Monday, October 28, 2013

Musings: Are we encouraging the wrong attitude toward nature?

There have been a few events in the news and media lately that have been making waves in the environmental community – and not in a good way. There are two examples in particular that seem to be sending the wrong message about our relationships with, and attitudes toward, the environment.  What is even more disturbing is that both of these examples are either directed toward children or involve people who work directly with children, who will be the next generation of humanity responsible for continuing critical conservation efforts that so much of our society is fighting for right now.  Are we sending them the right message?  Are we teaching them to develop the respect and sense of wonder that will cause them to care about preserving the environment that sustains us? Judging by these examples… definitely not.

I’m sure by now that everyone has seen the video of the boy scout leaders toppling an ancient rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.  In the video, a boy scout leader is shown shoving a large rock (“goblin”) off of its natural pedestal near a trail.  After a few pushes, the rock gives way and tumbles to the ground, at which the perpetrators in the video throw their hands in the air and commence with their self-congratulations and victorious hooting and hollering. 

This video caused a stir due to the fact that it documents the destruction of an ancient rock formation in a State Park.  In the big picture of things, is a rock being pushed over a huge deal? No, not really.  Of course, it would be a big problem if everyone decided to run around Goblin Valley toppling rock formations left and right, but that seems unlikely given the outcry over this most recent incident.  

The big problem with this video, in my mind, is that the actions of the boy scout leaders demonstrate a blatant lack of respect for nature.  They deemed this rock to be a “threat,” and in a scene that could have easily featured primitive cavemen, decided to push the rock over and then commence with the high-fives, boasting, and verbal chest-pounding as they congratulated themselves on "modifying" and making the valley “safer”.  However, their concerns with safety are clearly not the driving force behind their decision to destroy the rock formation – why then would there be all of the testosterone-infused shouting and celebration?  No, this action was borne from the need to dominate nature, and from a complete lack of respect for our environment.  This is the same attitude that has persisted throughout human history… the attitude that has resulted in species extinctions, polluted air and water, millions of square miles of natural habitat destroyed annually, toxic Superfund sites, and complete reshaping of the landscape as mountaintops are leveled and rivers dammed.  It is extremely discouraging to see this attitude perpetuated in the Goblin Valley video by a group of men who are responsible for imparting knowledge to boy scouts.  This is not the attitude that should be demonstrated for them.  As human beings, we are meant to be stewards of this planet, not destroyers of it.

The second item causing an upset among conservation organizations is a recently-released Toys R Us commercial that appears to promote consumerism while portraying nature as utterly boring.  In the commercial, a group of elementary school children load up on a bus emblazoned with the name “Meet the Trees Foundation,” and many of them immediately become catatonic upon the field trip guide commencing a game of “name that leaf”.  Just when the kids can’t take any more, the guide informs them that this whole thing is a joke and that they’re actually going to Toys R Us where the kids get to pick out any toy they want.  Cheering erupts and the scene shifts to children shrieking and laughing in jubilation as they run through the aisles of the toy store.

I see a few issues with this commercial.  It is pushing two clear ideas onto children who are still developing their perceptions about how the world works: the idea of consumerism, and the idea that nature is boring and uncool. Sure, we see these ideas (especially the former) presented separately all the time, but it is when the two are juxtaposed in the same commercial that you really find yourself shaking your head and thinking “that’s not right!”. Just a little caveat here:  I’m not saying that children shouldn’t have toys – not at all!  However, promoting the idea of consumerism to children while in the same breath saying that nature is dumb and boring is essentially dropping a bomb on our future environment and viability of our conservation efforts.

Let’s dissect this bomb a little bit: First of all, teaching children that “stuff” is good promotes the idea that “things” will make them happy, and “more is better”.  This attitude of consumerism in our society is responsible for a great deal of environmental destruction, as producing more “stuff” requires extraction of natural resources, processing raw materials and manufacturing the product, and finally packaging and shipping the item to the stores - all of which draw down our natural resources and require inputs of fossil fuels, ultimately leading to pollution and contributing to climate change. (The Story of Stuff Project has a great video that outlines this process).  Secondly, nature is not boring! Frankly, I don’t think this commercial gives kids enough credit, because at least from my experience, children love to learn about the outdoors and are fascinated when you take the time to point things out and explain the natural world to them, especially if it is done with a sense of adventure and discovery.  Many of us fell in love with nature as children, and it is important to help kids develop that fascination and appreciation for nature at a young age.  Giving them the message that nature is boring is misleading and does them a disservice.  In fact, we’re doing all of ourselves a disservice if we give children the impression that nature is dull and fail to help them develop an ethic of conservation, being that they are the future generation that will be responsible for looking after our natural resources and environment in the decades to come.

