OK...this is the 3rd of 3. It is part of a potential workshop/presentation on the subject of Environmentalism and religion. I suggest starting with #1. Then it will make more sense. All of them can be found in the "Spirituality/Ecology" category to your right.
Section 3 The Approach
Now, this approach, I think, has three elements that I will list individually but of course occur simultaneously. They are based on what we need for any good ongoing conversation:
First, there is the simple act of witnessing the earth; of making the effort to actually see it in as wild a state as possible. This can be hiking, or camping, or taking the canoe out on the Quinobequin to study the miracle of skunk cabbage as I have been doing recently.
This last piece may be worth dwelling on for a minute. I will have to say that I did it as an assignment for a workshop I am taking. However, once I got out there, just by observing, I could see how the roots of the skunk cabbage hold on to the banks. It turns out they generate their own heat, so they are the first up in the spring. They hold those banks so that the birds, fish, and all those turtles we see can make a home amidst the dead reeds and grasses that shelter them. It is possible to learn a great deal--as in all relationships--if we take the time.
Still, though, your witnessing can also be picnics or sitting outdoors, or just taking a moment to observe the hawk eyeing the squirrels and mice that run across our lawns. In fact, we can learn by reading, too. Through delving into other people’s research. Here I am talking about real research based on the scientific method, tested and challenged by a number of different scientists.
It is important to take this work seriously, after all. We have known about the phenomenon of climate change for a really long time. In the 1820’s a French scientist named Jean Baptiste Fourier suggested that the difference between his calculation between the rate the sun alone was heating the earth and the actual temperature of the earth had to do with a layer of air trapping heat. In the late 1850’s and early 1860’s people like Roger Tyndall and Eunice Foote separately began to experiment with a variety of atmospheric gasses. Among the most effective at trapping heat was CO2. We could have done something back then or at any number of stops on the way as further discoveries proved the same or related points. Resistance was even understandable at first as old theories needed to be debunked, but it hasn’t really been understandable for a long, long time.
This leads us to the second element. Delving in to watch the skunk cabbage or to measure the effects of greenhouse gasses lead us into greater interaction. It is not enough to witness; to see the Earth as holy and magical, and a gift to life. We need to actually “speak” to it. We need to touch it.
Here, again, we have resources and we have skills. We can, in fact, touch the Earth just a bit more deeply. We can plant, like we do at this church all the time, there are trees and vegetable gardens, right here on our lawn. Also, we do the same thing at home. Even cooking, preserving, and eating. All these actions are fundamental parts of being alive. Anyone who has struggled with the ecosystem to get something to grow knows that there is vulnerability in the process
We can be more ambitious than that, too. In the Religious Education committee here at church we sometimes talk about teaching the kids how to forage. Originally we meant it as a long-running joke about mushrooms. However, as time goes on, we have become more serious. This, too, is touching the earth; an act of mindfulness; learning and understanding through our interactions that the earth touches us back.
Now we get to the third and most difficult part of this spiritual practice…accepting our vulnerability and changing our behavior.
We need to do this, and not just in small ways–though that is a place to start. Now, I know this can be difficult. We like the way we live for the most part. Or, at least, we have become used to it and don’t know how to change. I am well aware, for example, of the fact that spending most of my free time driving around New England to go hiking is neither responsible nor sustainable in the long term even if I walk to work.
There is a web page that I can give you after the presentation that calculates how many planets we would need to sustain everybody if everybody lived like us. I confess that I am somewhere between four and five. I think I can do better. I bet we all could do better.
So we have to work on these things; to struggle with our impact. It is a logical extension of this conversation. After all, when we have a relationship–or a good relationship anyway–with someone or something we take their needs into account. We modify our behavior when necessary.
Therefore, if we are truly participating in steps one and two–witnessing and interacting–then we will naturally turn back our egos a bit, in order to slowly descend back into the pool of every being and make changes for what we love.
