Building Cairns, by Jan Castro

Humans have been dealt a rather unique–if not strange–burden. From birth, we crudely assemble an understanding of the external world as it relates to our internal one; the world of one’s own body, mind, senses, and thoughts. We understand with great clarity and immediacy the sensations of desire, fear, love, and pain, and we hold these feelings central to our deep and inextricable notions of self; beliefs, values, dreams, ideas, emotions and sensations coalesced and embodied. This too, begins by first making these quiet distinctions between oneself and that which is external. In short, we are quick to become ourselves, and to wholly want to become ourselves and whatever idiosyncrasies and specificities this notion of self may imply. We imagine and cultivate–perhaps, curate–an abstraction of identity wherein we can subtract ourselves from all else, know ourselves separate from our knowing of all else, and thus create a defined and bolded boundary between the self and that which is immediate to it, and everything else: things distant, made not real or, at the least, difficult to construct, in the realm of one’s own knowing. Our collective captivity to an exclusively subjective experience, the human experience, has proven a most enigmatic dilemma: what is our place in the world?

Lest we condemn ourselves in defeat, simply, a species’ oxymoronic collective individualism gone rampant and unchecked springs forth environmental and philosophical implications undeniably overwhelming in scope. Under what basis can we claim exception to forces of nature out of our control? Instead, so often we find our condition to be a simple, dismissable truth of life: traceable within all humans alive or dead, and borne of our own hubris. We rarely or never admit, or even acknowledge, that this is in many ways an anomaly through-and-through: there is, in fact, inherent danger in existing this way.

This is the great danger: we cultivate an exclusively human theme of arrogance, and, subsequently, suffering. We inscribe ideals of the atemporal and indestructible to things inherently destructible, and invariably fragile. How could we not, given the limited, narrow perspective of the individual? We find this no truer in ourselves: in our lives and the monuments thereof, physical or not, that we have so delicately erected and assembled. In our own civilizations, we witness the built manifestations of the collective selves and their monuments, acting as if independent of any external force and singularly dependent on its own fitness to prosper, assuming positions of precedence via the authority of complex belief systems. We fail to realize that there is a problem until things don’t go according to plan; when we’re not as in control as we were so sure we knew we were. Of taming volcanoes in preservation of an ancient Icelandic settlement, John McPhee writes, “…the true extent of the victory will never be known–the role of luck being unassessable, the effects of intervention being ultimately incalculable, and the assertion that people can stop a volcano being hubris enough to provoke a new eruption” (p. 179).

The danger in this arrogance is two-fold. We not only harm ourselves, but our surroundings as well. We create fertile grounds for exploitation, absolving ourselves of responsibility through understanding our surroundings and neighbors only in the context of the self. Only when catastrophe becomes immediate do we discover that the vision allowed by the “exclusively subjective experience” was absurdly narrow in the face of the complexity of how the world actually functions.

Invariably, this hubris is self-destructive. We build lofty desires of things invincible in a world that is, by its very nature, finite, and laden with entropy. Moreover, we exempt ourselves from the flow of natural processes and authorize exploitation, degradation, and greed. When the resultant consequences are pain and suffering, who is to blame but ourselves? In the writings of Lao Tzu we read, “Empty of desire, perceive mystery. Filled with desire, perceive manifestations” (verse 1). In many ways, we have become victims to the self. We have manifested grotesque consequences from the way we live, and have ourselves been transformed into unrecognizable manifestations of how the world naturally behaves.

Given this, how then, should we behave? For a moment, let us digress.

Andy Goldsworthy is a Scotland-based, British artist and sculptor whose art takes form from the materials of his given surroundings and environment. He erects egg-shaped cairns: guardians of stone that defend the quiet underbrush of a remote forest, or protect an alcove in a wall of rock along a bend of dirt back-road. He arranges icicles snaked about a conical rock, as if piercing it, along a frozen winter shore, and thin, curved twigs neatly placed in the pattern of concentric rings around a smooth, domed rock in a tranquil stream. Some of his pieces can last no longer than the time it takes to assemble them, whether it’s the afternoon sun melting away frozen components of icicle or snow, or if it’s the unstoppable flow of water in a tide, creek, or stream that eventually swallows or carries away one of Goldsworthy’s ephemeral creations. But part of his art, as Goldsworthy understands, is that it is temporary. In this, the process of disintegration is equal parts fundamental to the art as is its creation; in other words, an ephemeral sculpture is incomplete if it isn’t destroyed. Goldsworthy is able to acknowledge this simultaneously contradictory and interdependent duality, and then synthesize and channel the directions–the crests and troughs–of that energy into art.

The philosophy of Goldsworthy extends past the merit of his art. Undoubtedly, we recognize a deep frustration, struggle, and irreconcilability with ourselves and the world. The entropy and disintegration, when paired with rigid desires and mankind’s anomalous Madness gene, as we find, is the primary cause of this; pain and suffering, a symptom of an unsustainable condition. In this, there is liberation in a surrendering of sorts–though it is important to make the distinction that this is not necessarily a giving-up, or a surrender to apathy or nihilism. Rather, Goldsworthy’s art reflects a way to live that is able to reconcile the complexities and interdependent properties of nature that have so often eluded us.

Tao Te Ching describes, “Is and Isn’t produce each other” (verse 2). How could this be true of two things antithetical to each other? Yet, we see this theme of interdependence repeated and omnipresent. If there is no darkness, light would not be light–it would not exist. As for mankind, we find ourselves at the crossroads of the dualities of life and death, desire and fear, joy and suffering. The solution is not to subscribe to any one half, as that would threaten the interdependent nature and render such a lifestyle meaningless, or would moreover once again subject oneself to deriving pain in entropy.

Instead, we imagine life as a stone disturbing the stillness of a pool of water. The subsequent ripples exhibit crests and troughs of equal height or depth, simultaneously propagating from the center. It is easy to look at one crest or trough and see disturbance and unbalance, but a fuller picture sees the whole in perfect balance, equal and interdependent to the pool in its stillness, before given the energy initiated by the stone. The challenge, then, is to channel and intercept that wave of energy and to, so to speak, surf. To acknowledge the moment of each peak or depth with the same stillness of the stone-less pool. To be in-tune with the flow of energy and to surrender, bend, and shift to it, like water. To sculpt ourselves as un-separate with the world, to return to it, and to acknowledge that one way of being could not have existed without the other. What we find in this is not self-destruction but a destruction of the illusion self: selflessness, wisdom, synchronicity, liberation, solace.


Sauerkraut and My Three Mothers, by Katie Bird

I spend a lot of time feeling hungry. Fast metabolism aside, my thoughts during a typical day surround what I’m going to eat next, how I’m going to cook it, and where I’m going to buy it. It’s a family trait. People ask us where we put everything after we fork down several plates in minutes, and in my house the appropriate response is “in my hollow leg!”

My major has taught me how people have disrespected the planet to feed themselves, but not given a firm solution for how to feed people differently. Professors suggest buying local and organic, or even growing our own food. Easier said than done for someone confined to 300 square feet of carpet, seven stories up, living on less than $50 per week.

Recently I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrassby Robin Wall Kimmerer. Within the book, Robin talks about the various ways indigenous peoples care for the plants that feed them, in ways that respect both the plant, and the earth that grows them. These stories make me dream of growing my own food and feeling connected to every part of the process that gives me life.

But I’m not indigenous, despite my small amount of Cherokee blood provided by my birth mother. I don’t have the space and sun I need to be a farmer. It felt wrong when I thought about trying to connect to the three sisters – corn, beans, and squash – in a dish, when doing so could be considered cultural appropriation. But, the yearning for a better understanding of what it takes to feed myself stuck.

So, I settled for a food that has long been a part of my German heritage: sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut is a simple lactic-acid fermented food. All you need is cabbage, salt, and a jar. Easy enough, I thought when I filled my shopping basket with a volleyball sized green cabbage. Cut up the cabbage, massage it with a tablespoon of sea salt for every pound of veg, stick it into a jar, and wait for the almost magical brine to form.

The salt pulls the water out of the cabbage and creates a salty anaerobic environment perfect for the pre-existing lactic-acid bacteria on the cabbage to thrive. Leave it for a couple weeks, pushing down the veg every few days to make sure there are no air bubbles, and you wind up with delicate, wonderfully acidic kraut.

I messed up the first time. I came back to my jar a few days later, and mold was growing on the top. My cabbage hadn’t stayed fully submerged. I felt terrible knowing that this batch would go to waste. I thought about scooping out the moldy leaves and risking sickness to save what might be fine, but I talked myself out of it. Better safe than sorry. I poured the contents into the toilet.