Bottom line: we need to be aware of what message we’re conveying regarding our attitudes toward nature, especially when children are involved.  Our futures depend on it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Lessons from Nature: Enjoying the Moment

Browsing through some photos recently, I came across the image below, taken on a hike last year.  This picture is a reminder of the unfortunate wreckage that often results when rare and awesome moments in our lives collide with the need to photograph and document every experience.  It is a reminder that oftentimes, it is better to simply enjoy the moment while you're in it, rather than missing it in a frantic scramble to locate your camera and snap a hasty, low-quality photo that in no way represents what the experience was actually like. I daresay that the image in your mind will be more beautiful and enduring than a fuzzy photograph.

The photo above was taken on a hike in English Camp on San Juan Island.  My husband and I came around a bend in the trail and found ourselves face-to-face with a large doe.  Now, most of us don't have close encounters with deer-- or any other wildlife for that matter-- on a regular basis, so these are the moments when you gasp in delight and stand in awe at being in such close physical proximity to one of these animals.  That was my reaction for the first few seconds, after which I quickly reached for the camera around my neck, fumbled to turn it on, pointed it at the deer, waited for the focus to lock on... and then captured the lovely image you see above.  Knowing I had taken an awful photo as the deer fled from the crazy camera lady, I attempted to lure the deer back into view by making kissy noises, but to no avail.  The moment had passed.

Seeing this photograph again over a year later, I can't help but wonder-- would I have had a more profound and enjoyable experience had I simply stood there and watched the deer and been "in the moment" rather than persisting with an unsuccessful attempt to capture the moment on camera for posterity?  Especially in the age of social media where we're documenting and sharing so much of our lives online via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., there seems to be an increasing and urgent need for us to photograph, post, tweet, and share every experience we encounter.  Would our memories be more vivid and enduring if we were to let a few social media post/tweet/sharing opportunities slide by and capture the moment in our minds rather than with a camera?  This question was unequivocally answered when I found myself attempting to capture a stunning sunset just last week:

Yep.  Crummy, washed-out photo of a bright orange blob on the horizon that in no way captures the actual beauty of that sunset.  Luckily, I came to my senses, put down my phone, and soaked in the sight before my eyes: spread across the heavens from horizon to horizon, the light blue evening sky was streaked with clouds, their underbellies aglow with a fiery pink that gave way to glowing orange in the immediate vicinity of the setting sun.  The sky seemed so overwhelmingly large and expansive, and I felt so incredibly small.  Now there, doesn't that paint a prettier picture than the poor-quality photo above?

Take the challenge for yourself the next time you have to urge to photograph one of those rare and awesome moments. Turn the camera off, keep the phone in your pocket, and try to enjoy the scene before your eyes.   I'm not suggesting that we should stop taking photos altogether, but every once in awhile, just let one moment go by undocumented, un-posted, and un-tweeted. Like me, you might even feel a little relief at allowing yourself to be in the moment rather than feeling obligated to capture it on camera to share with everyone else.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

In the News: Timeline for a Changing Climate

Are you convinced that climate change won't happen in your lifetime? A new study published this week in the journal Nature might make you rethink your stance. Using historical data and a compilation of 39 different climate models, the authors of the study have put a timeline on when we can expect our climate to "depart from historical variability," and their conclusions might surprise you.

What does it mean to "depart from historical variability"?  The authors explain that climate change will cause average annual temperatures to increase to the point where the average temperature of the coolest year in the future will exceed the average temperature of the hottest year for the historical period of 1860-2005. Simply, this means that a "hot year" from 1860-2005 would be considered a "cool year" in the future, once the climate crosses that temperature threshold. We would be facing a brand new climate completely unlike what we're used to.

The tropics are expected to reach "climate departure" the soonest - in just over a decade.  The authors note that this is particularly worrisome as these regions have the highest biodiversity, and also tend to have some of the poorest countries which are least able to cope with, and adapt to, climate change.

So what does this mean for those of us in the Seattle area? The authors of the paper predict that under a business-as-usual scenario where global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase each year, Seattle will cross the threshold and reach "climate departure" by the year 2055.  If we stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, we'll be able to stave off this dubious milestone until the year 2082.

After doing a little research, I found some data pertaining to average temperatures in Seattle on (I intended to find this information on the National Climactic Data Center website, but unfortunately it is offline due to the government shutdown... so I settled for a site that listed the NCDC as their data source). 