Now we cannot just do this on a personal level–though that personal level will make some greater sacrifices easier. As I said–or at least implied–earlier, it has to happen on the community level as well. In some ways the current emphasis on the personal acts of recycling, driving less, and buying local is a cover for our institutional malfeasance.
For all of us to make that change we have to do it together. For that we need to be held accountable. We need to be regulated. We need to be encouraged and incentivized. This will not happen without advocacy.
For this reason–as we touch the Earth–we pray for the strength to not just change ourselves. We have to change that culture we talked about at the beginning of this presentation. We have to change the society we live in.
This is a lot to think about. It has taken us generations to get to this point in our relationship with nature and our task is to turn around; to start walking back to where we once belonged. That will probably take generations too but the time to start is now. We cannot wait.
So let us take a moment to think once again about how we already touch the earth, how we interact with it, and what we can do in the future to pursue this conversation further and make a better place for those who come after us.
This is a continuation of the previous post...so maybe you start with that? Otherwise it picks up abruptly...
Section 2: Religion and Scripture
From a religious perspective–At least in the west–the root of our approach frequently Comes from that passage in Genesis–from the creation story–that we heard today. You are all no doubt aware of it. We read it every year at least once. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.’”
Now, what our Bible translates as “be stewards” is more frequently translated as “have dominion”; “Let them have dominion over the fish in the sea…”
That translation (which you may be more familiar with) has most often been used to legitimize our exploitation of the earth. In fact, it has remained unexamined for a long time. After all, it stands behind the idea that the Earth was “Given as a Garden” as a “Cradle for Humanity” as one popular hymn in this church puts it. It implies that it is here for us to harvest in whatever way we wish.
While we in this church might like to think of ourselves as being on the side of the “stewards” as our Bibles translate it–to be those fighting for environmental regulations and incentives–that interpretation still gives us dominion, doesn’t it? In many ways we are those stewards, but only when it suits us. We don’t always actually live that way because we move in a world built for human conveniences. From how we make our homes to how we work to how we spend our free time we still act as dominators. It is hard not to! After all, dominion is the side our human culture–certainly our privileged western culture–has chosen and, to some extent, we are trapped in it.
Of course we are only trapped in it only as long as we fail to make a cultural change.
This is possible to do and it can start with these words from Genesis. It can start by reexamining them in the light, not of recent tradition, but of linguistic and historical interpretation. You see, it also turns out that this same Hebrew word that has been translated as dominion for so long can also be translated to mean “To descend” or “go down”. So you can read that passage as “Let them go down to the fish of the sea, let them descend to the level of …everything that crawls on the ground.”
This is not exactly stewardship but it is really not dominion either. In fact, it is something more radical than both. It is the “far pole” of belonging to the Earth and all that is in it as part of a commonwealth of life.
That translation changes our starting point doesn’t it? It places us inside creation once again along with everything else that makes our ecosystem function. It also underscores what poor citizens of the commonwealth we humans have become.
Now, if we human beings are going to survive, we must find our way out of the lifestyle web–As individuals and as a group–that has been created for us over the course of generations. Things like this new approach–or new again approach–to Genesis, along with the teaching of people like Thich Nhat Hanh, or Isaiah, or Jesus can help to lead the way. If we had more time we could go through the Bible now and find many, many passages about living in harmony with creation as well as passages about the wisdom of the non-human part of the natural world.
Can you think of any?
First: Pause for suggestions
Then (if no one comes up with anything): Suggest Psalm 104, Isaiah 5:1-17, Matthew 6:25-34
When we read the Bible in this way it turns out that we are all called;
To bend down and touch the Earth
To descend from the high point we have created for ourselves
And to renew an ancient conversation
With the world we are a part of
So I took a course recently in order to prepare for my sabbatical. My sabbatical will be about spiritual disciplines outside of the church. This weblog is part of it. The course was an attempt to work on thinking scientifically and ecologically rather than philosophically and theologically. It has been a long time since my college science courses and I wanted to get an update on the language and a reminder of how to think scientifically about environmental issues. In the end the course was a bit of a dud. However, The syllabus was excellent and the assignments generated a lot of material. My final project was a three part "presentation" on religion and environmentalism. So...here is Section 1!
