Transport of “Bakken” Crude Oil Threatens Native Way of Life

However the particularly flammable “bakken” crude oil is mined or transported across native lands, in North Dakota or in the Pacific Northwest, it threatens native lands and ways of life.

The Westway terminal expansion proposal to transport bakken crude by ship threatens tribal fishing and hunting in Grays Harbor and on the Chehalis River and its tributaries. It also threatens lands with accidents all along its rail and pipeline transport routes from sacred native lands in North Dakota. Bakken crude was involved in the recent rail fire in Mosier, Oregon, in which water from the Columbia River had to be pumped at the rate of 1500 gallons per minute onto flaming rail cars for ten hours before they were cooled down enough to accept fire suppressant foam without simply evaporating it.

Three years ago the Quinault Indian Nation filed an airtight expert report that should have stopped expansion of the Westway Terminal in its tracks, but the Washington State Ecology Department recently came out with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with some shaky mitigation ideas.  One of them is that the City of Aberdeen might build new roads several years in the future to mitigate the problem with traffic delays of up to 77 minutes caused by oil train passage– during which time the report acknowledges no traffic movement will be possible, since there are no alternative routes.  That is, if an accident like that in Mosier  occurs in this area, there would be nowhere for residents or local traffic to go to evacuate.

The EIS also relies on limited geographical analysis.  The oil tankers loaded in the expanded terminal would be going to sea through Grays Harbor– not incidentally, periodically crossing Quinault tribal fishing lanes as well as salmon runs. But the EIS neglected federal ocean law standards, an oversight against which Earthjustice and the Quinault Nation recently filed suit before the Washington Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear their case. 

In the post below on our responsibility to “remember to remember” in this Thanksgiving month are many examples in which native peoples of Western Washington taught pioneers how to live on this land.  It seems they are doing it again:  working to protect the environment upon which we all rely. The Warm Springs and Yakama and Chehalis have also weighed in against the Westway expansion– their statements are included in the EIS above.  Tragically, the Quinault themselves are facing a direct assault from the climate change that would be exaggerated by the burning of the millions of gallons of bakkan crude transported by rail into the Westway terminal to be shipped overseas.  Their home village, Taholah, needs to be moved inland to avoid being washed away by rising seas due to climate change.

You can write the City of Hoquiam protesting the permitting of the Westway terminal expansion, as well as weighing in on behalf of those fighting the pipeline in North Dakota.  And when you sign this petition be sure to emphasize that simply finding another route for the pipeline is not acceptable.  It should be stopped.

Pollinators Summer 2015

These pictures show us pollinators essential to our food supplies feeding themselves. Help make sure that they don’t poison themselves by ingesting “neonic” pesticides as they do so.

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Our friends the honeybees

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  Love that fennel (anise flavor in the honey isn’t bad either)

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Off to see the wizard of magnolia

P1000239aAt least a dozen types of native bees share the fennel with these gals

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Can anyone name this bee?

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Or this tiny bee that comes to my garden by the hundreds?

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Butterflies do their work of beauty as well as pollination.

Even the tiniest roadside flower– which we might be tempted to call a “weed” –is a kingdom buzzing with life. As Pope Francis said in his recent encyclical, to treat all life as equal is to bring back the Garden of Eden.

photos and text copyright Madronna Holden 2015

Earth Day 2015: Creating Safe Spaces for Natural Life

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Essays and photos copyright by Madronna Holden

Not so very long ago in earth time, all places were sanctuaries in which individual lives and their kin tried out their relationships with one another–creating the wondrous diversity of natural life on earth.

Today we have protected wilderness areas from ourselves to provide such safe–and all too rare– places for life to play itself out.

In parallel with our own wilderness areas, the ancient peoples of many lands understood that certain places should belong to themselves rather than to humans–and thus they refrained from trespassing on particular powerful places.  In such places the land remembers itself without human presence.

These are places where the land is able to think for itself.