According to the site, the average annual temperature for Seattle is currently 51.8 degrees F, with average high temp of 59 degrees and average low temp of 44 degrees.  Now just imagine a future where our average low temperature is 59 degrees. This could be devastating on many levels, and would affect our mountain snowfall, summertime water supply, agriculture and growing seasons, weather patterns, wildfire susceptibility, etc and would require our region to come up with adaptation strategies to deal with these difficult situations.  Could this be the future that the Seattle area is facing by the year 2055? Frighteningly, for many of us, this is within our lifetime!  Although this is only one study, it is further evidence that climate change is not the problem of our children or grandchildren: it is our problem. Now.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Musings: In Search of Old Growth

Everyone has a favorite posession that has been in their lives so long that it feels like a beloved old friend, carrying with it numerous memories of years past.  Being somewhat of a sentimental person, I have a few posessions like this, but the only ones that currently receive much use are my old comfy-as-a-couch Doc Marten boots, which have been my faithful hiking partners for years.  Sturdy and slightly misshapen, these boots have my footprints permanently embedded in them, and carry with them traces of the places we've been together over a period of time that spans half my life.  In their younger (and better-looking!) days, these boots accompanied me through the hallways at school, marched through muddy fields at horse shows, traversed the Las Vegas strip, got lost in a few corn mazes, and in recent years, have hiked in the Redmond Watershed Preserve, San Juan Island, the Oregon coast, Eastern Washington, Saint Edward State Park, and completed several hikes to the Big Four Ice caves.  It wasn't until just recently, however, that these trusty old boots stepped onto the ancient soil of an old-growth forest.

On a recent trip to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, my husband, beloved boots, and I enjoyed the experience of hiking in an ancient, decadent, and somewhat mystical old-growth forest on our hike to the Falls Creek waterfall (which you may have read about in the Nature Nerd Wednesday post a few weeks ago). I love hiking in old-growth forests. And driving through them.  In fact, I probably wore my poor husband's nerves nearly to the breaking point as we drove through the National Forest and I gasped and pointed out the window every few miles: "WOW! Look at that huge tree!" or "Oh my gosh, that's so COOL!". I'm lucky that he puts up with me and enjoys these little adventures as much as I do. At least I think he does... 

Old-growth forests used to cover much of Washington State, but sadly, only a few fragmented stands still remain. The fortunate patches that managed to escape the lumbermill offer beautiful scenery and, if you're paying attention to your surroundings, a completely unique hiking experience that will foster feelings of reverence and respect for the old forest that grow with each step.

Here is the first old growth tree we found on the hike: a towering Doug Fir

Identifying an old-growth tree is fairly simple.  Not all old-growth trees are massive in diameter and towering in height, but they all will have thick, gnarled bark, and like the photo on the left above, you may find ash or charcoal--the remnants of forest fires over the centuries.
This dead tree has provided a buffet of insects for woodpeckers.

 An example of the "decadence" of these forests, as ecologists say: young Doug Fir trees growing from a nurse log.  The massive trees in these forests eventually topple over from wind, lightning, or decay, returning their nutrients to the earth and feeding the future generations of trees that will grow up in their place.

You know you're in an old-growth forest when there is an absurd number of downed trees littering the ground. You'll also notice that the forest floor is very open due to the lack of vegetation growth, as the canopy of tall trees block out too much sunlight for plants to grow on the forest floor. Old-growth forests are almost completely comprised of coniferous trees, as deciduous maples, cottonwoods, and alders tend to die off early in the forest's lifespan and cannot successfully compete for sunlight against the hardier conifers.

As we hiked, my mind dwelt on the thought that this forest has endured the elements since before the days of Columbus, and although the trees are protected from the axe, they now face a grave and pervasive threat in the form of climate change. It is hard to say how much longer these stately forests will remain, but in the face of a warming climate and changing precipitation and weather patterns, they will eventually succumb to these conditions which they are not adapted to survive in. 

I think that everyone should try to hike in an old-growth forest at least once in their lives. It is a unique and enduring experience that you will not soon forget. There is the lovely scenery, huge trees, and intoxicatingly fresh air, but there is also the feeling that you get.  In the presence of these ancient trees, you almost have an eerie sense that you've stepped into a place where time has stopped.  These forests have carried on in the same way for centuries while the outside world has changed so dramatically, and the serenity of this steadfast cycle of life pervades the forest. There is a comforting feeling of continuity in that these trees will continue to grow, topple over, decay, and regrow for as long as they are able without the interference of humans.   
Although I was taking photos like an old-growth forest paparazzi and at the same time thinking of the environmental challenges threatening the forest, there were still plenty of quiet moments that allowed me to enjoy the magnitude of the scenery around me. The Falls Creek hike was the first time that I've hiked in an old-growth forest with the knowledge to see and appreciate the intricacies in the ecology of the forest around me, and it was an awesome and inspiring experience.  I even have the dirt on my boots to prove it.
Standing among giants.  Thanks to my hubby for photographing this moment for me!