Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song

It’s a fair-weather day.

A battalion of brown pelicans coast overhead on dark arched wings. Children build sand castles and bob in the surf, and shorebirds rest in warm dunes—a feast of beauty and abundance.

Santa Rosa Island was named in homage to Isabel Flores de Oliva – the “Rose of Lima.” She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1671 as Saint Rose.

Pensacola is rich in stories.

Take the story of Caretta caretta for example. She doesn’t even know we’ve tagged her with a dichotomous name to set her species apart from others. Her only inclination is to find a darkened shoreline and lay her burden down.

Buoyed by thick ocean waves she paddles with strong legs through the currents.

Through heavy lid, she looks toward shore and vaguely remembers its smell and warm, gritty touch. The moonlit shore is quiet as she takes purchase on the shifting sand below her.

She looks from just under the water along the beach head where bright lights in hotels and restaurants, homes and gas stations could make her decide to turn away. She looks for a darkened beach, lit only by the silver moonlight. It’s instinctual.

Every May through September along the Gulf shores, female loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) return to lay leathery eggs in the dunes of their birth.

Kemp’s Ridley, Atlantic green turtles and sometimes leatherbacks also use these crystal white beaches as a nursery. It’s been so for thousands of years.

Caretta caretta has spent her youth in the Sargasso Sea, a body of water created from currents in the North Atlantic and where Sargassum seaweed covers over its surface. It is believed the loggerhead turtle feeds and grows in this protective cover.

When she comes of age, dozens of eggs grow within her as she heads back to the same beach where as a hatchling she was just the size of a quarter and prize catch of shorebirds, crabs, and other beachside predators. She is one of the few lucky infant turtles that managed to survive to adulthood.

Now she returns to lay down the next generation. And, should she come ashore, will she struggle to navigate beach chairs, plastic inner tubes, or sandcastles?

What will happen to her offspring? Baby sea turtles are attracted to bright lights, an instinct that should turn them toward a moonlit sea. Will they head toward the hotel lights instead? Rangers report scores of tiny turtles destroyed by cars or desiccated in the hot sun among buildings.

In today’s world, with the human built environment, it takes countless volunteers to tend turtle nests, redirecting the young toward the ocean. Because of this, can we say that these species are self-sustaining?

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world today. Four of them lay their eggs here on Santa Rosa Island, Gulf Shores National Seashore. That constitutes a biological treasure for this region, a remaining strand of a once diverse web of life just off these shores.

What if Caretta caretta disappears due to human interference in this annual ritual that replenishes her kind? Should we really care?

Reach back 100 years in Pensacola history to an ocean teeming with life. Fish would be larger and more plentiful and you could scoop up shrimp in Escambia Bay with your hands. There would be hundreds more dunes with waving sea oats, both habitat and nursery to many species.

The loggerhead turtle is part of an ocean web that supports our fishing industry. The biodiversity of our beautiful islands is the basis of tourism, a principal industry. Somehow we have to learn to maintain this natural treasure while going about our business.

We are working that out now. There has got to be a way. Pensacoleans have never been short on ingenuity.

For Caretta caretta we can turn down the lights, sit out on our decks and listen to the oncoming waves. We’ll save money by reducing energy consumption and get a better view of the heavens. Let’s face it: life would be dismal without the beauty of nature.

When we see a dolphin breach the waves, white terns dive and soar, or listen to ocean breezes, we are renewed and encouraged that all is right on this exquisite planet we are so fortunate to share with other species.

Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song. It’s a symphony.

Duma, Ghost Cat, Part III

Border Cat

This story takes place in Yuma, Arizona where the Colorado River meanders south to the Sea of Cortez. In truth, most of the water never gets to the Delta area as it once did. The jaguar in this story followed the river trace toward Yuma’s agricultural canals and farm fields where he inadvertently became tangled up in border problems. He represents species whose ranges traditionally span the arbitrary boundaries of the human species.

Duma bounded from row to row, sure footed in the cover of night. The big cat’s ghostly form moved through the forests of broccoli, then across the road under a cool moon and into the tall corn tribe growing profusely by the canal. His activity was confined solely to night, now that the ranchers and homeowners were on the lookout for the phantom jaguar. This put Duma at a disadvantage. His white coat stood out starkly against the night sky and dark shadows. His large tracks left a trail of fear for the farm hands who worked in the same fields come morning. Duma plodded over the fields in search of prey. It had been many days without meat and he felt weakness entering his heavily muscled body.