But while I poured, I smelled the brine. It was sweet, tangy, and familiar, and brought forth a slew of memories that I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

I grew up in a country which values cost over quality. McDonalds over a homecooked meal when there’s no time and hungry children to feed. But my childhood, however suburban, was flecked with a different way of thinking about food.

My birth mother always had a garden. It was the one thing she could start and finish. We’d grow green beans, heirloom tomatoes, jalapeños, corn, even okra – an uncommon vegetable for Pennsylvania, but one she brought from her childhood in Oklahoma. Some of my warmest memories are from tending our unruly strawberry patch – always eager to expand past the bounds we set for it – and being startled by a vole running across my bare foot.

My birth mom was a lazy gardener. I don’t remember ever weeding by her instruction, but despite this, everything I grew with her and my three sisters seemed bountiful. We couldn’t afford to eat out, but it didn’t matter when our favorite foods were from the backyard. The smell of sun-ripened tomatoes still hugs me to this day.

Her weeding style paralleled her yard maintenance regime: absent. As I neared being a teenager, I was often embarrassed by the state of our landscape: constantly overgrown with thistle, mulberry, and a plant with seed pods similar in shape and size to a half dollar coin. My sister Kas and I called it “the money plant” when no one could give us a name.

Instead of cherishing the goldfinches and catbirds that I had so long enjoyed watching nest in my yard, I envied the manicured lawns of my friends and neighbors. Back then, I didn’t notice that their yards only had robins.

I remember being overcome with pride when my dad said that I was finally old enough to use our push lawnmower. I was 11, and a feather-weight, so mowing was hard. The sweat beading down my back felt cleansing though, like months of chagrin washing away. I remember finishing, turning off the mower, and standing back to admire my handiwork.

Sometime soon after that, my birth mom caught on and started mowing occasionally. One day though, her mower’s path matched with a cottontail kit. We moved the quivering, severed body back to its nest with a rusty shovel. I lost my taste for mowing after that.

Several years later, my dad remarried. We moved to Delaware to a house without a yard, I gained a new mom, and was encouraged not to speak to my birth mother, which was easy then because I felt abandoned by her newfound love of bars and karaoke. It’s been eight years and I still haven’t spoken to her.

With my step-mother came step-siblings, two brothers and a sister. We all got along well which made the change easier. But I didn’t feel at home with my big family until my step-mom made sauerkraut. Her sauerkraut is almost beyond words, tangy and sour, but warm in a way I hadn’t experienced before – the result of caraway seeds. She’s mostly Austrian and after one bite of her kraut I felt the connection she has to food and her heritage.

After several years of living with my step-mom, it’s clear she also thinks a lot about food. She cooks as much at home for us as she can, which amazingly is most of the time. Almost every day I can find her stooped over the kitchen island, twirling a loop of long blonde hair in her fingers as she reads over a new recipe. She knows that to feed us healthy fresh foods, is to grow healthy fresh minds. Every meal is prepared with love.

This homecooked love is a gift that I took from both of my mothers.

Now my studies have led me back to the place from where my life has grown. I now know that the “money plant” from my childhood is an Old World invasive most commonly called annual honesty, but some people also call it the money plant. I now know that most of my friends have never stuck their hands in the dirt of their gardens or reveled at the taste of an unwashed cherry tomato, plucked right off the vine and plopped into their mouths. I now know that after years of thinking I had two mothers, I’ve really had three all along.

Thinking of the planet as “Mother Earth” is a practice my father and primary education taught me was unrealistic and romantic. But as I’ve grown, I can’t see how anyone thinks this way. Every time humans have a need, they turn to the environment whether they realize it or not. Plants come from sun and soil, animals from plants, electricity from coal or the sun or dammed rivers, clothes from plants and petroleum. We are as connected to our environment as ever by our wants and needs, the same way we are connected to our mothers, who provide for all our wants and needs. Calling the environment Mother Earth is a way of actively respecting the bounty she provides us.

This is a way of thinking that I knew as a child but had to relearn as an adult. Our society doesn’t value the origin of our comforts, despite every hand of luxury being connected to an arm of an organism, a community, an ecosystem, and the body of our earth, the resources that fuel all life. I find it ironic that my father, who taught me to leave any place I lived in a better condition than how I found it, would question why his daughter sees our planet as mother and home.

But I know that he and many others feel this way because they weren’t taught otherwise. Their classrooms taught them that science was a way to make a living, but not a way to live. That plants were food, medicine, and beauty, but not gifts of life. Success meant going to war, getting a high-paying job, buying a house, having children, raising those children to success.

I may never help my father or other people understand that everyone needs the earth and all her ecosystems. I only have two hands. It takes many hands to lead our friends and families back to a different way of thinking, gardening, cooking, and living with Mother Earth.

These two hands can write, though, and make homemade sauerkraut to share.


Hummingbird Wishes, by Rebecca Ralston

Almost every hummingbird I’ve ever caught has ended up in someone’s ear. During this, I held the bird, smiled, and pretended hummingbirds didn’t stress me out. They’re so small.

I never aimed to catch them. My nine-meter nets, stretching from the ground to above my head, were inefficient at it anyway. Hummingbirds were only a happy accident.

They’re held like a fragile dart – I’ve watched countless people mime throwing them – and when you catch a hummingbird, you do a couple special things.  One of these is placing it into a person’s ear. You ask first, of course, and usually, they respond with a shocked, “what!?” before you explain that hummingbird hearts beat at over 1000bpm, and you can hear it, like a vibration.

To conclude the ritual, you lie the hummingbird flat on its back in someone’s palm.

“Make a wish,” you say. “And blow on it.”

It’s a silly bird trick. Birds are never naturally in that position, so they feel the pressure on their wings and believe they’re still contained. By blowing on them, you flip them over enough that they fly away.

It’s also because hummingbirds are miraculous, in the most scientific way possible. We don’t understand them. A female ruby-throated hummingbird can live up to twelve years, and in that time, her heart beats more than a human’s does in eighty.  It’s evolutionary magic that they exist at all.

Make a wish.

A smart kid once told me his hummingbird-wish came true a year after he made it, but my first time, I wasn’t thinking.  I was shaking, a three gram – that’s a penny! – bird motionless on my hand, its long beak outstretched and its red throat shimmering.

I never made a wish, but over the years my role transformed from the kid holding a hummingbird to the person catching one.  And that conversion from student to teacher is all I could’ve wanted.

It’s the summer of 2016, pre-dawn, and I’m in a government-issued Ford Focus, bouncing down residential roads. As a field technician for the Neighborhood Nestwatch bird banding study, my destination is one of fifty I visited that summer. Peering at addresses, I wish, as I did most days, they were easier to spot. It was always a little nerve-racking to think I may’ve shown up at the wrong house.

Hummingbirds are known for turning up in strange places. The Bahama woodstar is a Caribbean bird, but there’s a handful of records in south Florida, plus a 2013 record in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, of all places. No one knows how it got there.

Thankfully, I never went that far off-course.  Most days, I arrived, arranged my nets, and spread out my supplies, an anti-climactic start for me, but an unusual one for our volunteer homeowner.  When I had an interested crowd, I showed off a special pair of pliers I used to apply tiny “bracelets” to bird legs and a myriad of other tools, from rulers to empty pill bottles.

The process of banding is simple: set up net, catch bird, tag it, take data, and release. My project, with all its citizen scientists, added more aspects.  Scanning for addresses was one of them. Hummingbird-wishes were another.

Fifty houses is a lot to visit in one season. I’ve forgotten most of the average days, but the amazing thing about my program is that the visits were more striking for the people watching than for me. That’s rare. I’m usually ten-times more fascinated by nature than others around me. In fact, my normal, often exhaustive state is wishing more people cared.  For the summers I banded, I made that happen with the help of hummingbird-wishes.

There’s something special about holding a bird. Symbolism tells us flight means freedom. We learn that birds can do something humans only wish they could.  It was common for me to show up at a house, and for kids and adults alike to recall the exact birds they held a year before.

They also remember funny facts about them, things even birders don’t know. American goldfinches smell like maple syrup in May.  Professionals hold mourning doves with the “ice cream cone grip,” and the American robin is a poopy, poopy bird.  House finches don’t bite, so if you catch a bite-y brown-bird-dipped-in-raspberry-sauce, it’s likely a purple finch, or a “purple pinch,” if you will.

Hummingbirds make wishes come true.

That’s a fair bit of romanticizing, I know. In reality, hummingbirds are assholes. They’re one of few backyard birds that gets territorial over food sources, and sometimes males will claim feeders and chase all others away. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing on them, even if my “facts” aren’t the most scientific. My program’s backbone is research, not silly bird tricks, but the education and the data collection play equally important roles.