By contrast, most places on the land keep a memory of human presence. The early Euroamerican explorers who wrote about the abundance of the salmon here, for instance, were in fact describing the several thousand year old land-memory of the salmon-human partnership.

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Those who praised prairies overflowing with the blue-flowered camas were describing the land’s memory of the careful hands of the indigenous women who dug those bulbs to feed their people– and spread them at the same time.

Sadly if an explorer from another world ventured into industrial society today, there would not be so many lovely memories of humans for the land to tell.

Like many of my friends and my students, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer insanity of those whose actions clearly undercut the survival of so many lives on earth. Those bent on profit for its own sake are like the man in ancient tales who saws off the limb he is sitting on. If we allow them to continue on in this way,  creating toxins and using up limited natural resources we need for survival, we will hit the wall when all there is left of us is the land’s memory– and what it has to overcome to re-establish itself as a sanctuary of life once more.

But the human story is more complicated than that as the land’s memory of us attests.

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In Eugene, we have managed to preserve invaluable wetlands and stream corridors in private-public partnerships.

My own neighborhood organization fought long and hard– over two decades– to make a park of the headwaters of the Amazon creek that flows through Eugene.   Within the city limits, we may walk in second growth forest, where the lungs of the earth are by turn breathing out and taking in the carbon that has disrupted the tender blanket of atmosphere nurturing human life in the last 10,000 years.

Here the land’s memory exists in the native species in the forest– and the human part of that both in that we have made this place safe for such natural life and in the old growth stumps telling how we cut all the old trees.  Now in the future, the land will be able to remember we gave it the freedom to express life as it can be here.

On these blooming spring days, the trails here are full of people of all ages.  Yesterday I was part of a bottleneck of five people trying to pass one another on that trail.  A young woman laughed at our bumbling crowd, and the insinuation that there might be too many of us, saying “We are all just loving this trail.”

This is one small place that can now hold for us the ancient library of natural knowledge we have barely begun to access in our own short time on earth as humans.  Further down the trail, I met two young men stopped to listen to a particular bird call. One spoke authoritatively to his friend about the places on the trail he had previously heard that call.

These are such simple things: Things I dream of in a future in which young men and women can feel the joy and attend to the knowledge of places where life is safe to be itself.  And they can join in this feeling of safety rather than a world scarred by climate change and toxins and extinctions.

This is not nature we have “saved”, this is the refuge we all need.

P1050367aOn this Earth Day 2015, we might well honor this need in ourselves for such sanctuaries of life. The ethical standard of “going on the side of life” becomes our own when we work to make any place safe for nature’s lives.

Imagine a bumblebee happily coming upon an evergreen huckleberry with its hundreds of blooms- or going dizzily, along with the butterflies and other bees, among the eclectic meadow flowers in your yard.

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In making a place for native species, we are honoring the land’s ancient memories and wisdom of the way natural life has come together over time.

In the wake of the 50,000 bumblebees dead from a pesticide application in a Wilsonville, Oregon parking lot, imagine being able to whisper to the bees who visit our yards, “You are safe. There are no poisons here.”

Imagine such corridors of safety everywhere,  along which more than human lives might migrate– and human children walk into their own future.  In which, as one of my neighbors phrased it, the plants grow in abundance, “happy to be here” along with other natural lives, including ourselves,

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In which we have the patience and humility to let nature design our fields and our yards, our gardens and our farms.  If we did that in California as a group of local women did in Bangladesh, we would not be hitting the wall with industrial farming’s overuse of water in the face of the current drought.  In Bangladesh, ecological farming methods recharged the water tables rather than drawing them down with the need to support plant varieties reliant on vast amounts of water and chemical fertilizers.

It is nature that designs all the places where life is happy to be– which is turn makes us happy to be here too. I am thinking of the story of an African-American woman who made a garden from a garbage-strewn vacant lot in New York City–and welcomed the young men of her community to share with her and to help her, thus planting seeds of heart as well as plants in their lives.