Duma’s quivering nostrils caught the scent of something unknown, stopping him in his tracks. It was not exactly like the smell of the two-leggeds. But what? Duma moved closer to the smell’s source in a low crouch now, soundlessly advancing. Another smell—of death—unmistakable…  His nose led him closer to the road than he liked, and at its edge he paused and stretched out his long, white neck to peer through the corn stalks. Every fiber of his being was on alert, his small ears drawn forward to catch the slightest sound, Duma’s glassy eyes opened wide to catch the slightest movement. He held himself completely still, taking in every possible clue as to what this prey might be and calculating what it would take to bring it down.

Finally, the animal came into view. It was small and sitting on its tail in the middle of the road. It smelled strange. Duma’s full-grown jaguar body demanded more and more of the hunter’s skill to satiate the incessant need for flesh and blood, and now he felt the gnawing ache of hunger in his empty belly. So he continued to investigate.  As he looked on in perfect silence, the strange animal stood up and started to walk toward something ahead of it in the road. Duma understood with his nose that whatever it was, it was dead. The smaller animal swayed over it.

Duma sniffed the air again, breathing in the chemical language.  An acrid scent of urine and scat pierced his nostril. This was no self-respecting beast, he decided.  He took a chance and crept slowly out onto the road toward the prey, sensing no eminent danger.  As he skulked closer, the small creature turned. Duma let a low growl roll out onto the warm night’s air from his powerful throat. The animal seemed unafraid! Perhaps it was more of a threat than he realized. Duma paused, bringing himself more upright. He cocked his small, intelligent head as he tried to understand what he had encountered. Remembering other times he had misjudged a threat, Duma was not going to let his ego fool him again.

Duma crouched, waiting to see what this strange beast would do. It started coming toward him, walking in a strange manner, falling down, and then righting itself. Duma thought it must be injured. He stood up, walking forward with more curiosity, yet ready to pounce.

When the moonlight lit up the white panther, the child saw it.

Colectacolecta…. ”

What a strange sound, Duma thought…high pitched like a rabbit. The creature was holding its paws out toward him, and he reflexively swiped them away, knocking the child down. It began to wail.  Its smell was foul.

Duma was deciding just how hungry he was when suddenly a noise grew out of the sky and sunlight shot down the road! The great white panther bounded out of sight. Behind him he heard his prey shrieking.  Duma looked back. It was the sky beast he’d seen many times.  He was filled with terror.

Now it dropped from the sky with wings swirling and fire breathing from its mouth.  Duma had never seen anything like this animal, many times his size.  He soared into the air and leapt over the tall corn, golden tassels brushing against his belly, white flanks streaming through the dark field toward the trees.

Duma stopped for a moment and looked back to see the beast take its prey. But instead of devouring the strange little animal, it turned toward him! Now the deafening roar and giant flapping wings came rushing at a greater speed than the jaguar could maintain, and his great paws lost traction in the muddy soil. Reluctantly, the powerful cat decided to come into the open to gain traction on the solid dirt path between corn rows. That’s when the creature threw light onto him. Duma felt the ripping heat tear through his flank. He crumbled to the ground, pushing up a great cloud of dust as his two-hundred-pound body came to rest in a heap of white hair, muscle, fang, and claw.

The last fading sight in the cat’s blue eyes was that of the great monster coming in for the kill.

Duma, Ghost Cat Part II

Duma grew to an extraordinary size for his kind.  He stood three feet tall at the shoulder, and the length of his body measured six feet of muscular power—not including his long tail. The deep paw prints he left behind were eight inches at their widest point, contributing to the growing number of myths about him.  Cattlemen and sheepherders came to know him as he made his way along the water traces of the region. Drawn imperceptibly to the Yuma Valley along the Colorado River from the delta, Duma cared little about from whence his nourishment came. To fuel his large body, he would as soon eat a frog or fish as a mammal or bird. But the local people formed their own beliefs about his coming: he was a ghost of times past come to take retribution for humankind’s sins; he was the white buffalo of the region come to lead tribal people to their rightful place among men; he was a marauder—a demon predator—of cattle and sheep, taking his revenge on the ranchers who had invaded his territory, and so on depending on who was telling the story.

