Tag Archives: climate change

On to Kyiv, and Then What?

Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking. 

This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on. 

Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest?  Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population?  Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?  

I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems. 

An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)  

The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster. 

If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?   

January Musings

In January, 2022, media exposure in the part of the U. S. where I now live has tilted toward retrospectives about last January’s U.S. Capitol Riot. Sometimes, even the ongoing covid pandemic gets relegated to second billing. Human-induced climate change can come in third or even lower. Most of the news is bad and can seem overwhelming. Before I get totally overloaded, I temporarily turn off all media outlets and go for a walk in nature. I am fortunate to have this option.   

In January, 2017, I took part in a very different mass event, the January 21 “women’s march global.” According to the British journal The Independent, between 3.3 and 4.6 million people participated in nearly 600 locations within the U.S., making that day’s events the largest domestic protest in U.S. history up to that point. By some estimates, nearly 6 million people protested globally. Over 200 associated events took place on every continent, including Antarctica. 

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,  half a million attendees, mostly women, converged in 2017 for a day of peaceful protests and speeches supporting women’s rights, environmental responsibility, and a variety of other causes. 

In North Carolina, my home then, I participated in a hastily organized Raleigh event which drew about 17,000 people, twice the number that local organizers and police had planned for. This event was also peaceful, with humor, flexibility, even camaraderie between some police officers and marchers.

The size of the January 6, 2021 Washington, D.C. demonstration prior to the Capitol assault has been variously estimated at from several thousand to as many as 20,000. Not all participants in the rally were involved in the subsequent riot. According to an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Chicago, of those arrested so far for their actions at the U.S. Capitol, 93% are white, and 86% are male. (For a more detailed analysis, check the “Chicago Project on Security and Threats,” https://cpost.uchicago.edu.)  

As someone who is comfortable with a female identity, if not with all the restrictions that female identity has sometimes imposed, I’m both curious and concerned about the gender disparities of the 2017 and 2021 events. A half million mostly female demonstrators in Washington in 2017 managed a peaceful protest with no damage and no arrests. Less than a tenth that number of mostly male attendees in 2021 caused multiple deaths, an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the interior of the U.S. Capitol, and over 700 arrests so far. 

As we try to put January, 2021 into perspective and work toward curbing our current pandemics of virus, violence, and climate-changing economics, it should be evident that inflammatory rhetoric and destructive behavior have only worsened them. We have to continue talking and working with each other across our real and perceived divides. We need to find ways to better live out a national motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782: “E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.” 

Women who helped organize the 2017 events have not stopped working, but have gotten less visible. We have turned to other avenues in our attempts to support meaningful change. The focus is both local and global. There’s an emphasis on women in the “global south,” who’ve contributed little to current global problems but are disproportionately impacted by the policies of “the industrialized north.” Wherever we live on our planet, it is true that disasters and conflicts disproportionately impact women.

Paying too much attention to the news can be disheartening. Going for a walk helps me regain perspective. I also find solace in some favorite lines of a favorite poet, Marge Piercy’s “The Seven of Pentacles:”

“..[S]he is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.”

True masculinity does not require rioting and destruction. There is ample room for a masculinity that supports equal access to life’s opportunities, that can be strong without being bullying, that does not rely on vilifying an “other” to be validated. 

Perhaps some who are gifted at dismantling cults can work with the men (and women) who were part of the violence on January 6, 2021. Each of us, whatever our gender,  can continue work on our own unique tasks in the global effort to reinforce the mutual vulnerability and solidarity we share on this planet with its over 7 billion temporary human guests. 

La Pluie des Champignons?

Mushrooms after fall rain

more post-rain mushrooms

I’m pretty sure the earth’s climate is changing, and that human activity is a major cause. I’m not sure of everything I can or should be doing to reduce my personal impact, and/or to pressure relevant public and private officials to reduce our collective human impact. My direct observations of climate include having lived in many different parts of the globe.  

The weather and climate of southern California, where I recently moved, are still pretty much a mystery to me. Longer-term locals have told me, “it never rains between May and November.” Since I moved here in May 2021, we’ve had thunderstorms in July and two substantial rainfalls in October. It IS a lot drier than where I previously lived on the U.S. East Coast, but not as dry as the year I lived in far northwestern China. 

