Observation Deck of the USS Pandemic

FROM THE OBSERVATION DECK OF THE USS PANDEMIC

Report Submitted March 31,2020

  1. Skies clearing; increased visibility; waters clearing, increased depth perception.
  2. Fault-lines in leadership and economic security readily observable.
  3. Man in the White House teeths on the Presidency; ingenuity and capacity for loving from American families and citizens observed. Leadership flipped: mayors, governors, and institutional leaders rise to the top.
  4. The youth of America sing in their nests like spring fledging ready to fly into their new lives and destinies.
  5. The elders reflect on time past, time of their parents, of the great war, the depression, and the war of the world. They search for its lessons. They fear death for the virus has found a particular berth in their cabins. They await the outcome.
  6. Sunrise at 6:39 a.m. EST and Moonset at 1:29 a.m. EST. Birds and mammals move free and unburdened. They build their nests and hunt on soft paws among the trees. Bees appear, rotund and smeared with yellow pollen. Dolphins rise.
  7. Humans huddle in their homes waiting, wondering, mourning, and angry. It is their turn. The viral hordes rage with insatiable greed and ambition, good capitalists all.
  8. Doctors, nurses, emergency technicians, receptionists, firemen, and all the frontline warriors are risking their lives with no time to wonder about it.
  9. Nets of commerce are tangled on the waves for all to observe. Barrels line docks; mountains of boxes press upon the earth; an eerie silence encompasses the market places. All those lampshades, trash baskets, ric rac, thumbtacks.
  10. The landfills grow as humanity burns through it’s useable goods.The top layer is PPG: effluvium of the pandemic. The next layer isTP and hand wipes.

The warning whistle blows. The crew awaits the captain’s call. Will it be new coordinates to awakened ports of call?

The crew stands All Hands A Deck

Our environmental practices make pandemics like the coronavirus more likely

Best Essays: Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

Lions, Tigers and Bears – Oh, My!

A story from the Coconino National Forest in Arizona

When Dorothy set off to find the Wizard of Oz, she and her companions encountered a lion in the dark wood just as they had feared, but, the cowardly beast only drew their disdain, for what good is a spineless lion?

Therein lies the dichotomy between our visceral fear of carnivores and our psychological need for them to be wild, fierce and free—a varmint or an icon. One gets them killed, the other immortalized, but neither will help them survive.

Neither perception tells us why lions, tigers and bears are important. A wolf takes-out the weakest of the herd, controlling not only numbers but removing the least adaptive genes from the population’s gene pool. A dynamic balance results between wolves, deer, and vegetation and myriad lives each dependent on the other.

That we do not understand the importance of these relationships was memorably recorded by Aldo Leopold. He wrote about an experience shooting wolves one afternoon, a common practice among Forest Service rangers in 1949. Leopold had watched the “fierce green fire” flicker out in a she-wolf’s eyes at her death.

Dawning on his consciousness was the realization of a bigger death̶—a death of wild things and something greater still: the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. The wild, beautiful landscapes that inspired Leopold, and that support man’s livelihood, were created over centuries among myriad species until a climatic stage is reached in which an elaborate set of checks and dynamically sustains it. The whole system changes over time but the checks and balances are always maintained by various species: top carnivores. consumers, producers, scavengers, etc.

The wolf Leopold had just killed was one of the checks that sustained a living community.

Until that moment Leopold lacked the understanding that he later identified as something only a mountain possesses. Mountains have the long view, he wrote, whereas humans are newcomers. A mountain has no fear of wolves, only deer, because the deer will devour vegetation, and the rains will wash away topsoil causing all kinds of havoc for the mountain.

The rancher who compares the life of a wolf against the current market price of his cow misses the much greater value of leaving the wolf wild and free. That “home on the range” where his cattle roam depends on a well-functioning natural community to sustain it.

Leopold was writing about this phenomenon in 1949. Six decades later we are still acquiring that wisdom. We witnessed an ecological rebirth in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf to that ecosystem. Riparian willows and cottonwoods returned because elk spent less time eating and more time hiding to avoid becoming wolf scat. Other species like beavers returned and their activities created habitat for insects and birds, and so on.

In 1996, I attended a public meeting in Springerville, Arizona in the Coconino National Forest convened to address the “elk problem”. Present were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, White Mountain Apache biologists and tribal officials, ranchers, tourist industry reps, a hunters’ association, local residents, and curious campers like me.

It became apparent right from the start that a classic show-down was about to happen.

The problem stemmed from an exponential increase in the elk population. A rancher testified that elk herds of 600 to 1,000-head could be found every morning on her land, leaving in their path a swath of denuded range. She demanded that Game and Fish raise the limits for hunters to help bring the population of elk under control.