Duma had found a place along the river with ready access to fish and fowl and there seemed no reason to leave.  Now that the river’s banks were denuded of forest, his pale color, which matched the mottled white and yellow colors of the desert pavement, afforded him more cover than the green of his Sierra Madre birthplace.

He’d made his way to The Crossing and thus joined the conflagration of living forms at the edges of the Colorado River.  He was a creature of the times, struggling to stay alive, in need of sustenance and habitat to keep himself going.  This was also the state of humankind, unmasked for the first time—finally freed from its technological haze.

In an oddity of circumstance, Bob Minor discovered the white jaguar on his property one evening.  It was standing behind an old stand of prickly pear as high as Bob’s shoulders. Bob was spellbound. He raised his rifle but could not get a good angle and was fearful he’d only injure it.  And so, Duma ambled down the plateau and into the fields of broccoli where he crouched low and rested by the gurgling irrigation ditch.

Bob called Fish and Game to report the sighting.

Duma, Ghost Cat – Part I

Yareen made her way down a jagged escarpment on the Sierra Madre plateau, not far from Luis Munõz’s boyhood home. Her ebony and tan flanks rippled through the pale green of manzanita and scrub oak. Falling pebbles, pushed from their earthen beds by her great paws, scattered noisily down the slope ahead of her.

Her mate was roused from an afternoon nap in a tree above her. They greeted each other with low, rolling hellos as she bounded up the tree. Yareen rubbed her head against her mate’s with her golden eyes wide open. They had been together for many sunrises and sunsets. Soon, he would leave her and she would return to a solitary life to birth their cubs. It would be her second time.

They climbed down the tree and followed a path to a big, rock-lined bowl in the stream for a swim. She caught a trout and they shared it. Later they lingered by the water’s edge, where a nearby deer stood immobilized in the brush, caught unawares by their silent arrival. Its breath was barely discernable until the large cats moved away, saved by being upwind of its natural predator.

Earth changes were indeed affecting the sky islands of the jaguars’ home, but this spring it had brought more frequent rain. The streams ran full and cold, and the oak woodlands were a riot of activity as the oaks produced an abundance of acorns on which a host of creatures feasted.

For Yareen, it meant easy access to plumb deer, and plenty of milk for her young cubs when three months later she gave birth to four kittens.

Among them was a large, white cub who startled his mother each time she looked at him. Following her natural instincts, she gave Duma little access to her teats until the cubs she saw as normal had suckled, and often, there was little nourishment left for the largest baby.

And so the white cub weaned earlier than the others and began foraging to survive. Oblivious to his difference, Duma frolicked in the woods that first season of his life, reveling in the joy of being alive on a great, good planet.

Soon, he learned to imitate their mother’s low whistle and practiced the hissing scream that immobilized trembling quarry, though with his were more a yip and a squeak. The furry ball loped over rocky terrain, following Yareen and his siblings at a distance through the scrubby wooded forests, pouncing on the prey his mother wrestled to the ground in a fury of claws and fangs.

Duma’s markings afforded him little camouflage in a region of emerald, umber, and black. Unknowingly, the young cat developed stealth and discernment beyond even the ability of his kind. He would have to be faster, stronger, and develop cunning beyond that of his siblings and mother to survive.

With clear, blue eyes rimmed in red and a ghostly white pelt with telltale rosettes, the pale cat later earned the name “ghost cat.” And so it happened that as the jaguar went about the business of eating, sleeping, and traveling sightings of Duma would spark many colorful legends among the two-leggeds of his time.

Synchronicities

On my first break from the teaching, I drove to San Diego to stay with friends from my work days at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.  At that time, the clinic gave health and wellness classes at Rancho la Puerto, a spa and retreat center near Tecaté, Baja California.  My friends arranged for three days of rest and contemplation. I was exhausted, and confused about whether to continue my education in Yuma.

The resort was on the grounds of a previous Essene community established in the 1920s. The library still shelved many of the community’s books. I wandered in there one evening, not knowing the background of the ranch, and found a history of how the community was founded by Edmond Bordeau Szekely, an internationally known translator and student of world religions. The American Essene Community flourished for over fifty years, and gradually evolved into the present-day spa as more and more people wanted to experience the Essene quietude, exercise, vegetarian food, and spiritual practice.