That year, there was a total of less than an inch of precipitation, including a smallish dusting of snow in late November that lingered well into February. I was teaching oral English to students at a “desert reclamation university.” In early spring, a team of agricultural experts from  the Texas A&M system in the U.S. came for a week to both teach and observe. At one of their feature presentations, held in lieu of regular classes, I sat at the back of the auditorium to watch. A professor of soil science was giving an illustrated talk about the use of native grasses in his part of Texas to reduce erosion during “extreme rain events.” I could tell that some of the students I taught were having difficulty with the English. Mostly they were having difficulty with the concept of extreme rain events. Finally, one student gathered his courage and raised his hand. The professor called on him. I don’t remember the student’s exact English, which was probably somewhat basic, but he got the point across: 

“Your slides and information are quite impressive,” the student began. “But they do not fit our situation here very well,” he continued. “You see, we do not have extreme rain events in this part of Xinjiang.” 

Perhaps the climate where I lived previously that most closely matched what I’ve experienced here so far was in a small city on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in east central Africa. The climate there was tropical, but with a “long dry season” that typically extended from early May until late September or October. By the time the “short rainy season” was about to begin, the ground had gotten parched. In some years, before the full set of rains began, there were a couple of intervals when we had brief showers—enough to get wet under the trees, but not enough to run off. Locals called these showers “la pluie des vaches” (“cow rains”). Historically, the majority of the population had been pastoralists. These early rains were just enough to begin greening up the pastures. The cattle would finally get some fresh grass, rather than the dry rations they’d been on before any rains. 

Our first October rain was sort of like a cow rain, though there are not any cows anywhere near the suburban enclave where I live. The following morning, I noticed land snails on the wettish sidewalks—a “pluie des escargots”? After a few hours, the sidewalks dried and the snails disappeared. A few days later, the nearby canyons did sport a stubble of greenery, maybe enough for a snack for the area’s wild deer.  

The second rain was more extensive, creating small gullies on some of the canyon trails, soaking into grassy street verges in ways that our paltry irrigation systems do not match.  This time, the deer-food stubble was somewhat more extensive, plus some of the street edges began showing a good growth of mushrooms, which lingered. I’ve christened this year’s second storm a mushroom rain, a southern California “pluie des champignons.” 

The Weather of Mysteries, the Mysteries of Weather

I grew up on mysteries, both televised and in book form. Though I mostly ignored the Nancy Drew series (part of every preteen girl’s book shelf?), by the time I finished high school, I’d been steeped in Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. I had vague images of the little English village where Miss Jane Marple solved murders. The Orient Express and a tour boat on the Nile seemed exotic and thrilling places for sleuth Hercule Poirot to twirl his mustache and exercise his little gray cells. Though I didn’t expect Perry Mason ever to lose a case, I enjoyed weekly TV evenings watching Mason and prosecutor Hamilton Burger match wits in courtroom dramas.  

Once I left my family home and moved around the country and overseas, my personal library went through several changes.  Lately, it’s been downsized, but I’m still within range of a public or university library. I’ve consistently gravitated toward the mystery section. Over time, my tastes have evolved. I’ve concentrated more often on women novelists who feature women protagonists and who define their settings in meticulous detail, often including the weather. 

At the suggestion of a friend, I began reading the Susan Wittig Albert series about the fictional Texas hill town of Pecan Springs. Her “cozy mystery” part-time detective and full-time herb and plant store owner/operator China Bayles tapped into a love of landscape that had been dormant in me for a while.   

Not long after I moved to North Carolina in 2007, I came across a holiday story by local author Margaret Maron. Before long, I’d read everything I could find by this self-taught writer, whose fictional East Carolina milieu of Colleton County, presided over by bootlegger’s daughter Judge Deborah Knott, sometimes seemed intriguingly, uncomfortably real. I especially remember Storm Track, a 2000 murder mystery with an Atlantic hurricane built into the plot. 