The study wants survival data; by color banding birds, we mark individuals so homeowners can recognize them. They then record dates and times these birds visit their yards. That’s the science. The education is inspiring people to care, and it consists of a mix of facts and stories.

I’ve never been good with names, but “Pinkerton” has stuck with me through the years. Like most families in the program, I met their yard before I met them, arriving in 2014 at dawn.  My heart sank when I saw their lawn, all classic suburbia and monocultured grass. I wished for luck, but I had no hummingbirds.

In six hours, we caught only two song sparrows. A long day, made only harder by the presence of their young daughters, who wanted to see more. During the ample down time, we talked about habitat. Mr. Pinkerton nodded along as we explained how grass is an ecological wasteland.

We returned the next year to find a garden of native plants.  Not only that, but one of the girls had done a project on habitat, and she showed us a fantastic poster of her yardbirds, the ruby-throated hummingbird right in the middle.

To an environmentalist, that may seem like a miracle; we all know how hard it is to convince people to change. I can’t say every house was like that, but we had some great ones.

A scientist once called my teachings an “emotional appeal,” and he was right, I agree, but I would never say it with his condescending tone.  An educator isn’t a textbook. I wasn’t there to instill facts and give ‘em a multiple-choice test at the end. I wanted to shock them, to inspire them, to put a hummingbird into their ear because that leaves an impression. People never forget hummingbird-wishes and maple-syrup-goldfinches, and so they pay more attention to the world around them.  They learn and share their knowledge further. That’s the goal of education, and if it comes from an “emotional appeal,” so be it. I’ll do it in a hummingbird’s heartbeat.

Marcy, who holds a party for us, has spent the past thirty years tailoring her yard for wildlife. She calls her seventeen acres “Cunkleman’s Safe Haven” and we always catch a crowd of people, a spectacular spread of food, and ridiculous amounts of birds there, once capturing nineteen different hummingbirds.  Her expansive gardens are a wish come true, for nature and for her. She bought the land, had a vision for it, and made it happen.

At other houses, we didn’t have such a dream, but we made it work. One suburban house has a yard with native herbaceous plants and trees but no bushes.  I struggled all day there. As I worked, I spotted a hummingbird chasing a tufted titmouse that kicked up a racket.  Confused, I watched closer, eventually spotting a tiny lichen nest in the native maple above us. We didn’t catch a ton of birds that day, but the family monitored their hummingbird nest for the whole summer.  I call that a success.

My teachings set people on a path to learn, and while I couldn’t reach everyone – not every wish comes true, after all – my effort did do something.  When you blow on a dandelion, you don’t know where the seeds will land, but you know they’ll end up somewhere.  Education is much the same.

I believe in change because I watched it happen.  The Pinkertons had no hummingbirds before they planted a garden. Marcy’s house has nineteen because she’s dedicated her life to making it so.

Causing change is exhausting, I understand. It leads to dead-ends, and when miseducation slams us in the face and apathy buries us further, it’s hard to keep going. There’s no formula for connecting with people, but I spent years watching hummingbirds grant wishes, and because of that, I have hope.

We can inspire change. Things can be different.  Nature has its own scientific miracles and its own stories. Together, they transformed me from student to teacher, and I’m not alone.

We just need to make a wish and blow our hummingbirds away.

On the Beach, by Taylor Link

With bellies full of grilled tuna and sweet tea, we strolled down the beach with smiles plastered on our faces and our minds absent of stress and responsibility. Every few moments, the tide kissed our toes and the sun radiated amber and fuchsia just before slipping away into a deep slumber. Holden Beach at dusk is like playing the lottery. Except instead of a cash reward, you could have what most people would consider a once in a lifetime experience. Here, sea turtle nests sprinkle the stretch of the island and they’re savoring their final moments in the summer sand before making their world debut. We soaked up the evening but without much luck, beaming porch lights and twinkling flashlights guided us home to our temporary abode.

The following morning, my sister and I set out determined to find some treasure after last night’s misfortune. Delicate and ornate seashells without cracks or critters inside typically only show themselves at low tide and we were committed to walking miles, to the edge of the island, to find a conch for our coffee table. Our hands plunged into pools of water that were left behind by the ocean in hopes of pulling out an unexpected prize. Most of the time, teeny tiny hermit crabs skittering about in large groups and small schools of fish were the only things inhabiting these shallow, salty waters. After a few failed attempts, we agreed to ignore them due to the fact that they yielded very little for the amount of effort it required to excavate them.

While hustling to our next area of exploration, an influx of seagull cries broke our focus. We looked up from our bucket of goods to a beach vacant of people but beaming with something much more valuable than any sand dollar we could have stumbled upon. A gentle splashing caught our eye like the glint of a diamond nestled in rough terrain. There, flapping like a baby bird, was a deserted loggerhead sea turtle, not any bigger than the palm of my hand.

Thanks to the red information magnet stuck to every rental home refrigerator, we knew that authorities should always be contacted first in order to give this turtle the best odds of survival. My sister and I fumbled with our phones, trying our best to find out the best course of action. The island’s remoteness may be great for vacationing but it’s extremely inconvenient in terms of cellphone service. We called the local turtle hotline and after no one picked up, a robotic voice relayed to us that in emergency situations, 911 should be called. That was how serious turtle conservation was to that area.

After consulting an operator, I gently plucked the castaway and cradled it gently in the cup of my hand. I waded into the shore, careful to keep my balance as the waves slammed into me. Using only one arm to paddle, I swam out as far as I could. The sounds of the gulls muffled, my sister looking like a tiny toothpick stuck in the sand. I waded for a moment, enamored at the fact that this turtle could fill its tummy with jellyfish, corals, and sea cucumbers and eventually grow to be three hundred and fifty pounds. And before I watched it swim away, I felt hopeful. I wished from the bottom of my heart that my efforts would help this rescued reptile swim miles upon miles and one day return to this very beach to give life to hundreds more.

The reality of the situation is, if we hadn’t been there, that turtle would have been toast. The sun would have fried it to a crisp if it hadn’t had already been devoured by the hungry seagulls gathering by. Based on the information given to me the following day, the most probable reason as to why this offspring lost its way was not due to natural causes.

Visitors crossing the bridge to enter the island are greeted by a sign that reads: “Holden Beach is a turtle sanctuary.” Volunteers, who are typically island locals, allow vacationers to watch the boil of hatchlings emerge from the dunes and scramble towards the sea. Tourists gather around with their cameras and children squeal with glee as the babies race down the beach. It’s like a comedic sketch for viewers when the volunteers have to continuously redirect stubborn newborns away from civilization and back towards the water. But for the turtles, it’s life or death.

During the hatching, volunteers adamantly remind eager photographers to turn off the flash on their cameras or smartphones. Flashlights should be turned off during the event and red clothes with rubber bands are stuffed into passerby’s hands. These pieces of fabric and elastic are to cover the light of flashlights so that turtles don’t become disoriented. Handouts in the welcome packet remind guests to minimize the amount of lights they use at night as much as possible and beach patrol penalizes vacationers who leave their canopies and umbrellas out at night. These were changes made in the last few years that my family has been traveling there and according to the turtle patrol, they’ve had fewer mothers stuck on beach equipment and less calls about stranded babies.

Holding a hatchling, feeling its smooth shell against my fingertips and watching it poke its head up for air as it paddled away gently, that really made me feel like I was making a difference. That interaction was not only giving this turtle the chance of life but potentially giving life to generations of turtles after it. Chances are there aren’t always going to be a pair of two sisters around to help out. It’s more likely that a bird would have swooped by and gulped that turtle down before anyone had even been alive for more than a few hours.

The funny thing is, I hadn’t really thought that taking a moment to cover my flashlight could have delivered that turtle safely into the shore. Turning off the porch light that no one was using would have had the same effect as me swimming out neck deep. Something that takes no less than 30 seconds of our time. There were plenty of nights when I returned to my beach house without seeing a single turtle. But while I stumbled up my moonlit walkway, hundreds of hatchlings somewhere walked their own. I may have not won the lottery but they sure did.

Vernal Pool, by Billy Kaselow

As I round out my final semester at the University of Delaware, the regular questions are on my mind: where will I be in 5 months? Where are all my friends going? What will we all be doing?

When considering the dynamics of my life, I find it helpful to imagine a vernal pool. I am the water, coming and going with the seasons. Settling for a period only to be swept up again and dropped to rivers, ocean, asphalt, or forest.  But my pool always fills. Family and lasting friends take root in the form of maple and sweetgum. Mentors lay as large stones under which creatures hide and grow. They give the pool structure and I can hope to nourish them and assure them that I will come back. Those people that I come to know for brief periods are the salamanders and frogs that make their pilgrimages to the pool in spring. The earth herself is the soil on which I rest and the sun, the driver of cycles.