As the rancher, a very handsome woman, tanned in face and arms with a silver mane, made her plea, she gestured toward the Apache contingent. I learned that the expansive White Mountain Apache reservation which bordered much of the national part, was serving as a nightly refuge for the elk that discovered safety within its boundaries. It encompassed 1.67 million acres or forest!

As I sat among the people, I imagined a tide of elk ebbing into the ranchland to graze by day then flowing back at night into the forested reservation. The rancher wanted the Apache Nation to help kill elk and bring the herds under control.

They would not, a tribal spokesman asserted in reply. They would not do so based on ethical principles and the belief that restoring the natural ecosystem would be the only true answer to controlling the population. I think I caught a twinkle in one tribal elder’s eye as this statement was made. We take elk when we need meat for our people, he said and sat down.

Tourist agencies pleaded their case for the presence of elk.  Seen from the roads and campsites, thousands of families enjoyed watching wildlife. Tourism brings 16 million dollars in revenues to Arizona each year, they reminded the assembled guests!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) deferred to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission which is charged with maintaining populations of wildlife. The FWS rep made a statement about the traditional range of the Mexican gray wolf—a keystone species of the disrupted ecosystem. Sheer mention of the gray wolf acted like a match on tinder. The packed meeting room erupted in arguments from ranchers and tourism folks alike who didn’t welcome wolves in the woods.

Then a rancher with the look of one who had spent his life in the sun gained the floor.

“We are victims of our own schemes – me included. First, we saw the wolf as our enemy and we systematically exterminated it. We saw it killing too many elk, too many cattle. We feared for our own lives. Once it was gone, we saw elk and deer populations explode. Well, maybe it’s time we examine our own nature to see if maybe we can control that!”

The meeting adjourned in muffled conversations and salutations. As I walked back to my cabin at Deer Springs Inn, I was in deep thought. I’d just witnessed a complete reenactment of the opening and closing of the West with all the historical parties represented as on a stage.

The sun was setting behind the dense Ponderosa Pine forest. Families were gathering around a campfire in the center of five log cabins in a clearing. I happily joined my friends and family spearing marshmallows. Sparkling stars appeared above in a black sky. A breeze picked up that fanned the flames setting our faces aglow in anticipation. An owl hooted above. The fire popped and sizzled as we all settled down for stories and laughter.

I thought how good it was that our National Parks conserved these woods so that we might know where we came from and understand how we are still a part of something greater than ourselves—that we are not actors in a play but participants in the greater community of life.

Back at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy got her wish to go home, the tin man a heart, and the lion, courage. Maybe the wolf, the lion, the tiger, the bear, the shark, the grizzly will be restored, too, at some time when our own wizardry returns us to the natural order of things.

Up on the mountain,

Tracing the Mogollon Rim,

We hike and return by way of

The towering Outlook,

Black clouds overhead.




We climb eighty feet up to

Join Ranger GS3-1 in his lair.

He scans the horizon for fire.

We chat, then leave for

Hoping Hare Cabin.




We are dreamily breathing

In the sulfur-laden air of

Lightening-split sky.

Lying up in the loft

Baptized by tumbling waters.


Places 3

Prickly Pear Sonoran Desert

Moving to the Colorado River Valley in 1990 began a great period of personal growth and learning. Teaching children of migrant farm workers (who harvested lettuce in view of the classroom windows) and children of Colorado River Indian Tribes who lived on near-by reservations, I quickly learned the harsh realities of the cultural landscape as well as the natural landscape on which our life science lessons focused.

The following blog posts are three memories from living in the desert (1990-2008).  The first is my initiation to the land’s elemental beauty and its stark realities. The second and third memories illustrate lifestyles in two desert cities with very different perspectives on how to live there – Phoenix and Tucson.

Because I was introduced very early in my time in Arizona to indigenous perspectives, I was able to more acutely measure the gap between native and contemporary points of view about the human relationship to nature, the meaning of community, and the underlying values that are at the roots of how cultures develop.

By getting to know Cocopah families – families whose nation was separated by the U.S. Mexico border and whose way of life on the Colorado River was fractured by the damming of the river – I witnessed the social, financial, emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by being unable to live by the values one holds dear and by which one knows oneself.

Another important stream of influence on my thinking was the environmental movement in which I was actively engaged through education, a daily endeavor that caused me to read the history of these great cities and to get involved in local citizens movements to create more sustainable ways of living there.

While we are going about our daily lives, critical problems such as over-drafting groundwater continue. Indigenous values that have been pushed to the background are emerging into the foreground. Are we paying attention? What can we learn about place and the art of living from the first people of a place?

I understand, now, why spiritual seekers often go to desert lands. There is quietude and mystery. Stories are hidden from casual view, unspoken but exerting their presence. The quest then is discernment.