Szekely is the scholar who translated the Essene Gospel of Peace from the original Aramaic, the native language of Jesus. He was given permission to translate the texts that were kept under lock and key in the Vatican. Szekely later discovered he followed on the path of St. Benedict and the monks of the Monte Cassino Monastery who protected these documents through the ages.

The texts had been originally translated by St. Jerome in the fourth century. He found fragments of the original texts in many small communities in the desert.  Many of the residents who harbored the document fragments were descendents of the original Essenes.

These ancient documents precede the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, and represent ancient teachings as old as eight thousand years B.C.E. (all the way back to Zarathrustra). They describe The Law. It is the same Law to which Moses referred. When St. Jerome was made the Secretary to Pope Damascus, who established a Papal Library, he was allowed to translate the ancient writings of the Essenes.

However, the translations caused a storm of criticism.  The basic principles of the teaching emanated from natural law, not the laws of man. This body of knowledge made it impossible to follow while promoting the ownership of land and the suppression of women and children to the rule of men (i.e. patriarchal government). The Essene Gospel was the original ecological literature of the west, binding human beings to the Earth and her natural rhythms in a cosmology connecting Mother Earth and Father Sky, the feminine and masculine principles.

When Pope Damascus died, his successor St. Augustine made sure these documents were suppressed. Jerome fled for his life to the desert. There he continued to search for more fragments of the ancient knowledge. After his death, Jerome’s manuscripts were scattered, but eventually many found their way into the Secret Archives of the Vatican, where they remained under lock and key.

The Essenes were a peace-loving sect that believed in the sacredness of all life, practiced vegetarianism, and held that there are spiritual manifestations for all physical phenomena. In this, they were the first quantum physicists: all matter exists in two forms, particle and wave – flesh and spirit.

They understood all of life in the universe as the Ocean of Life, and all thought in the universe as constituting the Ocean of Consciousness. It was their experience that angels connected these two realities. The Essenes believed that Moses understood this through the vision of his ancestor, Jacob, who saw angels ascending and descending a ladder connecting Heaven and Earth.

Essenes practiced self-improvement, which they deemed a life-long process. Achievement of harmony required a balance between earthly and cosmic forces. The heavenly father (cosmic) and the earthly mother (earth) are balanced: eternal life with earth; creative work with life; peace with joy; power with sun; love with water; wisdom with air. These correlations remind us that whenever we contact earthly forces, we are in contact with heavenly forces.

I eagerly read these teachings, and I was encouraged to learn that the principles and cosmology taught to me in Yuma were the same described in the Essene teachings. Here was an Earth-based spirituality making the connection between the material world and the world of thought at a universal consciousness level.

The Teacher of Righteousness in the Essene texts is believed by some to be Jesus, when he was between eighteen and thirty years of age. During this time, his whereabouts are not mentioned in the Biblical texts we have today.  Jesus and his family were Essenes, the ancient Jewish sect, existing from 250 B.C. to 60 A.D in Palestine. The community lived and taught a way of life consistent with Native American spirituality in which all things are imbued with the spirit of the Creator – rocks, water, air, plants, animals, and people. The philosophy of non-violence extended to animals, invoking a deep reverence for the living creatures of our planet. The last and most famous Essene-in-spirit was St. Francis. He lived and believed exactly as the Essenes, and his own writings are nearly identical to Essene texts.

So, I took this discovery of Szekely’s community, at the time I was questioning whether to stay with my Indian teachers, as an affirmation of the integrity of the work.  I returned to Yuma.

Midsummer Nights

Mid-Summer Night’s Dream

Patterns of Life in an Urban Sea

At midnight the heat radiates from the cement driveway under my feet.  I stand in the white moonlight gazing up at twinkling stars.  The dark outline of tall trees and roof tops form a stage-drop where city glow breaks the blackness of night.

This is my summer ritual – star-gazing in my pajamas.  I wake out of some consciousness that tells my snoozing brain I can open the doors and go out to a cool 85ْ F!

It’s summertime in Phoenix, Arizona.  Temperatures soar over 100. Yesterday was a crisp 116ْ.   After June, the heat island effect kicks into gear.  Buildings and streets – especially asphalt surfaces – absorb the day’s solar energy, then release it slowly through the night.  Even though the sun goes down, the built environment is still hot.  The hum of air conditioners is a constant auditory feature of summertime.