This imagery helps me to explain my need to travel while ensuring my loved ones that I will not lose sight of “home”. Since I became a naturalist I have had some nagging envy of those who grew up with a distinctive geologic feature of some sort. Whether it be the ocean or a mountain range or anything else, growing up in a suburb of northern New Jersey offered nothing but fragmented woodlots, an edge always visible. I grew to love these places for what they do offer but there is no denying the feeling that I am missing something highly valuable. This is part of my reason for travel. My home is one that has entirely rejected the earth. The wildest places in Glen Rock, NJ are gardens and wild seems to be a nicer way of saying neglected.

I have seen more. Endlessly flipping through guides, studying range maps of birds from around the country and world I knew the potential. My madness gene had been sparked. I began grabbing and stuffing.

Age 14, I applied for a scholarship for a naturalist camp in the Pacific Northwest. Upon receiving a full ride I informed my parents of what I had done. Age 16, I applied for a job on the North Slope of Alaska studying shorebirds. Upon receiving an offer I once again strong-armed my parents into sending me off. Between then and now there was Texas, northern California, the Carolinas, Puerto Rico, and most recently a road trip to Colorado.

It is deep in my philosophy that I must know as much of the world as intimately as possible for both my personal growth and to give me a fighting chance at protecting the planet’s natural systems. One must know their subject. My career as a field biologist has allowed me a snapshot of life in wonderful and varied places. Experiences beyond a vacation but falling far short of a life there. I haven’t seen Utqiagvik in darkness or Puerto Rico post-hurricane.

I have learned so much from my restlessness, it shouldn’t be let go but tempered. I need to know my impulses as well as the planet because after all it is humans that I will work to change for the better of the planet. One must know their subject.

I see restlessness as having multiple sources; there is the madness gene as detailed above and then there is the fact that my ancestral home lies an ocean away while my spiritual home lies here in the sycamores. The option of returning has been severed so the natural conclusion is to wander and find my own home or to have many.

Who is to say where the water that floods the vernal pool every spring is from? It certainly isn’t the same water every spring. I should let the world wash over me. When I consider my travels it is hard to distinguish any particular place that I felt most “at home”. When I am in the presence of trees I feel secure. Sycamore, Oak, and Tuliptree make especially strong cases but Ponderosa, and cotton-grass helped me through hard times in California and Alaska respectively. There is a distinct joy that I feel in forests across the continent and extending into Puerto Rico where Bursera and Cupania offered shade.

I have recently started to thank the earth in my own way. Whenever I am out on a hike and begin to get thirsty I try to remember to give the first drink to a nearby tree or flower or just to the trail. The idea came to me on my way up Horesetooth Peak in Colorado: I was considering Robin Wall Kimmerer’s father’s way of thanking the earth and struggling to think what I could give. I had only packed the essentials. What is essential to me is essential to the earth as well and water most precious of all. So I let some water splash to the ground at the feet of the nearest Ponderosa Pine.

Like that first drop of water and like fresh rain, I am young. Rain crashes and spreads before slowing and seeping into the earth to be taken by roots.

Thinking like water has helped me in the past. It has helped to escape the pits of self-analysis and criticism. My time in Utqiagvik encompassed some of the worst weeks of my life. The tundra was not as inviting as I had anticipated having heard tales of constant golden hour and exotic wildlife. The first three weeks had me lost in fog daily, sick with something, and failing to perform my job to find nests and survey the habitat.

My self-pity and loathing came to an abrupt end when for the first time, I attempted to meditate. I was at the breaking point. Once again I was lost and soaked in sleet. I sat on a knoll and just chilled the fuck out. In this moment breathing was all I needed to be doing. Upon opening my eyes I noticed that gradually the snow was thawing and most crucially it, along with the sleet that left crust in my hair, was watering the most delicate of plants as they began to emerge. I was reminded of an old mentor teaching children how many shades of green exist in the forest, I was learning to love the many shades of brown and gray.

Later that summer I would sit on shifting sea ice watching as the sun threatened to set for the first time all summer. I sat and closed my eyes to the sounds of the sea like I had never heard them before. No powerful pulse of waves or crackle of foam and spray. This was a beautiful warbling dribble of water freshly released from winter’s hold and finding their way through canals of their own making. This was accompanied by creaks and cracks of shifting icebergs like a creeping freight car. This was the music of energy and change. It swallowed me. I felt nothing but the pale sun.

The Sierra Nevada would be my biggest test of fitness yet. I was tossed into the mountains with legs accustomed to white clay strolling. The first thing I learned on the first day was the importance of the switchback. I would never get anywhere going at the mountain head-on. The biggest lesson however came from the Deer. Game trails, when I was lucky enough to find them, almost always marked the path of least resistance allowing me to navigate with relative ease. The deer must live like water.

These wisdoms are largely lost on mankind. I lose sight of them in times of strife. There is no need to force change upon the planet. Everyone is at home here. It has nourished us forever and will continue to do so if we let it.

The idea of home has become increasingly important this semester having read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s experience and seeing the loyalty of people to their homes illustrated by John McPhee. Wei wu wei is apparently how I will find some sense of home. I will continue to be swept around the planet like water seeing all there is to see and taking some with me to cultivate the feeling of home on earth. The sense of home I yearn for would ultimately be an imitation if I was to somehow attain it. I imagine that the deer hardly concern themselves with this thought because they are their home embodied. This is already true for me as well, I just need to convince myself of it and find comfort rather than panic in distinguishing between empty and hollow self. Without being grounded in a particular space, I allow myself to be filled to same extent wherever I go.

Terra Aflame, by Nikki Testa

The crunch from under our boots had become rhythmic as we traipsed single file down off the mountain. With each step, the charred remains of indistinguishable flora wafted into our eyes and up our noses. Ash clung to our teeth like tile grout, with small bits randomly flaking off to escape down our throats.


Chainsaws caked with oil soaked wood chips rested on shoulders while dulled Pulaski’s rode low in wilted arms. Though the air had cooled, sweat continued to stream beneath our line packs down our backs. The sun had long dipped below the hills, taking sounds of nature and our voices with it.


We burned up Terra today. “We”. I don’t know exactly why firefighters tend to use this jargon. It’s certainly not to mislead anyone into thinking the event was intentional. We failed. We lost the fight. We couldn’t do what we were sent out here to do, and we feel responsible. Once we reached the trucks, we loaded our gear without the typical end of shift banter.


We had been fighting the Patch Springs Fire in an area known as Skull Valley, after a band of Goshute Indians of Utah, for almost a week. This area is well known by wildland firefighters to burn like hell. This fire season had proved no different, and today, well, yea.


Terra, Utah is a very modest community just a few foothills away from Skull Valley. There’s no Walmart or Cracker Barrel; simply families living on ranchland at the base of Victory Mountain, along Highway 199.


Over the course of the week the fire had chewed its way up into the uninhabited mountains. Most resources were then focused on securing the edges along the lower elevations to ensure it didn’t flank into populated areas. This is a common tactic. If an area with no values at risk is permitted to burn, the over accumulated fuels are consumed, eliminating future conflagration potential.

Once overhead recognized the change in course this beast was taking, crews were rerouted southeast to corral the fire away from Terra.


We started out the shift by watching a small fleet of Skycranes’ drop buckets on troublesome flames that were creeping towards us. An unfamiliar face started to nervously bark orders once all the crews gathered at our designated drop point.


This new Division Supervisor made me anxious as he laid out his plans to perform a burn out. Before this could happen, crews were to widen a dozer line to use as a fire break on the only ridge that now stood between the fire and the town. We knew we didn’t have much time before the heat of the day was upon us, so we quickly devised tactics and went to work.

Often, for handcrews one challenging feature of this area is the lack of tall trees. When fighting fire in timber, the trees at least provide some relief from the blistering rays of the sun. Here in the high desert of Skull Valley though, you are smack dab in the middle of it all for sixteen hours each shift. You’d be amazed at the difference in temperature between the two. I once attempted to power nap on the shady side of a fire engine in eastern Oregon, only to jolt awake to what felt like my left boot had been set ablaze. I must have crossed that fine line between serenity and ignorance by inadvertently shifting it into the sun. I immediately had to remove my boot to allow my burning foot to cool.


