Monday, October 29, 2007

Muses--Shaggy, Clawed, and Hooved

Rachel Carson once wished that the good fairy would endow each child with an indestructible sense of wonder. Barring such ethereal intervention, she argued that a child “needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” But what if a young person isn’t blessed with a passionate, enlightened, and, especially, available adult companion?

For me, there were horses. It never seems to have occurred to my city-bred mother to take her children hiking, star-gazing, or even gardening. But when we moved to an outer suburb of Kansas City, an empty pasture across the street called to my sister and me to animate it with horses. Lucky Charm and his successors became my ambassadors to the outdoors, drawing me away from my books and literally carrying me into the woods and fields. On Lucky’s back, I chased foxes, watched a snake swallow a frog, and developed my first hostile relationship with an invasive species--—bull thistle—due to its impact on bare legs. While Lucky didn’t tutor me in the names of birds, insects, or plants we encountered, his easy familiarity with the acres we explored gave me confidence to venture farther and more often than I ever would have alone.

Women writers seeking literary adventures often need similar sources of support. Carson herself relied on the calm presence of cats to buoy her spirits during late nights of solitary research for Silent Spring. But an insightful new book--Shaggy Muses--focuses on the canine companions of five literary lionesses: Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte. Author Maureen Adams, a clinical psychologist, investigates the diverse powers of human-animal bonds through intimate portraits of each author’s relationships with friends, playmates, protectors, and guides who happened to be dogs.

In some cases, the four-legged personalities Adams depicts clarify aspects of an author’s public work. Emily Dickinson’s black Newfoundland, Carlo, was her “Shaggy Ally” in a private refuge behind the hedges of Amherst, and imagining her gentle compatriot adds depths to her poem describing a hummingbird sipping her garden’s flowers: Til every spice is tasted-/ and then his Fairy Gig/ reels in remoter atmospheres-/ And I rejoin my Dog . . . .
More often, the women’s dogs appear in diaries, letters, and other private writings that reveal vital supporting roles played by each pet. Emily Dickinsons’ faithful Cocker Spaniel nestled by her side through years when illness and an oppressive parent cloistered her in a dark bedroom. Edith Wharton’s Pekinese thrived under her intense pampering, providing an outlet for her thwarted dreams of motherhood. More than one of the woman used pets as go-betweens or symbolic surrogates in romantic entanglements.

The story of Emily Bronte and her mastiff, Keeper, spoke most personally to me. Emily’s reclusive nature segregated her from both friendship and employment. When her sisters left home to attend church, study abroad, or work as governesses, Emily usually stayed behind, running her father’s parsonage. But Keeper pulled her away from the kitchen fires onto the moors, into vast, wind-blown spaces that freed her imagination. Could she have written her bleak, disturbing masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, without those hours striding across the heather beside Keeper? Adams thinks not, asserting that caring for the dog also grounded her when passionate imaginings might have swept her sanity away. Says Adams, “. . . she needed structure for her life while she was writing Wuthering Heights. And Keeper provided that structure. Emily had to take care of him—feed him, give him water, and exercise him—no matter what was happening in the nightmare world she was creating.” For Emily Bronte and the other writers insightfully portrayed by Adams, dogs functioned like Carson’s proverbial fairy, endowing not just wonder but also boldness, independence, and love. These shaggy muses allowed each woman to find freedom through connection with dogs, words, and the world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

100 Year Letter Project

Years ago, I spent a summer at Woods Hole's Marine Biology Laboratory. Of course, I loved going to the science library there, chock full as it was with the biological tomes that drew my enthusiasm in those youthful days. But I couldn't help noticing a prominent sign over one tall, packed shelf--"Don't read too much--Think!" These days, I'm reading more widely but possibly still too much to satisfy my activist soul, and I try to keep in mind my own version of the MBL library's caution--"Don't read too much--Write!"

Thanks to Emmett over at The Natural Patriot, I just learned about a grassroots writing project for all of us. DeSmog Blog is organizing a 100 Year Letter Project, in which DeSmog is "asking readers to write write a letter to their great, great grandchildren about their vision and hopes for their world in 100 years, in the context of global warming." Emmett at NP encapsulates the potential importance of the project: ". . . I think this personal, emotional approach is just the sort of thing that might work in breaking through the thick, dessicated crust of apathy and cynicism and (deliberately fabricated) confusion and fear that keeps people from getting it, from understanding that climate change is a real problem that will have real and serious consequences for the people that we love most in this world--our children and their children."

Possibilities for your letter include explanations, apologies, encouragement, or just a warm howdy from a cooler time. Check back at DeSmog now and then to see examples of missives others are sending to the future. But don't forget to write yours. Emmett suggests sending a copy to your newspaper as well as to DeSmog. I'm going to work on a list of books for the great grandkids, some, I hope, that will help them see that we were trying to wake up to our actions, some that reveal the beauties of the planet that still persist, and some just for fun. No matter what changes the climate undergoes, I hope that reading will still provide inspiration, information, solace and joy in 2107 as it does today.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, Protect

Never in my craziest dreams about Pines Above Snow have I imagined raving about the same book as Oprah. But Friday, Oprah hosted Liz Gilbert, author of the “life-changing phenomenon” book, Eat, Pray, Love. I love it for many of the same reasons all the women I know love it (#1: My path to true fulfillment may pass through Italy) but especially because it has reminded me about the importance of ritual in our lives.

Here’s a short selection from Gilbert’s witty, eloquent memoir:

This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.