Note: I do not normally write out an entire presentation, preferring an outline format. However, this particular 30-50 minute speech/workshop is based on a 15-minute sermon on the same subject that I gave during this class. You can still see parts of the way I format my sermons. Apologies for any unconventional punctuation. The actual presentation would probably not be read directly but would hit these points.
Context: This is set in the context of the original sermon, which is to say The Eliot Church of Natick, MA, located in the western suburbs of Boston, and affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association made up mostly of teachers, social workers, nurses and the like. Naturally It assumes their background, which includes a firm grounding in the scientific method.
Section 1: State The Problem
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “When [the Buddha] was challenged by Mara–who personifies delusion–[he] touched the Earth…and said ‘With Earth as my witness, I will sit here in meditation until I realize true awakening.’”
(from a short meditation entitled “Touching the Earth”)
There are few places where we can go today; where we human beings are not in charge, where we have not altered the landscape or the ecosystem in some way. After all, we can hike through the White Mountains among some of the tallest peaks in New England–places that feel so remote and wild to our citified and suburbanized selves–only to reach an open place. There we look down and see the result of human activity; towns and forest operations…and ski resorts…and the long ribbon of Interstate 93, which is how we all got there in the first place.
The ecosystem that supports us is fading. We know this.
We hear and read stories about “mountain top removal” in southern Appalachia, where whole hills and mountains are destroyed, sending toxic fumes into the air and toxic runoff into the water and the land below, permanently destroying the landscape. We know about Climate Change. The increasing levels of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that have created this crisis are the result–we know–of our own human conveniences and economic desires.
Also, we are well aware of more local issues. That Increased car and foot traffic in the White Mountains is an example. We know that this is the tip of the iceberg in the somewhat paradoxical situation we eco-tourists can find ourselves in. We also know that there is collateral damage evey time we leave our houses, whether we are going to work or to play.
Even more locally, the debate around the removal of the spillway across from our church is another example. We have a choice to either free and repair the river’s ecosystem that has been struggling for almost a century or keep it, preserving human memories and perhaps property values along the shore. We know, or have learned through this last debate, about the diverse ecosystem of the Charles River–whose Algonquin name is Quinobequin–that we rely on in our human-constructed neighborhoods. And we have learned about how much healthier it could be if we gave nature more power over its future and gave ourselves less.
In the noise of all these discussions–from the global to the particular–there are occasional fights over facts. There is actual confusion on the particulars, which is to be expected. However, the fight goes farther than that. I guess there are some folks who would like to fight over those details, to bend the truth to fit their needs.
I don’t want to get bogged down arguing scientific facts like they are opinions. The forces at work are well-researched and documented. They have been tested and we know that the ecosystem that supports us is fading because we do not seem to be able to change our ways. We can argue other things–like what to do with these facts and where to put our priorities–but the facts remain. The earth is warming because of us. The water and the air are filthy because of us. We may have passed the tipping point of sustainability, again, because of us.
Now, compounding the issue is that–In the midst of all the other very real and very immanent crises–this environmental crisis seems slow moving. As if we could put off worrying about these things until we fix other things. We can’t wait, of course, and we shouldn’t. These issues are intertwined, after all. At the UCC webpage you can find a statement from the People of Color Environmental Summit, for example, that makes that message clear.
They state, in part, that they “Hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples”
Which is to say, that the old argument of economics, or defense, or jobs, versus the environment perpetuates a false dichotomy. A just and sustainable human ecology requires all of us to live in ways that do not destroy our home.
So, let’s return to the topic of “touching the Earth”. As many of you know, over the year I have made a study of this. I have been concerned with finding ways;
To return to conversation with creation
To take time out of the manufactured human rush
To reflect and to communicate with the natural world
To Touch the Earth as Thich Nhat Hanh says
And see what this planet, this universe, this holy Creation has to say.
