Once a month the Roadrunner Foodbank distributes pounds and pounds of food on the Mescalero Apache reservation in southern New Mexico. I lived and worked in Mescalero for a little over a year as an Americorps volunteer on an educational farm in 2015. I often helped distribute food to the many families that came to collect items, and I even received some food myself. The food bank provides an excellent service to a great number of families and individuals on the reservation, however, there were some less than desirable facets. We would often receive highly processed and sugar-laden foods, like cookies and cakes, and sometimes we would receive produce like chayote squash and aloe leaves that local people didn’t know how to cook. One month we received an inordinate amount of chewing gum. Bread, produce, and other canned goods were incredibly useful and well received by the Apache families, but some items weren’t exactly nutritional or beneficial.
Currently, within the United States, there are approximately 200 food banks that distribute food to over 60,000 food pantries(Fisher 2017). As of 2016, 46 million Americans visited food pantries, approximately 1 out of every 7 people. Although the generous charity and rosy intentions of kindly Americans certainly aid many of the hungry and poverty-stricken individuals in the U.S, most donors fail to recognize the underlying alliance between anti-hunger campaigns and big business. In his latest book, “Big Hunger”, Andrew Fisher untangles the insidious webs woven between corporate interest and charitable agencies. I attended Mr. Fisher’s short, but enlightening talk on the topics discussed in his book at Grassroots bookstore in late October.
Andrew Fisher began his talk by addressing the history of these charitable organizations in this country. Food banks gained popularity in the United States in the early 1980’s due to the economic recession coupled with president Reagan’s slashing of economic safety nets (Fisher 2017). Since then, food banks have become a commonplace and accessible service across the United States. However, the growth of food banks has been seen to benefit some far more than others. According to Andrew Fisher, some CEOs of food banks rake in upwards of $250,000 annually. The roots of big business have also snaked their way into the workings of food banks, with 22% of food bank board members being affiliated with fortune 1000 companies like Kraft and Walmart. These companies hold a certain level of clout when it comes to making policy for food bank operations. For example, food banks typically measure success by the weight of food received and donated. This sounds like a plausible technique until one considers that liters of soda weigh far more than bread or romaine lettuce. The lettuce lobby appears vastly underfunded compared to PepsiCo.
Walmart, the largest corporation in the United States, is renowned for their millions of pounds of donations to charities and food banks across the country (Forbes 2017). However, Andrew Fisher contends, that this is a huge ploy to gain popularity among consumers (Fisher 2017). He attests that although Walmart certainly isn’t anti-hunger they are not anti-poverty. One could argue that they actually thrive on poverty. In fact, it is commonplace for Walmart to encourage their employees to visit food banks and sign up for government benefits, such as SNAP, that can be spent at their stores. According to an article published by Forbes, in the year 2013 Walmart accounted for 18% of sales involving SNAP benefits (Forbes 2014). The article cites a report conducted by the Americans for Tax Fairness coalition that calculated U.S. taxpayers paid $6.2 billion in public assistance to low wage Walmart employees in 2013. Fisher asserts that Walmart store employees that do not hold managerial positions often work a 32 hour work week so that Walmart can legally avoid denying them the benefits that go along with full-time employment (Fisher 2017).
What if Walmart did decide to pay a higher hourly rate? Would prices soar? Not really. The Labor Center at UC Berkeley determined that if Walmart paid all of their employees at least $12 per hour it would cost them $3.2 billion, 1% of the companies annual sales (Jacobs 2011). If Walmart decided to pass off the cost of raised wages to the consumer, the study finds that it would cost the average shopper about $12.50 more per year. For workers earning less than $9 per hour, this $12 per hour wage increase would amount to an extra $3,250- $6,500 in their pockets annually. That would mean less need for public assistance, and less reliance on food pantries for meeting basic needs. The solution to poverty lies in addressing not just hunger, but also wages.
As the season of giving fast approaches, many Americans will be donating to the plentiful food drives and food banks across the nation. Although the relationship between anti-hunger campaigns and big business is quite shady indeed, there are 41.2 million people in the United States that are food insecure (USDA 2017). Donating to a food bank or pantry is very generous and kindhearted, and by no means should anyone discontinue supporting hungry individuals and families. However, if we as a country wish to truly assist those in need we must help pull people out of poverty instead of continuing this cycle of impossibly low wages coupled with the constant need for assistance. If we really wish to help those in need perhaps we should couple our fight against hunger with a fight for fifteen.
FISHER, A. (2017). BIG HUNGER: the unholy alliance between corporate america and anti-hunger groups. S.l.: MIT PRESS.
This word, subversive, has come up frequently for me in recent conversations in class, in community organizing, and while reading books and articles. It’s eerie. Before a seminar discussion, a few weeks ago, about ecology as a subversive subject, I do not recall paying any attention to the word, let alone having a full grasp of what it meant. Now I am seeing and hearing it all over the place, and I cannot help but think about the connections between each situation when the word comes up.
To be subversive is to attempt or intend to undermine, disrupt, or overturn an established assumption, system, or paradigm. Aside from it being the perfect word that describes my reason for being in the Environmental Arts and Humanities Master’s program, subversive was not an adjective in my verbal repertoire, until now.
So how does this relate to climate change and sustaining a successful movement against the major ecological destruction we are heading toward?
On October 19th, I had the honor of speaking on a panel about civic action for an undergraduate class at OSU titled, “Climate Change and its Challenges: Responding with Resilience in Community”.
Professor Ken Winograd, from the College of Education, invited me to panel alongside Professor Linda Richards, from the School of History Philosophy and Religion, and David DeHart, a Senior in Environmental Science. I have organized demonstrations and workshops with Ken, Linda, and David before, and was happy to be in their company while talking to the group of eleven students about climate change activism.
Professor Winograd asked us panelists to respond to two prompts: What are the different types of action? What are the personal benefits for activists? The three of us had input that complimented what we each had to say. It was great to have different perspectives and experience levels while talking about these larger concepts. Linda spoke about making a promise to herself as a young girl to end war when she saw the photo of nine year old Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. She later realized she could actually keep that promise when she discovered nonviolence as both an ideology and a practice in organizing around nuclear disarmament. David spoke about finding a sense of community that can emotionally sustain folks while dealing with difficult issues in activist and organizing groups.
Ken wanted us panelists to show his students that there are many forms of action and many roles one can take to be involved in a particular protest or demonstration.For many who see the pictures in the news of the brave folks suspending themselves from bridges like during the Shell No campaign, or sitting in front of trains, such as the Vancouver 21, activism may seem too daunting, too dangerous, too arrest-able.
I wanted to give the students a more holistic sense of what those types of demonstrations entail. I spoke about the many roles involved in planning and performing such an action. Roles can include legal observers, media and police liaisons, even those who are providing child care for organizers, and supplying food and water for people. All of these roles are integral to a successful action and are needed to sustain movements that are subversive to the systems at the root of climate change: capitalism, imperialism, and heteronormative, white supremacist patriarchy.
