Monday, July 25, 2011

For the Love of Nature

I was reading the latest issue of National Geographic, who's cover story is about 'The Wildest Place in North America.  I have sea kayaked a couple of times in this breathtaking part of the world off the coast of British Columbia in Canada.  It is a land of temperate rain forest, dense with vegetation and teeming with wild life.  We saw numerous Orca Whales, dolphins, bears, deer, and bald eagles all thriving in a clean and relatively unspoiled environment.  And then there was the 24 hour fishing day, where trawlers fired on each other staking out territory as they stripped the waters of most of its salmon population in a frightening display of man's gluttony.  They chuck their garbage overboard, which washes up on the shores of otherwise pristine islands.  Such is the way of man.
Alberta's Boreal Forest

The NG article talks about the relationship of the First Nations people with the natural environment, people who have inhabited the land for hundreds of generations.  The following article is called 'Pipeline through Paradise', about the proposed Northern Gateway Oil and Condensate Pipeline which at a cost of 5.8 billion dollars would pump oil and natural gas from the oil sands region of Alberta to a yet to be built oil tanker port on what is now a pristine fiord in British Columbia.  Huge tankers would navigate their way up narrow fiords to this port to take the oil and liquified natural gas to the burgeoning markets of China.  All of the First Nation Tribes who live in this region oppose the pipeline.  Canada wants to become a global player in the oil game, as the estimated petroleum reserves in the oils sands is estimated to be second only to Saudi Arabia's reserves.  In order to extract the petroleum from the sands, unfathomably huge swaths of once pristine boreal forest are being strip mined, literally thousands of square miles.  The once wild Athabasca River is being tapped for the enormous quantity of water that is needed to extract the oil from the sands.  The carbon emissions of the process is huge as well.  So, in order to keep us on the road, we are literally destroying our planet, turning the the wild in to a toxic wasteland.  Cannons fire off over the giant lakes of poison effluent to keep flocks of migrating geese from landing on them, where they would soon die, and they do.
An image from the March 2009 National Geographic article on Canadian Oil
Sands, photo by Peter Essick

The next article in the magazine is about robot technology, creating machines to fold our clothes and clean our houses and serve and entertain us.  There is technology to create robot pets to keep us company.  What was startling about the juxtaposition of these articles is that we are destroying nature in order to create a world where we don't need or care about nature any more.  These robots require a lot of energy to design and produce, and rare metals and gold for their circuitry that come from strip mines. The World gets hotter and more miserable and people of means stay inside more and watch TV (or someday play with their robot dog) in a climate controlled environment that requires vast energy reserves.  Thus there is an increased need for the extraction that causes appalling environmental degradation.  There seems to be no stopping us.

Just today on July 26th, 2011 there is a headline stating that "Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is blasting as "radical" a Republican proposal to open up more than 50 million acres of public lands to logging and other development."  The proposal would open up an area the size of Wyoming to resource extraction, much of it now designated as wilderness.  The extraction would be done by large corporations who now fund the election campaigns of the politicians who are making these proposals.  So what has been protected, a small percentage of public lands, is under fire to be pillaged.  As we continue to require the resources of 3 or 4 Earths to maintain our American lifestyle, I imagine that in our lifetime this will actually happen.

So, in reaction to what is going on, I am proposing a personal counterbalance.  We talk a lot about being green these days, as if it were some hip trend.  Can Americans seriously think we are being green?  It has to be a reality based thing that plays in to our very lifestyle if it is going to be real.

I have always picked up garbage on my street.  I also pick up litter when I am walking to the store, or if I stop while traveling I will pick up the area where I park.  In my lifetime I have probably picked up a ton or more of garbage.  The garbage gets there because people don't seem to care.  The Earth is a waste basket and nature is supposed to just suck it up.  But after I pass through, the planet gets cleaner.  I sort and recycle the waste.  I compost my food scraps.  I rarely eat meat. I grow a lot of my food.  I buy my food in bulk and reuse my bags over and over and over, including the plastic produce bags.  So my solid waste contribution is probably 10% of the American norm.   It isn't that hard to do, it just requires thought and concern.  Imagine what a 90% reduction in solid waste would mean.

