Talking trees, extended metaphors and "The World at Gunpoint"

giant talking trees taking out industrial civilization, Tolkein-style
giant talking trees taking out industrial civilization, Tolkein-style

I have a love/hate relationship with Derrick Jensen. The first volume of his Endgame books has been sitting, half-read, on my environment bookshelf for years while I try to get up the stomach to finish it. Is it terrible? Yes. But not in the way you might think. It’s ninety per cent brilliant and insightful, nine per cent weird and one per cent shudderingly awful. So when I saw that Jensen was taking on a column at Orion magazine–one of my favourites–I groaned.


I liked it, eh?

And it sure has stirred up a lot of controversy.

“The larger problem with the metaphor, and the reason for this new column in Orion, is the question at the end: “how shall I live my life right now?” Let’s take this step by step. We’ve figured out what the gun is: this entire extractive culture that has been deforesting, defishing, dewatering, desoiling, despoiling, destroying since its beginnings. We know this gun has been fired before and has killed many of those we love, from chestnut ermine moths to Carolina parakeets. It’s now aimed (and firing) at even more of those we love, from Siberian tigers to Indian gavials to entire oceans to, in fact, the entire world, which includes you and me. If we make this metaphor real, we might understand why the question—asked more often than almost any other—is so wrong. If someone were rampaging through your home, killing those you love one by one (and, for that matter, en masse), would the question burning a hole in your heart be: how should I live my life right now? I can’t speak for you, but the question I’d be asking is this: how do I disarm or dispatch these psychopaths? How do I stop them using any means necessary?”

After having read Endgame (or part of it), I’m sure that is exactly what he’d be asking himself. I’m equally sure that most people in that situation would be asking themselves, “How can I get to the phone to call 911 without being seen? If I wait for him to leave, will doctors be able to save my family?” His seeming assumption, that in such a situation most of us would kill the murderer ourselves, is untrue; but it is also true that we would not be cowering on our bedroom floors and wondering about, say, forgiveness, interpretive dance, or meditation practices.

(Another problem with the analogy, as comment #26 points out, is that we are not only the person cowering on the bedroom floor but also the raging psychopath and his gun; this complicates the notion of taking action. Do we shoot ourselves in the head? Wrestle ourselves to the ground?)

But at least this column gets us away from this eternal asking of  “how should I live my life right now?” Your compact fluorescent ligthbulbs are great, but they are not enough. I’m glad you’re recycling–you are recycling, right? keep doing that–but it also is not enough. Reusable shopping bags and packing your own lunch and turning the thermostat down are all fabulous and necessary, but not enough.

What question would I ask instead? What if, instead of asking “How shall I live my life?” people were to ask the land where they live, the land that supports them, “What can and must I do to become your ally, to help protect you from this culture? What can we do together to stop this culture from killing you?” If you ask that question, and you listen, the land will tell you what it needs. And then the only real question is: are you willing to do it?”

I suspect the land is telling Jensen that it needs explosives.

But that’s not what I hear. I hear that I need to participate in repairing the damage that’s been done, in restoring habitats and knitting those torn ecological webs back together. I hear that I need to understand as much as possible what is going on and find ways to communicate that effectively to people who are more preoccupied with taxes and the price of gas. And I hear that I need to find sources of meaning and value other than “whoever dies in the biggest house with the most stuff, wins,” and “you are as big as your bank account,” because those values are utterly unsustainable regardless of our levels of technology (not to mention, they make even the winners of those games miserable).

I hear a lot of things, none of which have anything to do with blowing things up. But that’s ok. The ELF  and Earth First! have been blowing things up for a while now and, while they’ve been used as an example of environmental extremism by some to discredit the movement overall, it hasn’t made much of a dent in our respectability. I’ll just worry about doing my part.

If you listened to the land, what would it tell you to do?

We’re not all police and paramedics; you may not have the character or temperament to be a front-line environmentalist. And that’s fine. But how could you call 911?

Green is the New Holy

green-bibleMany, many years ago my Aunt Heather and Uncle Brian were talking to my parents about their experiences with environmentalism within their conservative Christian church. The specifics of that conversation have been long lost to the mists of time, but my Aunt’s frustration as she spoke of her church is still clear. “I try to talk to them about the environment,” she said, “but they just say, ‘Oh, the Rapture’s coming soon, why bother?'”

This was at least fifteen years ago and possibly closer to twenty, and as you may have noticed, either the Rapture has not come or it has and Jesus found no faithful to raise into Heaven with him.

