What the trees remember

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The day will soon come when my son won’t need me to walk him to school anymore. So last week I worked in one of my mini-nature talks about what the trees remember. I want him to respect the trees as living beings. I want him to recognize their place in the world. Not only as a natural resource from which lumber is made, but that they live and grow and die as we do. They remember the years they had to fight off bugs and diseases. They remember the summers of wildfires where their brethren and maybe they themselves had been burned by fire. The smoke and scars all get trapped up into their growth rings. They bear witness or injury from human historical events as well. Miles of mountain tops from Seattle to the Pacific ocean are barren except for the millions of stumps, like gravestones, that harken the growth of the developing metropolises that became Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle.

Seattle is the original home of the term “skid row.” It was a road or track where logs were pulled down on greased skids towards the sawmill. It also became where the destitute came to live and look for work, especially later during the time of the Great Depression in U.S. (late 1920s and early 1930s.) If you said someone was “on the skids” it meant that they had run out of luck and were sliding into poverty. The term “Skid Row” has since been adopted throughout many English-speaking countries across the world to mean a “poverty-stricken neighborhood.”

During the U.S. Civil War, General Sherman with the Union Army marched from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia in a campaign called “the march to the sea.” This march was notable for his use of what military agencies call a “scorched earth” policy. It’s as terrible as it sounds. Everything is destroyed in their path. People and animals are killed. Trees, fields, and buildings are burned. Transportation infrastructure such as railroads, roads and bridges are destroyed. For decades after General Sherman’s army had passed burned and living trees alike could be found with railroad ties bent around their trunks in what was called “Sherman’s neckties.”

General Sherman is not alone in employing the “scorched earth” policy, it has been used throughout the world since the beginning of ancient warfare. Many decades later, the Genova Convention of 1977 explicitly calls out for people who are not active participants of a war or conflict to be treated humanely (i.e. not killed). Were I in such a predicament to be facing an army using the scorched earth tactic I would not wait around in hopes they would abide by the conventions.

The threat of global warming in many ways feels like the beginnings of a war to me. The protection of natural resources vs the continuing onslaught of sloppy, lazy, greed. Throughout the U.S. court system corporations have managed to push for themselves the rights of “personhood” by hijacking the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which was meant to recognize the emancipation of Black Slaves after the U.S. civil war.  

This matters, in that it gives corporations undue agency to act in ways that may be counterintuitive to “the common good” or the will of the people in benefit of their community. I give you these examples based in U.S. History due to my stronger familiarity with it, but I assure you that none of these concepts are unique to the U.S. alone.


If you’re reading this from another country, can you think of any natural landmarks, trees or rocks, that have been marked by a significant historical events in your country? If so, I would love to hear about them!


Have you seen a landscape that’s been mined for heavy metals? Or a river sucked dry, poisoned, or otherwise starved of life? I have. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the US, Canada, and India. I’ve seen communities of people, fish, animals and plants die by what was done on corporate and government properties, hectares of scorched earth, bled beyond it’s borders. So environmentalists are trying a new tactic to protect what they can by arguing for the personhood of river, lakes, forests and land. After all, if corporations can claim it, why not a river?

We must force governments and corporations to be environmentally responsible now and not just talk about doing it 20 or 30 years from now, by then any such architects of their plans will be retired and happy to let someone else deal with it. Corporations are not held to same level of responsibility as an individual person. If you crash your car into someone house, you don’t get the luxury to do something about it thirty years from now.

To be clear, I’m not anti-business. I recognize that there are several companies that are trying to be partners within the communities where they operate. I applaud them for not waiting 20 to 30 years to make substantial changes. In fact, when I see that a company is committed to making environmentally sustainable practices and not just greenwashing, I make a point to remember them and support them if I can. I’ll also write them an email and say, “As a customer, it makes me very happy to see that you use [carbon-offset shipping] practices and [biodegradable packing materials].” If you’re a business owner, please don’t put it upon your customers to do the right thing. I have a bunch of Styrofoam in my garage that I’ve been saving up for years to make it worth the time and gas to drive it to the special recycling center 45 minutes away.

We need to speak up, as customers, employees, and members of the community when we see thing done right, but also when we see that things could be done better. It’s humbling when you look at a tree several thousand years old and think of all that it has lived through. The civilizations that have come and gone while this tree remained standing. I consider the trees and wild animals in my neighborhood to be members of my community. I do not want to see a grand old tree chopped down and made into toilet paper or shipping boxes.