Here in Tempe there is humidity from the old irrigation system still in use.  Once a week residents open aqueduct valves in their yards to allow water to flow. Encircled by raised earth berms, the water is held so it slowly soaks deep into the ground.  This is an old way of life to support large trees and grass lawns from a time when Tempe was a tiny agricultural town in the early 1900’s.

People moved to Tempe to enjoy the dry, mild climate, and to escape allergy causing vegetation.   However, the Eastern trees and plants people brought with them (mulberry and olive, for example), and their love of grass, resulted in Phoenix becoming the asthma capital of the west.

Nearby Arizona State University is our land-grant university.  My little house sits behind a friend’s large art studio.  It is a plum of a house and only a short walk or bike to my workplace at the Center for Environmental Studies at A.S.U.  In the hot afternoons I swim in the Olympic-sized pool at the University along with bronze co-eds and swim team athletes.

My house is surrounded by large trees and a grass lawn maintained beautifully by grounds keepers.  Old Tempe is a remnant of an outdated way of life in the desert:  just add water and cultivate an oasis.  It was a way that made sense to residents and developers when water was plentiful, and when temperatures were cooler, and summers only four months long.

Over the last 50 years the average low temperature has increased by 10ْ F.  The city’s growth is exponential now.  The population since 1990 increased by 59%!  This is unsustainable with available water, even though theoretically there is much more desert to develop across the expansive valley floor.

City mothers and fathers are currently examining critical decisions Phoenix needs to make to sustain a live-able future.  How and what they decide to do to shape the city’s growth will be an important example for metropolitan communities across the West.

In 1998 Arizona State University was awarded a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a Long Term Ecological Research Study (LTER) as one of two urban sites.  Phoenix and Baltimore were chosen as two urban cities to be studied.  We are a city growing by the process of sprawl, and Baltimore is an older city that has filled in its borders, and now grows inward and up.

NSF wants to know what is happening to the ecology of living communities in cities – since nearly 80% of the world’s population now lives in or near an urban area.  The study seeks to answer questions that indicate the health of ecosystem functions in urban areas. How are native animals and plants coping? How quickly is organic matter turned-over (decomposed to soil, elements in the air, and water again)?  What is happening to water and air quality?

The Central Arizona Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research Study (CAPTLER) began a twenty-year study of these factors along with human behavior patterns such as where we choose to live in the city or how we use water among many others.  The study recognizes that landscape affects human activity as much as humans impact landscape.  These forces work together to shape urban environments.

The Greater Phoenix 2100 study initiated by Arizona State University collects and disseminates data for possible scenarios of growth and quality of life to be used by policymakers. It looks at trends over time.  For example, three projections are made for population by 2050: at current annual growth rates (4.4%), the lowest annual growth rate in the last 50 years (3.4%), and the lowest annual growth rate in the last 100 years.  Projected population in 2050 based on these three rates could result in 28.2, 17.4, or 10 million people respectively.  Citizens and policy-makers looking at these numbers can make decisions now that will help them shape tomorrow.

The Long-Term Ecological Research Study is reporting loss of indigenous biodiversity on mountains in Phoenix surrounded by an urban sea of human activity. These habitats are essentially like islands.  Isolated species that can not relocate represent small populations with consequent small gene pools. Inbreeding weakens the biological fitness of species if prolonged.  Scientists believe this is happening to many species of plants and animals in the urban perimeters of Phoenix.

One of the most harmful assaults to native species diversity is the introduction of non-native plants and animals.  Successful non-natives have no natural predators in the new environment.  Thus they can out-compete native species for habitat and resources.  On species of tree – the Tamarisk – has reduced native trees along Arizona’s already vulnerable riparian green belts (areas where the water table is close to or above the ground).  Riparian habitat has been reduced by 90% in Arizona over the last century due to human activity.

For thousands of years these riparian habitats supported the greatest species diversity in our state.  Beavers and otters abound in rivers and streams, and mega fauna like deer found sustenance there.  Today one has to visit a museum or zoo to know what native species Arizona once supported.  Many residents in Arizona are unaware of what is a native versus a non-native due to the importing of exotic species.  In other words the cultural memory of the original landscape is being lost with each generation.

In many ways what Phoenix does over the next decade to slow and manage growth, and to clean up and use water more responsibly will be rich learning opportunities for cities across the Southwest facing similar issues.  A profound shift is happening in the West where growth is out of control and the Earth is showing strains of overuse and over-harvesting.