In either case, everywhere I’ve turned lately I’ve seen stories on green evangelism. The environment as it turns out is also part of God’s creation and the destruction of it has now been recast in some circles as a sin (as opposed to a mandated crusade of subjugation a la Genesis, and even when I was a Christian this seemed fishy to me: I can’t be sure, but when Jesus said, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin,” he did not follow that up with, “so rip the lazy buggers up and build a Wal-Mart, hallelujah!”).

There’s a Green Bible, a pile of green Christianity books, green evangelism organizations, and even a group of green Kairos members going on a fact-finding mission to the Alberta Tar Sands to figure out what stance they want to take on this wholesale-environmental-destruction business. Even atheists have been jumping on the green-god bandwagon lately. And I’m not a Christian, so I don’t want to say too much in case my natural flippancy causes serious offense to those of you who are. Instead, I’ll close of this short post with a poem from someone who is and who I think must be as happy to see this sea change as I am:

Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears
Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

Facebook for the Greater Good

Paul Hawken is one of those people who does everything. He writes books that change the definition of sustainable business. He founds institutes on environmental issues and businesses to try out his theories. He tours the world speaking to people about his successes and failures. He collects a couple thousand business cards from people working globally on disparate issues and writes another book about what they all have in common–Blessed Unrest –with a companion website that’s like Facebook for activists.

WiserEarth, founded just over two years ago on Earth Day 2007, allows you to create a profile and search for organizations and people working on just about any issue under the sun, or organize projects of your own. You can join groups, post jobs, start conversations, and connect with like-minded souls in dozens of ways. I found hundreds of groups just in Toronto proper (although, oddly, not the ones I currently volunteer with. I might have to do something about that) and a search on my postal code gave me a few dozen hits, many of which I’d never heard of before. No, you can’t answer quizes and annoy your friends with detailed recountings of what kind of red wine, Sesame Street character or shade of purple you are (although there is a friend feed), but do you really want to?

If you’re trying to find people near you who are already working on causes close to your heart, this is a good place to start. If you’re already working on something and you want to publicize it or find other organizations to pool resources with, it could be a useful tool. If you have no idea where to start or what you’re interested in, take five of the sixty minutes you already spend on Facebook every day and shift them to WiserEarth: poke around, see what’s available, and find a way to connect your interests to the needs of your community.

Good News:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

The good news is that no one has to save the world.

The bad news is that we all have to save the world.

The good news is that you are not personally responsible for all of the world’s problems.

The bad news is that you are personally responsible for part of all of the world’s problems.

The good news is that you are only responsible for fixing the part of all of the world’s problems that you are personally responsible for.

The bad news is that it’s pretty complicated.

The good news–and the point of this meandering introduction–is that there are already so many people working way over their personal share on fixing the world’s problems that, in most cases, all you have to do is find out about them and sign on to efforts already underway.

The bad news is, you may have no idea how to do this. But wait! That’s where I come in. As a bit of continuing Good News on Mondays, I’ll look at groups, people, organizations, books and Big Ideas about how to fix the various ecological (and, where they intersect, social) messes we’ve gotten ourselves into. (Well done, Humanity! You are on your way to going out with a bang, not a whimper.)

Much like you need to provide yourself and your offspring with shelter but not build the house yourself, and much like you need to provide for your children’s education without teaching them everything yourself, you do need to help provide your kids with a planet they can eventually reproduce on without single-handedly solving the climate, deforestation, over-fishing and pollution crises yourself. All you need to do is extend yourself a bit beyond that thick Western individualist hide, find a smidgen of community, and be a joiner for once.

This week I’ll introduce you to, an online effort cofounded by Bill McKibben to organize global climate change actions on October 24, 2009, centred around the need to reduce carbon dioxide atmosphere concentrations to 350 parts per million (we are, currently, around 390). Why 350? Because this has been identified as the safe maximum atmospheric carbon level to avoid catastrophic climate change. (And we overshot it already. Oops.)

At the end of 2009, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to hammer out a new post-Kyoto climate change framework; wants to get as many people as possible in as many countries as possible to send a strong message to those leaders that we want them to get off their asses, stop posturing and pointing fingers, and negotiate an effective climate treaty.

There is a searchable map of existing, registered actions all over the world. If there’s nothing in your neighbourhood right now, you have two choices: 1. register at the site, and keep checking back to see if/when someone starts something, or 2. come up with an idea and register that. will then set you up with posters, press releases, and organizational tools to make your event a success. The photo gallery and the ideas/actions inspiration page both have some very cool ideas; I love the buried cars.