Related Links:

10 Oldest Trees in the World (Updated 2019)

 Yesler Way: the history & origin of “skid row” | The Filson Journal

 Sherman’s neckties – Wikipedia

The History of Corporate Personhood | Brennan Center for Justice

Common good – Wikipedia

Drought-hit California moves to halt Nestlé from taking millions of gallons of water | California | The Guardian

Uganda joins the rights-of-nature movement but won’t stop oil drilling (msn.com)

20 Firms Are Behind Half Of Globe’s Single-Use Plastic Waste : NPR

An Army of Little Poopers

The clues started to emerge that they were coming, nay, that they were already here! Grabbing a pan from the drawer below the oven I spied small bits of play dough at the bottom. Strange that it would be there. No reason for it. I make it for my son and it goes from pot, to kneading on a cutting board, to official play dough container where it gets played with on the dining table. Most kids have outgrown play dough well before his age, but we could give it a new name to make it cool again, we would call it “brain dough” instead. Artists come by inspiration in many ways, and I would say even people who consider themselves “non-artist” have a form of art within them either unspecified or unnurtured.

For my son, the tactile feel of the malleable blob helps him open his mind to shape stories. The secondary evolution of these characters in his head have recently started to come out more through drawing. Maybe it all will stay as lifelong hobby, leads to an eventual career, or get put aside for other things. It doesn’t matter he’s only ten. This still doesn’t explain the play dough in the oven drawer though, but it was late, and I decided to deal with it tomorrow. Then yesterday morning my spouse remarks that the dog must have snuck down in the middle of the night and finished her last little bits of kibble. No, I knew then it was a mini intruder or intruders. A little play dough hoard, little missing bits of dog kibble, sounds like mice to me!

Sure enough I took all the pans out of the drawer find lots of hard play dough bits and mouse poo. I track the lines of poo along the edges of the wall. I can see where it’s been. It’s like they drop a turd for every step they take. How terribly inefficient. There was no smoking pile though, no obvious enter/exit point. I thought for sure it would be some small hole behind the refrigerator, that would be classic, but alas, I can find no entry point to block so I’m likely going to have to call for help. My regular guy recently retired. Despite being an exterminator, he was a nice guy, and like me doesn’t believe death needs to be unnecessarily cruel or painful. Some of the exterminators around here are shadier than any rat could ever be. They can fleece you out of thousands of dollars in their abatement schemes.

I just want the mouse or mice to not be in here, pooping along my baseboards. They should be out in the field, that’s why we call them “field mice” not “house mouses.” (Don’t get me started on that shady Micky Mouse either!) Another nature friend of mine, a former coworker, woke up one morning and felt a small fuzzy body curled up next hers once, it was a mouse! She did not freak out. She took it outside and let it go. That mouse was lucky! It knew it was curling up next to nice a human. We don’t really want to kill this mouse either. If I could catch it and put it outside to go live in the woodpile, we would do that.

When I was in India in 2004 I took an eight hour train ride from Bengaluru (aka Bangalore) to Raichur with my undergraduate group. We were there to study social and environmental issues in India as part of a study abroad program. I was the oldest student by about 5-7 years. Just before the doors closed in Bengaluru a mouse came on the train. Someone before us have eaten shelled peanuts and left them on the floor. Some of my fellow group members got all into a panic. The seats on the train were benches stacked two tall. So all the scared-y cats piled up on the top two benches and I got the peanut seat all to myself, until Kedar, one of guides/translators for the trip was happy to join me and equally chill about the presence of the mouse. I pushed the peanut shells deep under the seat where the mouse could pick through them without harassment.

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Kedar and I spent the whole train ride talking. We talked about his upcoming arranged marriage and drafted schematics for bioreactors. A machine that can speed up the rate of decomposition for solid human waste into organic compounds for fertilizer. The tricky part isn’t technical or mechanical issues but getting the “material” from the producers; everyone in society, to the consumers; farmers that can use it to help their crops grow better. In manufacturing this is called a “closed loop system” or “cradle to grave” product because it is continuously redistributed. This is how we need to revolutionize manufacturing throughout the world if we want to survive as a species. This is why “single-use plastic” is a loaded term. When someone is using this term, they are telling you; “This item does not break down. It can stay with us for a millennia.” There are billions of single use plastics polluting the earth. You can do your best to reuse it as many times as possible, you can recycle it to be made into a new bag perhaps, but eventually its going to end up in the landfill, waterways, or landscape. It delays the issue; it doesn’t solve the issue. There is hope on the horizon, by promoting certain strains of bacteria that has evolved to eat plastic and poop out inert organic compounds.

