Day 5: Never Lose Hope

Dear Tanna,

I have limited experience with hospice workers. My mother was on hospice before she died and my dad was deeply grateful for the compassionate assistance the workers brought to their home. This concept of providing dignity to those facing imminent death is fairly recent. There was nothing like that available for me three decades ago when my husband struggled with cancer.

It seems somewhat audacious, maybe even preposterous, to think that those responsible for the decline of our planet’s life systems would dare to consider themselves hospice workers. How could agents of death possibly bring compassion and dignity to the decline of the climate conditions that support all life forms on Earth?

When I am in a down mood, I see humanity as a species that needs to go, in order to save the rest. Nature needs to eliminate her threat and we are the major cause of today’s destruction. Those who care seem to have little influence on the those in leadership positions. We are caught in a system that we cannot seem to change, trapped like animals in a live trap.

As a young widow, years ago, I taught earth science at the local high school when I was struggling to find a new life and purpose. I tried to infuse awareness of the decline of the environment in the teenagers. Considering all of geologic history, today’s situation apparently is not the first time that a life form created mass extinction through its waste products. The waste product for early single-celled life in the oceans was oxygen. Through proliferation, the simple metabolic processes of early life changed the composition of the atmosphere, paving the way for new life to evolve.

Geologically and astronomically speaking, our solar system is roughly halfway through the sun’s expected life. Given a few more billion years, there should be plenty of time for new life to evolve from the scraps left after this climate crisis settles into a new equilibrium. Am I comforted by this thought?

I have mixed feelings about it. When I watch neighbors roar past my Prius on the highway in 4-wheel drive fuel-guzzling pick-ups, or watch Styrofoam cups blow into the tall grasses along the road, or see trash, littered by passing motorists, build up around our small pond at the corner of two paved roads, I think to myself, “Humans are such slobs. Maybe it’s time. Nature is out to rectify our wrongs.” If we view the entire planet as one living organism, we humans, through our collective ignorance and apathy, are a disease to the planet, like its terminal cancer.

Then I talk to cherished friends who suffer anguish at the exploitation of the natural world, or I work with my piano students to help them master skills that will enable them to express themselves through music, or I watch my grandson playing with the baby goats in our front yard, and I am reminded that “We aren’t all bad.”

The eras of geologic history are separated by mass extinctions, as witnessed in the fossil records. PreCambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic. Based also on the geologic record, the previous eras were millions of years in duration. We are responsible for the mass extinction we are witnessing now, and it’s happening much more rapidly than any we have evidenced in the rock records. If we compare all of geologic history to a half-mile walk, humans appeared mere inches before the end that represents today. From the first appearance of a human to now encompasses a few seconds on a 24-hour clock that represents Earth’s history.

To disregard and exploit everything on the planet for selfish reasons, with no check on ourselves, empathy for other species, or consideration for future generations, has got to be the biggest crime against this remarkable and fragile speck of a planet in the cosmos. We are guilty of that crime. Our lifestyles trap us in a system that is dooming life as we know it.

Nobody knows what will come of the situation we face today, but I have to wonder how we are any different from those early single cell life forms? One way is this: We know what we’re doing. Science has instruments to measure the health of our planet, and to record its ruin. Yet we seem unable to stop our actions. Assuming that the early life lacked thought processes and their waste contamination was purely accidental and a product of their success, I have to think this is vastly more irresponsible. To know and not to take steps to stop the atmospheric decline surely is an unpardonable sin.

Tanna, with the weight of this responsibility on our shoulders, how can we possibly presume to act as hospice workers in Earth’s decline?

I struggle to remind myself that we humans are as much a part of the universe as the meadowlarks and coyotes and deer and butterflies. And I also remember, through my mother’s experience with hospice, that it’s entirely possible to reverse the diagnosis. Mother was admitted to hospice, not once, but three times before she passed from this life. The first two times, she got better and was released. So hospice doesn’t always carry despair and finality with it. The challenge becomes restoring dignity, and easing the decline. Maybe—maybe—with enough of us working toward a solution, we can drawdown the greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere and restore the climate to one where life as we know it can thrive.

Hope is the other part of hospice. We must never lose hope. That’s why I’m writing these letters to you.

I love nature for the answers it suggests. How do we move towards the light? The prairie suggests, no matter how bad things may look, “Bloom anyway.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that “Earth Laughs in Flowers.”

I don’t laugh often enough, but when I do, it’s wonderful. Laughter is healing, as documented by Norman Cousins when he postponed his predicted demise by embarking on a process of regular daily laughter. Perhaps we should all do what we can to encourage flowers to bloom, to tickle the planet and laugh with nature.