How do we do it? How do we touch the Earth? Needless to say, given my tendencies, I believe that we must approach the issue spiritually and religiously. We must make our connection to Creation our “practice.” We must, in fact, practice it every day.
Now, those of you who know what I am talking about when I mention looking down from a high mountain and seeing the highway must have climbed a mountain or two. You must already have the seeds of this practice within you. So before we move on, let us take a moment, first in silence to lift up those connections, and then to share them with your neighbor.
First: 1 minute of silence
Then: 5 minutes of sharing
This hike was on our 28th wedding anniversary. Things have been so chaotic it was nice to just do the thing we do together. It almost didn't happen, though. While the weather below 3,500 feet was fine, if a bit windy and cold. Above 4,000 feet was downright wintery. The socials we subscribe to were ominous. We had previously planned for Jefferson, which is way past 4,000 feet--5,712 actually--so we opted for the 4,043 foot Passaconaway instead. Over the course of the day we considered a modified out-and-back to Whiteface next door...but in the end chose not to.
What we did do was pack for colder weather before we started. Al and I both tend toward the heavy end of the packing spectrum. It is a comfort issue as much as anything else. We like water and snacks. We want the various layers that can get us through fluctuations in temperature both while walking and while resting. Who can argue with that, right? There are actually plenty of folks who would, preferring a lighter load that gets them up and down with greater ease. This hike, however, most of the people in the lot were playing it safe and adding a few items for comfort and safety.
Most the trail was long but relatively gentle. I had climbed three shorter mountains earlier in the week and the trail was longer but comparable to those. In fact the round trip comparisons for mileage and elevation for the two days were about the same. On Passaconaway, the big challenge occurred after the turn off for the ridge trail to Whiteface. Things got steep, cold, and wet about then. We started the ritual of adding and subtracting hats and jackets as the situation required. We even got as far as putting on our gloves! We passed a few people on the trail, all of whom were doing the same thing. Some had warnings for us. No one suggested we turn around, but they wanted us to know the conditions at the top.
The conditions were...not ideal. They also were nowhere near as bad as what encountered in the fall and winter. It was just a little unexpected given the lovely day at ground level. Naturally we turned around and struggled a bit with the possibility of hitting Whiteface. In the end--as I mentioned earlier--we chose not to. We were tired and wet and our plan would have just taken way too long. Still, it was a good hike on a good, if challenging day.
I think it is probably worth noting that another hiker--an experienced and knowledgeable one--died that day while attempting a presidential traverse. The traverse involves hiking across a ridge of much higher mountains that are named after presidents. This includes Mount Washington--the tallest peak--and Mount Jefferson--which we expressly avoided--among others. We could not help but feel it. His family will miss him and, as fellow hikers, it is hard not to feel like we knew him a little bit. This tragedy put a bit of a damper on the day and reminded us of the need to respect the weather and understand our abilities, not just in general but on any specific day. There are times when we are strong and times when we are not. This is true no matter how good a condition we are in and how skilled we are at a particular task.
Respecting nature means knowing when not to engage. The mountains do not care if you are ready for your attempt or not. Hiking, like many hobbies, comes with plenty of risk. This risk is part of what attracts people. When you climb a big mountain in the woods you come face to face with the vastness of the wilderness around you. You feel small and--perhaps conversely--in that smallness you feel empowered as part of something much, much larger. There is a spiritual element that is outward-facing. Yes, people go on these trips to challenge themselves, but that isn't all that is going on. Otherwise we could save a lot of time by hitting the treadmill or peloton. There is an attraction toward that smallness and the return to Creation that it represents. Still, it is good to know when to turn around or just stay home.
We did not stay home and I am glad we didn't. However, we did change our plans and then we did turn around when we realized our tanks were close to empty. This was good too. I guess the lesson is to walk with humility and to not let the quest for perfection conquer the good before us.