Now I’m a recent transplant to southern California, trying to find my way in this semi-desert climate partially filled with retirees like me. No hurricanes here. Muted seasonal changes so far. (Luckily) no significant earthquakes since our move. The other bane of this area is wildfires. Locals with longer pedigrees than mine have told me scary stories of past area fires and evacuations. This year’s outbreaks have already set records for size and ferocity.  Therefore, I was only a little surprised when a summer library visit produced a wildfire mystery, Martha C. Lawrence’s Ashes of Aries. The plot was a tad out of my usual range, but the description of a Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood in flames was almost too vivid. 

Lately lots of pundits have spent lots of print and air time expounding on a changing climate that is likely to include an increase in drastic weather events, some unpredicted.  I’ve found a blog post, but not yet an Albert novel about the great freeze-up of February, 2021, when much of Texas discovered the limited reliability of its electric grid under winter stress. I’m sure there are other novels with wildfires, others with hurricanes. Our reality may be approaching or exceeding the weather limits of popular mystery fiction. 

It seems as if the strides made in the past century or so toward being able to predict weather more consistently and reliably are getting undercut. Hurricane predictors talk about “rapid intensification.” States and regions in the U.S. West declare drought emergencies. They try to evolve contingency water resource plans on the fly. Wells run dry. Power grids fail or are shut down to reduce the chance of spark-ignited wildfires.  

It makes sense for those of us who can to get more serious about resource conservation. Per author Jonathan Safran Foer, in his recent non-fiction book We are the Weather, our personal choices do have an impact: we need to eat less meat, do less driving, travel less by air, have fewer children. For me, the child part is over and done, but I’m working on the remaining three issues. 

Once, in the few months I’ve lived in San Diego, I experienced an unexpected dividend of our less predictable weather: a brief but intense rainbow.   

Our (Flawed) Experiments with Truth

Recently, rereading some personal journals I wrote nearly forty years ago, I came across a reference to the English-language version of a famous autobiography I was then reading, Mohandas Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I’ve since lost my copy, and didn’t journal much of the content. Skimming a current online summary, I learned that Gandhi first published the work in his native language, Gujarati, in weekly installments in his newsletter in India during the latter 1920’s. Then, he was actively engaged in the struggle for Indian independence from Great Britain. In his work, he described the first forty some years of his life, with emphasis on the evolution of his concept of satyagraha, often rendered in English as “non-violent passive resistance.” The book has been translated into 15 regional Indian languages and at least a dozen European ones.

The title of the work has stuck with me. While Gandhi’s definition of “truth” has a strong spiritual component, somewhat different from many Western perspectives, the gist of his argument seems to me to be that one may approach “truth” but cannot codify it or force it into any set system. To a Westerner, his search sounds something like our use (and misuse) of the method of scientific inquiry. My understanding of scientific method is that we can only approximate “whole truth,” never totally pin it down. Nevertheless, we conduct successive experiments to align our understanding more closely with expanding portions of truth. Sometimes old explanations are disproved. No theory or explanation is ever final, but only as good as its ability to describe and predict actual phenomena. 

The current rancor about multiple cultural and political issues seems to me to be partly due to a misguided attempt to force “truth”  to remain static. We watch coverage of the evolving covid-19 pandemic as if there must be one definitive solution to the burgeoning number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. We want to reduce a complex set of public health issues to simple “good guys/bad guys” scenarios. 

“Tell us the answer,” we demand. 

We may frame successive revisions in advice from the CDC or the WHO as evidence of unreliability, rather than as responses to changes in viral variants, levels of contagion and community spread, and mortality/morbidity rates. We may try to assign blame for the initial spread of the virus, as if calling the pandemic the “kung flu” could impact the pandemic’s current global trajectory or destruction. We may try to discount scientists wrestling with a hugely complicated global health challenge as “elitist,” preferring to believe whichever online media pundit best fits our preexisting biases. None of these reductionist ploys coincides with the “truth of covid-19” as we know it so far.

One of my more recent reads touched on the equally divisive issue of climate change. In A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, historian-author Patrick Allitt quoted former climate scientist and member of the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change, Stephen Schneider. Schneider, until his death in 2010, was for many years a professor of biology at Stanford University. An early advocate of reforming public policies to mitigate and adapt to human-induced climate change, Schneider nonetheless recoiled from efforts to pin down exact consequences or remedies or to demonize climate skeptics. Schneider tried to explain, using terms that got and can get quoted out of context to support a variety of views:

“As scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. …This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope this means being both.”  (A lengthier version of Schneider’s views is available online at https://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Mediarology/mediarology.html.) 