I mentioned that action can also be more on the creative side, such as the street theater that was performed on February 1, 2016 by community organizers that were contributing to the global Divest campaign. After months of the student and faculty led OSU Divest group trying to persuade the OSU Foundation to divest from fossil fuel company holdings, to no avail, community members decided to escalate tactics to really get the Foundation’s attention. We created a mock oil spill on the Memorial Union Quad, with a clean-up crew trying to keep passersby out of the danger area, while people acting as the CEO of Exxon Mobil and OSU President Ed Ray stood by shaking hands and doing “business as usual”. Members from OSU Divest, and Rising Tide Corvallis spoke to the crowd about the ethical implications of public entities, such as universities, profiting off of climate change. It was creative, fun, and lively, and it got attention.
After the panel discussion we split into groups with the students and discussed what their thoughts were and if any of them felt compelled to take part in any actions in the future. Most of the students had not heard of the support roles needed in safe and successful protests, and some of them mentioned their interest in becoming more involved in the community. One student seemed really interested, and to me, that is a win!
My impression, upon leaving that day, was that we had imbued the students in Ken’s class with the knowledge and confidence to become more active in the movement to mitigate climate change. The three of us, with various experiences and reasons for being involved ourselves, ignited sparks in some of the students that were not previously lit. Without our discussion, the students would not be moved to partake in any form of resistance. Or so I thought, until I attended an event the next evening, which was subversive to those assumptions.
Kevin Van Meter came to OSU and spoke about his recently published book, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make Revolution Possible, on October 20th.
During the book review, Kevin explained that the premise of his claim is based on subverting an assumption held by organizers and activists on the left. That assumption is that laborers, students, the poor, “are unorganized, acquiescent to systems of domination, or simply uninterested in building a new world”. Organizers, whether they are members of a union, or a group based on immigrant rights, often feel like they need to come into a space and teach the people how to be radical, how to organize and resist the systems of oppression in which they are immersed. But most people are already resisting in ways, that when looked at as a whole, are fairly subversive. This includes taking a longer break at work in order to make a doctor’s appointment because our lives cannot be neatly packaged outside of our nine to fives, or students spending time doing meaningful activities with friends and family that may cost them a lower GPA, or immigrants that learn and share techniques for a livelihood in a place that is constantly hostile to them.
These everyday forms of resistance are political and are often underestimated, or overlooked on the left. Kevin’s talk taught me an important lesson: While trying to inspire action in people, especially those that are most affected by issues such as climate change, organizers like myself need to meet people where they are at and try to understand the ways in which they are already resisting. This is an ecological view, to look at the connections and intersections of small acts of resistance that feed into the larger forms of action. It is key to understanding how to form alternatives to the systems we resist. And it is humbling for activists and organizers to acknowledge that everyone can and does resist on some level.
So, while speaking on the panel for the eleven undergraduate students was subversive to climate change, it was so for different reasons than I originally thought.
Instead of the three of us acting as givers of knowledge and empowerment, we were starting a conversation that allowed for the self-actualization of power and resistance. We were building relationships that illuminate the common ground we share. And we were resisting climate change in that moment by having a discussion in a class about responding to climate change, in a classroom at Oregon State University.
When you consider what types of large-scale social and individual changes that are needed to actually mitigate the climate crisis,you can’t be much more subversive than creating community and better understanding our own every day forms of resistance.
Thanks to Ken, Linda, David, and Kevin. Also thanks to the Coalition of Graduate Employees, Students united for Palestinian Equal Rights, Anarres Project for Alternative Futures, Allied Students for Another Politics, and Corvallis-Albany I.W.W. for sponsoring the Kevin Van Meter event.
 Paul B. Sears, “Ecology: A Subversive Subject,” BioScience 14, no. 7 (1964): 11-13.
 Van Meter, Kevin. Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible. California: AK Press, 2017.
When writing this essay, I kept coming back to the idea of mathematical division, an attempt at grasping a metaphor for what we have done to the earth by constructing barriers, and what we have done to ourselves. You know, four divided by two equals now we each have less. The US/Mexico border is a prolific reality to this metaphor, it is a jagged scar across the continent that we can’t let heal. On October 20th at Oregon State University, as part of the School of Arts & Communication’s Visiting Artists and Scholars Lecture Series, the esteemed photographer, Richard Misrach, spoke on his most recent work that focuses on where nature and man interact on the US/Mexico border, a project titled, Border Cantos.
The wall spans 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States, barriers range in size and material, depending on where they are located. Misrach’s lecture featured an array of photographs that he had taken while near the border. The first that he showed were grouped under the title, “The Wall,” and featured images of the border juxtaposed against various and vibrant landscapes: rolling hills and peaceful beaches cut by the rust-black enormity of the wall. An image that stood out from the commanding group, was one of a small segment of wall, attached to nothing, in the middle of a flat barren landscape. It is stopping no one, physically, but it serves as an emotional reminder of division. At the bottom of the wall bright green grass is growing, it is the only green in the image, the only perceived life in the frame, and it is that of the natural world, bordering a pointless border wall, reclaiming and asserting itself against what is stark and lifeless in its hate.
Various items are used throughout the wall to separate the land. Bleak iron X’s are used to stop vehicles from crossing the border. They resemble large skeletal tumbleweeds, motionless and massive against the desert landscape.
Misrach has been working in partnership with the musician Guillermo Galindo, who makes musical instruments out of objects that Misrach has brought back from the wall. Such instruments include a large piece of the wall itself, hung between beams and played as a percussion piece. Galindo has also made instruments out of clothing and other found object left behind by immigrants, resulting in hauntingly moving compositions that speak to the migrant crisis and the resilience of art and life. Misrach played a sample from a composition that Galindo made from children’s belongings that had been left behind after thousands of lone children migrated from Central America. Children’s shoes, toys, and bibles were found in the middle of the desert. The composition was chilling and heartbreaking, Misrach partnered it with photographs from his “Artifacts Cantos” that were made at the places the items were lost by the children and found by the photographer.
The haunting artifacts of the desert documented in Misrach’s photos also included effigies made out of agave stalks and previously found migrant clothing. The effigies were made and left behind by an unknown artist. In Misrach’s photographs they stand like people with their arms and legs splayed out. Reaching and asserting themselves in the desert and against the wall.
