Thursday, June 28, 2007

Traveling green

I'm in humid Portland, Oregon, on assignment for Audubon magazine. Since I live a relatively "green" life at home - I walk most places, live in a house heated and cooled by the sun, and eat from my organic kitchen garden - and since I'm writing for an environmental magazine, it seemed to me that this trip would be a good chance to try to make my business travel as green as possible.

I quickly encountered complex the trade-offs. I didn't have time to drive to Portland, and there's no train service from my part of Colorado to the Pacific Coast. That left flying, the least "green" alternative (a recent study estimates that a coast-to-coast flight emits twice as much carbon dioxide per passenger as driving an SUV would, and three to five times as much as taking the train). So I purchased carbon offset credits from Terrapass to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from my plane flights. Carbon offset credits pay for renewable energy development and other projects that attempt to remediate or soak up the greenhouse gases produced by activities that use up fossil fuels, adding that once-stored carbon to the atmosphere. They're not a perfect solution, but buying carbon offset credits from a reputable organization like Terrapass is better than doing nothing. (I think.)

Then there's the trip to the airport, 120 miles over the mountains to Denver. There's no way to get there via public transit (that's one drawback to living in the rural West - there is no public transit). My husband and I carpooled in our Toyota Sienna van, which gets around 22 miles to the gallon. (We're thinking of trading for something smaller and more fuel-efficient - probably a Subaru Forester - next time we have spare money.) We've resolved to keep our speed to 65 miles per hour or below in order to increase gas mileage (over 50 mph, your mileage-per-gallon drops as much as 20 percent for each ten mile-per-hour increase in speed). That made the trip a bit longer, but not enough to be worth burning the extra fuel and adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

At the airport, we parked at an economy lot and took a shuttle with a dozen other people for the last few miles or so. A slightly greener option that saves us $4 a day in parking fees. Nice!

With flights right after lunch, we had to get something to eat so we wouldn't starve on the way to Portland. (Bringing our lunches would have been much greener, but I ran out of time at the last minute. I'll plan more carefully next time, and we'll eat better!) We picked from the limited fast-food options available, mindful of the environmental cost of processing and packaging food. We ended up with a Caesar salad in a plastic container and a slice of pizza in cardboard. I was feeling pretty good about finding fairly "green" fast food until we sat down to eat, and I popped the top of my drink, a San Pelligrino soda, imported from Italy. So much for my green consciousness: next time I'll drink local water from a water fountain. It may be purified and chilled, both of which use energy, but at least it won't be shipped halfway around the world. Here's to local water!

On the plane, I faced another one of those trade-offs when the beverage service cart came around. What's the greenest choice there? Not sodas, with their high-sugar content and high energy costs in processing, or juices, with their long travel distances. Ditto for wines and beers or mixed drinks. I chose bottled water, but again, next time I'll bring my own. How? I saw a guy in the security line with two empty water bottles, which he must have been planning to fill in a drinking fountain after making it through security. He and his bottles safely passed the scanner, so I'll imitate his strategy next time.

When we reached Portland, instead of renting a car as I normally do on business travel, Richard and I caught a red MAX line train on Portland's light rail system, headed for the hotel I'd picked because it fit into Audubon's travel budget and was a few blocks from the MAX. (Yup, it's much more convenient to rent a car, but Portland has great mass transit, so I had decided when I planned this trip that it was time for me to practice the values I do at home while on the road. And our daughter, Molly, lives in Portland and rides the light rail all the time, so she volunteered to serve as our tour guide.)

The toughest part of taking the MAX was getting the machine at the airport to take my money, but once we had our tickets, we simply walked a short distance to the train, waited a few minutes, got on and were off. The trip up was quick, the ride pleasant, and we exited three blocks from our hotel. The best part? Whizzing past the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate as we relaxed and chatted. Talk about feeling good about being green. . . .

Today I've mapped out the bus route to my first interview (thanks to Molly) and tomorrow I'm walking to the Metro Building to meet Tom Liptan, a landscape architect and green roof guru, who works for the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, and has promised me a tour of green roofs in his hybrid car.

