Monday, December 8, 2014

The Last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

"Heavy logging activity devastated the population of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the late 19th century. It was generally considered extinct in the 1920s when a pair turned up in Florida, only to be shot for specimens. By 1944, the last known ivory-billed woodpecker, a female, was gone." -- Studying a Vanishing Bird, Cornell Lab of Orinthology 

The Last Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

He found her, stayed with her, as fast as he could walk,
after the saws finished their business,
every morning she fluttered through remnants
calling, calling, calling,
echoes across puddles in craters where roots last held,
scattered leaves pressed into muddy treads

the primeval urgency of any creature,
calling, calling, calling,
maybe a shrill stretch of fear in her voice
like a rip

keep living is all that came back,
beating against her loud feathers, filling her small lungs,
opening her deft, gleaming white bill,
where are you
where are you

he writes what he sees, binoculars hung slack,
for weeks the same until --
he wakes again with clenched teeth,
unsure if he even wants to hear that cry yet again,
checks his watch for her cue,
looks into the scraggly saplings left behind like orphans,
and all he gets
is the heavy silence of a place so full,
now empty,

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank You Ocean

It's that time of the year to get stuffed, to celebrate how good we really have it. From what I can see, despite my myriad complaints and issues, I have it pretty good.

But let's talk about a gift for all of us. I'm thankful for the ocean -- ok that's kind of obvious.

Let's see, I'm thankful that the ocean gives delicious and healthy seafood. I'm thankful that the ocean provides over half the planet's oxygen and most of the freshwater.

I'm thankful that the ocean always provides raw beauty and, sometimes, breathtaking beauty.

I'm thankful that the ocean and all its fabulous creatures and vastness fills me full of wonder and awe. I'm thankful that the ocean seems to scrub my head and heart.

Really, I'm thankful that the ocean exists at all. Without it, I would not exist. It is my (and everyone's) true home in that sense.

These are gifts, to be true, so thanks is in store. Wouldn't want to take them for granted. Have a great holiday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Blatant Disregard Gets the Gavel

The U.S. will now be held hostage to a few states -- Kentucky and Oklahoma -- that make big money off the burning of fossil fuels. They don't care one bit about climate change's impact on people and the economy because there's money to be made.

Can they really have such a blatant disregard for the health of the planet and the people that live on it? The answer is definitely, positively, yes.

"Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) has said he will fight regulations that would limit carbon emissions,"  according to the New York Times.

"Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a prominent skeptic of climate change and the presumed new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is expected to open investigations into the E.P.A., call for cuts in its funding and delay the regulations as long as possible," said the Times article.

I'm still wondering what's wrong with a so-called "war on coal", which McConnell whined about during his campaign. What if it was asbestos or arsenic? We learned that these things poison people so we eliminated them.

We know that burning coal is bad -- think strip mining, black lung, climate change, mercury in our fish and fetuses, soot -- but it's still around. It's still the primary fuel we use in the U.S. to generate electricity. It doesn't make any sense.

It only makes sense when common sense is thrown out, and there's one thing that can do that -- money. It's a shame that greed is ultimately going to bring us down. I really thought, hoped, we were better than that.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Can't Wait for Minnows

There’s a medium-sized river in western Pennsylvania that contains no fish. I know because I paddled it.

The river, the West Branch of the Susquehanna, is remote and beautiful with stretches of slightly challenging rapids through steep, wooded canyons. Small streams flow out of the forest and pour off the canyon walls into the bigger water.

The scenery was part of why we came, but something was odd about the whole thing. Probably had something to do with the water. Because the river was so acidic from decades of mining along its banks, no fish swim in it, no snakes hunt in it, and no crayfish crawl in it.

I didn't realize it then but I was experiencing what could be the future of the oceans. This was before scientists combined the words ocean and acid to form a new, unfortunate term -- ocean acidification.

For the ocean, it's not mine tailings dumping into the water but it is carbon in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

The ocean naturally absorbs more than half of the carbon in the air. Trouble is as humans continue to put more carbon into the air, the ocean continues to absorb it. It's just too much -- it's changing the very chemistry of the ocean as we speak.

When the water chemistry changed on the West Branch of the Susquehanna decades ago, the fish disappeared.

We heard more about the death and life of the river before we even got into our canoes.

Our local outfitter was a self-proclaimed old river rat in cut-off jeans and dirty converse high tops with a friendly smile. He was vibrantly proud of his daughter who races kayaks through the river's rapids in the big April runoff while icicles freeze on her helmet.

He told us that the river is coming back, quickly adding that it’s definitely coming back, as if to reassure himself. After forty plus years, the fish are back, he said again. In his large blue Bronco with rust creeping along the edges, it felt like he had been waiting even longer.

As we drove, the river glinted enticingly through the ash and pines. Occasionally, full bloom Mountain Laurel, the state flower, floated by like clouds.

He said he heard somebody recently pulled a twenty one inch steel head out of the water and “that’s a pretty big fish." Another billow of pinkish laurels drifted by outside the window and I wondered where the fish tales begin and the river ends.

On day two, truth be told, as we paddled the river, a bald eagle rode a wind current river right ahead of us for a few long seconds before alighting on top of a tall maple. His back was a pure white stripe. Eagles eat fish so that was a positive sign. But they also eat small mammals.

