Hey You! Look at Me!

It’s an almost insidious sensation that catches me off guard every summer. I walk around the corner of the house. It’s late afternoon and there’s just a slight breeze coming down off the hillside above the house. Suddenly I’m almost knocked off my feet by a fragrance like none other–sweet, heady, it sweeps away any other thought in my mind and sensation in my body. I’ve never used mind-altering drugs, but it must be something like this.

I always come to a stop. It demands my attention. It’s the Little Leaf Linden tree up on the hill behind the house. It emits this lovely aroma as it blossoms for only a few days in late July. This year, because it’s so warm, it only lasts a day or two. Sometimes, when I have a window open, I can smell it inside the pantry, on the back side of the house. One year I swore that the next summer when this happened, I would move a lawn chair out into the gravel driveway the second I smelled it and just sit and take it in. And I did.

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And then the peaches! They’re the right color, so I reach up and feel their fuzzy, warm skin. Stone hard. Will I wear them out by pressing their skin to see if there’s any “give?” Then suddenly, after I decide I really must leave them alone for a few days longer, I notice a peach on the ground. They’re ripe! Half the peaches on the tree are ripe and begging to be picked–like right now.

Summer surprises! I suppose every season has its own, like the intense red leaves of the blueberry bushes in autumn reflecting onto the kitchen walls, casting a fire-like glow in the kitchen that always makes me catch my breath. The first sound of whirring hummingbird wings in the spring. The call of an eagle that demands I look up–that sound belongs to all the seasons, but it still catches my attention.

We can’t ignore the signs and signals going on in the world around us. They call us to act sometimes, like when we see a dead baby orca being carried for days and days by its mother, or by seeing refugees caged like animals. Or by the smoky haze that reminds us that our climate is changing–and it’s changing much faster than what is natural.

Other times we’re called simply to stop and take it in, relax and breathe. We learn to balance our fears and horror, and we learn to love the earth and “all who dwell therein,” becoming just a little more human as we do.

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Necessary Losses

Have you seen the video of rescuers removing a plastic straw lodged securely in a big sea turtle’s nostril?

Have you seen photos of the vast islands (continents?) of plastic floating in the ocean?

Have you walked on a remote ocean beach and seen all the plastic washed up on shore?

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I’d seen enough. When China announced it could no longer accept all our plastic for recycling, I realized I’d become sloppy. I was buying way too many plastic bags and wrap. Sure, I often carry my own cloth bags grocery shopping, and I keep all my clean plastic bags to return to the grocery store for recycling. But I am no longer confident that much of that is actually getting recycled anymore.

Plastic bags last 10 to 20 years. Plastic cutlery? Between 100 and 1,000 years. Some plastics last forever.

I’d already made two good changes over the last few years–using my own shopping bags, and recycling as much as possible. Both of those have become routine and super easy. But somewhere along the way I’d grown weary of washing and re-using plastic bags. That all changed when I discovered that the Potter, this man who is proud of the thick layer of dust on his dresser and can keep a tray of cinnamon rolls on his kitchen counter for weeks at a time, was actually washing out and re-using plastic bags.

This morning at Safeway, the woman ahead of me in line had each of her produce items in some odd-looking bags. I asked the checker about them.

“Yes, they’re becoming quite popular–re-usable mesh bags. You can find them sometimes in the produce section (for purchase) or buy them online.” I will watch for those. I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to discover them.

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Replacing plastic wrap? I bought 3 sheets (different sizes) of non-plastic wrap online. It did not come cheap ($18 at Etee, no shipping fee), but can be washed and re-used time after time. They work well–not quite as tight as plastic wrap, but my food doesn’t sit in the frig for a long time anyhow. And I’m using my plastic containers a lot instead, especially see-through containers that I’ve bought with food in them.

Just this month Seattle outlawed all use of plastic straws and cutlery in food service. Every time I go to a fast food restaurant, I’m asking politely if they have paper straws. I know our city hasn’t made that switch yet, but it makes sense to let them know that there are some people out here who are ready to eliminate those turtle torture tools.

From everything I’ve read, it’s easiest to implement one change at a time until that practice becomes routine and easy. Then it’s time to make another change. The EPA is relaxing lots of clean air and water standards–it’s up to us!

Does this save the world? Of course not! It doesn’t even make a dent. But like that woman ahead of me in line at the grocery store, I’d like to maybe influence a little bit of change. Big changes start small. We can’t all do the same things, but we can do something.

I’m interested in any ideas you have found that work well to eliminate plastic, especially at the grocery store. Shop the farmer’s markets instead? Resist buying anything in those stiff plastic containers? There’s a comment section somewhere on this page.