I still have an impact on the Earth that is far from good for it.  I still drive, though I ride my bicycle when ever I can.  An estimated 16% of Portlanders commute to downtown on bicycles.  It is a step in the right direction.  I garden organically.  I try to buy from sustainable sources and support local agriculture.  That means I don't shop at Costco.  When I have garden tours at my home, I don't use plastic cups and paper plates.  The food tastes and looks better, and I'm not sending off another bag of garbage to the landfill, which happens to be 150 miles away.  They are filling a valley in Eastern Oregon.  Seattle ships its garbage in barges up the Columbia River to that same landfill.  Honolulu may ship their trash from Hawaii there as well.  So we need a pipeline that puts pristine coastline and imminent risk of catastrophic degradation so that our garbage can be shipped over huge distances.  We need to change the way we live, now, really.

There is a music festival near the Oregon coast that charges $10 for every empty seat in cars that arrive, thus encouraging people to carpool.  They require that you bring your own plate and silverware to use at the food stalls, and there is a dishwashing station, so there are no disposable cups and plates and plastic forks.  It is visionary and conscious and innovative and should be a precedent.  We are such a disposable society.  Starbucks serves all of their beverages in disposable containers, even if you are drinking it there.    Stryofoam takes thousands of years to decompose (into what?).  It was banned in Portland 20 years ago and that ban extends to 100 cities in the U.S. today.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an island of floating debris twice the size of Texas trapped by ocean currents.  Tests done of minnows in the cleanest most remote parts of the oceans found that they contained bits of broken down plastic.  You eat garbage every time you eat fish.  There are no organic fish in the sea anymore.  It is a tragedy.

Jackhammering a driveway
When I consult on a garden I always try to be realistic about what the impact will be on the planet.  Decks and fences need a lot of wood.  The wood rots and in 25 years needs to be replaced.  Ipe, a tropical hardwood from Brazil is popular now, but believe me, it is not sustainable or environmental or green in any way, no matter what you hear.  Neither is teak.  They had to cut down the native forest to plant the plantation teak.  I propose building with scrap steel for fences and trellises.  They last so much longer and are quite beautiful.  Stone and gravel is quarried, which is devastating to the landscape.  Some stone needs to be shipped great distances.  Gravel is dredged from rivers.  All this stuff should be treated with reverence as it is a gift from the Earth.  It needs to be used well to honor that gift, with minimal waste.  I've recycled many tons of concrete we've pulled up on site back in to the gardens.  My garden is built of stone collected from the wild so there was no quarrying.  It takes longer and is more work, but in the end it is far more powerful stuff to contemplate than being purely decorative.

Recycled slabs of concrete create a path in a now permeable driveway

I am preaching, but it is out of love for this planet.  I know first hand as a connoisseur of nature, that it is the most amazing system imaginable.  It functions at the pinnacle of potential.  It is magical and nurturing and breathtaking.  Our gardens can maybe brush the surface, or if we indulge on a shamanistic level become a profound stage for nature to play out its magnificent symbiosis, connecting to the universe back to its very beginnings, and maximizing on its ultimate potential, and taking us along for the ride.

The best part of being cleaner and more conscious for me is that my quality of life is so much better.  Disposable plastic cups and silverware have no class.  Neither does heavily processed food.  We eat like gourmets here.  The food is healthy and delicious and so fresh.  We eat it on lovely plates that I wash by hand afterwards.  No Costco platters of old processed food served here.  The garden is gorgeous, better than any luxury resort hotel.  There is no heated swimming pool, but rather a hot bath in a claw foot tub.  There is no tropical hardwood deck, no lawn and thus no mow and blow service.  We lie on carpets on the round gravel patio.  Nature loves to hang out here too, so at times I feel like Snow White.  Fa la la la la.  It gives me the energy and compassion to want to pick up after other people, to make the world more beautiful and wonderful to inhabit.  It is not inspired by greed, it is inspired by a desire for true beauty.   If we all incorporated that ideal in to our daily lives, then the fate of the World might just be that much brighter.  Lets actively try to give something back to nature, cultivate and nourish it, make it flourish, and flourish along with it.  We certainly need it, and it needs our respect in return.  Thanks for listening, Jeffrey
Blue Jay on fountain, Smith Garrett garden, San Francisco


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts- you are very eloquent.

    My husband just purchased knives from Cariboo Blades; here is a couple devoted to the earth as you are:

    You guys are my heroes!