Monday, May 26, 2008

Faith in a Chestnut Seed

Though ecstatically anticipating my first visit to Muir woods in two weeks, I’m enthralled right now by “redwoods of the East,” thanks to The American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. Science writer Susan Freinkel tells the riveting & often heartbreaking story of a tree that once dominated the eastern woodlands, from Maine to Michigan and south to Georgia. Moose, bears, turkeys, throngs of passenger pigeons, and communities of hardscrabble farmers depended on the trees’ abundant fruits, and the straight-grained, tannin-rich wood found uses ranging from paper pulp to fine furniture. But the King of the Forest had no defense against a fungus that hitchhiked into the US on Asian chestnuts in the late 1800s. Within a few decades, 3.5 billion American chestnuts had fallen.

Freinkel says she began her book with a question: “what happens when a species disappears?” Part of the answer is biological and ecological, and the author intricately recounts the mechanism of the fungus’ lethality as well as the impacts of the blight on the forest left behind. Much of Freinkel’s story, though, focuses on culture—the economic, aesthetic, and emotional relationships between people and trees. By collecting oral histories, especially in the southeast, Freinkel discovers that American Chestnuts remain a vivid living memory to a few, a bittersweet yearning to many more. “Why do people still care about the chestnut so much?” Frienkel asks one of her informers. She replies:

”Some people say they’re conflating the chestnut with the preindustrial way of life—that it’s an easy symbol,” . . . “I think elements of that are true. People miss their youth, their way of life, their parents and brothers and sisters. They miss their communities.” . . . “I think for people who had the direct experience of eating the nuts, picking them up, seeing the trees bloom, toasting the nuts—they literally miss that. . . . They literally wish they could taste a chestnut.”

Whatever its origins, passion for chestnut trees has fueled a century of labor to revive the species. From traditional techniques such as grafting and cross-breeding to post-modern attempts at genetic engineering and deployment of hypovirulent blight, scientists and horticulturists devote decades of their lives to shrubby, struggling remnants of the Chestnut’s former glory. Sometimes, the researchers’ and aficionados’ obsessions, rivalries, and sacrifices (e.g., indoor plumbing) cross the line between colorful and nutty. But, says Freinkel, “I am continually moved by the patience and underlying optimism of the chestnut scientists I’ve met; in their own way, they are as resolute as the tree itself.”

With dogwoods, butternuts, sugar maples, hemlocks, and other beloved eastern forest trees threatened by development, invasive species, and climate change, Freinkel’s story is a cautionary tale. Thousands of American-Asian hybrid chestnuts are being experimentally planted this spring in the Appalachians, but their success is far from certain. And some oppose the project, asserting that hybrids do not belong in native forests and could have unforseen effects on post-Chestnut plant and animal communities. Research continues on other fronts as well; one controversial project seeks to introduce a European blight virus to weaken the Asian fungus infesting American trees.

But even those who object to some of the restoration techniques can help simply by keeping their eyes open in the woods. Here and there, through luck or resilience, an old chestnut has escaped the blight, and you can report survivors you encounter—potentially invaluable genetic resources—to the American Chestnut Foundation. Freinkel postulates that restoring the tree would do more than just return a missing element to the forest. She writes, “If the day comes when our descendents can venture with wonder into chestnut forests, we will have gained back more than a perfect tree. We will have gained a new reason for hope.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

To Senator Kennedy

I've been wishing all day that there could be something comforting to send the Kennedy family, who have known so much tragedy yet given our country so much. Here's what I came up with, a remembrance from John Muir's journal, probably written in 1870, when he was living in Yosemite Valley. . . .

Once I was very hungry and lonely in Tennessee. I had been walking most of the day in the Cumberland Mountains without coming to a single house, but in crossing a dark-shaded stream whose border trees crossed over it like a leafy sky I found the frail Dicksonia that I had looked for so long, and the first Magnolia, too, that I had ever seen. I sat down and reveled in the glory of my discoveries. A mysterious breathing of wind moved in the trees, and the stream sang cheerily at every ripple. There is no place so impressively solitary as a dense forest with a stream passing over a rocky bed at a moderate inclination.