Here, without a single place to “shade up”, the stakes are higher for a wildland firefighter for multiple reasons. You are forced to carry double the drinking water to stay ahead of the dehydration curve. You must pound food despite feeling nauseous from the heat, as to not flush out the ever so important electrolytes from your body. Blistered feet, sunburn, and swamp ass are a few more annoyances one must contend with in the high desert.


Though, personal comfort wasn’t our only limitation this fire. A few days ago, we attempted a burn out despite our reservations. Overhead mocked our hesitation with a few jabs directed towards our “Eastern ways” of being overly cautious. The relative humidity was insanely low and the ambient air temperature was torrid. They were used to these conditions and we knew our escape routes, so the burn out went forth.


I had missed the action since I was bound to take two heat exhausted crew members back to camp for evaluation. The story goes, my crew was lined out to hold the line while overhead put fire to the ground. As soon as a drop of combusted fuel hit the brush it exploded with such force it created its own winds. My crew was split by a wave of violent flames that bulldozed anything in its path. A couple of crew members received minor burns and though not mentioned, I’m sure several soiled their shorts. I can assure you though, that all seventeen pairs of eyes were wide open.


Back on the dozer line the number of aircraft dropping buckets and radio chatter started to pick up. The “witching hour” was upon us. Fire intensity was picking up, closing our window of opportunity to catch this thing. The radio beckoned to bump three or four crewmembers with drip torches to tie in with Division on the northern end.


I was left in charge of the remaining crewmembers as we continued with our original mission. We were almost tied in when we were ordered to hold tight. Winds increased as a new column of smoke billowed up from the north, signaling the burn out had begun.


The main fire and the burn out were now competing for air, pulling each towards one another. Fire intensity escalated to alarming rates. This dog was pissed.


The boss from another crew ran up to me yelling over the howling wind that it was time to go. I rounded up our folks and we jetted down the dozer line back to the hard top of Highway 199. Orders came busting through the radio to get back to the vehicles now and reposition to the south.


Now staged on the highway and back out of the way, the smoke column turned a pitch-black. We knew the fire had gotten into something more than just vegetation.


Most of the crew and I then became witness to things we rarely, if ever experience. The citizens of Terra started to evacuate. I thought they would’ve all been long gone by now.


A man on a motorcycle pulled from a side street with nothing more than a backpack. His black and tan coonhound trotted behind him, right down the center of the road. I watched them until they were no longer in sight, wondering how long the dog could sustain that pace on the hot asphalt.


A white pickup truck pulled from an adjacent driveway. Sitting in the bed was a lady holding the reigns of a horse who was forced to follow. I didn’t know how much more of this I could witness. They were fleeing for lives, while we stood on the road and watched. What the hell were we doing?


My attention was diverted to significant radio chatter and a low roar coming over the mountains to our northeast. Suddenly, one of then only three DC-10 fire tankers appeared in the horizon. A freaking DC-10 repurposed and modified to fight fire. We have got to be in a shit show for this boy show up.


A lead plane, who flies out front to set the DC-10’s path, zipped overhead. The air tanker’s thrust reversers engaged to where it looked as if the giant aircraft was hovering. An unknown voice came over the radio stating to make this drop count, for it’s the only one we’ve got.


The belly opened and what was most likely the entire 12,000 gallons of fire retardant floated out and painted the hillside.


After what felt like an eternity, we were authorized to re-engage the fire. This time we were tasked with mopping up Terra. Moving into position, our trucks passed smoldering vehicles and melted metal.

It might be hard to understand why someone would live in such a fire prone area. What may be harder is the decision to finally pick up and leave. This is their home. Their property. Their livestock. Their income. Their way of life.


The year was 2013. Several years before the burning homes in California were seared into our minds by the media. But, this is not new to me. I’ve seen it before. Sierra Vista, Arizona 2010. Twisp, Washington 2014. Omak, Washington 2014. Robertson, Wyoming 2016. And, Terra, Utah.

How the Universe Works, How Humans Behave, by Annabel Posimato

Billowing, silvery clouds hung in the sky looming over the vast highland landscape. A slight breeze rushed through the air whipping my hair around my face and sending a brisk chill through my body. My boots crunched through the melting snow as I walked arm and arm with my mother down an empty, eerie road. Although this was an unfamiliar environment, I felt immediately safe hidden beneath the Scots pine trees that lined the side of the dusty road. In the distance I could see our destination. As soon as the rings came into my line of sight, I felt a jolt of energy and picked up my wandering pace to a skipping jog. Droplets from the misty air sprinkled across my face as I yelled behind to my mother to hurry up.

I entered the gate into the Balnuaran of Clava, a four-thousand-year-old burial ground filled with circular, layered stone-structures. Thick, spongey moss and soft lichen covered the carefully placed rocks in splatter-paint-like patches. Each stone was unique and seemed to be naturally growing out of the stone that stood beneath it, but I reminded myself that humans, possibly ancestors to my mother and I, stood in this exact spot four-thousand years ago, intricately placing each rock to create a place of rest for the dead. Crisp, shriveled leaves, fallen from the long arms of the towering oak trees, nestled comfortably in between the cracks of the stones. These oak trees stoically watched over the Clava cairns providing shade and protection from the elements above. My mother and I studied each cairn carefully, noticing how each one had either an entrance facing towards the west, exactly where the sun would set or would have no entrance at all. Rays-like mounds of earth beamed out of these circular structures forming a sun on the soft dirt beneath it. Someone clearly designed this sacred place to represent some sort of meaning to honor ones who have passed on. I continued to walk along and through the stone creations, trying to grasp the immense feeling of connection I had to this place. I wanted to climb each oak tree I came across and run my hands over every stone. I wanted to know the meaning of all the circular patterns that followed me and my mother throughout our time in Scotland.

We came here to find a little bit more about our roots. There’s a rumor in my mother’s side of the family that we are related to Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, so we decided to plan for a trip to Scotland to discover if any of that holds truth. Instead of beginning an investigation to find out some answers to our family’s claims, we decided to venture into the highlands of this country to experience the beauty of this new environment. Unexpectedly, the Clava cairns were unlike anything I have ever encountered or experienced. I wasn’t completely sure how to process four-thousand-years worth of history especially with the possible connection it has to my mother and I.

After watching Rivers and Tides, featuring Andy Goldsworth, my experience at the burial grounds was made a little bit more clear. Goldsworth explained his art in such a simple manner; From his circular wood piles that gracefully glided and swirled out on to flowing bodies of water to the stone-egg-guardians that were swallowed in minutes by the sea, each piece was meant to be crushed by the forces of nature. He explained how his experience with watching his art disappear, “doesn’t exactly feel like destruction”, but “that the moment [of destruction] is really in fact a part of a cycle of turning” (Rivers and Tides). In one section of the film, Goldsworth attempts to build a stone-structure that resembles the pattern of a large pine cone. After four long, strenuous attempts, he failed once again as the creation toppled over, releasing hundreds of rocks that had been carefully placed and balanced. He exclaimed with a mix of frustration and gratefulness, “I get to know the stones a little bit better each time I build” (Rivers and Tides). He continued to build, each time the sculpture would get higher and stronger. Once Goldsworth finally completed the rounded “guardian”, he stepped back and let the tide rise and engulf his art, bringing the structure back to a pile of stones. Throughout the movie, Goldsworth brings the theme back to circles and cyclical structures that exist in life. There was an old woman that he talked to in his town of Penpot, Scotland, in which they discussed their perspectives on life and death. The woman said to Goldsworth, “You only see births—I just see deaths”, referring to how he sees all the new families having children in his town, while she is experiencing the deaths of many friends and older family members (Rivers and Tides). His face contorted into one of sadness, but also realization. Goldsworth, extremely aware of the cyclical relationship between his art and nature, seemed to finally see and understand how humans also go through cycles parallel to the lifespan that his art goes through. The carefully placed stones of both Goldsworth’s sculpture and the Clava cairns I experienced, represent a greater truth about the presence of cycles in human life and the natural world. There is a constant emergence of life, while also a recognition of the impermanence of all things that exist in this universe. Emergence flows into impermanence, creating this cycle that is shown in Goldsworth’s work and the work of ancient civilizations.

Emergence and impermanence are topics that are deeply delved into in the text of Tao Te Ching. This guidebook explains the importance of living to the optimal, while staying aware of the observations of being. This includes how things flow (“wei wu wei”), the emptiness of self or ego, and the cyclical nature of emergence and impermanence.