No matter what our personal spaces, we all have a natural place we can make into an essential place of refuge for life:  our own bodies.  Nature has designed those as well.

This Earth Day, we can listen to the wisdom that our bodies carry for us– no matter what our age or shape or personal history of accident or disease. And work to make our bodies and those of others safe.

We have uncounted challenges ahead as a species. But this is where our hope lies: as we make a safe place for life, life nourishes us in turn.

And thus we can each go on the side of life in our own way– accepting the wonder we are meant for.

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Fighting the Instincts of Self-Destruction

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By Madronna Holden

A good culture fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

—-Chinua Achebe

Lessons from an indigenous society

Among particular US Plains Indians, the traditional position of chief was based strictly on service rather than privilege. If other tribal members were hungry, it was the chief’s duty to feed them before he fed himself or his family. The chief’s teepee served as refuge for those embroiled in conflicts—and should those conflicts come to battle, his body was the first on the battle line.

The service required of the chief was so arduous that this position sometimes went vacant.

There are lessons in the undercutting of privilege in enduring human cultures like those above. I like to imagine the homes of our wealthy filled with those they are obligated to feed—a society in which wealth creates a duty to care for others rather setting privilege in the hands of a few.

And certainly contemporary warfare would take a cut if those who declared it were required to place their own bodies first on the battle lines.

No one had to inform these Plains societies of the ways in which privilege could undermine their society. For those who inappropriately tried to parlay leadership into privilege, they also had a remedy. A chief who misused his authority was liable to wake up alone on the Plains, where he would be chief of nobody after his people had abandoned him.

This is not a bad strategy today in the face of corporate privilege. Small communities all over the US are turning their backs on a Congress that caters to what money can buy to go about the business of caring for their communities—prohibiting pesticide use (as did a town in Maine), regulating or prohibiting the growing of genetically engineered seed to protect local farmers’ crops (in Santa Cruz County, Trinity County, Marin County, Mendocino County, and Humboldt County in California, San Juan County in Washington, Maui County and Hawaii County in Hawaii and Jackson County in Oregon) — or creating standards of carbon emissions to address climate change (in California, Oregon, and Washington—and north of the US in British Columbia).

Corporations well understand what such community moves mean to their privilege. Thus those bent on oil drilling are suing to put down a New Mexico community ordinance prohibiting fracking to protect local ranches – and Monsanto, along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is suing Vermont for its legislation labeling genetically engineered food.

These will not be easily won battles—it is no simple thing to confront privilege in the modern world where money buys so much. But in the end the largest international corporations are no more without their community base than a chief’s teepee alone on the Plains. Social privilege derives from society just as economic wealth is extracted from society– and society can revoke either of these.

We can choose where to spend our dollars—and thus reward corporations whose actions help to create what most of us actually want– a more just and environmentally sustainable world. At the same time we can stop rewarding those on a societal level whose actions create wealth for themselves and a diminished and dangerous world for our children.

Modern corporations know such choices are not small gestures, as indicated by the money they spend on “greenwashing” or “humanewashing” campaigns, which play on citizens’ desires to support ethical and environmentally sustainable businesses.

These corporations might benefit from dropping the semblance and simply acting according to standards their communities can support.

Take the case of Forrest Paint, a family-owned business in Eugene, Oregon. When the Eugene Toxics Right to Know ordinance was passed, it required them to publically list the toxics used and emitted in their business—and to be taxed accordingly.

At first Forrest Paint attacked that ordinance, joining a legal suit along with other businesses to strike it down. But after a year or two of battling on, they got smarter. Forrest Paint installed an innovative state of the art recovery process for its chemicals. It has now become a national leader in non-toxic paint manufacturing.