Someone recommended a book to me once, Necessary Losses. It was a popular book some years back about dependencies and grieving that we need to give up in order to move forward and grow. As a world we need to give up a lot of plastic not only to move forward, but in order to live.

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Photo credits:

1 – <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

2 – <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

3 – <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

 

 

Spinning Gold out of Air

If you had told me that I would pick up and read The Alchemy of Air, a book about….well, basically about chemistry and fertilizer, I would have laughed at you. Not only did I read it, but it was the best book I read in the last year.

I’ve belonged to the same book group for about 40 years. We have increasingly been reading more challenging, non-fiction books. Sometimes I long for the old days when we could read books like Bridges of Madison County (yes, groan….we did!) or a Harry Potter book. On the other hand, I am reading books I never would have attempted otherwise. Last month we read Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. This swash-buckling tale about Charles Wilkes, the volatile leader of a highly successful, but disastrous exploring expedition in the early 1800’s was a page turner.

But this month’s book was even better. The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager, is about two German men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, both brilliant–but flawed. In the words of the author, “This is the story of two men who invented a way to turn air into bread, built factories the size of small cities, made enormous fortunes, helped engineer the deaths of millions of people, and saved the lives of billions more.” Both men received Nobel prizes for their work. Haber, incidentally, was Jewish, and that fact played a lot into his drive for success in a country that, even before the rise of the Nazis, made it difficult to succeed if you were Jewish. His compromises ultimately put him into some unfortunate situations.

Much of the book dealt with early 1900’s German history, but some of my favorite chapters centered on the early and frantic guano trade along the South American coast. Yes, the book is about fertilizer! It’s a story of pulling fertilizer out of the air, the stuff of fairy tales. But fairy tales end happily and this one was hardly that. The Haber-Bosch process did produce fertilizer for crops (today it’s used all over the world), but it also produced gunpowder and high explosives, poisonous gas, and a problem we all face today–nitrogen pollution. The author also views the obesity pandemic today as a result of this process. He points out that there is no shortage of food, but there is a problem (due to wars and natural disasters) of getting it to the people who need it.

I appreciated the short chapters and the readability for a non-scientific person like myself. I found it hard to put the book down. This was a history I did not know–and  the others in my book group admitted the same thing. I am even looking at my vegetable garden and the plants in my yard in a different way.

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Sharpening Our Vision

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It’s just a little unsettling that as we get older, before we invest in updating any body part, we consider its life expectancy. I have a friend who is “making do” with a temporary crown on a tooth.

“Holy moly!” she says, “I’m 75 years old! How much longer am I going to live? I’m chewing just fine with the temporary–I think it will last!”

I was unprepared, however, when I drove the Potter to his eye appointment, where, after his exam, he scheduled appointments to have cataracts on both eyes removed. He was a little quiet in the car riding home.

“You know,” he finally said, “I have a decision to make. I can simply have the cataracts removed and Medicare and my insurance will cover it. Or, if I pay extra, the doctor can correct my vision. I wouldn’t have to wear glasses anymore.”

Another long silence. “I really don’t mind wearing glasses–I’ve worn them most of my life. That would just be a vanity thing and I don’t care about that. The real issue is that I’m 81 years old–if I knew how much longer I was going to live, it would really help to make this decision. It’s not worth it if…..” And his voice trailed off.

That evening when he called, he said, “Well, I’ve made the decision! I’m going to go for the complete fix! You know what helped me decide? I can see through binoculars a lot easier when I’m bird watching–I can get the binoculars right up to my eyes if I’m not wearing glasses!” He was joking, but I know how important those binoculars and birds are to him.

There is a delicious irony here. You know about birds’ eyesight, right? Birds have the biggest eyes, relative to their size, of all animals. So yes, they have much sharper vision than we do. Raptors, especially, have keen eyesight. I have read that if we traded eyes with an eagle, we could see an ant crawling on the ground from the roof of a 10-story building. And, birds see certain light frequencies, including ultraviolet, that we can’t see.

Will I remind the Potter of this? Probably not. He’s been in a foul mood lately–he might not even chuckle at that pun. In this Year of the Bird, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the most important conservation laws in the world, is turning 100 years old this year. A reason to celebrate, right?

Wrong.

This law prohibits the unauthorized killing of migratory birds. Viiolations are criminal offenses. The Interior Department has just issued a memorandum ruling that corporations and businesses that accidentally kill migratory birds during their operations are no longer in violation of the act. Under this new ruling (or Rep. Liz Cheney’s similar House bill), BP Oil would not have been legally responsible for the one million birds that were killed in the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.