I think it’s unlikely that any one effort of mine will make a difference for the planet. However, added to other efforts, we will make a difference. Maybe individual actions don’t matter much, but they count for something. If we do nothing, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This is absolutely an exciting time to be alive. We are on the edge of tomorrow, of a time when the course of history will be determined by our collective actions. Will we prevail? Will we assist nature to overcome this dire threat?

One thing that I plan to do very soon is vote. I will vote for candidates who are on the record for their commitment to act for the climate. I will vote for the Earth.

In the end, everything that we do matters. Every decision we make, every product we select, and every choice we make to fill our minutes will matter for the future. Through action, hope is born and hope is crucial to redemption. Never forget that. Never lose hope. To do so would cement the terminal diagnosis of the planet.

With enduring love,

Your seventh-generation Grandmother

 

 

 

Day 4: Hot Buttons and Getting Hotter

Dear Tanna,

The top priority in changing the course of our nation for some people is to abolish abortion. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Abortion is not an either/or issue, not simply “yes” or “no.” It’s not black and white. There are many shades of gray. There always are with complicated issues.

For me, the environment is the hot button issue. Exploitation, degradation, and destruction of the natural systems we all rely on for basic necessities are the biggest problems we face. Environmental destruction will destroy us, if we don’t hearken to the urgency. And then it won’t matter if women can govern their own bodies, or if we can shop for the latest fashions, or a new car, or even if we have enough to eat.

It. Won’t. Matter.

My love of the natural world goes back to my childhood. We traveled and camped every chance we had, all over the western states. I hope, Tanna, that you will have access to the amazing redwood forests like I did. I hope you will experience awe as you look over magnificent mountain scenes, canyons, rivers, and oceans of grass. This is truly a remarkable land and I hope we find the ingenuity—and the will—to preserve it far beyond your generation. Like every other child, you deserve the chance to feel wonder at the annual butterfly migrations, to catch your breath when an unexpected wild visitor turns your head, to watch a white-tailed deer chew its cud, to fill your lungs with fresh, clean air in an autumn breeze.

The concern for our wanton destruction and exploitation of nature is not new. It was well documented before I was born. By the time I entered college, there were ecology classes focused on our careless destruction of the natural world, and what that would inevitably mean to every living thing on the planet.

We are some of those living things.

To me, nature is teacher and healer, a holy place where I retreat to seek the divine. Nature can be that for you, also, if you learn how to listen.

I once watched an exhausted moose lunge through shoulder-deep snow and I learned the dangers of choosing an easy path. In a downpour I heard the rain plummet from the heavens and it spoke to me of cycles in life. I watched a family of ducks chase madly from one point to another and back again and I saw human fads and opinions mirror the whimsical parade of a flock of ducks. I watched my best friend waste away in a losing battle with cancer and I understood how the growing demands of humanity sap the vitality of our home planet in a similar fashion. Meadowlarks leapt into the wind so they might gain lift and fly away. And I learned I must face the adversities in my life before I could ever rise above them. A stately and beautiful tree crashed to the ground in tornado-strength straight line winds, and whispered that sometimes our roots will not be able to support us against a barrage of adversity. Messages arrive on the dust of a sunbeam and the wings of the wind.

Long ago, I read books by Thor Heyerdahl. One was titled Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature.  In the narrative of his return to simple life on a remote island, he described the music he found in nature. “There is fine music everywhere in nature between moss-covered stones and foliage. . .The lights, the colors, the sounds, the perfumes, the touch, the shapes were never the same, and were always playing on our minds like a vast orchestra. We could hardly take in more music—and I do not mean the singing of birds and the tinkling of a rivulet: . . .I mean music beyond the eardrums. We have had to create flutes and violins to leave impressions deeper in than the eardrums, where nature used to play.”

The musician inside me revels in the symphony of nature. I have delighted in taking piano students (and a grand piano) to outdoor recitals where every piece they played showed a musical glimpse of nature. Everything we humans have created has its source in nature, one way or another. I cannot find words to describe that inner union of my consciousness with the constant prairie symphony in my backyard. Without nature, I would be nothing.

Nature is not exactly constant. It is, if anything, constantly changing, providing variety in daily life. Even the sky presents many faces and no two are the same. We see a lot of sky out here above the prairie. It is our grandiose landscape. Clouds provide our mountains, the earth propels us forward, and the view changes hourly.

From observing my grandchildren, I realize fresh eyes see things as new and wondrous, no matter how much they have changed in my lifetime. My wish for my grandchildren—times seven generations and more—is that they never lose a sense of wonder. Natural processes continue. Even the Earth’s response to humanity’s bludgeoning of the biosphere is Nature’s way to restore a sort of balance. What will emerge from this process is something I can’t imagine, but will be awesome in its own right. Perhaps your generation, if there is one, Tanna, will be able to answer that question.

In the evolution of homo sapiens, our intellect seems to have surpassed our compassion. We have developed the ability to manipulate the physical world—to the point where we even create earthquakes—but not the will or the heart to care enough to halt in our tracks and find another path, a better path, a path that leads to sustainability and life for future generations.