Don’t let the doom and gloom of climate change stories leave you resigned to a fate of destruction. While I too occasionally get depressed over terrible stories or things that I witness I’m incapable of giving up. Letting go is hard to do, but I can do it when I know it’s the right thing to do, but I won’t give. I won’t give up on the life of this planet, little poopers and all.

A few stops before Raichur with only Kedar and myself still awake during the all-night train ride we watched the mouse get off at his stop. I knew exactly where it was going as if it could feel by internal rhythm or the smell of the air that this was its stop. I turned to my friend and said. “Ah look, how nice of the city mouse to come visit his cousin, the country mouse.”

More to explore, External Links:

Amazing Facts about Mice | OneKindPlanet Animal Education & Facts

How Do Bacteria Eat Plastic? | American Council on Science and Health (acsh.org)

Bioreactors Types: 6 Types of Bioreactors used in Bioprocess Technology (biologydiscussion.com)

Bioreactor landfill – Wikipedia

Aesop’s Fables  The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse – Wikipedia

Mind the Gap, Beetnik

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I read an article in the Smithsonian magazine about Dasia Taylor, a high school student from Iowa that received an award for her research in creating color-changing sutures to detect infections by using beet juice. Her project idea came after she read about “smart sutures” which involves coating the sutures with a conductive material that can detect changes in the wound by the changes in electrical resistance. I don’t understand exactly how that works without a picture or video because I tend to be a visual and experiential learner, but that’s not what’s important here. What’s important is that these technology-based sutures capable of relaying the information to smart phones or computers are not cheap, nor are the materials to make them.

While Dasia was reading about these sutures, she thought about the racial equity work she does in her community and how universal something like wound care is. As part of her research, she found that in some African nations up to 20% of women who give birth by cesarean section develop infections at the surgical site. So how do you make sutures that can detect infections without smart technology?

Dasia’s solution was to look for something that could measure the Ph difference in the skin. Healthy human skin is naturally acidic at around pH 5. Infections raise the pH level to around 9. Many fruits and vegetables change color at different pH levels making them natural indicators for different pH levels. Red beets (Beta vulgaris) ended up being Dasia’s best candidate. While her research isn’t perfect yet, she was able to demonstrate that it works and that vegetable dyes can be a viable, low cost solution to wound care.

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More works needs to be done, but I’m bringing this to your attention because it illustrates some important realities.

You can’t have racial or social justice without environmental justice (and vice versa) due to economic and resource disparities throughout communities, countries, and regions.

Technology will not save us. It can help in many ways but looking to technology as our first response to everything is both arrogant and irresponsible.

I’m currently researching the question: Can capitalism be Green?

I’m currently settling on the answer: Cloudy with a chance of sun.

Our current capitalistic systems of commerce are not green and never will be if they remain as they are. We must reject the fallacies of “trickle-down economics” and “companies being able to police themselves.” It’s like leaving a toddler alone with a cake. Why would you think that’s a good idea?

Here’s the sunny part though, I think if we breakdown capitalism at the particle level, we can reconstitute it into a true Green economy. We are the particles. We are the grains of sand that can change the color of the beach. We make economic-based decisions everyday by what we purchase and organizations we choose to support. I think true radical change has to come from us, the people. We need to change our behaviors. We need to choose to be Nature-led, Social Justice minded people and societies every day. New patterns and pathways take time for our minds to adjust. When I first started using reusable bags for the grocery store, I would forget a lot. I didn’t give up and I kept trying to do better until the new pattern became the norm and I rarely forgot them. By the time the Pandemic hit it was hard to leave my reusable bags in the car. We knew so little about the Covid-19 virus in the beginning though, but I wasn’t willing to risk my safety or the safety of others around me. I kept the single-use bags I was getting and when it was considered safe to do so I recycled them. Here in the U.S. we have special containers at the store specifically for recycling clean, dry plastic grocery bags.

More needs to be done though. We need to make bigger advances faster. How? How can I/we be a part of those advances? I believe we need the thoughts, experiences and imaginations of everybody, every age, every perspective to find innovative solutions. We need to be excited about working towards common goals. I think an innate part of us seeks to be part of something greater than ourselves. We are after all social creatures.

Links:

This High Schooler Invented Color-Changing Sutures to Detect Infection | Innovation | Smithsonian Magazine

32 Weird, Crazy, but True Beet Facts | Fact Retriever

Green economy | UNEP – UN Environment Programme

“Beetnik” – This is a play on words. The real word “Beatnik” was a nickname for “the Beat Generation.”: Beat Movement | Encyclopedia.com

Give me thoughts, or just your favorite Beet recipe, either will do!

I pressure cook beets with orange juice and add it to green salads with walnuts and goat cheese. Yum!