It has been a crazy time here at the parsonage. The kids--some in their early 20's and one in his late teens--all have chaotic summer plans. Al and I have chaotic plans as well. The world seems to be on fire, too, adding to the general stress. Also the church--which needs to be essentially shut down for summer and reopened after Labor Day--has many complicated demands this time of year that are different from the ones at any other time. The last month has been a whirlwind and--I suspect--it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It has put me behind on most things but...what can you do, right? We just plug away hoping to keep it all together.
So let me tell you about a day of hiking that I took a while ago on June 15. Things had already gotten crazy. I had missed my usual weekend hike because I was officiating a burial service. Allison went without me up to Mount Carrigain. By Wednesday (the aforementioned 15th) I was toast. So when I couldn't sleep, I got up and drove to New Hampshire to get an early start on Mount Morgan and Mount Percival in New Hampshire. These are the two shortest peaks on the "52 With a View" list. In fact, before these the list had a height range of 2,500 to 3,999 feet. However, a recent exception was made when some other mountains lost their views.
I should say, though, that this hike--they are usually done together--is not the shortest on the list. Nor is it the easiest. In fact, going up and down you even have options to make it even harder on yourself. As I chose to go up Morgan and down Percival, I opted for the scary ladder option on Morgan. I like my challenging parts when I am fighting gravity. In the end, it made for an interesting set of problems, including one very tight squeeze.
Up until that point, this had been a total rage-hike. I had so much stress built up from long days and many, many meetings that I basically marched the first few miles, muttering to myself. The pause to figure out how not to tumble down a cliff helped to center me and once I came out on to the peak, I was ready for the spectacular view.
After the peak I started down again, careful to avoid the "caves" for the somewhat easier "cliffs." The cliffs were hard enough for me. Once that was over I began rage-hiking again. I knew my trip was over and I was headed back, ultimately to the cacophony of words. There were the spoken ones, of course, but emails and podcasts and videos too. At this point in the world there is so much to take us out of ourselves. Sometimes this is good. Justice work can do that. More frequently though, they can be words of futility and despair. Watch out for those! They are designed to run us down and put us out of sorts. They are designed to let "the man" get what "the man" wants; docility.
Right...hiking. I was talking about hiking...
Long story short, I took a hard right halfway home. I didn't really mean to but I did. I wanted to get away from the noise just a little longer. This is how I ended up at Mount Kearsarge. Sometimes it is called "Kearsarge South" because there is another one (also on the 52 list) farther up. This mountain has one of the shortest hikes of the list but...it also isn't the easiest. The trail up is basically 1.1 miles up over rocky ground. Feeling a little bad about this unscheduled bonus walk I pounded up the trail. People coming down stopped me to chat--a normal occurrence--but I was determined to get up and down and back on the road.
Once I reached the top, though...I relaxed a bit. The wind was back. So was the gentle whisper. The view was epic. I sat there for a short time and then headed down more slowly by another, gentler, route with a number of vistas that revealed themselves along the way and a few alpine bogs that made me stop for a while to take them in. It made me wish I was an ecologist rather than a pastor. Maybe I should have found a place working out in the field cataloging the abundance of life that survives in inhospitable locations.
Anyway, that last hike did the trick. Maybe it was exhaustion from so much walking or maybe is was something more inspirational, but by the time I got back to the car I was ready to head home...with the radio off.
JUNE 4, 2022
Maybe it is leftover Covid. Perhaps it has to do with the massive clouds of pollen creating an apocalyptic year for allergies...or both. Whatever it was, I couldn't manage an epic hike over 4,000 footers this weekend. Instead, we hit two 3,000 footers; Mount Cardigan and its neighbor, Mount Firescrew. Cardigan is a little higher and the views are wider, but Firescrew has views, too, along with fewer people and a cooler name. Our route (Manning Trail to Firescrew then Mowglis to Cardigan and finally Clark, Clark-Holt Cutoff, and Holt back to our car at the AMC Cardigan Lodge) Was about 6.2 miles round trip and the views were spectacular...at least once the coulds burned off.