Instincts of Self-Destruction

All communities need elders, mediators, and grandparents whose wisdom and presence serve as refuge for the vulnerable and guides for the future. Today we also need business leaders like Seventh Generation Chairman and “Chief Inspired Protagonist” Jeffrey Hollender and Fortune 500 CEO Max DePree—and the Forrest family– to keep our economy running.

Yet as the Chehalis Indians observed, power is just as dangerous as it is powerful. Authority can easily get out of hand. Thus enduring societies have mechanisms with which to direct and guide the power they allocate to any individual or group of individuals. Hollender (“Regulate Me, Please”) reminds us a society that operates in economic free fall with its dictum of “internalizing benefits” (keeping profits for oneself) and “externalizing costs” (passing them off to others) supports those who create what few of us want.

This process also unfairly taxes those who would do the right thing, since it costs ethical business more than those who don’t abide by environmental or social justice considerations. In the contemporary world this has left us with climate change, an escalating cancer epidemic caused by environmental contaminants and a society in which one per cent of the population controls 99 per cent of its wealth.

A working democracy needs another tact. Indeed, a surviving society needs a another tact.

The founders of the US knew such regulation was necessary. In order to earn their license to operate, the first US corporations had to prove they provided service to their communities—and they had to continue to do so. Their licenses were only renewed on condition of their continuing good conduct.

“The best societies”, says Nobel Prize winning novelist Chinua Achebe, “fight the instincts of self-destruction”. A key “impulse of self-destruction” is the impulse to dominate others. Achebe illustrates with an historical example from his Igbo (Nigerian) tradition. The Igbo knew themselves well—they knew that each man among them wished to be king. They limited this impulse by structuring their society as a constellation of small face to face communities—villages in which power could be asserted in socially constructive ways and the abuse of power thwarted.

The Igbo were well aware there were other possibilities for structuring society—such as the nations the British deemed more “civilized”. But they kept to their villages because they knew themselves– and thus devised this way to “fight their instincts of self-destruction”.

Cultural Deregulation

When British colonialism supplanted the traditional Igbo social structure, 600 Igbo villages suddenly had kings vying to rule over their fellows. As depicted in Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, individuals with a strong impulse toward leadership—who might have made positive contributions and been honored for them in the cultural context that regulated and directed their power—were left in the lurch.

Their actions not only tore their societies apart, but bled any sense of meaning from their own lives.

Jeffrey Hollender lends contemporary perspective to this dynamic in his essay, “Regulate Me, Please” which lays out the logic of ground rules to guide business activities toward creating what most of us want: clean and just and sustainable communities. The cooperative stance of unions and auto makers in Germany is an example of the positive outcomes of a regulatory environment in which human dignity and economic well-being are linked.

It is the responsibility of a community that assigns power to any individual or group of individuals to offer guidance and direction along with that power—lest what might otherwise serve society tear it apart. Without such regulation, as Hollender asserts, “business is eventually doomed to eat itself”—to erode the social and environmental ground that allows it to flourish.

Without regulation, power easily becomes privilege—setting loose the impulses of self-destruction that today threaten the very survival of life on our precious planet.

Becoming a “good culture”

To be a thriving culture we need to know ourselves well. We need to understand our own impulses—and also how to best use these—to guide them so that they do not become self-destructive.

We need to understand our responsibility—as individuals and members of our communities—to shape and guide the power we license. To Thomas Jefferson’s observation that we cannot find too many ways to divide power, we might add that we cannot find too many ways to educate ourselves about the results of our actions—or too many ways to reward actions that result in the society we want—and inhibit those that do not.

Achebe’s perspective tells us that there are no perfect human beings—anymore than there are perfect human societies.

But as we face the challenge of repairing a world in which every natural system is currently in decline and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we have both the capability and the imperative of becoming one of those good cultures that “fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

The Long Nights of Winter: The Earth’s Sleep and Our Own

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Madronna Holden (copyright 2014)

Sleep is essential not only to memory and formation  of new neural connections, but also to our brain’s physiological maintenance.  Thus sleep researchers explain why we evolved this physically dangerous activity—picture humans asleep on our ancestral African savannah with nocturnal predators on the prowl.

