A letter from the future written in the past


My novel’s heroine was going to be a time traveler from fifty years in the future. I liked the idea of a Cassandra figure, someone who lived in the everyday hell of an unstable climate gifted to her generation by ours. She arrives in New York City in December of 2009, just in time for the Copenhagen climate summit. I had fun with implanted nanotechnology merging powerful databases and communications with her organic brain. And with what she would think of the quaint, primitive technologies we have now. (Actual cell phones! Power cords! ATMs!) Or the things we take for granted that they no longer have in 2059, like sushi, cars, coastlines and forests.

In 2013, I dispensed with the future-world scenario when I realized that we don’t need someone from the future to tell us what climate change does to the planet. We are living it already. My first draft from 2011 has plenty of rookie writing mistakes, but it also has this letter that my heroine writes on her second day in 2009. Despite all the changes this novel has been through, it still forms the DNA of my story. Enjoy this letter from the future written in the past. Continue reading

Loss is inevitable, so go all-in and love anyway

1999_2.27_Boats_620wFear of embarrassment isn’t the only reason for armoring up, hiding, ignoring or denying love. I just noticed today how much I arrange my life to avoid the pain of loss. It started early on, as habits often do. When I had my first high-school boyfriend, I was just certain he was going to come to his senses and dump me. Which he eventually did. At the time, I took it as a warning to be more careful with my heart next time. As if.

The other evening, my husband and I were out enjoying our forested backyard. He remarked (as he has before) on the grandeur of the tulip poplar that stands right in the center. There are also two huge beeches off to the side and a couple of oaks further back. But this poplar, this giant column of craggy bark, is a presence. I almost asked him whether he has told the tree how much he loves it. But he just had, by telling me. Right after that, I pictured it toppling over in a huge windstorm, perhaps crushing our house. Continue reading

Thatching our way to a new story of relationship

Polly house compositeI made these sketches for my longtime collaborator and friend, Polly Bart. After a couple of decades as a green builder, she is building a house for herself using all natural and salvaged materials, including trees harvested from her land, strawbale walls, a green roof, and—possibly best of all—a thatched roof over the main living room’s steeply pitched log structure. Last month, the master thatcher came from Ireland to put up the roof. The photos of it are stunning. (Scroll down this post for a slideshow of six images, or follow this link for more.)

This morning, I awoke from a dream of her roof, thinking about the differences between a roof like this and conventional construction. Modern construction technology favors industrial materials put up in layers, each with its specialized purpose: structure, enclosure, water shedding, waterproofing, insulation, and to bridge and/or seal thermal movement of the different materials. Thatch, by itself, takes care of all of those purposes save the structure. Great skill and long training are required to do it correctly. Continue reading

Beyond cause and effect

11.24.15_Tree-compositeEconomists and statisticians distinguish between correlation and causality. What if, one day a year, those two were switched? What if they switched once a month, or once a week? Maybe in the minds of the desperate, the distinction is meaningless.

Two Swiss researchers found that when plankton levels in the ocean drop 10%, Somalian pirate activity ticks up a corresponding 10%. With the collapse of the fisheries they’ve relied on for generations, they are driven to find other uses for their boats.

Last year, earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 increased in Oklahoma from an average of less than two per year to 585. Bore holes from fracking chewed their lacy patterns into the earth’s mantle like termites under a house.

Years of drought in a country with poverty and ethnic and religious tensions destabilizes an already stressed situation and tilts the people into civil war, as well as making them easy prey for terrorist organizations. If they’re under authoritarian rule, this is even more likely. Continue reading

“Grayson” models wonder and humility


In her book, Grayson, author Lynne Cox looks back to a March morning in her 17th year when she was out training in the ocean off Santa Cruz. By then she had already swum the English Channel and the Catalina Island channel. Some of her descriptions of the sea life she encounters are mesmerizing. She takes you there: the ache and tingle of the 55-degree Pacific, the glitter of phosphorescent algae in the pre-dawn darkness, the rain of 35-pound tuna leaping to feed on smaller fish, the glory of the sunrise over land.

