What Makes Us Human, What Makes Us Good

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Photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I am walking in the woods alongside the sea pondering these questions: what makes us human, and what makes us good? And the answer, it seems to me, is the extent to which we are connected to, and value, wildlife.

Consider the whales in the sea and the trees in the forest. Consider the elephants if you please.

Strong mother-child bonds characterize the Orcas whale as well as the elephant. Offspring often stay with their mothers for life. And upon death, Orcas keep vigil, actively mourning the passing of one of their own.

“They’re not killer whales, they’re lovers,” writes reporter Hayley Day in “Wired for Orcas Love,” published online, The Journal of the San Juan Islands, 2/14/17.

Ken Balcomb, Founder of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, suggests, “They may be a superior species actually. They’ve certainly been around longer than us. They may think ‘those monkeys’ on the beach have almost whale-like intelligence.”

Or not.

Turning now to the trees, I am realizing from the beautiful little book I am reading, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, that the forest is another remarkable social network. Trees too are social beings, and a solitary planted tree would be hard-pressed to enjoy the benefits of those in the forest. Growing near each other, like families, trees support each other, share nutrients, and care for their sick and elderly. They communicate through both roots and leaves, warn each other of dangers—such as insect infestations, and accommodate for one another’s growth rather than crowd each other out. Together in a forest, trees create a hospitable climate that one tree alone would be incapable of achieving.

My woods here is full of deer, but continents away from the Puget Sound elephants tell a remarkably similar story to the trees and the whales. Elephants also form close family bonds particularly between mother and offspring, and live in a complex, matriarchal, social structure. Elephants greet one another, work in teams, and exhibit emotions such as crying at birth and death. They grieve, bury their dead, and frequently return to revisit the body. Elephants care for each other’s orphaned offspring, sharing food when it is scarce. Capable of enormous empathy, elephants do not do well in isolation.

Whales, trees, or elephants, there is resistance in numbers. We must remember this.

Only four weeks into the Trump Administration and the future for wildlife—wild animals, fauna, flora, mammals, fish and birds–looks bleak. And with it, would go our humanity.

Climate change is locked in denial by the very man chosen now to lead The Environmental Protection Agency. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt fired off multiple lawsuits against the EPA on behalf of oil, gas, and coal industries. Long an adversary against regulation to control pollution, can’t you hear them all laughing in the fossil-fuel board rooms now?

What did the American people expect? A developer looks at a forest and sees a golf course, hotels, casinos. He sees trees for cutting down. To him, an ocean is for skimming his yacht across. His sons trophy hunt in Africa, like Colonialists out of the 19th century.

And we, the monkeys on the beach, are rendered less healthy, less humane, and less human for this.

 

 

 

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Walls vs. Coexistence

chinas-great-wallPhoto credit: Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A long time ago in a land far away, there once was an emperor who wanted a wall. It is always one grandiose scheme or another, and that one was defensive. The longest defensive barrier ever built to keep out invaders. Begun in the Qin Dynasty, and later rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall of China covered much of the northern border of China.

We all know how well that worked out. For over 2,000 years the nomadic Mongol tribe of the north regularly invaded and conquered the Chinese Empire.

Extending through all types of terrain including mountainous regions, the Great Wall itself took its toll on the Chinese. Thousands of workers died in the construction, and many are thought to be buried under the very wall they were assembling.

And what of the wildlife? On that continent: wild boars, oryx gazelle, and the Chinese monal pheasant. Red fox, Siberian Roe Deer, Hog badger, and African Hoopoe in forests. Whatever became of the wildlife with the wall?

As in China, the U.S./Mexican border runs through a delicate ecosystem. Traversing mountains, rivers, desert, and scrub brush, various species have been crossing it for billions of years. On this continent: mountain lions, bobcats, cougars, desert bighorn sheep, the endangered N.A. jaguar, and ocelot. Roadrunners and low flying birds such as the pygmy owl, as well as annual  migrations of Monarch butterflies.

“Border infrastructure not only blocks the movement of wildlife, but… destroys the habitats, fragments the habitats and the connectivity that these animals use to move from one place to another,” notes Sergio Avila-Villegas, at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, in Tucson.

As it is, with approximately 40% of the U.S./ Mexico border presently fenced, desertification, erosion, pollution, groundwater depletion, and distressed animals are already evident. Construction of a wall would further disturb watersheds and waterways, resulting in possible flooding.