The dreams that lace our sleep, in turn, are as crucial to our mental function as our daylight rationality. In laboratory experiments those deprived of REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming) sleep grow increasingly disoriented in their waking lives, finally hallucinating visions they are deprived of in sleep. REM is apparently our most crucial type of sleep, since it the type our bodies make up first after sleep deprivation.

Perhaps we most need dreams to remind us of the connections by which our world operates. Theologian Matthew Fox and biologist Rupert Sheldrake propose that in sleep we fall back into the experience of the primal oneness of life, bridging the boundaries that separate us from one another in the light of day.  There is something to be said for this, since our dreams are associative in nature, exploring connections of every kind, from the fantastic and the visionary to the mundane and spurious.

These nighttime associations alert us to what we might otherwise ignore — as in Gail Tremblay’s poem in Indian Singing in the Twentieth Century, in which the Coyote comes down from museum walls at night to dance with his curators. Like Coyote’s night business, ancient ceremonies honor the earth’s season of sleep in the long nights of winter by increasing awareness of what we may ignore in the light of habit. The early Roman Saturnalia that took place at the time of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) shifted the ordinary order of things, closing courts and schools, interrupting wars, dismissing old grudges—and reversing social statuses of master and slave.

Unfortunately, under the later Roman Empire, the Saturnalia degenerated into a licentious spree. Likewise, Coyote stories illustrate both the need for creative action and the need for balance in applying it.  Coyote tales in indigenous North American sometimes portray Coyote as a wise transformer and other times as foolishly self-defeating, his escapades destroying himself and those around him.

Thus Coyote tales explore the impulse of experimentation within us– but not everything we think of should be done. In like fashion, indigenous tales from pioneer days on the Olympic Peninsula warn that certain pioneer technologies had their downsides—making humans work harder when they were meant to make things easier.

Doing whatever he thinks of is Coyote’s method, but as his stories show, this is not a wise course of action. Without moral standards and critical assessment, our creative impulses generate unintended consequences—as do too many forms of technology in the modern day.

Our dreams with their associative structures are here to remind us what we might otherwise forget—that we live in an interdependent world. They create awareness as do the salmon-shaped stickers placed on storm drains that announce, “Drains to stream”. Our world is made up of connections—and thus the waste we dispose of goes somewhere to affect other lives.

Traditional winter ceremonies, in turn, make conscious associations like those our dreams make spontaneously.  Ceremonies in the indigenous Pacific Northwest emphasize the connections between the living and dead, for instance, and designate the long nights of winter as the occasion of storytelling, bringing ancestral memory to consciousness.

This parallels the case in old Europe, where the archeology tells us Stonehenge is both a monument to the solstices (especially the winter solstice) and home to the ancestors–  a five mile circuit  there linking the living and the dead.

Vision and memory merge in winter ceremonies as they do in our dreams–and these are linked with healing in its root meaning of “wholeness”.  This shamans know as they travel to the land of the ancestors to access healing power in long winter nights—and Merlin practiced in a folk history of Britain. building Stonehenge from stones with medicinal power.

Winter ceremonies thus honor the similarity between the physiological housekeeping that cleans our brains of waste chemicals in sleep and the winter housekeeping of earth, whose cleansing cold destroys particular viruses, bacteria, and molds— and thus inhibits the spread of certain diseases—a concern if global warming allows these to proliferate instead.  Indeed, the most recent meetings of the American Society for the Advancement of Science included a paper given by Michael Grigg, 0f University of British Columbia and the National Institute of Health, who observed that “ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens”–and thus the current “big thaw” is resulting in the “liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc”.

Fleas and lice are destroyed by a month in a deep freeze—as are the larvae of the wax moth that trouble honeybee frames. Winter cold is necessary to other things as well: without a certain number of hours of winter chill, the apple tree will not bear—nor will other fruit trees that have their own winter chill requirements.

