Friday, April 23, 2010

4-22-10 Close to Home, Earth Day

Since it's Earth Day and the light this morning was exquisite I thought I'd pop in a few photos from my (sometimes) routine hike up nearby Mt. Skinner in the Holyoke Range. To get to Mt. Skinner, also called Mt. Holyoke, I have to cross the Connecticut River via the recently rennovated Coolidge Bridge. Those specks on the river, off in the distance, are Smith College rowing crews practicing.

Then I drive down Route 47 through lovely farm country with old farm houses and freshly plowed fields.

This part of Hadley, adjacent and parallel to the river has a world famous soil, Hadley Loam, which is quickly getting a cover crop of houses, Home Depots, Lowe's, every other box store imaginable, and trophy houses which is a tragedy of huge proportions. It's that whole idea that our real wealth, the soil, is but an after thought to our economy's engine which is to sell junk. That International tractor gains in value every year. It's probably worth twice as much now as what the owner paid for it. How many things made today gain in value?

In only ten minutes of driving I arrive at the small parking lot at the base of the Notch Trail that is my preferred route up the mountain. The round trip from my kitchen to the summit of Skinner and back to my kitchen is about one hour but early in the morning with light traffic I can do it in 45 minutes.

This morning, as I started up the trail the sun was just clearing the ridge and reaching the forest floor.

The low morning sun backlights a tide of false Lilly of the Valley (Maianthemum canadensis) which has emerged above the dry leaf blanket in the past 24 hours.

Today is is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. I remember the first one well because I was invited to give a short talk at the University of South Dakota's Earth Day celebration forty years ago today. Then I was the editor of a weekly newspaper in Spearfish, South Dakota, called The Queen City Mail, and had been running a news and editorial campaign against Homestake Goldmining Corporations attempt to fool the public and take a huge area of productive cropland by the corporations 'right of eminent domain' to construct a "tailings dam" to store cyanide and mercury laden tailings from the gold extraction process related to their mine. Homestake's ruthless attempt was in keeping with the company's history and an attempt to circumnavigate a court order brought against them by the newly established Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At any rate, my hard work in exposing the enormous environmental and social damage that would certainly ensue if Homestake won the suit won me an invitation from the University to be a quest speaker at the university's first Earth Day celebration.

The beech leaves were the first to emerge and they're a few days ahead of the maple leaves maybe because of the unusually warm temperatures.

Brand, spandy new beech leaves. Isn't it remarkable that out of a tiny seed something as spectacularly beautiful and intriguingly complex as a leaf can come and offer us the diverse miracles leaves of every kind provide us and almost every other living thing on this planet?

Last year's beech leaves also getting some early morning sunlight. With the warm temperatures it's likely that myriad tiny organisms are working just below the leaf carpet to continue breaking down the compostable leaf mulch into soil.

Two things that I remember from my foray to the University of South Dakota that first Earth Day was that there were a dozen or so "hostile" members of the audience, sent by Homestake, who kept interrupting my talk until several Minniconjou Sioux who were students at the university and also representatives of the Sioux Bear Clan, filed into the auditorim in regalia and stood, arms folded across their chests, in front of the podium until I finished my talk which was my attempt to explain the imminent danger of the proposed tailings dam to the Black Hills and the area around the Black Hills, which the Sioux refer to as Paha Sapa, sacred ground; the burial grounds of their chiefs.

On the lower slopes on the northwest side of Mt. Skinner the forest is a healthy mix of hardwoods and softwoods with maples, oaks, hemlocks and beech predominating. The micro climate is damp, but not wet. I often see deer feeding in this area at twilight hours, both morning and evening.

On the upper slope on the northwest side of Mt. Skinner, where it's damp most of the year and where there's a high incursion of wind and snow, eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) predominate.

On the southeastern side of Mt. Skinner, red oaks (Quercus rubra) predominate.

The other poignant memory I have of that first Earth Day in South Dakota was the flight back to Spearfish from Brookings, the city in the southeast corner of the state where the university is located. The university owned a twin engine Beechcraft airplane and their pilot had flown out in the morning to pick up both myself and a colleague, a rancher by the name of Hank Frawley, who was also speaking at the Earth Day ceremonies. That evening, after the ceremonies, the same pilot flew us back, a 400 mile, 2 1/2 hour trip, to Spearfish's Black Hills Airport. Hank was feeling air sick and went to sleep in the back seat but I was wide awake. We flew at a fairly low altitude and I could look down into the streets and backyards of towns we flew over. From Brookings to the Missouri River there were myriad lights from horizon to horizon. Beginning on the west side of the Missouri they thinned dramatically until the only lights were the stars and an occasional "pal light", one of those mercury vapor lights installed in barn yards, that indicated a ranch. Since I had experience flying planes the pilot asked if I would take the controls while he slept the last hour of the flight and all of a sudden there I was flying the Beechcraft through the night above that dark land passing under me like a dark sea in swell while the pilot and Hank slept. The plane flew over the Badlands, the beautiful wide western high prairie, the White and Little Missouri Rivers with the Black Hills to the south, and just to the north the path of Lewis and Clark. We flew under an astonishingly dense canopy of stars that provided the only light! And they were bright, brighter than I had ever seen them and as I craned my neck to look up at them I felt they must be alive. They certainly felt close enough to touch! I was in awe. In those spare minutes I was aware of the entire human race as it once had been, around the globe, fused to the dark of a million nights, gaping upwards in utter wonder at the vast, beautiful, intricate, webs of stars. I'll never forget that solitary hour.

As I hiked up towards the last ridge below the summit this morning three Canada Geese startled me as they flew north and passed just 15 feet above my head. As I stopped to watch and listen to them "barking" I could hear the familiar sounds of the traffic on Interstate 91 a few miles away.

It would be a startling if Earth Day could bring about the magnitude and kind of change that's necessary to offset the harm being done to the Earth every second of every day. I see more and more corporations claiming to be "Green" or "Earth Friendly" in their advertising and it makes me cry that we, as consumers, can be that naive. A startlingly vast number of us are startingly disconnected from Nature, from that essential part of ourselves. We no longer let it in. It's filtered out to us on screens, mere depictions, and it just bounces off of us. We glance at it as we indulge spectacular, expensively produced TV shows and movies that depict the drama in Nature, but it's only a cursory look. We admire it, pet it, groom it, train it, anthropomorphize it, then go back to what we were doing that is essentially killing it. It isn't our pet, our cute fuzzy "thing", or even a monster that's out to kill us as Nature is often portrayed. It would be startling to me if people stopped to watch the geese with awe and respect, but it would also be startling if people knew it was geese they were looking at and felt connected to them in some way. Even if they licked their lips and though of them as food.

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