Currently I am dealing with a sense of profound loss for what I once knew the natural world to be. In some ways, this can be compared to the radical loss a person feels after the death of a spouse and soulmate. The loss of a spouse is a radical loss, tearing a hole in the fabric of your being. You not only have lost a person, a partner, and a friend, you have lost a marriage, a relationship, the shared experiences, the dreams and plans you made together. Everything—Yes EVERYTHING—has changed.

 

What do you do? Widowhood can become a very empty place. In some respects, the changes occurring on Earth are like witnessing the last agonized moments of a beloved soulmate. Many of us are grieving already, to the point where we are paralyzed by hopelessness and inaction.

Grief is not possible without love. And, perhaps, love is not possible without grief. If you never feel sad, lonely, or in despair, you will never appreciate the times you feel ecstatic and joyful. I treasure the joyful memories of a vibrant natural world. The process of working through the sense of loss makes me wonder many things. Are things so far gone that there is no hope? In our final attempts to right the wrongs of humanity toward nature, are we merely playing as hospice workers in a futile attempt to ease that final decline?

“Hospice care is a special kind of care that focuses on the quality of life for those who are experiencing an advanced, life-limiting illness.” How can one person provide this kind of care for an entire dying planet? How can thousands of us? Millions? How can we restore quality to the living systems surrounding us?

That is a huge question. I think the answer begins with hope. And I will tell you more about that tomorrow.

With my enduring love,

Your Seventh Generation Grandmother

Mother’s Day Tribute

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Last evening my grandson came for an overnight visit. When he finally settled down, he crawled up between his grandpa and me on the sofa. We cuddled a few minutes before he willingly headed to bed. I felt like a link in a chain, a connection between generations, made more poignant because today I’m thinking of my own mother. It’s been a decade since she was here to celebrate Mother’s Day with us.

Helen Peterson was born in 1918, the youngest of Franklin and Mary Peterson’s four beautiful, daughters. When she was five, her father unexpectedly died. The rest of her childhood was marked by hardship and sacrifice. Her mother bravely struggled to raise her family. Many of Helen’s lifelong habits of thrift originated during her childhood as she watched her mother’s efforts to raise her family, a single parent in the twenties and thirties.

I vividly recall her devotion to her own mother. The rest of her youth I sometimes have a hard time imagining. Helen as a young college student frolicking barefoot in the snow—in a swimsuit—I did not know at all. I did not know the young career woman who worked as an engineer at Western Electric, as a physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. during World War II, nor the college physics and mathematics professor. Mother gave up all these phases of her life when she married my Dad in 1950 to become a full-time wife, mother and homemaker. That is the Helen I knew.

Mother did a lot of preserving with garden produce. It became a matter of pride to see how much of a meal could be produced from the seed to the table, especially Thanksgiving dinner. Other dishes which became family traditions include her apple coffee cake, cherry chocolate cake, and pecan pies at the holidays. These became favorites of my own family.

Determined that her daughters would have opportunities she did not have, as well as be exposed to things she had grown to love and appreciate, my sisters and I fell asleep listening to classical music that Mother played at bedtime on the record player. Sometimes she even played her favorite pieces on the piano. We took years of piano lessons.  And we rose early to practice before school every morning. For a few months when we were without a piano, she marched us to a neighbor’s house two doors down for our daily practice sessions.

Alaska trip 1970
Alaska trip 1970

Mother had never learned to roller skate or ride a bike, but she was determined that her daughters would have those experiences. She spent hours running beside us as we learned. We took swimming lessons every summer so that we’d be at ease in the water.

And we traveled. Our folks began to camp with us with we were still toddlers, when my younger sister was still in diapers. This was before the day of disposable diapers. Our camping trips continued as we grew. By the time we left home, we’d enjoyed treks through every state west of the Mississippi River, except California and Hawaii.

Mother loved people. She made two solo treks to England to look up distant relatives during her geneology searches. We were always on the list as a host family whenever any kind of touring group came to our hometown. She participated eagerly in the regional and international foods interest clubs. She enjoyed preparing meals for guests. She would do anything to help people. Being of service in some way was her greatest joy in life.

Mother was rarely sick. She was in remarkably good health most of her life. When she became ill in late 1999, we were quite shocked and expected the worst then. We rallied together, wrote our memories, and . . . she got better. My mother has the unusual distinction of being admitted and released from Hospice care, not once, but twice. She got better and read the thoughts we had jotted down and the obituary notes my Dad had put together. And she corrected them. Red ink all over our memories.

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On this Mother’s Day, I remember my own mother with love. She never met my grandson, and he never met her. But I can surely tell him about her and how much she shaped my life. Happy Mother’s Day!