Beneath the snow the soil works transformations that support life, composting waste into fertility. Like the resulting black soil, our deep selves are rendered fertile in what they remake from our psychic wastes—our pain, our confusion, our illness, our weakness, our vulnerability.

Black soil is life-sustaining. Light soil, which has taken on few wastes to transform, is feeble by comparison.

Many of us in the industrialized world live at conscious remove from the earth’s seasonal cycles.  But this winter’s storms have brought us back to that connection in no uncertain terms. For all our technological expertise, we are still embedded in the natural world—and we cannot escape responsibility for carbon pollution and ensuing climate instability.

The vanishing ice that the polar bear would rest on, the melting glaciers that cause sea levels to rise in island nations, and the melting permafrost that makes swamp of former solid ground in the Arctic, are a few of earth’s reminders of the necessity of honoring the balance of seasons.

Such reminders are a grave part of life in the Philippines and the Arctic—and thus their leaders are among the strongest advocates for reduction of the global carbon output.

Seasonal cold even has a role in keeping us warm. Raising temperatures– and thus melting polar ice sheets– may well cause North America and Northern Europe to suffer colder winters due to the influence of melting ice on ocean currents.

We cannot escape the necessity of seasonal balance any more than we can escape our daily patterns of sleep and waking. Just as the earth’s rhythms remind of the necessity of her seasons, our bodies alert us to our own cycles of light and dark.  Should we neglect either of these, we suffer reminders such as the wild weather this winter in North America—and the upsurge of breast cancer among shift workers.

Like the transformation of wastes into fertile soil, the caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon reminds us that that which is sleeping is also being remade.  Admittedly, it may be inconvenient to experience such melt—and the dissolution of all boundaries as the caterpillar must before it can realize its future as a butterfly.

But it is a wise society whose stories allow us to see beyond the boundaries habit and convenience describe. With their good work of exposing the results of our choices such stories release our creative vision as they allow us to remember our past and avoid its mistakes.

We could use a few such stories to shift the habitual order of things, giving us an occasion to loosen old grudges, stop wars—or reverse the roles of factory workers and CEOs.

We could use ceremonies that bring to awareness those ideas—or people—our society excludes, like the homeless who filled “warming centers” during this past December’s unprecedented cold (ten below zero) in my home of Eugene, Oregon.  Those tending these shelters re-gather into community men and women more easily ignored in fair weather when they are not so likely to die on our streets, as did the man for whom Eugene’s shelters are named, Thomas Egan.

We cannot escape the fact that these homeless are members—and results– of our society any more than we can escape the seasons.

As the earth’s ancient ceremonies indicate, the long nights of winter are put to good use in psychological and social cleansing cold.

Winter is a perfect time to remember we are creatures of vision as well as daily habit– to re-gather our memories, extend our community, and dream our future well.

Honey in the making: a photo essay

By Madronna Holden

spring 2013 053Bee covered in dandelion pollen

spring 2013 014         Bee busy on butterfly lavender. They appreciate regular lavender too– and Russian sage

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bee on bluebell

Bee sipping nectar from a bluebell: note the pollen packet on her leg.

013Continuing a partnership began over a hundred million years ago

Bees on mountain blue and other asters.

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Bees are working everywhere.  Please don’t spray!  Especially when a plant is blooming. And don’t use insidious granules or injections of products containing “neonics” on trees. These will continue to poison pollinators for years. 

Did you know spraying a blooming honey plant is also against the law?  Help protect the pollinators that are essential to the majority of human food crops– not to mention the health of our ecosystems.

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Bee sipping from an English ivy bloom: photo taken in November when other nectar crops are sparse

bee on the way to pollinate clematis

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Bee heading for a clematis flower and working it

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Bees on mint blooms: one of their favorites

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stuffing pollen baskete

             bee on fennel                                                 Fennel is another favorite

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Bee on rosemary: herb nectar helps keeps bees healthy

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Love that rosemary!