Tucson, Arizona where I now reside is 100 miles south of Phoenix and higher in elevation.  We are called the Upland Desert.  Tucson currently follows the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a multi-agency and community-based initiative, to shape its growth.  Although Tucson has its own sprawl (it has reached nearly one million people in the metro area), it is still known for its open space and residential landscaping with native desert corridors.  Native Tucsonans are desperately trying to hold onto this legacy.  But many new residents who do not understand desert ecosystems, or appreciate the way of life necessary to protect water reserves, build huge homes with lawns and pools.  They represent a threat to a way of life that has existed here for tens of thousands of years.

Since I moved here from Phoenix six years ago, I can still enjoy a cool summer night at the decent hour of 7 pm when desert soils release the heat of the day.  This is the natural desert rhythm that Phoenix has lost by asphalting over much of the valley floor.

On morning walks in central Tucson, I enjoy a covey of Gamble’s quail running wildly through the native vegetation in alleyways and yards.  Many people pride themselves on landscaping with desert trees like the graceful desert willow with its lavender throated blossoms and uniquely shaped cacti placed as you would sculpture.   They tend gardens where heirloom vegetables conserved from the Americas grow with little water.   The Tohono O’Odham still dry farm using only annual monsoon rains to grow corn, beans, melons, and greens of all kinds.

Striking the balance between natural communities and human communities makes sense.  We are in a new period of understanding the intimate and wholly necessary relationships with nature that maintain us physically and economically, emotionally and spiritually.

It is an exciting time for Arizona, one filled with great potential to rework our plan for human habitation.  How do we balance quality of life with quality of environment?  How do we develop a way of life that is in sync with the natural communities that make this land such a fabulous place to live and work?

Gazing at the twinkling night sky above me at midnight, I wonder if Hohokam people also lay outside in the cool of moonlight thousands of years ago.    A soft breeze moves across the yard as I doze off in my chaise lounge, in another desert town, in my pajamas on a summer’s night under the heavens.

Lag Time

LAG TIME

What ever happened to daydreams?

Recently I heard a story that reminded me of after school time when I was in grade school. The author describes an era I call B.T. – Before Television. He came home after school to a quiet house, an afternoon snack awaiting him. He changed into play clothes and then boredom would set in. He lay on the living room rug wondering what to do. The clock ticked rhythmically.  He felt his heart beating in the silence of the moment. Then suddenly, he seized upon an idea, and off he would go to find a friend to share his imagined adventure!

I remember those days when there was plenty of time for the imagination. A special teacher of mine later named these seemingly vacuous moments as “lag time”- suspended time when fruitful thought can develop. It is a portal through which one perceives her true feelings, innermost urges, and clear thoughts.

Lag time is “doing nothing”. Today it is revolutionary, even suspect.

Children today have virtually no lag time.  American children suffer from a lack of time to develop a fertile ground for their imagination. But the good news is it is still possible to capture these moments at home if you are willing to turn off the television, the computer, the music, and slow the pace.  Just sitting is something I had to learn again from an Iroquois teacher when I was an adult.  Often the lesson for the day would be sitting in total silence for several hours.

In our fast-paced world of multi-tasking, digital games, cell phones, e-mail (the new drug – Crackberry), television, and the personal IPOD loaded with hundreds of songs – there is virtually no down time unless we are asleep. This is even true with young children, most of whom have never experienced the “lazy days of summer.”  Dragged from place to place, weary and irritable, many young children cannot be still or tolerate unplanned time. Today’s adults and youth experience withdrawal symptoms without external stimulation.

My children and I have been vacationing at Deer Springs Inn in the White Mountains of Arizona for the past nine years. There are just a few cabins set back on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. It is Ponderosa Pine Country where tall red trunks soar to 100 feet.

This place has become a refuge to many families. You learn about it through word of mouth. Everyone guards its whereabouts like buried treasure. There are no phones, televisions or any outside communication except the radiophone for emergencies. Due to the 14-mile trek on forest service roads, guests rarely leave until its time to go home.

There is sleeping time, reading or drawing time, chatting on the front porches, hiking, and writing time.  And there is silence and the drawing of wind through pines as if the forest invites us to breathe with it.