“Become totally empty

Quiet the restlessness of the mind

Only then will you witness everything

unfolding from emptiness

See all things flourish and dance

in endless variation

And once again merge back into perfect emptiness—

Their true repose

Their true nature

Emerging, flourishing, dissolving back again

This is the eternal process of return” (Verse 16, Tao Te Ching)


Lao Tzu, the mysterious creator of the Tao Te Ching, explains how once you recognize this true cycle of emergence, you will be able to see the entire process of return as a whole. As I look back on the time when I questioned the reasons behind the circular, stone-structures of the Clava cairns, I have come to realize that maybe thousands of years ago, people wanted to honor this “eternal process of return” and created a physical representation of this as Andy Goldsworth does. The Tao Te Ching goes on to discuss topics of ego and suggestions on how humans should exist in the universe, but a central theme that continues to return is to recognize the cyclical nature of almost everything that exists. “The Sage sees the world/as an expansion of his own self/So what need has he to accumulate things? /By giving to other/he gains more and more/By serving others/he receives everything” (Verse 81, Tao Te Ching). Reciprocation is something that the Sage earns by understanding the cyclical nature of giving and receiving without involving his own ego, which might have an unbalancing affect on this cycle.

When humans believe they are above or can go against nature, this cycle of reciprocity is broken. “Those who look down upon this world/will surely take hold and try to change things…The world is Tao’s own vessel/It is perfection manifest/It cannot be changed/It cannot be improved/For those who go on tampering, it’s ruined/For those who try to grasp, it’s gone” (Verse 29, Tao Te Ching). This is directly reflected in the stories told in The Control of Nature by John McPhee where humans attempt to keep a river from merging, stop volcanic flow, and build up into mountains that just continue to mudslide down into the valley. There is something extremely damaging about this mindset, that humans are a separate entity from the natural world and have the power to alter wild environments no matter how drastic the situation may be. After volcanic lava was stopped from washing an entire Icelandic town away, this statement was said by Thorbjorn, a man who help fight against this natural force. “The true extent of the victory be known—the role of luck being unassessable, the effects of intervention being ultimately incalculable, and the assertion that people can stop a volcano being hubris enough to provoke a new eruption” (The Control of Nature). Thorbjorn is aware of what is being broken in this situation. There is a chance that the people of this town will believe that they will always have the power to stop the lava when that is not the case in reality. There are actual dangers when it comes to not recognizing the true relationship that humans have with nature. We need to recognize and respect the reciprocal connection, not fight against it.

The wall of the inner part of a cairn is tightly-packed with jagged gray stones that gleam when the warm sunset beams line up perfectly with the narrow entrance. The ground is dark with rich dirt, densely-packed down from curious visitors like my mother and I. Underneath lies ones who have passed on and returned as a part of the “eternal process”. Although we didn’t find out if Robert Burns was in fact my great-great grandfather, the Clava cairns allowed me to understand a little piece of how the universe might work. Circular structures are found in ancient and indigenous civilizations across the world, representing cycles and reciprocal relationships in both humans and the natural world.

The Volunteer, by Mary Kate Bartell

What are we? How did we get here? What is our purpose? These are the fundamental questions questions that people devote lifetimes seeking answers. The questions that people declare war for. Taking these questions further, who is “we” and how does our purpose guide our action? By defining “we” as encompassing all living things in the universe, from humans to animals to insects to grass to trees and so on, the questions seem to shift. How did living things become living? How should living things behave? And what do the relationships between these living things look like?

It’s summer 2004; Disney’s Mambo #5 is playing through the stereo, the sun is beating down on the cement pit that is soon to be a swimming pool, the forgotten inflatable kiddie pool is now a mosquito breeding ground, and the fencing people are placing little pink flags in the ground to mark the area soon to be enclosed. Next to one of the little pink flags an interesting weed slowly peeks out from the ground. The fencing guys begin to rip it from the earth, but my dad steps in and asks them to move the fence boundaries away from this volunteer plant. This little guy quickly springs up like a weed, growing taller and taller each year. Native plants try to grow next to him, but this volunteer sucks up the limited water. Little families of bunnies and toads cohabitate in the rare soft soil around his roots. This volunteer has been living like water. It has provided for a home and shelter for various species, it has cleansed the acidic, clay soil, it has provided thornless homes for birds (Lao Tzu, Verse 8).

Scholars devote their whole lives seeking an answer for “How does the world behave?”. They study everything from ancient text to modern philosophy, however, often one major source of information is missing: going outside and just observing the world. I have spent a day in the same spot of White Clay Creek State park for two hours for the past thirteen weeks. This observation barely scratches the surface of this question. I’ve seen this little patch of forest through three Nor’easters, heavy rain, warm clear skies, sticky humid days, and everything in between. I’ve witnessed life emerge from empty, cold spaces, and I’ve seen invasive bittersweet choke out the life of trees, retiring them to the river bed.  The universe is an interdependent dichotomy. Everything has a contrast, but could not exist without the contrast. This is the very first concept introduced in Toa:

Life and death are born together,

Difficult and easy

High and low –

all these exist together (Verse 1)

Without life, there is no death. Without hardship, there is no smooth sailing. While this sounds very dualistic, nothing is one hundred percent anything. “When the opposing forces unite within, there comes a power abundant in its giving and unerring in its effect” (Lao Tzu, Verse 28). The world exists as a system of interdependent relationships between all living things.

Its summer 2009; the Black Eye Peas and Drake are bopping out of the iHome; the concrete pit is now a refreshing chlorinated pool, Biscuit the golden Cairn Terrier chases everything from rats to water splashing out of the pool; toddler Will plays with his Thomas the Tank trains in the shade. The volunteer plant is now six feet tall, giving shady relief from the hot sun to both Will and Biscuit. Our toad friends have moved across the yard to the even softer soil in the herb garden. Biscuit has scared the rabbits away from the volunteer, and now they habituate, with great annoyance from my father, in the vegetable garden. The volunteer is beginning to resemble a tree of some sort, it looks different from the thorny mesquite trees that are scattered throughout the yard. It is clearly not a Crepe Myrtle, but it is steadily growing and providing some much needed shade coverage.

The world is made up of the interlocking relationships, but what happens when humans attempt to change the relationships. We dam rivers, changing the normal flow of water and shifting marine migrations. We develop on flood plains and pretend to be shocked when it floods, damaging all the buildings. We chop down rainforest, driving species of frogs to extinction. We attempt to control the natural world. Humans behave as the world is here for them to control.

The Mississippi River is naturally trying to shift and flow into the Atchafalaya River. If this were to happen, the Mississippi River Delta would be gone, leaving New Orleans obsolete. The Army Corps of Engineers has devised a plan; build strong enough levees and the river will bounce off the levee and continue its current flow pattern. “It is important that no water be allowed to escape the river, because its full power would be most effective in scouring the bed, deepening the channel, increasing velocity, lowering stages, and preventing destructive floods.” (McPhee, 41). This is the philosophy of the Army Corps of Engineers, and their reasoning for playing God in the natural world. While the reasoning is preventing flooding, levees break. Hurricane Katrina proved that and the very city they are protecting is still suffering the consequences of a broken levee. Eventually the Atchafalaya levees are going to break, creating devastating floods that, after some time, will recede and give a new path to the great Mississippi River.

This is human ingenuity at its finest. Because of the madness gene, we are restless; constantly exploring and creating the latest technological advancements. We over consume, thinking of solutions once the problem is irreversible. During my time in the woods, I observed basic disconnects from the natural world. Beer cans littered the forest floor, smokers would throw the butts of their cigarettes into the river; it was assumed that the state park was there to serve the visitors. Humans behave like the world is here to serve them. If I recycle paper, then I can drive a huge SUV and run the air conditioning in my house year round. I do not need to know how sustainable my produce is because at least I’m eating fruit and not McDonalds. We can over consume because Elon Musk is going to colonize Mars.

This is how many humans choose to behave, however, it is not how we are intended to act. Through observations in White Clay Creek State Park, I have seen example of how humans can begin to act with nature. On one particularly cold March Saturday, I feel a desire to explore this uprooted tree. I step on the icy bank, hear a subtle crack, and then next thing I know, I’m calve deep in ice mud. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. Eventually I stood still, grabbed the roots of the tree, and every so carefully, moved my foot with the mud. Fighting the natural flow of the earth, I quickly sank, but as soon as I took a deep breath and moved with the flow, I was easily able to leave the cold, icy mud. This is how humans should behave; moving with the natural flow of the world. Lao Tzu discusses this concept of “wei wu wei” or action without action. I prefer the translation of action without thought. This is how humans should behave. Humans should “act without action, and teach without talking” (Lao Tzu, Verse 2). This is how the Sage acts, and in turn, how humans should try to act. When getting out of the mud, I acted without force and was easily able to free myself. In Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Kimmer discusses being feeling connected to water. Both Kimmer and water provide life and nurture life, they are a beneficial force. Verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching reads:

The best way to live

Is to be like water

For water benefits all things

And goes against none of them

It provides for all people

And even cleanses those places

A man is loath to go

In this way it is just like Tao

On the canoe trip, we were able to observe how water had slowly carved through massive million-year old rocks, revealing truly awesome spacious carvings. Water is the epitome of action without action; it slowly moves along, providing, nourishing, and slowly changing things.