As I try to shield myself and my loved ones from the worst impacts of either potentially deadly viruses or equally deadly weather events and climate shifts, I take some solace in imagining Gandhi and Schneider in a vibrant afterlife, sharing insights and learning from each other’s experiments with truth. 

Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We are In

Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We Are In  —by Jinny Batterson

I can remember parts of events that happened when I was much younger. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a Maryland high school student. I remember hearing our school principal start an announcement over the school intercom that day at an unusual time for announcements. I remember coming down the stairwell between the two floors of our building along with many other students changing classes. 

I don’t remember whether the announcement I heard while going downstairs was the first—that President Kennedy had been shot—or the second—that he had shortly afterward been pronounced dead at a Dallas hospital. I don’t remember whether school that day was dismissed early or whether school was canceled the following Monday for his funeral. I don’t remember much about that year’s Thanksgiving the following Thursday. 

Earlier in 1963, there had been a tense standoff between the nuclear-armed U.S.A. under Kennedy’s leadership, and the nuclear-armed U.S.S.R. under Nikita Khrushchev about the positioning of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, then led by Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro. I don’t remember whether my dad built a nuclear fallout shelter in our front yard before or after Kennedy was shot.  

Parts of our education when I was a student involved memorizing famous poems and speeches. I can recite most of a short Abraham Lincoln speech from a century earlier, first spoken in November, 1863 at a dedication ceremony for a military cemetery at the site of one of the U.S. Civil War’s deadliest battles:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are …testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. …It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In the tragic days after Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, his Gettysburg speech was nearly forgotten. Later, the contents of the speech took on more importance. When the current Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1922, the Gettysburg Address was inscribed on one of the monument’s inside walls.  

We are now experiencing another test of the viability of our democratic institutions. Each of us brings different memories to an ongoing impeachment inquiry. Witnesses and questioners interpret incidents differently, partly based on their training and point of view. Our current President ran for office touting the belief that our nation could return to a time when the U.S. was preeminent in global affairs. As an astute businessman, he could “fix things.” Some seem to think his position grants him nearly unlimited license to promote his own interests. Attempts to remove him from office are “character assassination.” Others less charitable to the President point out that our political system is based on checks and balances designed to restrict any one person or political entity from rigging the system to his own benefit, from “fixing things.” 

Absent from the immediate debates and questioning are considerations of the impacts of global over-dependence on fossil fuels to human and planetary health. Scientists tell us that both the United States of America and the rest of the world’s nations have only a decade or so to drastically curb our output of the climate-warming gasses produced by burning fossil fuels if we are to maintain a planet capable of supporting human life as we know it.

On another wall of the Lincoln Memorial is his second inaugural, delivered in March, 1865, just over a month before his assassination. We might be wise to remember its conclusion:  

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

Regardless of the outcome of our immediate political crises, climate change requires all of us to strive on, using whatever tools of intellect, wealth, compassion, and ingenuity are at our disposal, to finish the work we are in.     

Climate Change Hope

Climate Change Hope  —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been over a generation since I first became concerned that human activity might irreversibly change our planet’s climate. I’ve gradually been revising my lifestyle to reduce my input to the problem. Even now, though, if I pull up an online “carbon footprint” app to measure how many earths would be required to support all humanity in the style to which I’m currently accustomed, my number is a good bit over one. I can feel anxious sometimes.

Over my lifetime so far, I’ve had chances to visit many different world regions, and to notice adaptations in other cultures that help reduce waste and emissions without causing privation. So I continue to adapt, plus I do my best to encourage others to make lifestyle adjustments that are planet-friendly without feeling like deprivation. Some I talk with are enthusiastic; others either ignore me or offer a variety of negative responses, the most common being: 

—It’s not really a problem; see this snowball? (denial)

—It’s somebody else’s problem, I didn’t cause much of it so why should I have to fix it? (projection)

—If governments and corporations won’t fix it, what can one person do? (defeatism)