The wall doesn’t just separate two nations, it also divides parts of the United States from itself. Misrach described this area as the “third nation,” a place considered to be a limbo between the US and Mexico, to the north of the Rio Grande and to the south of the border wall. Misrach’s photos of this area show the desolation of this forgotten country, abandoned and for sale buildings are reclaimed by the desert and lost to civilization. In another group of photos, titled “Premonitions Cantos,” Misrach explores the effects this division has had on people, which he describes as a “dystopian anger manifesting in different ways,” all displayed through graffiti, but all different raging voices. The hatered portrayed in these photos range from racial to religious, all bare against the abandoned houses its sprawled across. Misrach titled this canto “Premonitions” because the photos were made before the last presidential election, and he uses them to foreshadow and document the hate and frustration that led to its results. Since the election, Misrach has documented the continued dialogue in these desolate areas, how the hateful graffiti has continued in places, but has also changed in others with the political climate. Misrach referred to this change as a pushback against the larger cultural movement that is at the forefront of the Trump era. New messages have emerged in the graffiti:
“Set fire to your local bank,”
“Eat the rich,”
“Trump eats farts”
have been added to the narrative. If Misrach’s “Premonitions” photographs were able to take the temperature of the oncoming political storm, maybe these current message show that we are changing again, hopefully moving away from the wall, and the fear and misery that surrounds it.
In an image in Misrach’s “Other Side Canto,” he reveals the social and cultural division the wall creates between the San Diego/Tijuana border. The image is taken from the deserted San Diego beach, an area that is so militarized that no one uses it for recreation. The empty landscape against the height of the wall, which feels like the wall of a prison we have enclosed ourselves in, is ominous and inescapable. The feeling of our constructed cage is all the more persistent when gazing through the bars to the Mexico side: a lively recreation area crowded with beach goers playing in the surf and sand, enjoying a day on the coast.
Misrach’s photographs reveal the cut of the border over the natural world, the damage it has done to ecosystems through division of habitat, ecotones, and waterways. The photographs also reveal our clear-cut presence on this natural landscape, humanity portrayed as huge metal barriers altering the land and claiming it for our own. With all of these aspects in mind the photographs also show the damage we have done to ourselves: we have divided cultures and people, and lives in these ecotones, for we are part of the natural world we have changed. With these borders, we have done nothing but construct a cage for ourselves and the natural world around us, restricting growth and prosperity for all behind the wall.
These are the words I read on large posters as I entered the Sonia Sotomayor room at the CH2M Hill Alumni center at Oregon State University. The buzz that filled the room was energizing as women and their allies gathered for a day centered around change making in many different forms. I entered the gathering hall. Although I was expecting for this day to be inspirational, I wasn’t prepared for was the power surge I received from the passion and force shared by the speakers throughout the day. Luckily, I was not alone on this adventure, one of my dear mentors and dance sister Antigone was there. We spent the past year working together with teen girls from high schools around using the healing art of tribal style belly dancing to facilitate discussion around body image, identity, earth stewardship and much more. Kristina, a fellow Environmental Arts and Humanities student, also shared this experience. We were amazed by the speakers’ courage and their stories. Their gentle and loving reminders for radical self-love and self-care spoke to my heart that day.
Corvallis Changemakers was a conference for women & their allies that was “[C]reated by a group of friends in Corvallis, Oregon who, inspired by the upsurge in activism in our community and our nation, seek fresh voices, ideas, and tools to effect change.”
I want to share a little bit about the keynote speaker, Walidah Imarishaand what she calls visionary fiction. Walidah is a writer, educator and poet. During her presentation, Dreaming New Just Worlds: Visionary Fiction and Organizing, Walidah walked through the importance of imaginative spaces, offered through visionary fiction for exploring contemporary and historical problems. In addition to inspiring and transforming the way we imagine and re-imagine the realities of the future. She emphasized the power of the of our imagination through creative outlets, such as writing, to decolonize our minds. Using fictional storytelling as a catalyst for change requires some clarification about what the goals are within this genre.
A few points about visionary fiction:
It discusses current social issues
It is conscious of identity and intersecting identities
It centers leadership around marginalized and most affected
It is conscious of power inequalities
It is realistic and hard but hopeful
It is generative- creates options
Change is grassroots
It is nonlinear; dreams with past
It is not neutral
The most powerful statement that I gathered from this presentation is that, “art either advances of regresses justice.”
Goodness, what a hard act to follow, but all the speakers delivered. One common theme that echoed throughout the day was that sharing our stories is an act of resistance. It allows us to honor our multidimensionality and reclaim narratives that may be otherwise told for us. I believe this was a day dedicated to creating brave spaces and engaging in tough dialogue around the role of power and privilege regarding: gender, able-bodiedness, race, sexual orientation, etc., in the spaces we are hoping to transform.
I tried to capture more direct quotes from throughout the day, but it was nearly impossible. Have you ever had a time in your life when you wanted to capture every word that flowed from a person’s mouth. Try multiple people’s mouths during an all-day event. This exact feeling captivated me. So instead I will share a list of the panels I attended, along with the names of the speakers. Just in case any of you out there are interested in learning more about some of the amazing people who spoke that day. All of the conference speakers and their bios can be found at the Changemakers website.
Vulnerable Storytelling for Revolution
Panelists: Trystan Reese, Mary Zelinka, Alejandra Campoverdi
Unleash Your Inner Changemaker Through Intentional Relationship Building
Panelists: Rhonda Simpson, Lisa Wells, Stacey Rice
The diverse experiences and voices present created a dynamic program that required a lot of energy to remain mindful and engaged but also a fair amount of energizing reciprocated through activities and discussion. One of my favorite voices (and laughs) was a laughing activity shared by Traci McMerrit during the laughing labyrinth exercise. We used the healing aspect of laughter to create space in our heart center, relax, and build community. Apparently laughing is a way our body copes with stress, so laughter is good medicine. Other speakers such as Rhonda Simpson and Lisa Wells lead us through activities such as heart-centered breathing, yoga stretches (and shaking), which complimented powerful testimonies about the crucial need to put ourselves first, and take care of ourselves during our journey as change-makers.
So to sum up the day, we breathed together, stretched together, laughed together, shook together, cried together, learned together, grew together, and dreamed together. Not only was this a Sunday worth remembering and reflecting on through this blog, it was a day that contained golden nuggets of wisdom that I hope to come back to. I intended to focus on tools and solutions rather than problems, and to remember there is a vibrant and engaged community ready to serve as allies in a time of uncertainty. My only regret is not taking many pictures. So here is a link to the Corvallis Changemakers Instagram.
So, like most of the time in college, I am left with more questions than answers. But one question that is always worth exploring was presented by Rhonda Simpson during the final session, what makes your heart sing?
From there the thread of connectivity became apparent in my mind.
Invest in it. Nurture it. Thrive.
Inform yourself. Inspire others. Act.
Activate forces that support it. Educate others about it. Legislate.
What does not support its liberation…
Resist. Persist. Insist on change.
We are the Change Makers.
May our power rise, may we liberate ourselves, and may our collective wisdom continue to blossom.
It was a while ago when I began my teaching career at Gaston High School, located about 45 minutes west of Portland. Forested hills, the slow-winding Tualatin River, and low-lying onion fields surrounded the small rural town. Most of my students came from families who logged and farmed, and many of them fished, hunted and spent their summers helping neighbors and families with outdoor work.
