eat and give birth to their young in the water,  staying afloat in any kind of weather, unperturbed by the frigid water temperatures, coming back from the brink of extinction still buoyant, even when confined to a life in a fishbowl surrounded by gawking humans.

I admire their insouciance. I marvel at the wonders of the sea. I am grateful to the Seattle Aquarium for making it possible for us to witness the magic of sea otters.

Revolting Developments

The mood in Fremont.

Back in the day, before people said things like “back in the day,” John Lennon sang a song about revolutions and how “we all want to save the world.” At the time, quite a few of us thought it might really happen. But then Lennon was murdered on his own doorstep by a lunatic, and though a lot has changed since then, the worldwide problems of economic disparity, environmental degradation and escalating violence have continued to grow worse.

At this moment throngs of angry people are massing on the streets in New York, Seattle, and across Europe to demand change.

Will it happen as a result of these demonstrations? Or will the corporate giants whose behind-the-scenes control mechanisms dictate how news is spun, how elections turn, and who profits from the suffering of the powerless win again?

Aging flower child that I am, I’d like to believe that this time, at this particular moment in history, things will be different. And if this turns out to be the case I believe it will be almost entirely due to the global shift in the way communication takes place. But I could be wrong again. Here in Seattle it’s easy to fall into the assumption that everyone in the world is connected to the internet, that everyone is literate and rational and conscientious. It’s easy to overlook the vast gulf between the connected and the disconnected, whose sources of information remain as choked as their sources for material income.

Last week, for example, I heard a first-person account by an American citizen who had been imprisoned in a Chinese holding cell for months while awaiting sentencing for a minor public disturbance. His descriptions of the conditions in the cell were appalling, but even more disturbing to me was his discovery of the disbelief shared by all of his Asian cellmates who completely rejected the idea that the U.S. had ever put a man on the moon. They all considered this a blatant falsehood propagated by the U.S.

When lies replace truth in the common understanding, great injustices grow powerful.

Perhaps in the U.S. we have placed too much trust in our capitalist system, expecting it to be self-correcting. It’s natural to distrust big government, but an economic system without strong government oversight runs the risk of capsizing from the greed of a few unprincipled individuals.

Another headline grabbing image in the papers this week ran alongside the scenes of crowds in the streets: a giant freighter, its load of containers a-tilt in a rough sea.

As such accidents grow more common, we become numb to the damage. But the long-term costs of ignoring our common problems could sink us all.

A Girl With Waves in Her Hair

Berkeley artist Deborah Harris created the cover image for my new book.

You can’t stay dry for long in Seattle.

Even if you somehow manage to avoid the persistent drizzle of fall, winter and spring, and step out into the flawless sunshine of late July, thinking you’ve got a clear shot, you will fall under the spell of the sparkling lakes and rivers, the magnificent Puget Sound, and the vast Pacific beyond the Olympic Mountains. There’s no escape. Even if you never get in a boat or paddle a board, you’ll find yourself entranced by the magical water that nurtures Seattle.

It’s a wet world full of wonders, and it’s home to the heroine of my new book, The Goddess of Green Lake.

The goddess of the title isn’t an actual deity of mythic lore. She has no special powers that she knows of, beyond the ability to mesmerize every male who catches sight of her. But Callie Linden, a 20-year-old marine biology student at the University of Washington, has little interest in boys. Her passion is the sea, protecting it from the worst excesses of modern culture – pollution, over-fishing, and rising sea temperatures caused by global warming. Callie is determined to be a part of the solution.

But, as so often happens in real life, things happen that take you off course, and before you know it you’re careening past boulders in the churning rapids, holding on for dear life. For Callie, the first small step off her carefully charted course begins with the discovery of an orphaned baby sea otter.

When I moved to Seattle six years ago one of the first places I visited was the Seattle Aquarium, a treasure chest of delights. But the most unexpected delight of them all for me was the discovery of the sea otters. I fell in love. And right then the idea for a book began in my head, though it was a few years before I had all the pieces put together. The aquarium in my book is fictional, but I’m indebted to the Seattle Aquarium for introducing me to the magical charms of sea otters.

The baby sea otter in my story captivates another character as well. Eel MacGregor, a struggling musician who first appeared in Alice and The Green Man, has moved to Seattle, for all the usual reasons young musicians do. But he’s not finding it so easy to stand out in the glutted local music scene.

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. But it might surprise you.

When you mix otters, music and magic with a little bit of Seattle mist, anything can happen. You can read all about it in The Goddess of Green Lake.

The Upside of Downsizing

One of the reasons we moved out of our last house in Virginia was that, although it was gorgeous, beautifully sited, and roomy as all get out, it was just too roomy for us once our children grew up and left. But although our children had left home, a lot of their stuff remained, and when we were packing to move across country I kept having to make decisions about the  boxes of Lego, Breyer horses, soccer trophies, old report cards, baby clothes, bureaus, fencing gear, fabric, jigsaw puzzles, board games, and tons of books. All of this stuff, to take or not to take. That was the question.

It should be easy to throw old stuff away, but sometimes stuff is not just stuff. It’s stuff with a past, and when you toss it, a little bit of your past goes with it. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But sometimes, you wonder. I mean, consider stuffed animals. Every parent buys these for their kids at some point. And other people give them to your kids. Before long you have closets full of the things – and you can’t get rid of them. In these germaphobic days almost nobody wants a used stuffed animal. Yet to toss these once-beloved toys in the trash seems wrong in so many ways.

However, once the moving process picks up speed, you run out of time to linger over sentimental attachments. You just have to throw stuff out or stuff stuff in boxes and hope you can remember where the important stuff is once you get to your destination.

Stuff. It’s everywhere. It’s everything. But some stuff is more important than other stuff.

Recently, we’ve been trying to clear space in our small house and I’ve been going through some of those hastily filled boxes which made the trip west with us. I still have trouble letting go of old letters, photos and some books. But as I’ve been learning to let go of more stuff, I’ve become interested in the fate of all stuff, and the mystery of how we came to acquire so much. When my husband and I started out together we could fit everything we owned in a Dodge van, with room for our dog too.

In 1807 the poet William Wordsworth wrote “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” describing the trap of materialistic consumerism long before the word consumer was commonplace. The getting and purging of stuff has become such a fundamental activity in this country that few people remember how they spent their time and money before there were credit cards and online shopping 24/7.

Annie Leonard hopes to change that. Leonard launched The Story of Stuff Project (http://www.storyofstuff.com) in 2009 to help educate people on the true costs and consequences of the ravenous consumer cycle in which the modern world is trapped. In her 20-minute video overview Leonard gives a lucid analysis of the complex problems which arise from the current system, and she also offers some hope for solutions.

It’s not too late. There’s stuff we need, and stuff we can live without. The Earth is not a huge planet, but if we can get back to concentrating on the right stuff, it could still be roomy enough for all of us to share the good stuff.