Feelings of isolation soon caught me again among these hushed sounds, but one of the Lord's smallest birds came out to me from some bushes at the side of a moss-clad rock. It had a wonderfully expressive eye, and in one moment that cheerful, confiding bird preached me the most effectual sermon on heavenly trust that I had ever heard through all the measured hours of Sabbath, and I went on not half so heart-sick, nor half so weary.

Wishing you well, Senator Kennedy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trust Busting for Book Lovers

Another step out of my reading box recently took me to the biography shelf, where I grabbed Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. My reasoning: stacks of books about natural destruction and heroes & heroines who fight against it haven’t solved enough environmental problems, so maybe a villain’s biography would reveal some answers. At least it would be a refreshing change from Muir’s exuberant, expansive asceticsm in My First Summer in the Sierra to learn about a man who “Commodore” author Edward Renehan describes as a grim, stingy, near-illiterate who founded the greatest personal fortune in history.

Renehan wisely lets contemporary voices delineate Vanderbilt’s character whenever possible. Attorney George Templeton Strong begrudged him respect as an instinctive genius of the most cold-hearted, avaricious kind: “He is like some rudimentary but deadly and swift beast who knows not what he knows, but knows enough—through nature—to endure and thrive on the meat of lesser animals, of which the woods are full. . . . . He is a breed apart: evolved for the sole purpose of money-getting. Either that or his is the dumbest of dumb luck lubricated—I should admit—by a great deal of elbow grease. The beast is never lazy.” That titanic energy was focused single-mindedly toward acquiring money, principally through steamships and railroads, but incidentally through any means, fair or foul.

Vanderbilt’s ruthless greed didn’t surprise me, and it failed to fascinate me enough to read every word of this detailed (and undeniably lively) account of every merger, swindle, collapse, and reorganization that characterized his colossal success. But I was riveted by passages discussing a cynical ethos pervading the business world and much of society the early 1800s. “Sadly,” writes Renehan, “in his fundamental lack of charity, young Vanderbilt was not unlike the bulk of the successful, middle-class businessmen of his day. In point of fact, the first few decades of the nineteenth century were a largely cynical and callous time in American history—a period of institutionalized harshness.” Even formerly generous benefactors succumbed to a view that only about 10% of the poor were “deserving,” and helping the other “degenerates” merely encouraged more to sink into dependency and profligacy—and undermined the prosperity of the rest of society. Writes Renehan, “Like many other young entrepreneurs then and now, he worked conspicuously and diligently for his own personal profit, but never, so far as existing records and contemporary accounts show, for any greater good. Vanderbilt gave no alms to the poor, subscribed not a penny for the support of hospitals or foundling homes, and gave not a nickel to such organizations as the New York Humane Society (which at that time existed to serve the needs of destitute humans rather than stray dogs and cats).”

Self-centered cynic that he was, Vanderbilt can still serve as an object lesson today. His case supports Aldo Leopold’s contention that values are the key to respectful relationships with the natural world. The Commodore knew plenty about the waters and lands traversed by his transportation empire, but somehow he failed to care about them. Yet that even a Vanderbilt can learn to care is apparent at Biltmore, the French chateau-styled home of Cornelius’ grandson George. The younger magnate hired Central Park’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design Biltmore’s grounds, and perhaps more significantly, the nation's first scientifically-trained forester, Gifford Pinchot, to devise a scientific management plan for the forests. Pinchot’s wise-use approach when he headed the US Forest Service was the germinal idea that grew, through Leopold’s experience as a young forester, wildlife ecologist, and landowner, into the truly wise land ethic. A page devoted to philanthropy on the Biltmore site promises ongoing support for “the legacy of self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship of our natural resources, protection of the integrity of our mountains, and commitment to ensuring our community remains a model for living well and living purposefully.” I like to think scornful old Cornelius is rolling over in his Romanesque granite masoleum.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Deep Blue Battleground