Since most students had accumulated plenty of first-hand experience on the land, it worked well when I initiated our ecology unit with lessons about the Kalapuya people, who were the first to call Gaston their home. By learning what life was like before European contact, we were able to discover which plants and animals were native to the landscape. Irises, tarweed, camas and yew, willows, wapato and elderberries, deer, trout, and grasshoppers populated our class discussions. We also talked about the challenges and ingenuity required for living with the seasons. And we studied the shelters, clothing, and tools that were derived from the land, trees, and animals.
I’ve since had similar chances to teach Corvallis students about the Kalapuya bands who lived in the Marys River watershed. And over the years, my students and I have managed to plant camas bulbs (with trowels, not digging sticks), create cordage (from pre-gathered plant fibers), and prepare tasty wildfood dishes (some untraditionally sweetened with sugar). All in all, these overviews of Kalapuya lifestyles offered a satisfying foundation for studying place-based ecosystems. But in retrospect, I understand that my overviews were a bit over simplified and certainly over sweetened.
David Harrelson’s Lecture: “The Kalapuya Then and Now”
Three nights ago, the Marys Peak Group of the Sierra Club and the Spring Creek Project co-sponsored a lecture at the Majestic Theater entitled “The Kalapuya Then and Now” in honor of our area’s indigenous Chepenefu Kalapuya people. (Chepenefu, which refers to the place of the elderberry, was the native name for the Marys River and its valley, which encompasses present-day Wren, Philomath, and Corvallis.) David Harrelson, who is Kalapuya, was the evening’s guest speaker. He serves as the Cultural Resources Department Manager and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and he spoke eloquently on behalf of his heritage, which reaches back 500 generations.
Harrelson began his talk by pointing out that it’s critical for us to know and respect history, because it keeps people from being marginalized and their stories from being fabricated. Before sharing a traditional creation legend with us, he admitted we were a lucky audience. He explained, “You don’t tell stories till the first frost, and you don’t stop till the frogs croak.” And since Grand Ronde saw its first frost early that very morning, we got to hear a Kalapuya story about spirit power, dancing rain, mist, camas and clouds. Soon afterwards, we heard the legend of rising waters and people who were carried on the backs of birds, an indigenous account of the Missoula Flood of 15,000 years ago. Harrelson emphasized that each of the stories talks about place, and each telling helps bring back knowledge and traditions.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons traditional knowledge could have vanished from our contemporary lives. When settlers arrived between 1750 and 1850, they brought disease and conflict that wiped out most of the Kalapuya population. In addition, a series of treaties in the 1850’s forced western indigenous tribes to cede 14 million acres to the federal government. Eventually, over 27 bands were relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation, amounting to less than one-thousandth of their original land. The move also resulted in lack of food and shelter, and the incongruity of native people becoming agricultural “migrant workers” in their own homeland. Ultimately, the federal government essentially erased indigenous people: tribes were no longer acknowledged and native communities began to lose their continuity, language, and culture.
According to Harrelson, it was during the Civil Rights Era that a restorative path opened up for his ancestors. Locally, after decades of difficulty, some good and fundamental changes have finally brought improved housing and health care to the Grand Ronde Community. And, at last, authentic indigenous history has become part of Oregon’s public school curricula. Harrelson also noted how traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is becoming respected among natural resource managers as a viable approach toward sustaining all people and all life.
In closing, Harrelson described a few collaborative projects that are fueling hope for his people. There’s the “Plants for People” project with the Institute for Applied Ecology to propagate culturally important plant species. Likewise, the US Forest Service is partnering with native people to improve huckleberry and camas habitat. He’s especially excited about an ongoing project near Gaston, the little town where I first learned about Kalapuya lifeways. That low-lying onion field near the high school? It’s being restored back to its natural state as a shallow lake—Wapato Lake—so the wapato and knowledge of Kalapuya heritage can thrive once again.
A screening of the documentary “Food Evolution” followed by a discussion panel was held at the Learning Innovation Center Thursday, Septemeber 28th. It was nearly a full house in the rather stuffy classroom with one big screen and three smaller ones for the back rows. The lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and the film began.
“Amongst all the conflict and confusion, how are we going to make informed decisions about how we feed ourselves?”
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a renown astrophysicist and science communicator with a great sense of humor. His smooth voice began narrating the story of how our food became what it is today, busting myths and common misconceptions from start to finish. For example, he explained how everything we eat has been genetically modified in some way for preferable characteristics since traditional breeding thousands of years ago. We could easily consider our domesticated pets genetically modified as well. The difference in genetically modifying something and genetically engineering it is the method, which we have developed after years of trial and error to find the most effective and safe ways to select for the characteristics we need from plants (such as drought or disease resistance). Since GMO is a broad term (hell, even your cat is a GMO), I will be using GE here to refer specifically to the method that is in the midst of such fiery debate. For the sake of full disclosure, I played my title off of Dr. Kevin Folta’s campaign “Just Say No to ‘GMO’” (link goes to his first article about why we should say GE published June 1, 2017).
Other genetic engineering applications were also brought to light, such as life-saving insulin and rennet which is used to make cheese (we used to have to kill calves for their rennet, now we can grow it from bacteria). We learned how genetic engineering saved the Rainbow Papaya from going extinct (via a virus) and thus saving the papaya industry from collapsing in Hawaii. While Hawaii tried to ban all GE crops, they made an exception for the papaya. This cheery picking effectively hurt their argument that GEs cause health problems. The myths of GEs causing health problems were also debunked when our narrator explained that over 2,000 studies from around the world found no human health risks. This evidence echoed the film urging its audience not to trust one voice, but a consensus earlier on. And we learned that glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp which is used on RoundUp Ready seed) is less toxic than caffeine or salt, and is less toxic than any pesticide to come before it. Our narrator said calmly,
“To be concerned about the safety of your GMOs is to be misinformed.”
“They’re not farmers, they’re mad scientists!” one protestor in the film shouted out. This sentiment is why I found it so important that the documentary humanized the scientists and paid due attention to the effects of GE crops on developing countries. It did so by following stories of scientists and farmers working together. The narrator didn’t say it outright, but using GE crops is also an environmental justice issue.
Following farming families in Uganda and Kenya, I became quickly emotionally invested in their success. As more and more countries ban GEs, the fear of them grows and it is the developing countries that suffer the most. Banana Wilt devastated 50% of the crop and 1/3 of Ugandans were estimated to be suffering from this famine. At first, the idea of a genetically engineered alternative was met with hesitation and distrust by Ugandans and their government. But once the families went to go see the test crops, and see the health of the banana trees unaffected by the disease, the mother said, “These are just like ours!” with a big smile on her face. However, the grandmother’s face reviled a heavy heart; she was concerned about what they would do while they waited several years for the GE banana plant to be approved. Thankfully, the documentary reported that so far Kenya has agreed to lift the ban on GE crops on a case by case basis. This situation points out the humanitarian applications of genetic engineering. Golden Rice is another fine example; by adding the precursor to beta-carotene, people in developing countries no longer have to go blind and die from Vitamin A deficiency. Once African farmer felt so strongly about his GE crops, he said,
“Americans beware – when you say no to GE technology, you are suppressing Africa.”