Like anyone with an opinion, I have what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Once I’m convinced of a view, I tend to pay more attention to information that supports it and to ignore or discount contradictory information. My current view is that anyone who tries to persuade you that climate change is a simple phenomenon with a single solution has likely not done much research and/or has discounted lived experience.  Do Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and/or major increases in the number and severity of wildfires signal global warming? Does a severe winter signal the opposite? I doubt we can ever know for sure. Given the impossibility of certainty, I think it makes sense to err on the side of conserving as much of the planet’s existing climate and species as we can. I try to listen respectfully to those with different views, and to revise my opinions when reliable new information becomes available. Most of the time I’m a “glass half full” sort of person, so I try to pay attention to efforts toward reducing or adapting to climate impacts, to applaud them and, where practical, to follow suit.

London’s transportation mix, from what I saw of it on a recent visit, encouraged me. I was amazed at the number of riders of its extensive subway (“underground”) system, plus the volume of bicycle commuters and the widespread availability of dedicated bicycle lanes and monitored bicycle parking areas. Near the rental apartment complex where I was staying was a two-tiered parking lot, for bikes.  Each weekday morning, extensive stands of standardized rental bikes near the major intersections and bridges emptied out, refilling in the evening. During some of my pedestrian sightseeing, I noticed “ULEZ zone” signs posted on major thoroughfares. Via later research, I learned that this acronym is for “ultra-low emission zone,” an area covering much of central London where vehicle traffic is restricted. Only cars, trucks, and buses which meet stringent emissions standard are allowed. The zone was activated on April 8, 2019; drivers who violate it face hefty fines.

In other reading and internet exposure, I’ve come across additional worthwhile suggestions. Given my gender, I was drawn to the recommendation in the collection Drawdown, published in 2017, about the importance of educating and empowering women as a component in reducing or adapting to climate change impacts (ranking 6th best of the 100 partial solutions suggested). Recently, I came across the results of a 2019 study of the possible impact of a massive global tree-planting effort on climate. Thomas Crowther, a climate change ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, coauthored an examination of global land use and found enough suitable unused land so that a trillion trees could be planted, reforesting an area equivalent to the size of the U.S. and potentially reducing atmospheric carbon substantially. Another source of encouragement is a talk given by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian who now teaches at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, about productive ways of talking about climate reality: “The most important thing we can do about climate change is talk about it,” posted on the TED website in December, 2018. Please let’s keep talking!    

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street   —by Jinny Batterson   

corner of Walnut and Walker            

The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.

We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.

The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.        

For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.   

Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change. 

“tree protection area” near major new construction project

This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.

We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.    

Pizzlies and Grolars–Climate-Mediated Combinations?

Pizzlies and Grolars—Climate-Mediated Combinations?   –by Jinny Batterson

During the summer of 2017, I vacationed for two weeks in parts of Alaska. One of the naturalists who guided a bus tour I took in Denali National Park in central Alaska mentioned some new “hybrid” bears that are starting to show up in the far north of Alaska and Canada. As Arctic polar sea ice shrinks, the traditional ice floe habitat of polar bears is shrinking along with it. As temperatures in interior Alaska warm, some grizzlies are moving further north. One result is that the two sub-species of bears, who rarely encountered each other in the past, now have more overlap in their ranges. Sometimes they fight; at other times they interact in different ways. Offspring of polar-grizzly matings are called pizzly or grolar bears. Pizzlies and grolars typically have the coloring of polar bears, with the large head that is more characteristic of a grizzly. A picture of a pizzly that had been killed by a hunter was posted on a National Geographic site (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/photogalleries/101215-pizzly-grolar-bear-polar-grizzly-hybrids-nature-arctic-global-warming-pictures/) in 2010.  Only a few of the hybrid bears have been encountered so far, but biologists expect that more matings will likely occur as climate change accelerates. Perhaps, as our planet continues to warm, there may someday be pizzlies and grolars as far south as Denali park. 

My direct knowledge of Alaska’s longer-term weather is nil. However, a friend in Fairbanks who has spent most of his adult life in the now-less-frozen north, told me that the previous year’s winter was exceptionally mild—with overall temperatures about 6 degrees Fahrenheit about average. His back yard developed a lawn-chair sized sinkhole when part of its permafrost melted. Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. governmental weather agency, bear out that the entire year 2016 was of record-breaking warmth in all reporting stations of our northernmost state (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/2016-shatters-record-alaskas-warmest-year). Climate change in Alaska has been more rapid than in the lower forty-eight states. 