More on green travel choices in this trip to a summer-green region in my next post!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Belonging to the community of the land

Earlier this month I gave a welcome talk for a conference in Texas. The topic: “the community of the land,” a phrase I’ve begun using in preference to “nature,” a word that has somehow come to connote a separate world -whether alien or utopian - to which humanity no longer belongs.

The phrase “community of the land” was inspired by Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac. Leopold, a wildlife biologist, spent a lifetime outdoors observing the relationships between plants, animals (including humans), and the land.

He came to realize that what was important in nature wasn’t individual lives or even individual species. It was the whole messy package, the steaming stew of interactions between plant and animal and landscape, between soil-dwelling microbe and root, root and tunneling rodent, rodent and soaring hawk, and hawk and the soil it decays into that created this living, breathing Earth. Leopold summed up his credo: The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to encompass soils, waters, plants, animals or collectively: the land.

The phrase “the community of the land” reflects the fact that landscape is not just a scenic backdrop; it is a vibrant, interrelated community to which people belong.

The piñon pine - juniper woodlands above town, for instance, are not static. They are constantly changing, shaped by the relationships between all the lives that inhabit them.
The legions of microscopic and macroscopic lives like fungi and springtails and worms that live, eat, reproduce, and die underfoot, and in the doing, cleanse the air and water that pass through the soil and keep it fertile. These tiny lives enter into partnerships with the piñons and junipers, the oaks, blue grama grass and the wildflowers that briefly splash the hillsides with color.

The plants in turn feed hosts of insects, from seed-gathering ants trailing in lines across the soil to native bees and butterflies sipping flower nectar. And birds too, like the piñon jays on whom the trees depend to carry their fat-rich seeds to distant jay-caches where uneaten seeds sprout new groves of piñons. The warblers and flycatchers that pluck insects off the branches or out of the air, the circling hawks that catch the rodents and snakes, the deer that munch on succulent plants and the mountain lions that munch on deer.

And the people that cut the trees for firewood, clear patches for houses and roads, and whizz between the trees on mountain bikes. This whole web of relationships is what animates the landscape and gives it the characteristic colors, smells, shapes and sounds that we recognize as piñon-juniper woodland, the dwarf “forest” the cloaks our hills.

Why care about the community of the land? Because it is our oldest home
, the place where our species was born and shaped. Because it is the earth we depend on, the planet that provides us with the air we breathe, the water that floods our cells, the food we eat and the raw materials from which we make the stuff of our lives. And because it is the home of our hearts and spirits. Reconnecting with the community of the land, that living web of interrelationships between species large and small, obvious and obscure can restore our sanity, our balance and our hope for the future.

Some believe our power has liberated or alienated us from nature, the great network of life that still shapes this unique blue planet. Not so.

There is a place for us in nature, if we’ll take it. It’s risky, but it allows us to exercise our species’ greatest talent: love. Love is the gift we bring to the community of the land. And it’s what allows us to truly belong to the only home our species has ever known.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A two turtle trip

Richard and I just returned from a 3,300-mile road trip across the Southern Great Plains. Our odyssey took us across Colorado and New Mexico, the length of Oklahoma - panhandle and all, and into Arkansas, where we spent a day atop the state’s tallest peak, 2,753-foot-high Mount Magazine. We drove south to the Texas Hill Country with its limestone caves, bat flights, and spreading live oaks.

In Austin, I interviewed Mark Simmons, a plant ecologist passionate about the need to re-wild urban open spaces at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center for an article I'm researching on living roofs for Audubon magazine. From there we headed south to the border at Eagle Pass and then back to San Marcos in the Hill Country, where I spoke and taught a workshop at the Land Full of Stories Conference. From San Marcos, we headed home via Marfa in West Texas, where Richard immersed himself in minimalist art at the Chinati and Judd Foundations' collections, and I finished up the sidebars for an article for National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts' youngARTS magazine. Then we crossed the Chihuahuan Desert and followed the Rio Grande north through New Mexico to home.

But it’s the turtles that stick in my mind from the trip. We spotted them everywhere: in roadside ditches, bayous, springs, in the blue flow of Hill-Country rivers. And on the roads too. Sometimes moving slowly on leathery legs, sometimes dead, shells cracked and innards gaping.