The directions for our route were provided by an older gentleman who was working at the AMC lodge at the trailhead. I will always listen to people like this. Every trail in the country has a team of often-retirees who do the heavy lifting to keep a place safe and looking good. Their relationship with their territory is frequently intimate and long-standing. I always learn something in these conversations, even if I don't always take the advice. This time, though, the advice was sound and we took it.
I don't interrupt, either, when they tell me a thing I already know. In the aggregate, I am learning. They don't need to be aware of my limited areas of knowledge when they are trying to help me fill the gaps. I try to remind myself of the lesson from Epictetus, "Get rid of self-conceit...for it is impossible to anyone to begin to learn that which they think they already know."
Strangely, there is something in a human that makes us simultaneously ask a question and try to prove we didn't need the answer in the first place. I am not sure why we do this but it happens all the time. On this trip someone asked me about the conditions on Manning and then--after I answered--assured me that he was already aware. If that was indeed the case, what strange behavior to take the time for asking!
We started out in the fog and light rain. We saw little when we reached the first ridge area on the side of Firescrew. The trail was lovely, though, and lightly traveled with a group of three women somewhere ahead of us and--as far as we could tell--no one behind. We finally met up with the women as they were taking a lunch break on Firescrew with within sight of Cardigan and its fire tower ahead. We took a break as well and soaked in the emerging views as the overcast wore off.
From then on we were accompanied by fabulous puffy clouds seemingly fighting with each other, the Sun, and the mountains themselves. What had started as a depressing limitation lifted enough to add to a general drama in the climb that unfolded along the exposed rock that began before Firescrew, over Cardigan and on down the other side. There was a bit of rock climbing to do. Also, pools of rainwater, with their own ecosystems, dotted the ridge in various places. We could see an abundance of "crevice communities" like the ones I found hiking Welch-Dickey, as well. We were careful, of course, not to step on any of them and the trail made them relatively easy to avoid...as long as we were comfortable leaping over the pools.
The exposed rock, by the way, is part of the Cardigan Pluton; the remains of an ancient volcano or volcanic system. It is--according to Wikipedia--"approximately 20 km wide by 90 km long and on average about 2.5 km thick." That is a lot of now-cold magma! There were interesting white veins--the result of the dynamic cooling process long ago--hatching the rock in places. I am not a geologist (obviously) but the diversity of the stone beneath us made the journey that much more interesting.
Near the top of Cardigan we ended up talking to a young man and his two dogs. He had been climbing this mountain since he was a kid and had some good suggestions for other hikes. It looked like he planned to be up there for the day, having brought some beer and snacks. He was also packing heat, which was a bit of a surprise. I didn't ask about it. Maybe he always does or maybe he was worried about bears. A family of bears that we sighted on Shaw a few weeks ago have now become quite the challenge for hikers there. Either way, after a chat we declined his offer of a drink and headed down.
On the way down we met a lot of people heading up. Once again, it is best to go early and avoid the rush! We passed a few more spectacular views and a lovely little stream before meeting up with the old guy who gave us directions at the beginning. This time he was pushing his wheelbarrow toward a trail-maintenance site. I am not sure he recognized us from earlier, but it was great to see him and others working on an accessible nature trail for folks who can't handle the climb but want to be in nature.
In the end it was a great day out on a challenging and beautiful loop trail. I would totally do it again.
I am in the process of catching people up with some early hikes and other encounters with nature that I thought people might find interesting as part of a "How It Began" (HIB) series. Mostly this will describe specific hikes and perhaps some lessons learned along the way...if there are any. They are meant to be short and, perhaps helpful in some way to other hikers or fellow-travelers. I will post the dates of when I hiked a specific mountain since the ones in this series are NOT posted at or near the date I actually hiked them.