So we are gutting one of our most important environmental laws in this Year of the Bird.

It’s another attack, and another reminder to all of us. We renew our support for local and state conservation efforts, we continue to support those national organizations that fight for birds and science (Audubon, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists, Nature Conservancy, etc.). And we continue to send letters and make phonecalls, and make sure our families and friends are all registered to vote.

We need to demand our lawmakers sharpen their vision. This is not a time to be short-sighted.

Earth Lovers

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Earth Day is Sunday, April 22, but since I know you are all Earth Lovers, I think we need to start early and spend the whole month in celebration of this beautiful planet. The earth is under attack from a number of different directions–another reason to spend a little extra time this month in thinking about it. I have no words, but here are some thoughts that I treasure from some wise people. See how many you recognize!

“The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.” –Terry Tempest Williams, from Talking to God: Portrait of a World at Prayer.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist.

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Skunk cabbage

“Love all that has been created by God, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf and every ray of light. Love the beasts and the birds, love the plants, love every separate fragment. If you love each separate fragment, you will understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson

“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” –John Muir

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” –William Blake

“We should notice that we are already supported at every moment. There is the earth below our feet, and there is the air, filling our lungs and emptying them. We should begin from this when we need support.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” — Rachel Carson

“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray, where nature heals and gives strength to body and soul alike.” –John Muir

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“When we come upon beautiful things, they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.” –Elaine Scarry

“Remember to look up at the stars.” — Stephen Hawking

“I had assumed that the Earth, the spirit of the Earth, noticed exceptions–those who wantonly damage it and those who do not. But the Earth is wise. It has given itself into the keeping of all, and all are therefore accountable.”                    –Alice Walker

Earth Lovers love to read about the earth! And some authors make that easy. Here are just a few as reminders. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the “Comments” section below.

The poetry of Emily Dickinson

The poetry of Mary Oliver

Loren Eiseley

John Muir

Terry Tempest Williams

Rachel Carson–consider reading a biography of this oh so courageous woman!

Wendell Berry

The Wind in the Willows, written for children, but challenging and earth-loving

 

 

 

 

What’s for Dinner?

Mr. Muscle came this morning and whipped my three raised beds into shape in time for planting. You can almost see the food sprouting out of them already–peas, beans, carrots, kale, zucchini (ONE plant only), pumpkins, spinach, lettuce, beets,  and radishes. Three long boxes, each divided in half–it’s like six blank canvases. My fingers are just itching to paint-plant.

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Three raised beds crafted by the Potter many years ago.

But I have other diners at my table to consider. Because the rabbits also relish my lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, and peas, those seeds get planted in the one box that has a low fence around it. One year I was able to plant a “spicy lettuce mix” in an unfenced area and they didn’t touch it–but it was too spicy for me, too, so that was a lost effort.

For years the peas mysteriously disappeared every spring–every single seed–and sometimes before they had even sprouted out of the ground. I suspected the rabbits of hopping the fence, but nothing else was touched. Eventually I noticed a Stellar’s Jay methodically working his way down the row of peas. Now I also cover the whole fenced area with a berry net.

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Crocuses nestled up against some hyachinths

I found another mystery last year when I noticed many of my beautiful purple crocuses ever so neatly clipped off. Already this year, the bed is looking like a bridal path of scattered purple petals. The culprit? Rabbits again. Turns out their tastes run beyond veggies. Some of the crocuses are eaten right down to the ground.

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No way could I blame the disappearing little green figs on the rabbits. Every fall, after the fig tree drops its leaves, it holds onto a second crop of small, hard green figs that never develop. Later we rake up a lot off the ground, but I’ve noticed squirrels in the tree making off with the rest.

After the peas are up several inches, I can move the netting onto the blueberries. Small birds still figure out intricate, secret routes underneath the netting, but I manage to save some for myself this way.

The August a flock of crows was slashing their way through my beeautiful juicy yellow pears was also the month a crow died in my neighborhood–by sheer coincidence, I swear. When we hung the two wings in the tree, the crows shrieked for a time, and then left. I hange those two wings each summer and I’ve never seen a crow in the tree since.

One summer I saw signs from a bear underneath an old apple tree that had several broken limbs. Every few years a few beautiful deer wander through and sample from the different apple trees. I figure they’re comparison shopping.

The wildlife and I exist side by side. I love seeing them all, even the crows. We enjoy trying to outwit each other, making life entertaining for all of us critters.

2018–The Year of the Bird

I never really saw the hummingbirds in the abelia bush until some New Zealand visitors stayed in my house for a week one summer. I have a beautiful water view and an interesting house with nooks and crannies that was built in 1908, but all they could talk about were the hummingbirds out the front window.