I sincerely wonder what the GE opponents have to say about that. Here in the USA, many of us have the privilege of denying food if we so choose, and it’s thought of as a personal choice. Clearly, it is not, but rather a social choice with global consequences.
To my understanding, corporate greed and bias have broken people’s trust. Even Monsanto, the USA’s most hated company, openly admits that they should have been more transparent from the start. Yet, I wonder further, are we distrustful of the right companies? Did you know GreenPeace has become a group of ecoterrorists, destroying test crops in developing countries? Did you know that if a company were to try to “buy” scientists, Whole Foods actually has more money than Monsanto? Speaking of Monsanto, did you know the suicide rates of farmers in India hasn’t changed (despite rumors, from whom, exactly?) and that Monsanto continues to donate seed to developing countries as a humanitarian effort (for example, to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew)? If we must argue the virtues of companies and individuals, we must look at both sides. Plenty has been said to promote the anti-GE side (unfortunately most of based on poor science or straight up lies to sell you something), so allow me to present just who this anti-GE side includes.
Can scientists be bought? Have conflicts of interest? Sure. But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge their humanity. They are just like the rest of us. They are human, they have families, and they also want to feed their families healthy food. People make mistakes and when those mistakes are severe enough, the greater scientific community does not remain silent. For example, a scientist who has been discredited is Stefanie Senif. She doesn’t even have a biology background. She is a statistician who overlaid two graphs on each other, showing a rise in GE crops and a rise in autism, concluding that GE crops cause autism. For those of us that took biology, I’m sure most of us have memories of chanting, “Correlation does not equal causation!” It is really easy to make anything correlate. In the documentary, a couple scientists showed that if you lay a graph of organic food sales over autism diagnoses, using Senif’s logic you can just as easily conclude that organic food causes autism. As a society, we have become more accepting of mental illnesses and are better at diagnosing them. Additionally, psychologists also recently widened the spectrum of what is considered autism. Let’s start looking at links before we get too excited.
My least favorite scientist is French-born Gilles-Eric Seralini. In his rat study published in 2012, Seralini did not allow any scientists at his press release for the study and simultaneously announced his book release and a film about the study (conflict of interest much?!). Not only did he use rats that experience a high rate of tumor growth, he violated animal treatment standards by letting the rats live well past the point that most studies would conclude their work to prevent the animals from living in pain. However, the larger the tumor the more shocking the photos, so Seralini allowed the animals to suffer until the tumors took over most of the rats’ bodies. Disgusted by this along with the obvious bias and lack of rigor in his work, this study was quickly dismissed by the scientific community and they then called for a more stringent peer-review process from all scientific publications. The outcry and controversy generated when this paper was published, retracted, and republished was coined “the Seralini Affair.”
To look specifically for a case of companies “buying” scientists off, we need look no further than Charles Benbrook. For years he was the go-to scientist for anit-GMO studies until the New York Times published emails between him and his funders. They clearly showed he set up his studies with the intent of finding health benefits of organic foods and health risks of GE foods. Funders included Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Stoneyfield. He was let go from his post at Washington State University. You can read more about that at The Genetic Literacy Project along with lots of other fun facts.
All of these scientists were discussed in Food Evolution. But one audience member asked about someone else – Dr. Kevin Folta. The audience member asked how to have courage as a scientist to stand up to being accused of being a shill, having death threats sent to their office, and having their research burned to the ground. Sadly, the panelist simply said that not all scientists have that courage; many just quietly publish their work. But not Kevin Folta. He is the Chairman and a professor of the Horticulture Sciences Department at the University of Florida. After Joe Rogan urged him in an interview to start a podcast, Folta started Talking BioTech to reach out to everyone across the US to help spread accurate information about various bio-technologies.
Just because a company is “a huge corporation,” it does not automatically follow that it is “evil.” In fact, it takes a certain level of emotional maturity to move past the idea that things in life can be as black and white as “evil” and “good.” Even famous individuals, who are viewed as modern-day saints by their followers, are paid large sums for their positions. Vandana Shiva makes $40,000 per speech against GEs and Zen Honeycutt makes a commission on every food product sold that she promotes on her website. And while founding something with the title of “Moms Across America” sounds innocent enough, that organization has been known for shaming mothers for what they feed their children. In addition, they promise not to use donations to fund political campaigns, yet were blatantly caught in that lie when they marched up to the Environmental Protection Agency with 90,000 signatures to ban glyphosate. One of the mothers who faced the wrath of Mom’s Across America was Shelley McGuire, a scientist and mother, who dared to point out that the studies Moms Across America cited on their website were poorly done and flawed.
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”
This Mark Twain quote was actually the first image and words of the documentary. But did the scientific accuracy of the documentary get through to this audience, or the rest of its audience outside this screening? Keith Kloor says no, in his article in Slate titled, “Food Evolution Is Scientifically Accurate. Too Bad It Won’t Convince Anyone,” published last June. He believes the documentary missed the main issue in the GE debate: it’s not about facts, it’s about values.
So how do people make decisions? Mark Lynas, a British environmental activist who sheepishly admits he used to destroy test crops and openly apologizes for it, asks “When was the last time you changed your mind on something fundamental?” Lynas goes on to say that people don’t make decisions based on facts. Maybe a few initially, but it always comes down to a feeling, to what your gut says. Generally, once a person has made up their mind and then is presented with conflicting evidence, they dig their heels in even deeper to their previously held beliefs. Psychologists call this phenomenon “cognitive dissonance.”
The anti-GE movement uses the same fear tactics that its protestors complain of war mongers; they use fear. From Zen Honeycutt shaming mothers to Seralini telling parents their children will get cancer – it’s all fear based. And it works. It spreads confusion and spreads distrust, and sells lots of books and food products to those desperate parents who can afford to pay more for snake oil. However, Zen Honeycutt maintains the belief that there are no repercussions if she’s wrong about GEs. She must not have heard of Africa or shaming moms or the babies sent to hospitals because they get put on fad diets.
And so, it is my deepest hope that the film ventured deep enough into the connections between humanitarian efforts, environmental justice stories, and the humanity of scientists to convince people that we are all fighting for the same thing, that we all actually do have the same values and are on the same side. We are all fighting to have nutritious and abundant food that is secure and sustainable.