It’s the beginning of summer 2018. Drake and Lorde are bopping from the guitar amp, Luther, the big Great Dane – Jack Russell Terrier mutt, has taken over Biscuit’s role of water chaser and bunny terrorizer, Roosevelt, the tiny white mutt, sleeps in the shade, Will the teenager sleeps on the giant pink flamingo in the pool, and the toads have now claimed the entire pool area as their own. The volunteer is now towering over the pool area, providing the much needed shade in the day time, and, with the help of some outdoor Christmas lights, provides a warm, welcoming aesthetic at night. We have recently identified our volunteer as an American Elm. We speculate that some bird left a nice dropping that contained his seed, gifting us with a huge shade tree that grows higher and higher every year.

Action without thought, that is how humans should behave. We let nature do it’s thing in my backyard and now have a bountiful shade tree. The tree houses birds, an occasional wasp nest (which takes care of the Black Widows that love the pool area), the toads love the soil below the tree, little critters are constantly hanging out around our volunteer. Just like the toads, dogs, cat, and barn swallows, the American Elm is part of our family. We water him, trim his injured limbs after storms, and literally moved a fence to give him more space. We, all living things, should live like water; benefitting all things.

Perpetual Emergence, by Erin Russell

As a biology major, I have been taught the way the universe works. I have been taught how water moves through semi-permeable membranes and how sodium reacts with chloride. I have been taught how the body responds to foreign pathogens and how blood travels through the cavities of the heart. While taking this class, however, I realized that as much knowledge as I have gained as a STEM major about how the universe works, I never was taught how the universe is. I was able to see facts, and not patterns. I could name every protein involved with the creation of a new cell, a new organ, a new human being, but I never asked myself why things happened this way. This class has allowed me to explore the same questions about the universe’s being with a new perspective.

I have learned that the universe is cyclical. Life and love are ever-changing, dancing with the harmony of the world. As Lao Tzu points out in the Tao Te Ching in verse 23, “The wind and rain are from Heaven and Earth, and even these do not last long.” From an evolutionary standpoint, Earth is a perfect entity. Each organism, from the proudest trees of California to the microscopic zooplankton in the Atlantic, have been repeatedly crafted and reshaped via natural selection for millions of years until the perfect organism can function in wildly intertwined ecosystems. Lao Tzu places the Earth alongside Heaven in verse 23, implying its innate perfection. However, this verse points out that the Earth, which is just as perfect as heaven, still has rainstorms that are impermanent and cyclical. The Earth still allows life to be dynamic, “emerging, flourishing, and dissolving back again,” as stated in verse 16, even if humankind wishes life to be stagnant and forever.

I experienced this human tendency of longing for permanence first hand as I sat at My Place in White Clay Creek each week in the February rain. Armed with a journal and a trash bag to sit on, I was overwhelmed with the idea of waiting for the warmth of Mother Nature’s May embrace. I was unenthusiastic about waiting for flowers to bloom and birds to chirp; I wanted spring now and always. This is the very problem with humans; we spend so much time wishing for flowers that we forget to appreciate snow. We spend so much time wishing to be happy that we forget how to cope with sadness, and we spend so much time wanting to stay alive that we forget how to feel alive. Though we all wish to live forever, to be permanent, we must remember, as stated by Lao Tzu, that “’As you plant, so you reap, As you live, so you die’” (verse 42). As I returned to White Clay week after week, just as it does every year, spring sprung. Birds eventually chirped and flowers eventually bloomed, no matter how brittle the February winds.

I have learned that the universe is malleable. It is neither this nor that, it is not black nor white, right nor wrong. The universe practices balance and cooperation; to reference verse 42 of the Tao Te Ching, “all beings support yin and embrace yang, and the interplay of these two forces, fills the universe.” I was unaware that I already knew this. Since the seventh grade, I have been fed the definition of ‘homeostasis’ as it pertains to biology: the maintenance of an internal equilibrium while experiencing external changes. Cold blooded animals can literally change the entire temperature of their body to exist with the changing environment. Water flows in and out of cells to keep them in equilibrium with their surroundings. At My Place in White Clay, the water levels rise and fall with the weather, yet it can still sustain all of the life held within.

The Tao Te Ching offers ways for people to behave that would be in stronger accordance with the universe. The most important teaching is to be like water, for “water benefits all things, and goes against none of them” (verse 8). There are many different lessons that reflect the teachings of water throughout the text.

First, the Tae Te Ching suggests that humans should be kind. As seen in verse 61, “a great state is like a river basin, that receives everything flowing into it…where all the world is welcomed.” People should be open to all things, human or non-human, just as the water of a river basin is. Kindness should be practiced in all scenarios, as stated in verse 49: “Those who are good [the Sage] treats with goodness, Those who are bad he also treats with goodness.” Humans are so quick to dismiss nature as something they need not be kind to, simply because it is different. However, a river basin accepts all things, whether that be more water, or leaves, birds, or fish. Additionally, when humans begin to label each other (rich or poor, black or white, male or female), it leads to an institutional imbalance of power in the world that would not exist otherwise. A river does not look down upon a tree, just as a tree does not look down upon a bee. In fact, they work together to sustain a dynamic ecosystem, and could not exist without one another. The universe is fluid and interdependent, webbed, connected, harmonious.

Next, the Tao Te Ching teaches humility. As stated in verse 66, “Why do hundreds of rivers turn and rush towards the sea? Because it naturally stays below them.” It is important to remain conscious of our place in the world rather than playing God. Humans tend to place themselves above nature, which is a problem that can be seen in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. The Atchafalaya is a river that lies geologically below the Mississippi River, that rushes towards the ocean that stays below it (McPhee 4). Humans, however, have imposed themselves upon this natural process, as they built a river control structure to keep the Mississippi the more dominant river (McPhee 24). This was meant keep New Orleans as a major port city and to supply money to the major chemical companies along the river, such as Exxon, Monsanto, and Dow (McPhee 6). This river control system allows for the river to become more powerful, with “three million cubic feet per second coming past Old River,” as well as to detrimental flooding problems and backed up sediment in the river (44).

This is a perfect example of mankind selfishly using nature for personal gain. Though humans do have certain capabilities that other organisms do not have, such as, in this case, the ability to engineer, they should use it to benefit the world, not harm or disrupt it. People should use their ability to think to do things like remove invasive species, because they know they are invasive, or do things like clean rivers or plant native species—things that would leave the earth in a better condition.

Finally, the Tao Te Ching expresses that humans should be like water because “Nothing in this world is as soft and yielding as water” (verse 78). Humans should “live without forcing” because “the most yielding thing in the world will overcome the most rigid” (verse 30, verse 43). Again, I was able to observe this first-hand in My Place. As I sat in White Clay Creek each week, I watched one of the tallest trees on the riverbank begin to lean inward just a little more each week, as something as soft as water washed away the soil underneath the tree causing it to fall. It is important to dance nature’s dance rather than dancing on its grave after acting forcefully against it.

The Control of Nature shows an example of Americans who act forcefully against nature instead of working with it. McPhee discusses how the city of Los Angeles refuses to yield against the forces of nature, as people choose to live in the San Gabriel mountains which frequently experience debris flows. As the city became overpopulated by those looking to ‘make it big,’ some of the population began moving into the mountains surrounding the city, which can have slopes with an average of sixty-five to seventy percent incline (207). The debris flows that occur in the mountains have been recorded to have six hundred thousand tons run down the mountains into residential neighborhoods, destroying property and even killing people (221). Additionally, in order for people to maintain their fancy mountain homes, LA continually monitors fires that burn chaparral, a flammable plant. Though this seems beneficial, the fire is necessary and natural for both the health of the plant and the mountain. One case of many is described in the text; chaparral that had not been touched by natural fire for ninety-nine years evidently burst into flames, because “the older chaparral becomes, the hotter it burns” (216). Not only do these fires rage more violently and for longer than a regular fire, but it also causes for more intense debris flows (213).

This displays exactly why humans should be yielding to nature. The city of LA is ignoring the universe’s natural tendencies such as debris flows, and is acting forcefully upon the natural fires that would occur in the San Gabriels. It almost seems as though these LA residents are making the universe so angry that Mother Nature is literally trying to punish them. I can almost hear her laugh as she designs fire that would burn longer and stronger if chaparrals are left untouched by flames for too long, followed by heavier debris flows. As the Tao Te Ching suggests, if humans were to be more like water and yield to nature, both humans and nature would be more at ease.