“For some species, the desert bighorn sheep, for example, you have decent populations on both sides of the border. But they depend on these movements for maintaining genetic diversity, for recolonizing habitat where they’ve suffered long extinctions,” states Dr. Clint Epps, a biologist at Oregon State University.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, world wildlife biodiversity is diminishing at an alarming rate. A complete divide along the US/Mexican border would isolate subpopulations of many animal species, hampering gene flow. Plants too are dependent on wind to spread their seeds. A wall would disrupt pollination and have effects on the ecosystem as a whole.

You have to remember, nature doesn’t know borders. A wall, any wall—one for defense, another to control immigration, can easily create more disorder than order.

In the words of Michael Crowther, CEO Indianapolis Zoological Society, we “… must recognize that we are a part of this world, and trying to become apart from the rest of it is not a viable solution in the long term. We must create a new focus on what our countries share in common—our biodiversity, our ecosystems and our planet—rather than what makes us different. Then, and only then, can we begin to have a meaningful dialogue around flexible solutions that benefit humans, ecosystems, and wildlife on both sides of the border.”

 

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The Mother of All Marches

16325750_10101777905954025_1220437753_oPhoto Credit: Ashley Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

In a circuitous route by way of Seattle, Boston and Rochester, New York, I made my way to Washington DC last weekend for The March. So if I was in the air for the Inauguration ceremony, I considered that a good thing. Well above the clouds, all I could think at that moment was “not my president.”

Alas, I had to land.

I was not the only one to arrive exclaiming about a “planeload of women.” Whether by air, bus, train, or car, we all had that experience. By the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, we poured into the city for The Women’s March on Washington. And on Saturday our March would dwarf Friday’s Inaugural event down the same Pennsylvania Avenue for The Emperor Who Has No Clothes.

This is a story that can be told in garments. The army of women who poured into DC could be called The Comfortable Shoe Crowd. Dressed in jeans, parkas, and fleece, wearing running shoes or hiking boots, we had miles to go and mileage on our minds. From grandmothers to little girls, many donned pink knit “pussy hats.”

At the intersection of Inaugural Ball attendees and this army of women entering town on Friday evening, it looked just like what it was: a coup d’etat. I saw it in the outfits on the sidewalks, crosswalks, and in our restaurant. It was like Dior and Jessica McClintock meet Eddie Bauer and North Face.

Couples dressed to the nine’s, the women barely able to walk in stilettos and long lean gowns with slits, and tuxedoed men weaving and rolling about like a penguins on ice. They were far and few, whereas the women coming in for The March traveled in packs and were numerous. And from what I saw, all the camaraderie too was on our side.

DC was packed, as was the fabulous Greek/Mediterranean restaurant Zaytinya. Fortunately we had reservations, occupying large round tables, sharing multiple small plates and wine with a great deal of noise and merriment. Among us in the restaurant were occasional couples at tables for two dressed for the Ball. But it was as if they had lost, for every time a pink pussy hatted client walked through the room, the crowd broke out in cheer.

They may have won the election, but the evening was counterintuitive. And the next day with The March on Washington, as well as all the marches that marched in solidarity around the country and the globe. And we will keep on marching until everyone sees it and shouts, “But the Emperor has no clothes.”

 

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A photographic tour of street art in Mexico City guided by Jenaro de Rosenzweig of Street Art Chilango, pictured here with his pup. In the second photograph, the writer attempts to get out of the way of her own post.

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This Moment Now

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Photo By Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I have been thinking a lot about endings lately.

Here we wake every morning only to remember that the country has been hijacked and the old pendulum clock has stopped swinging.

A second snowfall awaits me, so unusual where I sit. But nothing is usual anymore. I notice snowflakes growing larger, indicating the near end of the storm. As in symphonies and fireworks displays, they give it their all in the end.

The crescendo, the grand finale: this is what I think we’re living through now in this country.

And from my side of the aisle it is an extraordinary sight. Petitions are flying. There’s a great flourish of involvement in the constitutional process. The recount effort. Writing senators, calling senators. More petitions. Attempts to push back the Electoral College, perhaps even the Inauguration. Anything and everything to save the union. The Women’s March on Washington. The many of us who would like to start all over again. I’ve never seen anything like it.

God knows we’ve had a run of bad days but the crescendo, like the snowstorm, is beautiful at this moment.

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Thank You For Asking, But No, I Am Not Alright

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Photo By Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY A MAYER

I have my father on speed dial. He said to call any time I need to hear that our country, our world, will survive president-elect Trump. While the nation is going rogue, I am sitting on my island in the Salish Sea thinking this is not far enough away.

On election day, I wore ironed white linen in honor of the suffragettes. And Buddhist prayer beads around my neck for good measure. We were giddy then.

But I should have known. A Trump-sized migraine had preceded the election. His supporters were hiding in plain sight. Some were even hiding in my extended family.