A few minutes after the film ended, the lights came up and the discussion panel made up of OSU science professors with various levels of expertise in specific areas of genetics, responded to questions from the audience. It was not nearly as exciting as the film, however, if you like a solid debate. Most questions were not concerned with the safety of GE food but the how to implement them as best as possible, such as crop rotation and effective combinations of GE crops and traditional practices. If anyone disagreed with the film they remained silent, although their questions would have been welcome. Essentially, the main point I took away from the panel was the same point made in the film by an organic farmer at UC Davis:
“…we should use every tool we have
to produce safe, accessible, healthy food.”
If you’re a student and want to know more about GEs, a highly recommended class is called “FW 435/535: Genes and Chemicals in Agriculture: Value and Risk,” and is also known as “the GMO class.” It’s taught by Steve Strauss who was a panel member and runs the Oregon State Forest Biotechnology Lab.
Leave it to me to go to an arts and music festival for a week and come home with about two tons of environmental angst resting on my shoulders. I just spent six days at the Oregon Eclipse Festival at Big Summit Prairie in the Ochoco National Forest, and although I’ve been home for almost a week, I’m still choking on the dust that will forever be in my lungs.
Before I completely turn you off with my pessimistic take on what most festival-goers probably perceived as a positively transformative experience, I want to be clear that I actually loved many aspects of the festival. The artists were incredibly talented, and nearly every person I encountered was friendly and open to engaging in conversation.
In fact, it is this open, loving attitude embodied by people at the festival that makes it all the more necessary for me to draw attention to the ways in which every single one of us who attended the Oregon Eclipse Festival contributed to the displacement and destruction of lives, purely for our own enjoyment. The festival was amazing in many ways, but the emphasis on human experiences were not without consequences for the plants and animals displaced and/or killed so we could party all week.
The festival took place on private land surrounded by public National Forest land. Months before the event took place, the rancher who owns Big Summit Prairie, Craig Woodward, was quoted in an article in the Bakersfield Herald as saying that what happens on his land is nobody’s business but his. While this argument falls flat in a number of ways I will not pursue today (i.e. “his” land was stolen from Native Americans and is not really “his” at all; also, this man should not be allowed to decide the fate of every autonomous plant and animal living in the prairie) I would like to focus on the fact that he allowed more than 30,000 people to enter “his” private land, making what happensin that area suddenly the business of, well, more than 30,000 people.
So, what happened in that area? I can’t find much information on exactly how the prairie was “prepped” for the festival, but after having seen the less disturbed land surrounding the festival in comparison to the actual festival area, here are my guesses:
– Vegetation (mostly grass and sagebrush) was killed and showed no signs of growing back. Many scraggly, dead tufts of brush were scattered along the ground everywhere we went. They had not been uprooted but, rather, were dead in the ground. I’d like to know if herbicides were used and which ones.
– The soil was severely compacted, leaving the ground everywhere hard and barren. We tried to stake down tents in multiple spots and were unable to even drive the stakes through the ground, though some of this was due to rocks.
– The removal of vegetation and compaction of soil, in combination with trampling from tens of thousands of people each day, contributed to severe soil loss and erosion. A h
ealthier soil profile consists of some layer of organic matter (i.e. leaf litter, twigs, fungi, other things that decompose), a layer of topsoil that is the partially decomposed matter, a layer for water filtration, and subsequent layers containing insects, worms, and eventually bedrock. It was clear that the first few soil layers were gone from the festival site as the dust in the air increased each day, and I began to sympathize with those who lived during the infamous Dust Bowl.
– I suspected some trees were cut down, and my suspicions were confirmed when we left the festival and saw a pile of branches and trees alongside the road.
In addition to all of that, the festival itself brought with it two other major concerns for the Big Summit Prairie ecosystem:
– Light pollution is a true disruptor for wildlife. Think of bats and other critters who hunt at night and how their sense might be affected if nighttime never seems to come. The constant flashing of colorful lights from all the stages throughout the night and into the dawn (really, they never stopped) was admittedly exciting and beautiful, but that is coming from a narrow human perspective. I urge you all to ponder how this must have disturbed the birds, deer, bats, rodents, and others likely fleeing the festival area that was once their home.
– Noise pollution rages hard at music festivals, so you can only imagine the environmental consequences of a festival that lasts all week. There were seven large stages at Oregon Eclipse, and I went to sleep every night with a bass beat vibrating in my chest – only to awakethe next day to the same sensation. I heard rumors that the music did stop some nights, maybe between 4 and 6AM, but some bands on the program were scheduled to go into those early hours of the dawn. Human hearing is pretty dull in comparison to that of other animals, so if I needed earplugs to sleep, I can only imagine how far some animals had to flee before the sound was bearable.
Here are a few more observations I made throughout the week that raised some ecological red flags:
– I never saw a single chipmunk or squirrel, even though there was plenty of food to be pilfered. We spotted evidence of one scared little ground squirrel the first day we arrived, before the festival had officially started. She was kicking soil out of her hole in the ground. After that, I never saw a single furry critter. Our food, sometimes left out overnight, was eerily safe in our camp.
Now, I also can’t find any consistent information about the “restoration” efforts that are taking place in the wake of the festival. The news article I mentioned earlier said there would be a weeklong cleanup effort, but I am certain it will have to be longer. People I spoke with at the festival were saying a month. The agreement, supposedly, is to leave the prairie better than it was before the festival, though I would like to know how exactly “better” is being defined and how such a goal can account for the plants that were already lost, the animals who may have suffered trauma or even death due to hearing impairment and loss, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns due to light and noise, and habitat disruption and destruction.
Contrary to how it may seem, I didn’t write this long post to make festival-goers feel terrible for attending the event at Big Summit Prairie. I wrote it because the wonderful people I met at the festival, as well as the many thousands I did not meet, have a right to understand the consequences of their uplifting week of art and music, especially if they ventured to the festival in order to learn how to live more at peace with one another, live gently on the Earth, be more connected to themselves and the planet, and the many other reasons I heard people cite for coming to the Oregon Eclipse Festival.
I don’t have any jaw-dropping solutions here. The festival was fun and at many times encouraging. All I can say is that if that many people can come together and create a fun, freeing experience for themselves and others, all the while fostering empathy and understanding, they can be receptive to the message that the festival they enjoyed was not as harmless as they may have thought – and then they can use this revelation as a reminder to ponder the consequences their actions may have on the plants, animals, air, water, etc. that they may never actually see.
My practical, logical mind understands the illusory nature of that statement. Yet, I feel the levity of my spirit as it rises and the gravity as it falls in response to the reality of a world filled with ups and downs. And in no place am I more in tune with this oscillation than when I am near the push and pull of an ocean shore.
When I was a child, I would spend most every weekday on Surfside Beach. Each morning I would accompany my mother as she cleaned houses and by lunchtime, I’d have my toes in the sand with a snowcone in my hand; the payment for my hard work vacuuming. My favorite activity was to wait for the tide to go out, then walk up and down the beach shaking the fresh red sargassum seaweed into a small orange bucket. After a couple hours, I’d be exploring the menagerie of collected sea creatures before returning the small shrimp, crabs, fish, and seahorses back to the ocean (generally unharmed, but probably scarred for life).