 

Places 2

 

My Grandparents’ Hill Top Home

I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development.  To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. ~ E.O. Wilson from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984) 

The first memories of the natural world I recall in any specificity are from the family visits to my grandparents’ farm on the Watauga River in east Tennessee. The Feathers descended from John Feathers who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1850. Small farmers all, my relatives were subsistence farmers probably carrying on the tradition of people whose lands were always subject to seizure by foreign or religious powers.  They were independent, making their own food, clothing and furniture, raising children by the Good Book and taking simple pleasures in seasonal celebrations, dancing and singing, and harvesting and preparing the fruits of the Earth.

I did not know my father’s family until well after the Depression years that hit hard. Dad remembers being hungry, after all the animals had been slaughtered, when the beans and corn that had been put away in the cellar in blue-tinted jars had been emptied…when his mother made gravy from bacon fat and baked fresh biscuits to hold their hunger at bay.  But they made it through with hard work, sacrifice and luck.  When I showed up on Earth, their little farm was still there to welcome my sisters and me each summer or Christmas of our lives tromping from military base to military base.  Over these many years of annual migrations to my grandparents’ farm my character began to form and I learned where I came from, and something up ahead of me began to take shape.

A distinct memory is the feel and sound of our car wheels rolling up the gravel driveway late at night and getting my first glimpse of the lit windows in the large two-story house under the big maples. Deep shadows cast by a summer moon onto the white clapboard shingles or running across the lawn after a December snowfall primed the excitement in my heart as I anticipated my grandparents waiting on the front porch with its yellow light above the door.  Before the car came to a full stop, the doors flung open to release a tumble of jubilant children. The admonitions of our parents and greetings of our grandparents as they nestled us in their arms melded into the ever present rush of the river below the hill sweeping us into its flow and reverie once again.

I always considered the hilltop farm and its contours my home, which I explored like a small insect in my very own world.

Places make a quilt of memories woven of faces, feelings, and senses.  Any one of these can evoke an entire memory or set of memories from long past – so powerful are they laid down in our very core. I can recall vividly the sound of ripe watermelon ripping open after my grandfather had slashed a big gash down its middle and his sausage-sized fingers pulling it apart to expose the glistening red fruit. The aroma of its warm flesh, plucked fresh from the garden on a hot summer’s afternoon, laid bare for our refreshment under the cool shade of a towering tree, remains with me to this day, a half century later. Every time that I cut open a watermelon I am drawn into the good, wholesome feelings of those cherished days with my grandfather, sisters and cousins, spitting watermelon seeds across the lawn and watching my parents relaxed on a porch swing up the hill in the sheltering embrace of the old homestead.

These are my first memories of place. They are a tapestry of nature, nurture, and the flow of time. Yet I see now that they have a timeless quality and remain as fresh with me as the moment they happened.

 

 

 

The Remarkable Diana Gabaldon

When I was at work at Arizona State University, little did I know that I was crossing paths with a person who would soon become an internationally known author with a fan phenomenon that continues to grow. Diana Gabaldon is author of the Outlander book series.

The first book which set off the chain reaction, Outlander, was published in 1991. Probably I felt the Earth tremble but didn’t know what it was. I was crossing a river of my own, thinking about writing a book, but didn’t get around to it until 2003. Literally, I crossed the Colorado and would eventually find my way to Phoenix and Arizona State University still clueless of the Gabaldon earthquake. Her eight books have sold over 35 million copies in 26 countries and are printed in 23 languages.

Outlander was a phenomenal success; 7 sequels rolled-on-out into eager fans hands all emanating from an incredible mind — with the 9th in the series due in 2020. See Diana’s website for updates. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/

Diana is a generous writer, sharing more information with her readers than any other author I’ve ever read, and actively engaging them on her website, in literary groups, her blog, and more, answering questions and engaging readers the world over. She has also published tomes called Outlander Companions that give readers a lot of background information on history, medicine, time-travel, etc. (Well, she was professionally a science historian and well trained to record and report with deep attention to detail, and also the weird little anomalies in human affairs.)

I’d heard about the TV adaptation from my daughter in law but didn’t get around to watching it until the 4th season, which in turn sent me on a wild adventure watching all the previous episodes and season, then buying and reading the entire series of books. I’ve started to reread book 5 and 6 in anticipation of the 5th TV season on Starz.

What prompted me to watch the Outlander TV series was a novel I was drafting about a young doctor whose mother’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Wales. [This is partially my own heritage along with Scottish and Irish ancestors who emigrated, and traveled down into the Appalachians where they settled.] My character  is an intuitive who wishes to learn more about natural remedies and practices of her mother’s home country especially after she has just finished a long residency and is deciding on her path in the practice of medicine.

In the fall of 2018 I was taking a course in Arthurian Legends, and reading about Welsh and Scottish history when I happened to stream Outlander to see what it was that had millions binging on Starz.