2018 is a year to celebrate–it’s the Year of the Bird, a plan by Audubon and National Geographic, and supported by more than 40 organizations. Perhaps this is the year that we all can stop and take a second look at our birds, learn a few new names, and then focus on the canary in the coal mine.

You know, of course, about the coal miners who carried cages of canaries into the mines to use as a warning signal for dangerous gases. They could beat a hasty exit if a canary died.

The Winter 2017 issue of Audubon has an amazing research photo of 10 Red-headed Woodpecker specimens and 10 Horned Lark specimens from the Chicago Field Museum. In the photo, they’re laid out on their backs in two neat rows, their white bellies all showing.

A study was conducted on over a thousand specimens collected over the years from 1880 until 2015. Researchers found that the soot on the specimens’ white bellies corresponded to estimates of black carbon in the Rust Belt cities during those years they were collected. They noted that a dramatic change happened in the 1950’s when the environmental movement pushed for the Air Pollution Control Act and the Clean Air Act.

The photo of those bird specimens is dramatic. The bellies of the specimens at the left end of the line are a dirty gray, but they get progressively whiter as you look down the line to the right. The whiter ones are from years when environmental protections were enacted.

The lungs of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren? What will happen as Congress and our President focus on dismantling laws that have protected our air and environment for generations?

In this Year of the Bird, it’s time to go beyond watching birds to speaking for them. Check the statistics of the “canary cages” (populations, migration route changes, etc.) and then start joining and supporting environmental groups, marching, writing letters, phoning legislators–especially at the local and state level. Research on climate change by respected scientists shows a significant impact on birds, our canaries.

No, one voice perhaps won’t make a difference, but joining with a flock? It can!

Clams and Cows

An unlikely pairing, right? Not here in the Salish Sea area, where our days and days of winter rains wash everything into the bays–sewage overflow from malfunctioning septic systems, oil from the roadways, pet and wildlife waste–and manure from big dairy farms.

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And in Whatcom County, north of Seattle, dairy farms are big business, so it accounts for a large amount of contaminated run-off. It starts small, though, with fecal coliform washing into the small streams and ditches around the farms, moving down into larger streams, then into the Nooksack River, and finally dumping into Portage Bay.

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Presently, some 800 acres of shellfish beds are now closed during six months each year due to pollution. The Lummi Nation has traditionally harvested those beds for thousands of years, and through treaty rights with the United States, are entitled to continue harvesting them. Tricky to do when they’re contaminated.

After the tribe decided to sue the seven largest dairy farmers, the two sides started to meet and talk and try to avoid a lengthy, costly court battle for both of them. Last month they signed an agreement whereby the farmers will pay the tribe for the losses they are incurring, and make efforts to clean up their operations–buffering their streams and areas where manure run-off occurs, and installing above-ground steel containers for holding manure. It can more safely be spread on fields during the dry summer months. Expensive? Yes, but not as expensive as litigation.

But the agreement also forges a bond between the two sides so they can address other sources of contamination as well, and they hope to encourage the public to become more aware of ways they can help.

I liked the quote from one of those seven farmers (reported in the Bellingham Herald. “We and the Lummis probably have not understood each other for years. We did our thing out here and they did their thing over there….we have to understand each other and talk and learn about each other.”

Our Congress could learn a thing or two from these people–and perhaps we can, too.

Photo credits:

Cow photo: photo credit: will_cyclist <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/88379351@N00/30538314015″>Moo</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo: photo credit: Frankenstein <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996582271@N01/29509260353″>Lunch</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc Clam /2.0/”>(license)</a>

 

A Child’s Earth

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She just turned two. When she wants her grandpa’s attention, she trots over and stands beside him at his computer. She doesn’t say anything. She stands there ever so quietly until he notices her. Who could resist such adorable sweetness? Grandpa might ignore a child tugging at his sleeve or whining (for awhile), but this is irresistible. She’s only two, but she knows what gets results.

Kids are so smart. They notice. They see. When my son was seven or eight, back in the ’80’s during the arms buildup, I noticed him stretched out on the living room floor, studying the “Ground Zero” map on the front page of our local paper. He could tell that since we lived only a few miles from a base where nuclear warheads were stored that we were a target on Russian military maps.

About the same time, a friend told me that his young son was having nightmares about nuclear attacks. That child knew the possibilities. He understood the potential.

I remembered these incidents when I heard a young boy’s response to someone asking why he was walking in the big march last month. “Because of global warming,” he said. Our national leaders may choose to ignore it, but the children understand what’s happening.