We encountered fat flies on more than a few windless, hot turns in the river. Rarely biting, they remained a nuisance with their thick bodies smacking onto our skin. Flies are certainly fish food, so I continued to lean toward recovery of the river. My buddy pointed out, however, that the flies could be thriving because one of their chief predators – fish – are conspicuously absent.

The whole natural balance of the area is probably off starting with the acidic water, but maybe the place is working its way back to center.

As we approached our final take-out, we pulled into a tributary and dragged the canoes through ankle deep water. I looked down and small minnows darted away from my toes. I smiled.

Thing is, the world cannot afford for all the fish in the ocean to disappear and then wait over forty years or who knows how long for a few minnows.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Into the National Conversation

The other day as my running buddy and I cruised though our usual loop, we wondered aloud if there has been any progress since Hurricane Sandy pummeled the New York area.

We loosely mused that New York is still probably unprepared for another storm surge and rising seas. The city is thinking about preparation and debating preparation, but it's not prepared. We are a species, or at least the American variety, that learns the hard way.

Though we may not be prepared, there has been steady progress, and optimism shines as bright as fall foliage.

It's in the stats that say more Americans than ever believe climate change is a real problem. It's in the 311,000 hearts (by one sound account) beating for action at the recent climate rally. The grand surge of bodies in the city streets, like a river of unstoppable positive energy, won't be forgotten anytime soon.

The optimism even glints from the political rhetoric heating up many states in the mid-term elections. Out of the usually useless hot air a hopeful picture emerges of American politicians finally talking about climate issues.

"Ads mentioning energy, climate change and the environment — over 125,000 spots and climbing on the Senate side — have surged to record levels during the 2014 midterm election cycle," according to the New York Times.

A year ago, it was hard to get anyone to even whisper about such things.

How positive the messages are for a clean energy future depends on where you are and who's talking. In Iowa, 40% of the political ads mentioned clean energy. In Kentucky, it's about loving coal.

But I'll take it. The future of energy is on the board. There have been so many years of squawking about the issue and barely getting an ear even among the most indulgent friends and family. It was those warm, silent smiles that said "no one cares" or "just let her get this out of her system."

And now we finally have sides defined. Far fewer shadows. Much less subterfuge.

"The explosion of energy and environmental megadonors — such as Thomas F. Steyer, a California billionaire and environmental activist on the left, and Charles G. and David H. Koch, billionaire brothers on the right — take sides," according to the Times.

Supporters of fossil fuels and carbon pollution may have more resources and the most powerful industries in the world behind them but clean energy supporters have something better. They know they're fighting the good fight and they intend to win.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Good Fight Continues

In states across the union, Koch Industries and other fossil fuelers actively work against the future of clean energy and support carbon pollution.

"It’s all part of a multibillion-dollar, self-interested scheme by groups including Koch Industries, Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council to keep people tethered to old-fashioned energy sources.

The organizations are systematically working in Kansas and other states to attack consumer-friendly laws, often called renewable energy standards," according to the Kansas City Star.

It's more of the same bad deal for America and the world.

The key is to continue to fight the slick PR, the outright untruths, and the general obfuscation at every level.

Record increases in renewable energy usage, improvements in public awareness, and four hundred thousands hearts all beating for change at the recent climate rally are certainly victories. But the war continues.

"Promoters of clean and renewable energy must continue providing the positive facts about solar and wind power," said the Kansas City Star.

Good news is vital. Even the most optimistic person cannot bear only doom and gloom. That said, the urgency around climate change is integral to the message. There is sometimes a fine line between optimism and naivete.

“We’ve watched the summer Arctic disappear and the ocean turn steadily acidic. It’s not just that things are not getting better. They are getting horribly worse. Unlike any other issue we have faced, this one comes with a time limit. If we don’t get it right soon, we’ll never get it right,” said Bill McKibben.

To get it right, the battle against fossil fuelers bent on denying a clean energy future rolls into perceived victories. A coal plant cleaning up its dirty spout by 2030 is not enough. A municipality's goal of 20% renewables in the fuel mix by 2035 falls short.

The time is now -- climate change is happening now, it's not a future event. Otherwise, even small victories are empty.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Daily Necessity

In a recent piece of good news, charges were dropped against two environmental activists who stopped a huge waterborne shipment of coal for a day. They anchored a much smaller boat in its path and refused to move.

Charges were dropped by a sympathetic district attorney. "Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced," said Sam Sutter, the Bristol County district attorney, according to the New York Times.

Even more provocative and encouraging, the defendants were planning to evoke the necessity defense. It goes like this: They had no choice but to act because the consequences of climate change are so urgent and grim.

It made me think -- I feel like evoking the necessity defense every single day.

Do I think it is necessary to defend the planet because it's the only one we have and it's under siege? Yes and yes.

It's indefensible that we are destroying the planet yet fossil fuel companies have made something harmful -- carbon pollution -- a necessary part of our lives.

There are alternatives, and the challenges to rapid adoption are not technological or economic anymore. The challenges to a clean energy revolution are social and political.

Change scares people and the people who want everyone to remain in the past spend a great deal of money and effort to tap into that fear. That's the social challenge.

Fossil fuel money is deeply embedded in politics. Votes go to the highest bidders and special interest groups pay for ridiculous access and influence. That's the political challenge.

The revolution is coming. It's not a question of if but when. Then why are we still making so much noise? Why not show a little patience, you crazy activists?

Sorry, we don't have enough time.  It's absolutely positively necessary to act now.