Heads up to anyone who cares about water resources, especially during May, EPA's designated American Wetlands Month. NPR's Science Friday today featured an hour-long discussion of water issues confronting the 8 states and 2 Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes. Guests included Peter Annin, author of The Great Lakes Water Wars. Annin read movingly from his book, describing the many conflicting values and interests he can vividly imagine while gazing over the vast freshwater seas he cherishes. The program site includes a clip from a new documentary about the Great Lakes and curriculum connections for teachers (and others). Wisconsin, of course, is one the states directly involved in the building conflicts, so as I listened I kept in mind that protecting the Great Lakes means protecting Leopold country.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Moss Graffiti and Other Assaults

Last trip to the library, I stepped out of my nature-book box and picked up something from the art shelf. Linear-thinker that I am often ashamed to be, I read the cover note, “Everything You Need to Put Your Message Out into the World,” and thought that it was a book about graphic design and possibly advertising. I hoped it might help me learn how to promote various community events my family always seems entangled in (mostly donut, plant, baked goods, & jumble sales for group fundraisers). I should have noticed the folksy cover art, duct-tape-reminiscent spine, and unofficial subtitle to better understand this quirky, wonderful book: The Guerilla Art Kit: For Fun, Non-Profit, and World Domination.”

Non-linear thinking author Keri Smith (see her cool blog, The Wish Jar) is a street artist, meaning someone who performs anonymous acts of art in public spaces, “with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way.” She immediately provoked my thoughts by quoting Thoreau:

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look. To affect the quality of the day—that is the highest of arts.”

This book, I realized, would have ideas not just for selling donuts but for spreading the word about nature books and other ways I would love to affect the quality of days on earth.

To prove that I learned something from this gently subversive volume, here are some randomly-selected topics Smith addresses (sadly limited here in their visual appeal by my limited tech skills:

Recipe for making seed bombs (native wildflowers only, please)

Visual definition of “obos” (Japanese term for pile of rocks that communicates a message)

Guerilla action checklist (e.g., offer free lessons such as “how to converse with a stranger”)

Find solutions challenge (e.g., transform garbage, sell nothing, create a piece of art that depends on the rain).

You’ll find a template for building a portable idea dispenser (maybe put one in a public library?), quotes to print and leave behind in pockets on the sales rack (“Do not be too timid about your actions, all life is an experiment.” –Emerson), and practical tips on non-permanent glues, chalks, and other materials to ensure the ephemeral nature of your work. Etiquette tips further remind perpetrators of street masterpieces how to avoid damaging property, though some may think Smith’s rules too lax. As my eldest son says, any art book with advice on how to avoid police detection at least qualifies as “edgy.”

I think the book could have value to all kinds of bloggers, who will resonate with Smith's belief in the creative stimulus of temporary efforts. "Creating work that is impermanent," says Smith, "helps us release our own attachment to the final product and lets us focus more on the process." While I can’t promise you’ll achieve world domination, trying activities in this book will at least set you free to try new things, whatever message you want to send the world. Now, go paint the atmosphere!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Weekend Highlights

You’d think that the highlight of this naturalist-wanna-be’s weekend would have been watching this toad couple laying strings of eggs in a backyard pond. Only a few of us were even distracted by the amphibious antics from the main event—shooting photos of our daughters and their dates before their senior prom.

Or maybe the highlight, as an environmentalist, should have been the following interchange, around 2 am, at the After Prom party, between two students, worn-down by eating, dancing, swimming, and more eating, searching for a receptacle for their gnawed pizza crusts—

Girl: Here’s one {i.e., a trash can}.
Boy: It’s recycling.
Girl: Oh.

The couple moved slowly on, still looking. When more desiderata of green living become so routine that exhausted teenagers comply without questioning, we’ll have a healthier planet.

But mostly this weekend I was a mom, admiring and enjoying my grown-up daughter on one of her happiest days. I hope that she felt at least some of the ebullience John Muir expressed after his first few weeks in the Sierra:

. . . . This June seems the greatest of all the months of my life, the most truly, divinely free, boundless like eternity, immortal. Everything in it seems equally divine—one smooth, pure, wild glow of Heaven’s love, never to be blotted or blurred by anything past or to come.