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Bee on boxwood:  bees work tiny closed buds to get them to open. Research shows that the presence of bees stimulates blooms on other plants as well.

006And where you find honeybees, you find native pollinators as well

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Is it just me or does this bee look a bit giddy?  When the blackberry bloom is on in May and early June, the honey flow is abundant!

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Lunara blooms in early spring to bring in the bees

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And bees don’t forget the forget-me-nots

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I can’t say it too often!  Don’t poison bees that do so much for us–and don’t poison other wildlife, pets and children!

These photos represent only a very small portion of the diversity of honey plants utilized by bees. For instance, there are our fruit and nut trees.   I didn’t get any pictures of bees working twenty or thirty feet in the air, but my burgeoning backyard fruit crop indicates their presence. There are also our ornamentals:  such as linden, locust, maple and poplar utliized for nectar, pollen, and propolis (the bee “antibiotic”).  They will also work single-petaled roses such as Nootka and Darwin’s Enigma and join native pollinators on mock orange and ceanothus.  Bees could compose their own plant encyclopedia– likely far more extensive than the ones humans put together!

Visit Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers  for more  information on protecting our honeybees and native pollinators.


These photos are protected by copyright Madronna Holden 2013, but feel free to link here and use these pictures (with credit)  in any way that supports the protection of our honeybee and native bee populations.

Beauty May Save Us: The Power of Nature’s Beauty

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By Madronna Holden

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, a young Appalachian woman’s longing for something different—something just for herself—pulls her toward disaster in her susceptibility to sexual manipulation.

But on her way to an illicit rendezvous, her course of self-destruction is interrupted by a natural wonder.  She see the woods full of what seems to be a mysterious orange fire that she later learns it is a gathering of monarch butterflies.  This experience tells her that the passion she seeks is not about giving herself away.  It is erotic in an entirely different way:  a way that turns her onto a path of care for herself, her children– and the miracle of nature endangered by climate change.

As this novel indicates, our response to beauty can be centrally implicated in our personal choices.  It is also implicated in our cultural story.

That story prompted pioneers to ravage the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in their attempt to tame the land.  Some felt a fear bordering on panic of the grandeur of the old growth forests –a fear of the beauty that not only set humans in their humble place in the nature of things but was simply too much for them—too overwhelming. The self-styled heroes of Manifest Destiny hardly sought to be overcome by wonder.

We can only imagine how different our history might be had pioneers instead told a story that honored the beauty of the world that bestowed them with life, as did the Seri of the Baja Peninsula. Seri tradition has it that inside each of us is a flower and inside that flower is a word– the seed of language. To lose the beauty of such words is to lose the world they belong to.

Indeed, words of this kind have the power to revitalize our lives.  Poet, initiated Seneca medicine person, and translator of world poetry Jerome Rothenberg tells us that poets today inhabit a “Neolithic subculture” in which nouns become verbs and the leaden surety of ownership, hierarchy and control become vision, vitality—and life.

This reverses the dynamic in advertising that moves in the direction of life to death– as it downplays natural beauty in favor of consumer icons.  The feminine bodies such ads sell us are flawless –in a mortuary version of beauty possible only in the death of the actual body.

The intrusion of death into so-called beauty products is reflected by their ingredients—which include lead and other toxins.

Unfortunately, ads that link eroticism and death reflect a cultural truism.  The majority of women murdered in the US are murdered by lovers or ex-lovers.

Eroticism is connected with violence in another way observed by Maria Mies in her essay, “White Man’s Dilemma”. She observes how those responsible for destruction of the environment and its indigenous lives tour “exotic” places and partake in “sex tourism” in the attempt to regain the mystery and excitement of what they have destroyed—to recover the vitality of their own lives.

Just as love is at odds with control, beauty is at odds with ownership– whether that beauty be in other humans or the natural world.