At night, a campfire beckons everyone to wander down to roast marshmallows, drink wine, laugh and commiserate into the night. Our faces are ruddy and lit by a blazing fire, poked lovingly by Ed or Mary King, the owners. The low hoot of an owl and the pine sap popping in the fire are the only music. Towering pines encircle a portion of jet black sky dotted with glittering stars and a big, white moon. The air is crystal clear. Every cell in your body lays back and sighs.

My son recently stayed up there with my daughter and me. He is a businessman from Nashville and lives a commuter life with a stressful job in the healthcare industry. He told me later how those four days at Deer Springs completely reoriented his mind and spirit. He felt deeply renewed. Whittle on a stick, let the chips fall where they may. He had forgotten about lag time.

With all of the technological advancements marketed as convenience, we have enslaved ourselves in a frenzy of driving, working, planned recreation, planned “free time” and – more driving! Often, children never set foot at home until after 6 p.m. as weary parents pick them up from day care. Chasing our consumer driven dreams we have neglected the imagination, the soulful, the spontaneous – in short, the spice of life!

But, it can be recaptured with very simple acts and it costs nothing. It just takes a little retraining:

1)  Practice turning off the television, radio, stereo for brief periods. Later go for longer periods.

2)  Remove clutter from rooms. Don’t replace any of it.

3)  Put plants in your home. Hang a bird feeder.

4)  Practice sitting and doing nothing for 15 minutes. Breathe deeply and then settle down to regular breathing. Smile. Notice the change in how you feel.

5)  Just keep it simple.  Your place of repose might be a hammock or a chaise lounge. Invite the kids.

Revolutionary Acts in Lag Time

Allow the spontaneous to return.

Reclaim your own thoughts and feelings.

Seek silent places.

Stay away from crowds.

Keep it simple.

Go for a walk and smell the roses.

Feel your body, listen to your heart.

Act accordingly.

Resources for Parents:

Inspired Parenting Web Site

This is a fabulous site for parents to learn tips from child development specialists and family counselors.

Resources for Adults:

Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabot-Zinn

Reading this book will add years to your life!

Thinking Like a Mountain in Afghanistan

K-2

For the past few weeks two books have kept me engrossed in a saga that reminds me about the power of the ordinary citizen.

Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools take readers on the personal journey of Greg Mortenson as he follows his heart in the most remote places on this planet. The fact is, Greg’s intuition and inexhaustible determination, have made him such an effective U.S. diplomat that military leaders are visiting him to learn his secret.

Greg and his small nonprofit organization are building schools in rural communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan and making sure that girls attend them. He offers this proverb from Africa as his raison d’être: “Educate a boy and you’ve educated an individual; educate a girl and you’ve educated a community.”

Sleeping in his old Buick, living on food from street vendors, working through the night shift at a hospital— the journey of the warrior often looks like failure in our wealthy, modern culture. Where did his story begin?

In the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Greg spent happy days with his little sister and parents in a culturally diverse region of Tanzania where he learned to speak dialects of his local friends. He watched as his father struggled to build a hospital, declaring it would one day be staffed by Tanzanians (not wealthy expats who believed the locals incapable).

This was the framework of experience that set the course of Mortenson’s life journey.

But two tragedies would have to wet the stone of Greg’s resolve. His father’s death from cancer coincided with his sister’s premature death from severe epilepsy. Greg vowed to climb the highest mountain on earth in honor of her short, difficult life.

And he nearly lost his own life in the attempt. After begin rescued by local villagers as he wandered lost at the base of K-2’s soaring 28,000 ft. peak, Greg spent the winter months with villagers in  Korphe, a place few ever leave or venture.

In the house of Haji Ali, chief of Korphe, Greg met his life long mentor who taught him the wisdom of “three cups of tea.”

What is this wisdom? Haji Ali: The first cup of tea we meet each other. The second cup of tea we come to know each other. The third cup of tea we become friends. Then, we can do business.

It’s all about relationships. That was a lesson his father learned in Africa: to sit with the local people, pass the communal gourd of beer, tell stories and get to know each other.

In Korphe Greg learned the ways of the people and came to respect their simple, rugged lives. He was nursed back to health. One day, while out walking the landscape, he came upon a group of children sitting in the snow and rocks with thier teacher.

Haji Ali told him the children had no school house so they sat outside to learn. Haji Ali’s little daughter, Jahan was among the girls who shivered in the frigid air. She asked Greg if he could help them build a school. He promised her he would do what he could.