We stopped to move the first one off the road in Arkansas. It was a big painted turtle, its shell a calligraphy of markings that turtles apparently read to identify each other. In far south Texas, we stopped for a slider whose shell grew a mossy garden of algae, perched on the centerline of a highway nowhere near a stream. After Richard toted it to safety, we sped on, hoping the turtle knew where it was going.

One morning in San Marcos, we passed a huge red-eared slider struggling to climb a curb at the edge of a four-lane street. I hopped out, darted over and picked it up, my hands slipping on the turtle’s dinner-plate-sized shell.

It kicked, twisting hard. I dropped it, and my heart thudded as carapace hit concrete.

I picked the big turtle up again, gripping the slick shell firmly, and lifted it carefully over the highway fence. Then I waited, heart in hand, until its head emerged.

The last turtle we met on the trip was in an inner courtyard of a famous sculptor’s home in Marfa. The tour guide opened a wood door to let us look into a spare space enclosed by nine-foot-high adobe walls. A small, three-sided green “room” delineated by living bamboo walls punctuated an empty expanse of gravel and brick.

“There’s a tortoise with a cracked shell in here,” she said. “It’s been here for years,” she added, “probably rescued from the highway.”

A high-domed desert box turtle with a split creasing its shell hunkered in a patch of shade, watching us with unblinking eyes.

As we drove away, I thought about that box turtle: it had all the bamboo it could eat, water from a sunken pool in the courtyard floor, sunny spots to bask in and shade for rest. But it could not get out, and no other turtle could get in. So it would live out its life alone, sentenced by its injury to a courtyard prison instead of free to roam the desert grasslands.

And I wondered - I still do - if the person who hit that turtle even noticed the thump. Or if they drove on, unaware.

A Native American origin story tells how the world began as a watery place, with no land at all until toad dove deep beneath the surface and emerged with a bit of mud in his mouth. After the other animals plastered that mouthful of mud to turtle’s shell, the earth grew and grew until it became enough land for everyone.

Turtle, says the tale, still carries the world with room for us all on her shell.
(revised 6/19/07)

Monday, June 4, 2007

How I recognize myself - and all my relations

"Creating dance is the thing I know best," says dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp in her book The Creative Habit. "It is how I recognize myself." Tharp says a lot of other wise things in her book, a gift of my writer friend Eduardo Rey Brummel about how to develop and nurture your creativity, things I'll think about and digest and use and go back to over the years. But it's this idea of art being what you know best and how you recognize yourself that strikes me tonight.

I know what she means in a way that goes beyond words, a way of knowing that rises from my cells. Writing is how I recognize myself - and how I know myself as human. It's how I see myself in the context of others. It's how I recognize my relationship with the rest of the living world, what my Crow Indian friends Rose Plenty Good and Alice Bulltail used to call "all our relations." Meaning not just all the other human beings, but all the other species, those lives we share this planet with. Even the ones we fear or hate or don't know. Perhaps especially those.

Rose and Alice and the other women who gathered in my neighbor Terry's living room to drink coffee and bead and tell stories weren't a judgmental lot, but they didn't mince words when someone was selfish or greedy or mean or cruel or in some way violating the community. "He acts like he has no relatives," they'd say. It was their worst insult: to act as if you alone were the most important, as if the whole world was about you.

Watching how we have been behaving lately - whether we're killing each other in Iraq and Lebanon and Darfur, or killing other species as we rush to consume more than our share of the worlds' resources first, that's the phrase that comes to mind: we're acting as if we have no relatives. As if it really was all about us.

It's not. It seems to me that the "little" wars flaring around the world and global climate change are all saying the same thing: our actions, big and small, subtle and obvious, day in and day out, all have lasting consequences. Who we love, who we hate, who we trust. It's whether we are careful with the resources we use in our everyday lives: Do we buy more than we need? Do we leave the water faucet running? Do we turn lights off? Is our approach to the world kind and tolerant, or suspicious, greedy and fearful?

Let's start behaving like relatives again. Let's treat each other - and all those other swimming, crawling, flying, and rooted lives - as if we were kin. Let's make space for each other and be courteous and don't hog the last cookies - or oil - just because we can. Let's use our art and our lives to recognize ourselves as the people we can be, not the people who behave as if we have no relations. That's not us. We can do better, and the sooner we start, the more likely we'll still have a world to share - and share alike.