Expanses of monochrome lawns exhibit an aesthetic akin to the airbrushed complexion of women in ads—and with as much hazard to the vitality of each.  Such lawns showcase the control of nature reliant on the death of unwanted  insects and “weeds” —and of lives shortened by exposure to pesticides.

Expanses of unremitting sameness are not an element of natural beauty.  Indeed, as educator Jean Kilbourne points out, they are not an aspect of life.

By contrast, our affinity with the natural world—our perception of loveliness based on diversity and vitality—results from the hundred thousand years in which we became human in concert with the natural world.

In that history, our sensual alertness developed as a survivor’s trait.

To deaden this sensual alertness takes considerable denial—and can result in considerable destruction. Nazi doctors interviewed by Robert Lifton cut off their own sensual awareness to facilitate their terrible acts– since if they had been fully present to those acts, they knew they would have been incapable of going through with them.

I heard a member of the Allied Liberation Forces in World War II make a similar point.  For him, the horror of the camps was encompassed in their smell:  the smell of dead and decaying human bodies.  He washed his clothes for a month after returning home in the attempt to get the stench of death out of them.  Yet when he asked inhabitants of a village near the camps how they stood the smell, they replied, “We smelled nothing”.

Today we numb ourselves to the ugliness of bulldozer- scraped land, ignoring its ruin for the sake of “development”.  But we do so at our peril. The same peril that follows our ignoring climate change in spite of the droughts and storms currently escalating in our weather patterns.

Indeed, it is only at our peril that we ignore the results of any of our actions.

Natural beauty may save us from such peril by calling us back to the world– re-awakening us to our sensual presence in the world– and our conscience in the process.

According to Navajo tradition, the harmony of the natural world expresses a model of harmony  in human life.  To “walk in beauty” is to be blessed with goodness.

Artist Lily Yeh would agree.  Her work  illustrates the potential for healing that exists in beauty.

In 1986 Yeh began an eighteen year campaign to bring beauty to impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.  She involved  local children in painting murals and constructing mosaics, creating oases of beauty in abandoned lots.  Eventually community adults joined her, including former drug lords who gave up their addictions to do so–and together they reclaimed large swathes of formerly devastated neighborhoods.

Yeh sees her creation of jewel-like mosaics as a powerful symbol, since we are all broken in some place–and mosaics use this brokenness as material with which to create beauty.

Yeh didn’t stop with the Village of the Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.  She next set out to bring beauty to the survivors of a massacre in Rwanda living beside the unburied bones of 10,000 victims of genocide. These survivors wanted most of all to give their dead a reverential burial– but did not have the resources or the heart to do it.

Yeh worked with them to construct an expansive mosaic monument to protect the bones of the dead. The ceremonial burial that followed caused many to collapse in reliving their grief years after the massacre.

But after this burial, the community continued working with Yeh with new energy, turning children’s drawings into community murals that expressed their dreams for the future.

The revitalized local spirit drew help from outside even as it sparked energy within.  By the time Yeh left Rwanda, the survivors’ village  had  recovered weaving, planting and harvesting traditions; they had goats and cows and a clean reliable water supply from harvested rainwater, and they had built  solar arrays to power the sewing machines in a business operated by orphans of genocide.

“We celebrate life in beauty”,  to use Yeh’s guiding words.

But we can only do so if we have the courage, as Yeh did, to face the consequences of our human actions.  In going to Rwanda, Yeh was terrified–yet beauty led her on, since she believes that in the heart of the worst tragedy is a point of light waiting to be brought out.  It is our task to find and ignite the beauty waiting there.

Such beauty may yet heal us:  yet show us the way to repair our world.

Thus we must guard this beauty in one another along with our own creative impulses and the natural beauty that reminds us of our place and responsibilities in life.

Such beauty cannot be controlled or purchased–nor can we guarantee its permanence.

We can only nurture it– and make ourselves available to wonder.


This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.