OCTOBER 4, 2021
This trip I completed with my brother Dan. Dan is the real hiker in the family. Many years ago after they graduated from high school, Dan and his twin brother (also my brother but we aren't twins) Matt decided to hike the Appalachian Trail north-to-south. Some of my own most ambitious hikes came from tagging along after them on various practice runs. I am a few years older than they are, however, and that window for a months-long adventure had closed for me. Anyway, they got pretty far over some of the hardest parts, but eventually they took a break and joined me working in the retail hub of Freeport, ME. Good times. Dan has kept on picking away at the AT, though. More recently than this hike, he actually joined my son on the AT for ten days going south-to-north through the Great Smoky Mountains.
This particular day was wet and cold when we started. This is not an unusual state of being for New Hampshire in October and we planned accordingly. Our goal was to climb up Mount Osceola and over the ridge to East Osceola and then back, crossing Osceola again upon our return. We got a slightly later than usual start because we misjudged the time to get there. However, once we got underway things went smoothly for a while. On the way up there weren't any stunning views, nor were there any at the top. Fog will do that to you. Still, the foliage was wonderful and the company was fine.
Actually, it was more than fine. Thanks to the plague most of our interactions for the year had been over zoom, which is not ideal. Being outdoors meant being able to interact like normal humans. A lot of the time was spent catching up. We talked about our families, kids, parents, siblings, and so forth so the time flew by. Another great perk of hiking with Dan is that he knows a huge amount about the outdoors. Dan is a wildlife biologist for NOAA and I appreciated the "enhanced video" aspect of having an expert with me. Since he also walks quite a bit faster, I also appreciated the fact that mushrooms and birds distract him.
Most serious hikers--my wife and brother included--seem to think of hiking as an isolated activity. It is just the lone walker in the natural world. I am in that minority who thinks of it as social. You can identify the social types pretty easily out on the trail because--whether we are solo or not--we begin talking to strangers the moment they come into view and then continue talking until well after we pass them. We take seriously the idea of a "hiking community" but...we also make a bunch of noise with our mouths. Thankfully both Dan and Al tolerate this behavior in me. Maybe that is why it is so great to have them.
The first socked-in peak over, we proceeded to cross to East Osceola. This ridge is a bit of a challenge. It is hiked less often than the rest because there isn't actually much of a view off of East and there is the issue of a fairly substantial scramble called the Chimney which one must first go down and go up on the return trip. Theoretically there is an easier way around it...but I didn't notice.
We continued to East and then headed back. It was still wet and cold but the mushrooms were off the handle and we were enjoying the challenge. The Chimney was actually a bit easier--straight up--on the way back. I mentioned this same phenomenon on the Garfield Ridge. Climbing is just easier than descending when it comes to cliffs.
When we emerged onto Osceola for the second time the clouds finally parted and we got one of those classic White Mountain views. I would say it was worth the trip but the trip had been pretty cool up to that point. Still, it was nice to see. On the way home I wiped out on some wet ledge rock, tangled myself in a tree, and broke my hiking pole. At this point I was still not entirely rehabilitated from my back surgery so I opted for the spectacular spill instead of twisting something to maintain my balance. Dan sorted me out. That is another good reason to hike with somebody. I felt the fall for a while though.
In the end the trip was 8.5 miles and about 3,200 feet of elevation. It was quite a day.
As some of you know from an earlier post, one of the things I am doing to connect with nature is spending time on the river across the street from my house. The plan is the engage in close observation. This project brought me into closer-than-usual contact with skunk cabbage.
I watched Symplocarpus Foetidus over the course of a couple weeks. It was always on the list because–it being early spring–there were few plants available along the banks of the Charles River where I live outside of Boston. The most prolific early grower in my area of observation, in fact, was the “burning bush” (Euonymus Alatus) an invasive that is now illegal to sell in Massachusetts and New Hampshire because of the tenacious hold it has on the local environment. It came here as an ornamental for lawns and "gardens". Other landscaping staples like Rhododendron can be found along the banks as well. Some migrated, no doubt, and others were planted.