I don’t remember how we discussed that bulls-eye newspaper map. I do remember reading a psychiatrist’s suggestions for how to deal with children’s fear of nuclear war. Children who see the “big people” in their immediate lives (parents, grandparents, etc.) actively DOING something to make a difference (not just talking about it) experience a sense of reassurance. They sense that their parents care about what they care about and are acting to change it.

Global warming is scary even for adults. Kids are smart. They’re aware of news coverage and conversation–melting glaciers, fires in tinder-dry areas, more erratic weather and storms, polar bears trapped on melting ice floes, rising waters, the “hottest year on record” reports, and, yes, even the disappearing sea stars I wrote about last month. If they see us acting to try to keep the world safer and healthier, they absolutely will notice. They’re smart.

We don’t have to lie down on the railroad tracks to block a coal train. We don’t even have to march in a parade. We can call or write postcards to legislators about maintaining international climate change agreements, make some small changes in our own energy consumption, or join a local group trying to preserve some wild spaces. The earth needs those big expanses of wild areas for the health of its atmosphere. If the children can be involved somehow, even better yet.

And then, support some environmental organizations that are working on a national scale to bring much larger and more urgent change. Some of my favorites that are very reputable are Union of Concerned Scientists (factual, no nonsense, research-based), Earthjustice (“because the Earth needs a good lawyer,” highly rated), Sierra Club (becoming more political, lobbies politicians), Nature Conservancy, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Not everyone is comfortable with Greenpeace. They are aggressive and confrontational because they recognize the urgency of the situation.

Read more about these groups and others online. You can check a site like Charity Navigator to verify that the money you send is being used well.

And by starting to act yourself on behalf of the child in your life, a remarkable thing will happen. Not only will that child experience a sense of hope and reassurance, but you will, too.

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“There is nothing more difficult, yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit.” –Maria Popova

Dead Zones (revisited, revised for this month of change, November, 2016)

His back ached and he could still taste grit between his teeth, but as he rocked in the porch swing at the end of the day and looked out over the land, he could see it going on for years and years. His children and their children would continue to grow the small herd of beef cattle and the vegetable crops for the local market. Perhaps they could pick up that piece just west of them and expand their holdings.

He didn’t know about dead zones.

The years passed, and he passed, too. His children went to war and wandered to the cities. The land was divided and sold. The years passed and the land was divided again and sold. And then again.

And when my friend Connie and her husband bought one of those much smaller pieces, just a fraction of the farmer’s, they hauled in rich topsoil all around the house. They set about developing beautiful gardens–a small orchard down near the road, raised vegetable beds behind the house, flowers for every season surrounding it, and a lush carpet of lawn in front.

Connie doesn’t have a green thumb–she has ten green fingers. Past president of the garden club, she can grow anything.

Almost anything. Connie didn’t know about the dead zone.

She planted a plum tree by the side of the house that had a great southern exposure. It died. She pulled it out and planted another fruit tree nearby. It died also.

In frustration she finally contacted the county extension office. They weren’t surprised at her question. They’d heard this complaint before. Many years ago, farmers often kept one area, perhaps a corner, away from the house and their animals, as a dumping ground for any chemicals, old fertilizers, or poisons. This, a dead zone, passes on and on for generations.

Dead zones also exist in the oceans, areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animals can’t live there. These areas can occur naturally, but human activity can also create or enhance them. Excess fertilizer runs off the land (hence the concern about septic tanks or farm animals close to streams, rivers and salt water) and then into the sea. Those nutrients promote algae growth. As that algae decomposes, the process consumes the oxygen in the water that’s necessary for marine life.

Connie’s farmer had neglected to visualize that division of his land, the population growth, the loss of the farm. He didn’t know that what he was doing would continue to contaminate the soil for generations after he was gone. Connie dealt with her dead zone by planting grass whose shallow roots didn’t run beneath the rich topsoil. She calls it the “Dead Zone.”

Today we know about the dead zones, in the water and on the land. We know that whatever we spray or sprinkle on our little patches of ground will stay there. We know the lawn chemicals won’t magically evaporate or sink into nothingness, in spite of what the manufacturers claim. They accumulate over the years, over the generations.

Today we know that the over-emittance of greenhouse gases is contributing to the increase of Earth’s temperatures at an alarming rate. Scientists have warned us about this for years. We’ve resisted their warnings for a long time. Now we’re beginning to feel it in the changing weather patterns. We can no longer claim ignorance.

Today we know that if we don’t make significant changes in the way we live, we will be producing more dead zones all over the world.

We know all about the dead zones. What will our grandchildren and their children inherit?

We know better.