Or 3., you can send them a small donation. They’re saving your planet for you and your kids. The least you can do is send them $35. Right?

There is a single, unspecified action registered in Toronto itself, as well as a couple in Guelph, Kitchener and Mississauga, but so far our section of the map is looking pretty sparse. If anyone nearby is reading this and would like to organize something, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch. Three million people can surely do better. (Children’s art festival in a park? Community planting of 350 trees? 350 bike riders? Picnics? Plays? Another CN Tower climb?)

What can or would you do for a couple of hours on a Saturday in October to let world leaders know that you want them to commit to meaningful action on climate change?

A changing climate and our feathered friends

This chickadee will probably cope with global warming all right, but not so with migratory songbirds
This chickadee will probably cope with global warming all right, but not so with migratory songbirds

Climate change often sounds like it’s something that happens somewhere else: the ice at the poles melts, island nations (and manhattan) go under water, more Category 5 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. But what about Toronto? OK, summer’s hotter, winter’s warmer, especially at night–does that sound so bad? (Though keep in mind that more heat means more smog, and smog kills about 1,700 people each year in Toronto.) A longer growing season? More shorts weather? We’re going to complain?

Well, yes. For one thing, those catastrophic weather events will hit here too; in fact, that thunderstorm a couple weeks ago with winds so strong they ripped the heating and cooling equipment off the roof of my office building is exactly the kind of thing that climate change predicts for Toronto. But forget about that. Humans are actually not the only living things in the city. Let’s take one example: birds.

Bird species that over-winter, such as chickadees, may increase. Winter will not be as deadly; food will arrive earlier in the spring. But migratory songbirds (whose populations have already declined by over 50% over the last four decades as a result of habitat fragmentation, pesticides, lighted office towers and tropical/boreal deforestation) will not fare so well. Their migration is frequently driven by hours of sunlight; but the appearance of their food sources (plants, insects, etc.) is often driven by temperature. As climate change progresses and spring arrives earlier, the overlap of the migration routes and food sources will shrink, meaning that by the time the migratory songbirds get to Toronto their favourite tasty caterpillars will already have metamorphosed into butterflies and flown away.

This effect is more pronounced among bird species that migrate over longer distances. Experts hypothesize that its easier for birds to respond to changing climates by changing the timing of migration when the distance is short–say, the mid-US to South Canada–because the climates are not as different, and the mid-US winter will offer clues about the onset of spring in South Canada. But birds that winter in the tropics and fly each spring to Canada’s northern boreal forests have no such clues, and their migration timing is not shifting in response to the changing climate. Sadly, those are the very species whose populations are most suffering already from the issues listed above. For all these reasons combined, experts estimate that 30% of migratory songbirds may go extinct with a change in temperature of 2.0 degrees Celsius (which we have now already committed to, thanks to carbon already released to the atmosphere).

Hooded Warblers and Acadian Flycatchers are two songbird species that migrate to southern Ontario each year from the neotropics; thanks to the disappearance of their preferred Carolinian forest summer habitat locally, Acadian Flycatchers are listed as endangered and Hooded Warblers as threatened; both species are already shifting their habitat northward in response to warming, though how far north they can go when Carolinian forests only exist in southern Ontario is anyone’s guess. The American Bird Conservancy projects that a doubling of CO2 levels will see American Goldfinches move north of Toronto; we are already nearly there.

So say goodbye to goldfinches, Hooded Warblers and Acadian Flycatchers; but you might be able to say hello to the Bobolink, a migratory songbird that currently lives only south of the Great Lakes but, due to warming, will soon be found, experts predict, only in Canada.

Spring may not be silent in a few decades, but it sure won’t sound the same.


There are lots of things you can do to help out migratory songbirds in your community, no matter how urban it is, including:

1. use native plants in your yard and garden to give local wildlife a place to live

2. fight for conservation of local natural areas (birds can use these small areas as stopping grounds on their migration, giving them a chance to rest and eat before flying on northward)

3. build backyard and park habitat like nesting boxes

4. don’t use pesticides or herbicides; these little birds are extra vulnerable

5. join Ontario Nature’s campaign to save the Boreal forest for breeding birds

6. volunteer for initiatives such as the annual Rouge Park bird count to give scientists the information they need to measure population and distribution trends



Warming Climate Outpaces Long-Distance Migratory Songbirds

Birds and Climate Change: Ecological Disruption in Motion

The Effects of Climate Change on Migratory Birds: an annotated bibliography

Climate Change and Birds (Nature Canada)

 Global Warming Threatens Many Bird Species

Beautiful earth: Mary Oliver's poem, again

I’m going to be obnoxious and start by asking you to read this out loud, or at least under your breath, because half of its pleasures are in the rhythms and rhymes.