That got me thinking—what rituals do environmentalists observe that regularly lift our spirits, solidify our bonds, carve a place for us to delight in nature without worrying about it for a moment? Hmmmm. Since the days of tree-hugging flower children, environmentalists have shied away from symbolic rituals for fear of ridicule. We want our arguments for nature preservation to be unassailably based in quantifiable science (e.g., species diversity should be protected because ecological systems need diversity to function optimally) rather than intangible, mystical beliefs (e.g., a mountain should be protected because it has spiritual power). Maybe this has won us a few points in rational arguments about land use (though I’m not convinced that most land use arguments are essentially rational), but Eat, Pray, Love made me question what we have also lost.

Gilbert again gives cause for optimism when she says this about ritual:

And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace. And that is why we need God.

If left up to me of course, “green” rituals would at least sometimes involve books. Why not begin each month with an appropriate selection from Thoreau’s journals or A Sand County Almanac? Or organize a public reading of classic environmental essays to celebrate each Earth Day? Or just make a personal vow to read a nature poem or passage every morning? Imbibing a few well-chosen words about trees, canyons, or salmon runs is a more important ceremony to me than a wake-up latte.

But as Elizabeth Gilbert’s story emphasizes, not everyone’s rituals can—or should—be the same. So like her, perhaps we could all start looking for life-changing, world-changing rituals to bring more strength and joy to the environmental movement. I notice ideas here and there as I explore the blogosphere, but one frequent source is No Impact Man. Especially poignant is his recent post on sukkot, the Jewish holiday of atonement. According to Colin, “Sukkot, as explained to me by my wonderful friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is a time for reconciliation or--and this is my word--atonement or at-one-ment. Sukkot means, having taken stock of our wrongs, now making them right.” It’s a joyous occasion that brings families together inside of nature as explained in a video posted below (via NIM).

Maybe, if we find and practice some of these power-generating, hope-stimulating rituals, we'll figure out how to save the earth. I bet Oprah would invite us over to talk about that.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg: Sukkot, A Holiday for Reconciliation

Monday, October 1, 2007

Learning in the Great Outdoors Carnival

Welcome to the October edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors, the Carnival of Environmental Education. The founder and usual Carnival host, Terrell at Alone on a Limb, has thrown caution to the wind to let me host his creation as Pines Above Snow’s first ever blog carnival. I hope that I’ll be able to do justice to the contributors and celebrate learning outdoors in autumn without making too many html errors. Here goes. . . .

County fairs mark the end of summer for many of us, and GrannyJ brings an exhibit to us over at Walking Prescott. She and her husband won a blue ribbon at the Yavapai County Fair for these amazing photos of an Arizona horned toad and her dozen offspring. Congrats, GrannyJ!

Super-sized pumpkins attract crowds at state fairs and farm stands every fall. We know how to decorate with them, puree them into pie filling, and carve them into jack o’ lanterns. But Tricia at Miss Rumphius Effect has found a picture book that turns pumpkins into math lessons. Of How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin, she says, “All-in-all, I love the story, love the art with it's autumn hues, and am thrilled with the possibilities for instruction.”

Nets, rather than books, are the tool of choice this month for Dana at Principled Discovery. By equipping her homeschooled kids outdoors with professional quality butterfly and aquatic nets, she heightens their engagement outdoors. In her post, Tools not Toys, she says “And when the children use them, there is a seriousness and purposefulness about their explorations of the backyard that really was not there before.”

Over at The Wild WoodsWoman, the favored EE tool & tactic appears to be chutzpah. WWW has convinced a nephew of her omniscient nature knowledge primarily through multi-sensory curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm. She urges others to follow her example in Convince a Kid You are an Outdoor Expert, urging us to “Use anything—see it, smell it, touch it, or use it to remind you of a good story.” The ultimate goal, besides winning the “coolest aunt ever” award, is getting kids excited about being outside.

Where will kids go to college when they’ve been immersed in nature though pumpkin math, insect collecting, and family hikes throughout childhood? Jimmy Atkinson at OEDb: Online Education Database identifies 13 campus-wide environmental education programs in the continental U.S. Opportunties from Maine to California appear in a very useful survey, How to Get a Green Education | OEDb. Check out the whole site for online college & grad level courses in biology, ecology, astronomy, and other relevant subjects.

Of course, education isn’t over when you’re out of college, so Todd at We The Change recommends volunteering as a way to learn more about the natural world. He pitched in to help remove invasive plants from a 500-acre preserve in Manhattan, along the way gaining perspective on the role of emotion in nature appreciation. Says Todd, “I think a big part of the beauty that people feel from nature is the ultimate peace and acceptance that emanates from it.”

For me, much of fall’s beauty emanates from the splendor of migration. One champion migrant, the cliff swallow, is honored in poetry this month by Terrell as part of his ever-inspiring Monday Poetry Stretch. Look closer at Alone on a Limb for photos of cliff & barn swallows on the nest. Dana at Backyard Birding offers advice on Enjoying the raptor migration. Click on her post for an interactive map if you want to participate in an official raptor count near you, or just watch for migrants dropping by for a snack at your backyard feeder. Either approach hones your id skills, enhances your appreciation of the season, and gets you & the kids away from the tv.

These migration posts bring me to my selection for this carnival’s award for Virtual Outdoors Children’s Website of the Month. I’m happy to bestow this honor on my homeschooled son’s favorite migration website, Journey North for Kids. We’ve turned there often as we raise and release monarchs this fall, hoping they’ll join the masses headed south to Mexico. The kids' page of Journey North will give your children and students video and photo clues to the many intriguing projects pursued at Journey North. Kids can enter data on their own observations, check maps reflecting citings by students around the country, or order red tulips to plant now and take part in 2008’s studies of the returning spring.

Thanks very much for visiting Pines Above Snow for this month’s Learning in the Great Outdoors Carnival. November’s edition will be back home at Alone on a Limb. Send submissions to Terrell at thelimb[at]mac[dot]com.