Without ever having met, Donald Trump and I go way back.

My first husband was a narcissist, and I am here to tell you that nothing good can come of it. I don’t know how I survived, but imagine arriving in NYC in the 70’s after the storm of the marriage, arriving on my arse, so to speak. In an era when Donald Trump was the golden boy, or so he thought. Building golden towers, hideously gaudy to everyone else.

Even then I loathed him. I may have had conflicted feelings about my ex, but I was very clear on Donald J. Trump. I had a plan to walk out of any venue should he saunter in, or cross the street if I saw him coming—but of course he was always riding limos, then as now. And fortunately I was spared.

Over the years, after extensive analysis of these two men, I was able to define my feelings as a toxicity to narcissism. And so I stay away from those types. Now here it comes back to me, embodied in one of its original suits.

What to do? What to do? First I will write this. It’s as much for me, you understand, as it is a message-in-a- bottle to the world. I need to know that I can still write.

Then what? This is what it’s like after that election, when you don’t know if you can see straight, if you can find your feet, or get out of bed in the morning. It’s an awful lot like my divorce.

Next I’ll retrieve the piece that I had started to write before the election. On the Madrona Tree, and our shared DNA with trees. For someone is going to have to care a wit about the environment in this new era. Right?

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What an Old Growth Forest Knows

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photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A few years back when we were living in the city, I came down to the kitchen one morning, turned on KUOW, Seattle’s public radio, ground my beans and made coffee. These gestures always seemed to happen simultaneously. The program on air was in the middle of an interview with a writer who was on book tour, and I thought, I know that voice.

And I did. The crisp Australian cadence of her voice. Years ago we were neighbors north of San Diego. I’ll call her Harriet. I didn’t know her well—both of our families had a fair amount of land with avocado groves to manage, young children to raise, and were pretty busy–but on the few occasions that we did get together, her voice enchanted me. And here it was now, playing away in my kitchen.

That night I attended Harriet’s reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. And afterward, over lattes, caught up with the new life of my old neighbor. Both families had relocated. Her’s to Houston, while we obviously wound up in The Pacific Northwest.

Walking each other to the parking lot, I thought the evening had gone pleasantly enough until she gestured with a dismissive sweep of her arm at the dark green woods surrounding us.

“I don’t know how you can live here.,” she said. “If you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all.”

And on that note, Harriet hopped in her vehicle and was gone.

I was stunned. My first thought was that they are not all pines, not by a long shot. It’s so much more complex than that. Richly complex.

The Old Growth Forests of The Pacific Northwest are essentially conifer forests, dominated by Douglas firs and Western hemlocks. Stretching from SE Alaska and SW British Columbia, through Western Washington and Western Oregon to the border of Northern California, and from the Pacific Ocean eastward to the crest of The Cascade Range. Sometimes referred to as Primary Forests, Virgin Forests, Primeval Forests, and my favorite, Ancient Woodlands (in Britain), an Old Growth Forest is defined by Wikipedia as a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance, and thereby exhibits unique ecological features.

Walk through it with me, if you would, for we later left the city and moved north—onto San Juan Island. Into the wilderness, so to speak. We live in an Old Growth Forest at the foot of the sea, where Western red cedar thrives. Growing year round in our mild winters, these trees reach heights of 200 ft, and may be two or three centuries old. This is the tree with which I am most familiar now.

Mother Cedar. Distinguished by it’s fluted base and graceful, feathery branches. It’s fragrant, sweet smelling needles softly carpeting the forest floor and tracking into our home daily. The exterior of our home is shingled in cedar shakes, making it appear at one with the woods. A half dozen cedar Adirondack chairs sit upon a cedar deck, and another half dozen in a circle around an outdoor fire pit. We are all about cedar here. We probably smell like cedar.

An Old Growth Forest is comprised of large trees, standing dead trees (snags), and fallen trees. Water-repellent and rot-resistant, red cedar can last for hundreds of years on the forest floor. As such, logs and snags may foster more life after their death than they had before. Covered now with mushrooms and mosses, and nursing huckleberries, ferns, and salal. Over time, it may provide a substrate for seedling shrubs and trees.

Time is long here. While some trees reach upwards of 1,000 years of age, others are on their way back to decay. There is a mix of tree ages and of regeneration. An Old Growth Forest is a continuum.

An Old Growth Forest has remarkable resilience—to natural events. Recovering quickly from fires, windstorms, and disease, but not from human events such as clear-cut logging. At a time when the U.S. has lost 96% of its Old Growth Forests, what this Old Growth Forest Knows is immense.

That air you breathe, Houston. We put it there.

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