Since that promise, Jahan has become a graduate of medical studies, delivering health care to her village and the people of the region –  more than 130 schools pepper the rural villages on both sides of the vaulted Karakorum between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But more, Greg Mortenson has become known by the rural people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as an American who can be trusted, a man of his word.

State departments and military generals now read Three Cups of Tea as a way of learning how to do business in that part of the world.

In spite of wars, the convolutions of local fiefdoms, in spite of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, and infrastructure obstacles that would defy the resources of even the most powerful nation on earth, Greg and his “dirty dozen” colleagues at the Central Asia Institute persist.

By drinking three cups of tea they are turning stones—stones that mark the locations of  land mines planted during the Soviet invasion, and among which unwary children play—into schools where they can make a better life through education.

Greg’s declaration? Every school must strive for an equal ratio of girls to boys. In Afghanistan and Pakistan that is a quiet revolution.

Simple but powerful in its message, many of the CAI schools are expressly for girls. Greg’s belief is that by empowering girls to become transforming agents of their communities, the fire of hatred flamed by extremists groups will be damped with hope.

One man’s journey reminds us once again that when we act from our own internal compass and follow the urgings of our heart, the path will be true…not easy, but straight as a piercing arrow into the heart of a problem.

There has never been anything more powerful than the individual to change the world.

Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools (VIKING, 2006, 2009)

Haiti in the Long Run

Most of us have been glued to the news about the immediate assistance to Haitians following the 7.2 magnitude earthquake and its continuing aftershocks. We all most likely contributed initially to the Red Cross and other humanitarian aid organizations. Aid is finally arriving but much is still in the emergency phase.

What remains is the larger logistical questions about how to rebuild a devastated infrastructure and how to rebuild entirely differently to provide people with the safety and resilient systems many developed countries are not only used to but expect. What does this massive restoration and innovation mean for the world community?

While there have been many preceding natural catastrophe’s to the collapse of Haiti’s infrastructure, this event has to become a kind of flag and marker for humankind about the much greater work we may share as climate change, entwined with nature’s natural furies, makes Haiti one of dozens of catastrophic events. We cannot let that happen.

While humankind cannot control the natural cycles of the Earth’s systems, we can control how we as a species add to the impact of them. As a Gulf coast resident in Florida, I am eying the predictions for an average of 11 Atlantic storms in the 2010 hurricane season. Haiti is right in their path as well. How will the people there, how will all the countries who are going to be there helping to rebuild Haiti, deal with major storms?

An article in Science Daily recently described how climate change could impact poverty, deepening it by virtue of collapsing food systems due to climate change.

I watch my countrymen and women and representatives in Washington and realize how easily distracted we are by seemingly more pressing problems like health care and jobs. But up the road we need to be charting our next moves to prepare for many more natural disasters. Resilience to them can be seen in a country like ours which has such a high standard of living, so much social and economic infrastructure, that we find it hard to imagine a place where there are no options and everything that could go wrong does.

What hurt the Haitian people so much is poverty. How can we get to work to make sure poverty does not deepen but is turned on its head and becomes a solution? All the people without jobs…all the things that need doing…is there a bridge between these two realities that might create a third: better living standards by investing our time, talent, money, and sweat into GOOD WORK, and in quitting our bickering, deal playing and investment in wars.

For now, I plan to set up an affordable monthly withdrawal from my bank for Haiti relief, however small, and keep it there for the time it takes to get the job done.  What we are investing in is not so much clean-up as raising a standard of living so that whatever may come their way, Haitians will have the resources to protect themselves and to build structures with the latest safety standards and materials that we Americans have come to expect.

Every Haitian child is one of ours, our future in an increasingly connected world community.

Avatar and Mountain Top Removal Mining

Appalachian Voices and iLove Mountains.org are primarily battling mountain top removal (MTR) mining in critical watershed areas and communities in states where these mountains are under siege by the coal industry.

While viewing Avatar, I thought I was on their websites as the spaceship spans over a devastated mining area that looks suspiciously like the Appalachians where coal companies decapitated ancient mountains and their communities. See my review of the film on this blog and visit these sites to learn how the basic story of Avatar is happening on a huge scale right in America’s oldest and most diverse mountains. Go to iLoveMountains and put in your zip code to learn whether your power is emanating from coal mined by MTR methods. This is where the battle on Mother Earth is happening! Join in.