The story wraps around her encounter with a baby grey whale, a male, 18-feet in length, who has just been separated from his mother. Cox is on her way back to shore after her long workout, looking forward to hot chocolate and a warm croissant when her friend, the bait shop owner, comes to the end of the pier to warn her. If she swims to shore, the baby whale will follow and beach himself, which would be fatal. Continue reading

In which I propose a broader definition of restorative action


As a resident for the last twenty-five years of Baltimore, I have spent many days on the Chesapeake, usually in a sailboat. Like many Marylanders, I am acutely aware of the state of our great estuary and her many tributaries. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, her watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas and ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. Many organization, locally and regionally, have been toiling for decades to raise public awareness and do restoration projects. A recent report card gives the Bay a D+ and includes this language:

“All of us, including our elected officials, need to stay focused on the Blueprint, push harder, and keep moving forward.”

Pushing harder is the mantra of the human-centered mindset that has been destroying the Bay since French and Spanish explorers came through in the 1500s, followed by Englishman Capt. Smith’s expeditions in 1607. It’s time to try something new. Or ancient. In this uncharted territory of climate change, species extinction and the general breakdown of our old cultural stories, imagining new pathways is a first step towards taking them. Continue reading

Take two sunsets and call me in the morning

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I made this painting last evening during the sunset. We were in Hawk Cove, just outside Middle River where we keep our boat docked. With only a slight breeze, we were able to poke along with the mainsail instead of going to the trouble of anchoring. I was attracted to an amazing bulge of shockingly white cloud erupting from the bank of blue-gray on the horizon. The tinge of yellow and peach from the descending sun would be interesting to try to capture in watercolor.

As soon as I began, circumstances conspired to annoy me. My husband was feeling too relaxed after a nice picnic dinner to steer, so the boat twisted slowly away from my view. Since the sunset would soon be over, he wanted to start the engine and be on our way. As soon as he made this known, I protested. One of the best things about a sunset on water is the stillness that settles over everything. It’s also almost impossible to capture it in a painting, because the scene is constantly changing. Continue reading

Tragedy of the study of the tragedy of the commons

2014_7.14_620wWith the summer heat comes an uptick of articles about the continuing, perhaps accelerating, breakdown of our social fabric. Whether it’s the arrest of children’s parents for letting them play alone outside or for camping with them, or the absurdity of drinking bottled water, the cracks in what we like to call civilization are growing wider. The public good has gotten so muddied that we are left to argue over semantics: whether a headline was too hyped or a date was cited incorrectly. Or we turn it over to the sociologists to tell us what we’re missing and what it all means.

There’s more to this than the decline of community, as Charles Eisenstein succinctly points out in this essay. He cites our inclination to surrender to authority, our need for control, our obsession with safety, and tendency to self-preservation. He laments the inevitable slide from avoidance of danger and uncertainty to the prison of “consequence-free zones” like video games. All of this is to the detriment of creativity, play, exploration, and risk-taking—everything we so desperately need in order to navigate this threshold time between stories. Continue reading

Listening to the song of the Chesapeake


As a resident for the last 25 years of Baltimore, Maryland, I have spent many days on the Bay, usually in a sailboat. I, like many Marylanders, am acutely aware of the state of the Chesapeake Bay and her many tributaries. My son has been studying water quality in his 7th grade geography class, which included a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s study center on Smith Island—a truly special place, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. Tom Horton’s wonderful book about his time living on Smith, An Island Out of Time, is aptly titled.

The recent Report Card issued in late 2014 by CBF gives the state of the Bay a D+, the same grade as in 2012. Hard-won improvements in water quality were offset by losses in other areas, the impression of no progress defying the efforts of thousands of people and the expense of millions of dollars. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, its watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas, two shipping ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. As the Report Card says: Continue reading

The constant invitation of the eternal


It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

There is a literal way of seeing this that comes out of my Catholic upbringing. How fitting that I should finally be considering this final verse of St. Francis’ prayer on Easter weekend. The literal story is that Christ came to live among us as a man. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. . . .” So the verse goes. I was taught that Christ gave his life so that humans may have eternal life—in a place called Heaven.

It requires a certain effort to pan out to see a bigger picture. The story can be a lens through which to view an individual life (mine), in the context of a culture and, beyond that, ecosystems and planet and universe. And, zooming in the other direction, inspired by the great short film, “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames, to see what goes on beneath the surface of my skin, in those interior realms of thought and belief and intuition, and deeper still to shadow and unconscious, into the place before thought and individuality. Continue reading