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in
Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been
a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

Mary Oliver

Directly counter to her intentions, I know, but I’m going to turn this one into a sampler. I have one kind-of underway but it is much, much too small to accommodate this poem.


When I was younger, and my parents would take us to my maternal grandparents’ cottage, a shack on the banks of a small creek with a waterfall and a highway across the bridge, no insulation, no running water, I would sometimes lie on the dirt ground with my eyes closed and just feel the soil beneath my fingers. Dry, sandy, fine, spread with needles and pinecones. Daddy long legs and ants would tickle over the backs of my hands and I could hear the water rushing over the stones.

I can’t remember what clothes, lamps, dishes or paper clips I owned then, although there are a few notable toys that staid stuck–the EasyBake oven, for instance, or the Little Matchstick Girl doll my mother sewed me, or the Cabbage Patch Kid, or the dollhouse my father built. But while I remember those toys, the things I loved back then, I don’t remember the times I played with them. I remember them, separate from their contexts and occasions. Whereas the dirt on the forest floor near my grandparents’ cottage is inextricably wound in dozens of specific memories.

And yet here I am, still with more clothes, lamps, dishes and paper clips than I can possibly use before I die. Isn’t it funny how hard it is to keep out of a system that is not only destructive, but does not meaningfully contribute to one’s happiness?


dsc_00110001-2Anyone whose known me for more than approximately 8.32 seconds knows how much I love trilliums, and not just because they’re gorgeous (although they are). They’re a fragile, finicky plant in a marginal and difficult habitat, and they manage to turn that into something beautiful: blooming after the ground thaws but before the deciduous leaves come in (which shuts off their sunlight), in some forests in southern Ontario trilliums turn the ground white for a few weeks each spring. Two places I’ve regularly seen a good show are Ratray Marsh on Lake Ontario in Mississauga and Tottenham Park in Richmond Hill; they aren’t as prevalent on the Don. This might be because deer live in the Don watershed and deer love trilliums, eating them before almost any other plant.

Trilliums can reproduce through their roots (clonally) or by producing seeds (sexually), and there is some evidence that in more disturbed areas clonal reproduction is more common. Ants are an important link in trillium sexual reproduction: the seeds are covered with a lovely ant food, so the ants take the fruits and bury them and eat them, and the seeds that remain germinate (if they can) the following spring. Much like trout lilies, it takes a couple of years for that germinating seed to sprout aboveground; and what looks like a leaf is actually a bract, or part of the flower. Seven to ten years after the seed is in the ground, the plant will produce a white flower; trilliums are perennials, so they’ll just keep going until you kill them. When you next see a small child walking home with a fistful of trilliums, consider that they are holding many times their own age in plant life.

dsc_00050001-2Contrary to popular belief, it is not actually illegal to pick trilliums in Ontario (if you don’t believe me, search the statutes site), but it is a horribly bad idea considering how long it takes them to grow, so please don’t. If you absolutely must, at the very least, don’t pick the leaves (bracts) so that the plant can grow again the next year. If you pick the leaves (bracts), you kill the plant.

One review of commercial trillium operations in North America found that almost none of them were actually growing trilliums from seed, instead transplanting them from wild habitats. Trilliums do not transplant well, and usually die; in some areas of the United States, such removals are endangering local populations of this beautiful flower to the point of extirpation. If you desperately want trilliums in your garden, try waiting for the wild flowers to fruit typically in late May or June and then gather some seeds, take them home and grow them yourself.


A bit of art. First, a poem by A. M. Klein:

The Mountain

Who knows it only by the famous cross which bleeds
into the fifty miles of night its light
knows a night-scene;
and who upon a postcard knows its shape –
the buffalo straggled of the laurentian herd, –
holds in his hand a postcard.
In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood –
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass-
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

There is a meadow, near the pebbly brook,
where buttercups, like once on the under of my chin
upon my heart still throw their rounds of yellow.

And Cartier’s monument, based with nude figures
still stands where playing bookey
Lefty and I tested our gravel aim
(with occupation flinging away our guilt)
against the bronze tits of Justice.