Upon reflection, I have always known how the universe is. I had all the pieces necessary to formulate an answer to the question ‘how does the universe behave;’ I learned through my STEM career that the heart beats, blood pumps, cells die, cells reproduce. I now realize that this is how the universe behaves, I just have never been able to see it as such before; the body is constantly pulsing, producing, emerging, dying, and emerging again. The Tao Te Ching teaches valuable lessons on how the universe is, and how humans can behave more like the universe, because in the end, we are part of the universe.

I’d Like to Be Unmarked, by Julia Lowndes

I’ve only been to church twice in my life, so I think the real chapel of my childhood was my mother’s sewing room in Upstate New York. With its perfumed air and buttery sunlight, walking through its wooden doors was like entering a place of worship. On the shelves and windowsills sat my mother’s small collection of cherished items, out of reach and protected from her two young daughters. Metal Baoding balls that sang when you rolled them in your palms, plants with dense green leaves, and tiny sculptures carved from white stone and clay. Of all the treasures, the small Japanese netsuke with a rotating face was my favorite. On the special days that my mother accompanied us into the sewing room, my sister and I would hold the figure carefully in our hands, covering it like a baby bird who might try to fly away.

I remember marveling at its happy face, deep set in a mane of sculpted black hair. With the gentle nudge of a finger, this face would spin to reveal another side– a look of anguish, carved with deep wrinkles and a furrowed brow. He was happy or sad, kind or angry, good or evil; he could never be both. This netsuke was a curious representation of what I’d been taught in school— our world is packaged in sets of opposites. Starting in kindergarten, I learned to label my surroundings in neat, binary sets. I learned to separate cat from dog, rich from poor, us from them. Even in my sanctuary, I was not safe from this concept of division.

In reality, our definition of opposites is simply a result of the way we perceive our environment, and my mother’s netsuke was a reflection of these perceptions. Rather than celebrating the relationship between good and evil, the netsuke portrays this bond as parallel. Here, good and evil will never mix. They will simply exist on separate planes, rising when one falls like the sun and the moon. This perception is one that is found in the way humans regard most things. But, to treat the world in this way ignores the complex relationships between all things in our lives, and in this universe. There can be no good if there is no evil to compare it to. And even then, evil can’t exist without knowing what is good. Allowing ourselves to create such binary categories for our experience prevents us from searching for harmony.

This isolation we create for ourselves damages our relationship with our environment. When a human stands in the woods and looks out at nature, he defines his “self” as separate from his surroundings. Like good and evil or strong and weak, we define ourselves as man and nature. From this separation comes a desire to establish a hierarchy: man always trumps nature. But when the power of nature questions this hierarchy, man responds with force. The way humans regarded the Atchafalaya river is a clear example of the desperation of man to maintain power over nature. When the Atchafalaya threatened change the course of the Mississippi river, humans responded with force and ignored the natural patterns of the river. Their attempts to control the river seemed to completely overlook the failure of human intervention in the past, failure that John McPhee claims is “generally masked by the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent” (31). Building homes and industries in high risk flood areas demonstrates the hubris of man that allows him to believe he has power over the patterns of the environment. As McPhee explains, “For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature” (6). When man prioritizes himself above nature, he does not acknowledge the interconnectedness of self and environment. As this misconception grows and festers, we lose sight our responsibility to nurture the environment rather than fight it.

When man creates a hierarchy of self over nature, we become blind to the possibilities of harmony with our environment. Nature is impermeant and constantly changing, but we believe we have found ways to define its fluidity. Night comes when day goes, and summer is somehow the opposite of winter. Though these features of the world seem to be in stark contrast, there is true harmony between them. By separating them into opposites, we lose sight of their interconnectedness. Day can’t be defined without knowing night, and the warmth of summer cannot be described without understanding the cold of winter. In this way, man cannot be powerful while nature is weak, because power doesn’t exist without weakness. As verse 42 of the Tao Te Ching explains, “All beings support yin and embrace yang and the interplay of these two forces fills the universe. Yet only at the still-point, between the breathing in and breathing out, can one capture these two in perfect harmony.” The universe is completely relative; all things exist only in context of each other. When humans disconnect ourselves from nature, we create an idea of “us” and “them.” This separation is damaging for both humans and nature, because without our interconnectedness we force ourselves to stand at odds.

In an effort to determine what is good and what is bad, humans have developed an affinity for constant growth. Stagnation is synonymous with failure in our culture. The madness gene of humans, which gives us the hubris to build cities in flood zones, turns catastrophic in a society that rewards endless expansion. For example, the city of Los Angeles seems to exist where no city should. According to McPhee, Los Angeles “exists in a semidesert, imports water three hundred miles, has inveterate flash floods” (191) among other geologically dangerous conditions. Despite this, people continue to flock to Los Angeles and build homes in the mountains surrounding it. The madness gene, which is perhaps both biological and societal, convinces humans to congratulate the ingenuity that allows them to fight against nature. When we become set on living in areas that are not suited for human development, we are essentially fighting against nature. Natural disasters are not enough to convince us to leave an area once we set our sights on it; we would rather fight through drought, fire, and mudslides than move out of Los Angeles. As John McPhee explains, this tension shows that there is “a great temporal disparity between the pace at which the mountains behave and the way people think” (202). Mountains do not act in predictable ways. Though we try, we can never fully understand the patterns of nature. By seeking constant growth, we are ignoring the ways our environment communicates with us.

Holding growth and expansion to such a high standard causes us to lose sight of what stand at the opposite side of the spectrum—contentment. Satisfaction is not possible when we seek only to own more, consume more, and gain more. As the Tao says, “Grabbing and stuffing—there is no end to it.” While growth can be beneficial, uncontained growth conflicts with nature. In the dance between humans and the rest of our environment, we are stepping on its toes, moving too quickly, and refusing to let nature lead. Verse 46 of the Tao writes that there is “No greater curse than desire, no greater tragedy than discontentment, no greater fault than selfishness.” All these vices cause humans to see nature as a cornucopia, constantly giving and overflowing with resources. In reality, nature is full of gifts that require gratefulness and attention. If we take without returning, our environment becomes weakened to the point of catastrophic collapse. To have a healthy, restorative relationship with nature, we must learn to be comfortable with contentment. As described in the Tao, “The movement of Tao is return. The way of the Tao is to yield.” To be yielding is not synonymous with weakness or laziness. Instead, it is the way we can learn to dance with nature.

On my weekly visits to the woods this semester, nature never divided itself into the categories we have created for it. There is no hierarchy in the way elements of nature interact. Birds are no more important than the bugs they eat, and trees are no better than the dirt from which they grow. Without the participation of others, nothing in nature can exist. In all my hours spent there, there was no truth to good and bad. Each natural occurrence has stemming reactions that cannot be measured or categorized. Similarly, there was no such thing as winter and spring in the woods. March 20th did not signify the end of cold, and winter didn’t stop the earth from flourishing. On my trips, I heard frogs singing for warmth when there were no leaves on the trees, I saw flowers bloom in the cold, I witnessed some things grow while others waited patiently for their turn. Nature knows that all creatures have different needs, different times, and different roles. However, these roles aren’t quite as separated as we sometimes believe. Everything in the woods is relative and constantly dependent. There is no individual in a forest, just like there is no truth the “self” we create.

On my 18th birthday, my mother gave me my own netsuke, wrapped carefully in white paper. He watched over my room with his rotating face, an endless conflict between good and evil. When I thought of it, I held it in my hands and twirled its delicate face. Happy, angry; good, bad; happy, sad. But, outside of the sewing room, my mother wasn’t there to warn me to be gentle with tiny figure. Eventually, my constant turning snapped the delicate mechanisms connecting its face to its body, leaving its head lolling in a helmet of black hair. Now, the face spun in all directions, revealing the sides of the face that had not been carved. Unmarked and clean.

I’d like to be unmarked, like the hidden face of my netsuke. Only when it broke out of the cycle of division was this spotless side revealed. The cycle of dividing and labeling our world strains our relationship with the environment, and eventually cause it to snap. By attempting to classify our experience with nature and with each other, we lose sight of the world’s webbed, contextual quality. This interdependence is only damaged by the desire to catalogue our perceptions. Like the Tao says in its first verse, “A mind filled with thought, identified with its own perceptions, beholds the mere form of this world.” The netsuke was weakened by its divisions, in the same way humans are weakened by our own perceptions.