About three years ago, I participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. For me, part of the event’s inspiration came from seeing so many people of so many different backgrounds engaged in demonstrating for the good of our planet. Even more inspiring to me was the interfaith service held the evening after the march at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Many of the speakers at the service came from areas already experiencing disruptions due to climate change— more intense downpours, longer droughts, stronger typhoons and hurricanes, sea level rise.

The indigenous elders who participated in the service were alarmed and dismayed at the damage we are doing to our planet (the environment that sustains the lives of all species, including humans), but they were not without hope. At the conclusion of an interfaith conference that ran concurrently with the march and its preparations, they issued a call to action:     

“Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. We must sacrifice and move beyond our own comforts and pleasures. We must stop the damaging activities and begin working on restoring the natural environment for the future of All Life.”

The year 2017 has had its share of weather extremes in U.S. states and territories: inhabitants of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and northern California have now experienced firsthand some of the effects of human-induced climate change. We will all need to adapt. The interbreeding option available to polar bears and grizzlies is not in our future—we have become too differentiated from other animals for that. What can be in our future, if we choose, is increasing cooperation across cultures and religions to reduce our damage to our Earth, and to start to help heal her and ourselves.

An Ounce of Prevention

An Ounce of Prevention   —by Jinny Batterson

A proverb that was often quoted to me during my teen years has come back to haunt me lately: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Parts of our state are still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Dozens of people have been killed in North Carolina in the flooding that followed the hurricane. Rivers are just starting to go down. Surplus waters pool and eventually flow toward the Atlantic. Several major rivers are still above flood stage, and there’s a possibility of more flood-related fatalities when receding waters uncover submerged vehicles. Some people have had to be evacuated twice, leaving their homes for hotels and other shelters that in turn became flooded. We’ve seen (when our electricity is working) television and Internet footage of tractor trailer trucks floating in several feet of water, of horses submerged up to the neck being led beside inflatable boats to reach higher ground. Major interstates crossing our region have been flooded out, causing lengthy disruptions in travel, or worse. I’m not suggesting that we can prevent hurricanes; I do want to suggest that we will need better preparations to reduce the impact of future storms.    

The October 2016 floods in the U.S. Southeast come on the heels of equally horrendous flooding in the area of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in August, when up to two feet of rainfall inundated the vicinity over the course of two days of a “thousand year flood.” By mid-October, clean-up crews had removed over a million and a half cubic yards of debris from the flooded area. That’s a lot of ounces.

Much of California has been impacted by five years of severe drought.

It’s getting harder to deny that our climate is changing. According to a 2014 report vetted by over 300 scientists, “Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts.” Just before the Hurricane Matthew floods, I  watched an interview with a spokesman for Conservation International, Dr. M. Sanjayan, who described a series of narrated short films about the relationship between nature and humanity. He played a two minute clip voiced by Julia Roberts, part of a series at NatureIsSpeaking.org. Over a backdrop of some of the earth’s natural wonders, Roberts intoned: “Some call me nature, others call me Mother Nature. I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years, 22,500 times longer than you. I don’t really need people, but people need me…”

Not all of us have as high a profile as the media stars in the Nature Is Speaking videos. Not all of us can persuasively argue for the public policy changes needed to slow, though not stop, many harmful effects of our changing climate. But each of us breathes and eats, sleeps and wakes, uses part of the earth’s resources. We can exercise our ounce of prevention. We can be more active in pursuing the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. We can vet our purchases for environmental impact and make wiser choices. We can act individually and/or join with neighbors to retrofit existing properties and communities to be more environmentally friendly, wherever we live. We can participate in litter pick-ups and stream clean-ups to reduce the amount of trash going into our oceans. We can become informed, and keep up with the latest climate and weather warnings.

Ms. Roberts ends her narration with a challenge and a question:  “How you choose to live each day, whether you regard or disregard me doesn’t really matter to me. One way or the other, your actions will determine your fate, not mine. I am nature. I will go on. I am prepared to evolve.  Are you?”