Diana’s mind is vast. That is the best way I can explain it. Matched with master storytelling which from all I’ve read is a natural gift, I could not stop reading, and when one book was finished I felt like my oxygen mask had been yanked from my face. I literally crawled into the closest book store gasping for the sequel! Later I ordered ahead so that there would not be days of blue lipped waiting. This was behavior never observed in myself before. I’ve become a fan of both Diana and now the Outlander cast members and writers of the adaptations.

What is it that has seized my mind and heart with such power, joy, and keen interest? I cannot express it yet but its something like this: characters that lift my spirit reminding me that we can be better than we think we can, and we can end up doing good even when we just stumble into it. It’s about intent. It’s also the story of a great love that stands the test of time and tragedy and never seems to be shredded or dulled by it. It’s the story of my family’s emigration, it’s the story of our nation’s early history, it’s about science (which I love and have worked in for my career) and it’s about a woman whose mind and skills are challenged to help others.

Finally, Diana has created a woman, Claire, who is a sort of hero for me and many women in even this modern day, maybe more so in our time. She says what she thinks, she never goes back on her word, she is imperfect and vulnerable, and she wants to be loved through and through by her man. Diana has created that man for her in Jamie Fraser who matches Claire’s strengths and provides a protective and totally absorbing love affair whose flame is inexhaustible.

And there is lots of humor! Thank you Diana for making fun of us along the way. If we can’t laugh then it IS a tragic affair, this life we all strive to live and make some meaning out of. She possesses a great sense of humor and puts her characters in numerous embarrassing situations.

I find the books healing in a way, like a balm for my tattered soul — tattered by the banal world I’m living in, the broken hearts, the disappointed people, the loss of a framework in which to live in this fractured time. The story is stabilizing. The people care about and love each other and even when the way is not clear, the characters choose a safe way forward. And to think, Diana is still rolling-out their lives,  showing us a way forward. The fact that Claire and other characters time-travel adds a mystery to it all and opens up unique possibilites for the author to explore and compare historical times and mores, and ask interesting questions such as, “Can history be changed?”

What can I tell you. I am a goner. Diana Gabaldon has captured my imagination and my heart for the time being. And I am grateful.

 

A Celebration of Friendship and Community

Photo by Susan Feathers

Tomorrow I am flying to New York for the 39th Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger. This year’s race is very special because the community of Croton-on-Hudson is honoring the life and legacy of Carol Falter, daughter of my friends Betty and Bill. Carol lost her battle with pancreatic cancer at age 39, in the fullness of her life as a dynamic leader in education and youth development.

The race, which is run to honor the legacy of Harry Chapin, who was also taken in the prime of his life, is a fitting place to celebrate family, friends, and the principle that any one life can remake the world through passion for a cause greater than themselves. Below is what I will share with the community on October 20 – Race Day:

Thirty-nine years ago, this race was born in the office of Pastor Sandra Myers at Asbury United Methodist Church. Sandra called me to her office one Fall day in 1980 to help her establish a fundraising event for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

Later that day I met up with my running buddies, who are here today, to celebrate the life and legacy of Carol Falter and this amazing community in which she was nourished as she grew.

Molly Connors, Kate Glynn, Betty Falter, Dot Janis, and I were training for a Leggs’ Mini-Marathon in Central Park. Let me set the context for you. Women were just discovering they in fact could run long distances without their uterus dropping. Yes, that was a falsehood perpetuated during the women’s movement to keep her out of the long-distance running competition. Katherine Switzer broke that barrier in 1967 — with the aid of a man, I might add — who held off a race official who sought to kick her out of the Boston Marathon. It would not be until 1972 that women were allowed to run that race.

On our run that day, we discussed a 10K race for Pastor Myers’ idea as a community project. Croton had long been a running community. The first U.S. chapter of the Hash House Harriers took root here. The dream of a race over the iconic dam and backroads of this beautiful place hovered in our minds. Pastor Myers named it the “Run Against Hunger” or RAH.

In July of 1981, Harry Chapin’s life ended in a car crash on Long Island. Harry had helped establish President Carter’s Commission on Hunger and Poverty, donating a third of his band’s earnings to charity, and established World Hunger Year. In his last three years, he raised $3M to end poverty.

A Croton resident and producer of Harry’s music asked that we make the RAH a tribute to Harry’s life and work, donated t-shirts, and that is how this race came to be in October 1981. We marvel at this community’s commitment to continue the work.  Carol Falter loved this race.  She later became an ultra-marathon runner herself – maybe because she first ran in the Fun Run here with her parents and brothers. She herself left an abiding legacy of work on behalf of youth and education, answering Harry’s challenge when he wrote these lyrics:

Oh, if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world*

                                Carol and generations of women have since changed                                                                     the pronouns to be more inclusive!

*Lyrics from the Chapin song: I wonder what would happen (Gold Medal Collection Album)

Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall KimmererRobin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.