And all my Aprils there are marked and spotted
upon the adder’s tongue, darting in light,
upon the easy threes of trilliums, dark green, green, and white,
threaded with earth, and rooted
beside the bloodroots near the leaning fence-
corms and corollas of childhood,
a teacher’s presents.

And chokecherry summer clowning black on my teeth!

The birchtree stripped by the golden zigzag still
stands at the mouth of the dry cave where I
one suppertime in August watched the sky
grow dark, the wood quiet, and then suddenly spill
from barrels of thunder and broken staves of lightning –
terror and holiday!
One of these days I shall go up to the second terrace
to see if it still is there-
the uncomfortable sentimental bench
where, – as we listened to the brass of the band concerts
made soft and to our mood by dark and distance-
I told the girl I loved
I loved her.

And another by Mary Oliver, which I might have to repeat in a couple of days because it is so good:

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

knee-high to a treehugger

Frances the budding field biologist
Frances the budding field biologist

I have a handful of books on how to get kids enjoying nature: I Love Dirt! by Jennifer Ward, Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell and Hands-On Nature by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (edited by Jenepher Lingelbach and Lisa Purcell). All are good. Hands-On Nature is like a teacher’s lesson-plan book, with schedules and activities and curriculums laid carefully out; what best recommends it is the background information pages, without which you might not know how to answer your child when s/he asks you how dandelions make seeds (your first guess was close, but no cigar: dandelions carry complete seeds in their ovaries and thus, unlike almost every other plant, do not require even self-pollination. So if you were wondering how it was that every dandelion lovingly picked by your child and set in a glass of water on the kitchen table managed to produce its full complement of fluff, now you know). Sharing Nature With Children is like a girl guide troupe leader’s book, with activities including games broken out by age as well as intended lesson. I Love Dirt! is the easiest, a list of 52 things you can do with a child outside and ways to get them to explore their environment more purposefully. Its only downside is that you may think, as you read it, who needs a book? Like I need to read that kids like splashing in puddles?

Don’t let that put you off; if you are looking for an easy introduction to ways of getting kids eager to be outside learning about nature, it’s a great place to start. I tend to read a couple different activities, maybe from a couple different books, look out the window to see what’s growing/blooming/migrating/falling/seeding/whatever, and then out Frances and I go. This is FUN.

I think these are white bird's nest fungi, but I am open to being corrected.
I think these are white bird's nest fungi, but I am open to being corrected.

You don’t believe me. You want your sofa and your coffee and your laptop so you can answer emails while little Mikey or Yasmin finds new and exciting ways of using their everlasting Thomas the Tank Engine collection. I hear you. But at least once, give it a shot. Frances and I went to the local woodlot today; I intended to stay for thirty minutes and had to drag both of us home after two hours, and even so, Frances was coaxed out only because I promised we could go back next week.

We marveled at trout lilies, and Frances picked up the basics of their life cycle in about fifteen seconds and delighted in informing me whenever she saw a baby trout lily (small, single leaf) or a grown-up (with a flower). We looked at all the new leaves and buds and plants on the ground. We listened to the creek, and Frances threw stones in it to make splashes. We listened to birds and I caught chickadees nesting in a nearby tree. I had approximately three thousand heart attacks while watching her cavort on the edge of the embankments. We jumped the culverts. We talked about the difference between small pieces of concrete, which look like stones, and actual stones and rocks. We picked dandelions. Frances told me all about weeping willows while looking at a pine tree. We saw weird mushrooms. It was a great afternoon.

Frances on the woodlot embankment
Frances on the woodlot embankment

The “woodlot” in question is a small patch of undeveloped land between two suburban residential streets with a stormwater drainage creek running through it, heavily channeled by concrete and gabion baskets, and an unpaved path running a short ways over several large steel culverts. Algonquin Park it ain’t. Do you think she cared?

Young kids are too small to appreciate the Grand Canyon anyway. Take them to a weed patch, if that’s all you’ve got handy. Let it be ordinary. Nature isn’t special or precious. Nature is dirt.

A study of the world’s leading environmentalists showed that they had almost nothing in common, except a childhood in which they were given the time and space to form a significant relationship with nature. If you want your kids to grow up loving nature, let them jump in mud puddles.

PinkyLux School for Girls

presents 'What is a Woman'...because it's absurd to be a woman on planet earth, etc.

Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!

Enjoying a RTW FAST since 2015! Creator of "DESIGNIN' DECEMBER!" Addicted to sewing since the 70's! In a few words, I want to try everything, learn everything and talk about it with you!



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