This experience was just one of many that still flood my mind and inform my creative, scholarly, and vocational pursuits to this day. It is not different for author Jonathan White. At a recent science pub in Corvallis, White told the story of when his sixty-five-foot schooner ran aground during an extreme low tide in Kalinin Bay, Alaska in 1999. After almost losing his boat, he decided that the nature of the ocean’s tides demanded his attention. So began his quest to better understand how the celestial bodies exert their force on the ocean, and how that dance has captivated human culture, in their minds and their myths. His book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, published this year, is a culmination of that inquiry.
“The moon may move our hearts today, but her first love was the ocean, stirred billions of years ago. The attraction may have grown stronger or weaker through time, but the affair has never ended. Like any relationship, it has complexities and baggage. The moon calls out to the earth’s oceans in the form of gravity, and the oceans call back, their pulsing energy holding the moon close while also pushing it away.” – Tides
Tides covers everything from the largest tides in the Bay of Fundy, to the power of tidal bores on China’s Qiantang River. White’s conversational style makes the book easy to follow through Newton’s equilibrium theory, semidiurnal inequality, concepts of fluid dynamics, and the nuts and bolts of tide energy as well as the meditation of monks at Mont Saint-Michel, musseling in tidal ice caves with Inuits, and hanging out with surfers at Mavericks. White also discussed how rising sea levels due to climate change have transformed the tide from a celebrated divine experience to a destroyer of native lands.
The Kuna Yala (Guna) are just one example of the present, and future, reality of climate refugees. Off the coast of Panama, several low-lying San Blas coral islands are predicted to disappear within fifty years, and 3 or 4 of them already have. In Tides, White speaks with the Guna about how they consider sea level rise a spiritual problem and believe that the highest tides bring visitors from other dimensions to check on the people. Among much of the older Guna generation, some believe rising sea levels are a punishment for spiritual imbalance. As a result, many of them feel that strengthening their spiritual balance, individually and collectively, will combat the flooding of their islands. Although many Guna also accept the scientific fact that ice is melting, seas are rising, and there is nothing they can do to stop that. Plans are in place to strategically relocate their communities from the San Blas’ to the mainland. But with that, of course, comes many problems, like how to maintain their history, independence, and traditional ways in the shadow of Panamanian politics.
As I study the sea here at OSU—the social, scientific, political, ecological, and philosophical ways in which we interact with it—I find stories like that of the Guna are not rare. Our physical environment is changing; our ethics need to as well. We can not continue forward with the business-as-usual use of fossil fuels that fulfill the needs of the few and destroy the future of too many. The tide comes in and the tide goes out, and each year that tide will come in further and further encroaching on life as we know it. Even if you don’t live on a coastline, this ebb and flow of the sun and the moon touches you. It touches all of us. Unfortunately some, more than others.
“The sun, moon, and earth don’t orbit in perfect circles. At times they’re closer to one another and at times farther away. They speed up and slow down. They wobble and yaw and dip and veer, and each time they do, it translates into a tidal event on earth. There are hundreds of these eccentricities, each calling out to the oceans—some loudly, some faintly, some repeating every four hours and others every twenty thousand years.” – Tides
The sargassum seaweed brought in by the tides on my childhood beach adventures has apparently become a problem since I left Texas. For the past ten years, the volume of sargassum has increased exponentially and started causing adverse economic and ecological effects in coastal communities. There is no consensus on why it has invaded the beaches, but it seems to be rising ocean temperatures and polluted, high nutrient runoff from the rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico. The Brazos River, which meets the ocean right where I grew up, is one of those rivers and is the most polluted watershed in the nation; it received over thirty million pounds of toxic waste according to a 2012 report.
Now I live in the pacific northwest, and I don’t think the ecology here could be more opposite than the one that created so many of my memories growing up. It may be a different coast I’m exploring now, but it’s the same tide I’m waiting on. It’s the same one that rushes every shore on the planet. And when the gravity of life weighs heavy on my spirit, you will find me on the Oregon coast near a tide pool, seeking the levity that only the sea can bring.
“The tide teaches us to live with mystery and complexity. It lives in the body of a mudshrimp, signaling when to swim and when to burrow. It lives in sandpipers, crabs, and whelks. It lives in the spirit of bores, in the prayers of monks. The tide is vibration, music, time.” – Jonathan White, Tides
Jonathan White has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, The Sun, Surfer’s Journal, Orion, and other publications. His first book, Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity, is a collection of interviews exploring our relationship with nature. White is an active marine conservationist, holds an MFA in creative nonfiction, and lives with his wife and son on a small island in Washington State.
This Spring in Corvallis, there were a number of events in which the unseen, the unheard, and the very, very tiny were observed and commented upon in especially poetic ways. There were a few art events and lectures revolving around microbiomes. I will quickly introduce you to two artists and a writer who are exploring our natural world which includes among its multitudes; microbiomes, animals, trees and us.
There is growing interest in connecting science and art, artists and scientists. In part, this is what our program at EAH is trying to accomplish. How do writers and artists and other creative types communicate issues of environmentalism? How do the humanities address non-human animals and other species of life? How can scientists work with artists to benefit both and strengthen the messages that people need to hear? What can we offer to each other and to the conversation? How is the very nature of the conversation changed by interdisciplinary voices?
The world is complicated. Life is busy. We tend to put blinders on just to get through the day. We rarely stop to consider the fact that our own bodies are made up of more microbiome DNA than human DNA. We rarely wonder at the masses of microscopic life that surround us, teeming in mud, saturating the form of every living thing. We tend to consider our frame of reference as Reality. But there are millions of different perspectives and perceptions. Some move very slow and experience time in a different way from the fast flitting creature. Some see the world from the sky, some see it from the ground. Some stay in one place always, some move constantly. Some do not see red, some do not see infrared, some see with sonar. Some navigate by smell, some by magnetic fields. There are as many different ways of being as there are beings.
Lisa Temple-Cox explores biology and the matter that is the meat, gut and bone of the animal, whether it be human or non-human. Her work peels away the skin, she examines the feather and the human skull with equal interest. Temple-Cox has done long term residencies at museums. While there, she explores and draws their collections. I was able to attend all four of her lectures at the University, including a private one for the school’s bird watching society. The names of many species were called out as we observed slides showing a plethora of silent birds in glass boxes.
Temple-Cox is a perfect example of an artist who is bridging disciplines. Her bio states, “ Her history as a mixed-race, post-colonial child informs a practice exploring interstices: between science and religion, the normal and the pathological, the familiar and the uncanny. Her visual research interrogates the aesthetics and histories of the anatomical museum, using its objects, collections, and taxonomies as metaphors for a contemporary subjective experience of the self and the body.”