Skunk cabbage, on the other hand, is indigenous to this part of the world. Perhaps ironically, part of my interest comes from the fact that it, too, has been banned or regulated in parts of Great Britain. Apparently context is everything with invasive species. They are survivors, which also attracted me. These days--much of the time--I and the people I know are thinking hard about survival. Economic crises, plagues, and war seem closer to us than they were before. Our human ecology is frayed and fraying. Taking the boat out to visit a species resisting the incursion of civilization is restful, even inspiring in ways.
Henry David Thoreau recognized this in his own observations. Writing in his journal on October 31, 1857, “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.”
Along the river–even when the invasive burning bush is just beginning to awaken–the skunk cabbage is already well established. If the observer is in the right mood, it can be remarkable to look at. Its broad green leaves and alien flower evoke the times of the far past or far future. Its smell--designed to attract pollinators--is more rude than off-putting.
Unlike most plants, the skunk cabbage is “thermogenic”, meaning it generates its own heat. This keeps much of the frost at bay, allowing it to establish itself in the wet areas of its habitat by spreading roots out and down for the majority of the year. This aspect–possibly more than its famous smell of rotting meat–is a key element to the survival of its habitat along riverbanks and other areas susceptible to erosion. My own observations, of course, did not cover its fall transformation, when the old leaves die off to reveal Thoreau’s “spears” underneath. However, I was able to see some of the benefits this provides the landscape.
The approach for my observations--as I noted earlier--included regular trips by canoe or kayak out on the Charles to see how the cabbage and the ecosystem itself is doing in the human-dominated suburban community where I live. The role of the cabbage–particularly during this early spring part of the year, is a key element. It is easy to miss in many ways, but if one knows what to look for, the situation is quite clear.
The Charles River (Its Algonquin name is “Quinobequin”) is a narrow, meandering body of water as it passes through Natick, MA where these observations occurred. On each side of the river at its widest points are large marshy areas that are home to a larger percentage of the wildlife that makes the Charles home. The tall grasses and brush rising out of these banks provides protection to at least two species of turtle as well as nesting areas for Blue Herons, Canadian (and feral) Geese, 3 observed species of duck, a mating pair of swans, amphibians in their various stages, and fish. There are also insects and songbirds in abundance.
During this time of year the grasses have yet to recover from their winter. The wildlife conceals itself within the gray, dried remains of last year. The lone green–with its complex root system–belongs to the skunk cabbage.
I was careful when taking the above picture not to disturb any of the geese who were nesting in my proximity. However, it shows the very edge of the largest of these marshes which, in addition to providing habitat for wildlife, also are responsible for flood prevention, absorbing a large portion of the excess water we experience in March and April. The limited number of green grasses that can be seen around the base of the cabbage may actually be benefiting from the warmth of the cabbage itself. It is not unusual in the spring and fall for them to heat the ground enough to eliminate the frost layer nearest their roots, giving other species a head start as well.
Just visible in the picture above is a large, white house. The Charles is not in a wild and remote place. Over 900,000 people live in its watershed. Even more commute into the area daily for work or other activities. This means the ecosystem must contend with air, water, light and noise pollution on a regular basis. There are human-made structures that disturb the flow of the river and the ability of plants to take root. There is toxic runoff from the street above. Those invasives abound. The invasive plants are mostly from a couple of centuries of home and public landscaping projects. Some invasive animals–like the red-eared slider turtle–are descendents of pets and were later released into the river when their novelty wore off. Others--like the rat--are opportunists. Some of these species play nice with the environment. Others do not.
The skunk cabbage functions as part of the team of species keeping the river habitat together and is frequently able to make headway in places other species cannot. At the top of the first picture, in fact, one can see the barricade that indicates the presence of a major commuting road into Boston. Twice a day it is clogged with cars and trucks going to and from the city. However, just below, in the mud that has gathered around the foundations of that road are the skunk cabbages, helping to absorb sound, clean the water, and provide safe haven for the rest of the river community. They are hard to kill and impossible to remove, which is a problem in Britain. However, it is ideal for life on the Quinobequin, where it has always made its home.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.