One of the lectures had the intriguing title, My Head in a Jar. She had an entire body of work for each lecture. Some were documentation of the archives and their glorious decay, fatal malformations, disturbing implications of colonization, and excessive bounty. Her work is led and inspired by her research. One of these lines of research is through the preservation of specimens in jars. It was part historical and part medical, part archivist and part artist. For this lecture (archived here) she showed slides of many kinds of animals and humans, in whole and in part, preserved in glass jars. Through this exploration, she came to the idea of casting her own head and placing it in jars with different types of liquid matter. One jar is filled with kombucha, one jar is filled with milk, one is filled with oil. Over time the milk and kombucha transform as they are both teeming with the microscopic life mentioned previously. Interesting that she uses these two liquids in her experiment, the content of which is life and its companion, death.
Karin Bolender is a local artist who integrates the lives of her companion donkeys into her work. She did a long walking trip with her first donkey, a spotted ass, and that was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. Bolender is a PHD candidate at the University of New South Wales but is located near Corvallis on a farm with the donkeys in question, and a horse. She is involed with a group of artists and environmental humanities researchers called The Multi-Species Salon. Her long term project is the Rural Alchemy Workshop. She also listens to her animals, not just to their vocalizations but to the rumbling in their guts, and has done work on this subject as well. Learn more about her brilliant line of thought in this concise (4 minute) video.
This Winter, she did a performative piece with her daughter at Optic Gallery in which a kombucha mother was passed around and questions from a Pink Floyd song were asked aloud. These mothers were also a part of her latest work which recently manifested as a workshop. She is investigating the invisible communities of life inhabiting the donkeys and the donkey’s milk. She has made soap from the milk of her donkeys mixed with her own. Interesting parallel between the artists Bolender and Temple-Cox, who have both used living and life-giving kombucha and milk to manifest their work.
I attended the workshop at her farm called Welcome to the Secretome, which was led by Bolender. A small group of us were led through a series of explorations around the animals and the land. We sat together on top of a manure pile and ate cheese and bread. We walked through a muddy field and a grassy field and made maps of what we found there. We touched the donkeys’ noses and the dirt and the barn and the kombucha mothers. I emerged clean and unscathed. (OK I didn’t go in the mud but everyone else did. I lingered in the barn with the donkeys.)
One more event in which the unseen/unheard was deeply, scientifically, and poetically discussed was the lecture by David George Haskell at the Art Center. He is currently touring with his new book, The Songs of Trees. He spoke about trees, individual trees. He traveled the world to visit a dozen individual trees. Each tree was carefully listened to and observed within the context of its location. One tree was in an Amazon forest, another in the middle of New York City. We don’t think of trees as making sound or having voices. Haskell records the vibrations that come up through the tree’s roots and the birds and other creatures who inhabit them, as well as the interaction with wind.
He spoke eloquently about understanding nature as that which is what we are. He points to the disconnect that humans feel with nature which is generally spoken of (in our society) as something outside ourselves; a bird, a tree, a place we go to when we go camping. We set the city and nature as two sides of a dichotomy, when in fact the city is actually just a human nesting place and encompasses nature, not just in the plants growing through the cracks in the sidewalk but in our own manifestations.
Haskell’s previous book is titled The Forest Unseen. For this book, he chose a one-square-meter spot of land in Tennessee and observed it meticulously for a year. Even within this very small circle of forest floor, he found a universe of life. I intend to read both books and can only report my impressions of the one hour I heard him speak. He spoke strongly against the standard dualistic thinking that separates humans and nature, a false dichotomy, as we are very much a part of nature. Our technology and industry are destroying nature. That doesn’t make us separate or better or worse. It just makes us powerful. We need to reconsider this power and our motivations and systems. They are not innate or inevitable
These artists and writers are asking you to open your eyes and ears and minds, to observe the life around you. In doing so, you will see both the kinship we share with life on earth and the consequences of our collective actions against it. Paying attention with all of our senses is a first step.
Footnote: For many years, I observed one small area of the Willamette River and shared it, almost daily on the social medias. I reported on the weather and what animals were passing through or living there and the ships that came into port. I called it The River Report. I have since moved away from that spot but it is archived on Twitter.
Last Tuesday night at the Old World Deli, Dr. Bob Lillie, a professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University, spoke to a full house about his new book, Oregon’s Island in the Sky: Geology Road Guide to Mary’s Peak. A specialist on interpretive methods for the Mary’s Peak Alliance and the Oregon Master Naturalist Program, Lillie is devoted to connecting people to landscapes– geologically, ecologically and culturally. He values a well-honed sense of place, and accordingly, began his presentation with a quote by Alan Gussow: “We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present.” And indeed Marys Peak is one of western Oregon’s special places, serving as the predominant psychophysical influence of this bioregion. To help the audience become better acquainted with this iconic mountain, Lillie provided maps, photographs, and fragments of hard rock (gabbro and basalt) to reveal Marys Peak’s dynamic story.
At 4,097 feet in elevation, Marys Peak rises nearly 500 feet above all other Oregon Coast Range mountains. With its cool climate and 100 inches of annual precipitation, the mountain’s noble fir and high meadow ecosystems date back more than 10,000 years to a time when glaciers covered much of western Oregon. Its high-elevation meadow, in particular, is a biodiversity hotspot.
In fact, it is from the meadow’s clear vantage point atop the peak that one can see the Pacific Ocean’s blue sheen to the west, and the Cascade Volcanoes’ snowcaps to the east. From Lillie’s discerning viewpoint, the same commanding panorama also offers geologic clues of tectonic plate activity from 55 million years ago, as well as the more recent effects of the Missoula Floods that filled the Willamette Valley 15,000 years ago. Together, these geologic phenomena created the landscapes and soils that help define the biotic communities of western Oregon’s bioregion today.
Marys Peak holds considerable cultural significance, as well. Formerly considered a sacred place by the Kalapuya tribe, this mountain was originally named Tca Timanwi, meaning “place of spirit power,” because Kalapuya youths climbed its slopes for their coming-of-age spirit quests. Much later — in the late 1800’s — homesteaders moved into the area, and the mountain was grazed, logged, settled, and skied. And from 1906 onward, the Rock Creek watershed on the eastern flank of Marys Peak has supplied Corvallis with up to 40% of its city water. Meanwhile the mountain’s mixed fir and hemlock forests are home to countless wildlife species, and the high wildflower meadows provide critical butterfly habitat. Importantly, the distinctive meadow and rock garden ecosystems led to the peak’s designation as a Botanical Special Interest Area in 1989.
Built of story-rich volcanic and sedimentary rocks, cloaked in clouds and forests, Marys Peak continually affects climate, culture, and bio-community. This is a mountain that reawakens our certainty that we live with—not separate from—the Earth. And this is a mountain that will never fail to nourish the spirit.