While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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A Reason for Optimism, Part II – any place will do.

No doubt you have seen plants growing in unusual places – through cracks in streets, sidewalks, and driveways, in the scoop of a trowel left behind in a garden, on an unintentionally green roof, on old fences, on downed logs, on masonry, or through the siding of abandoned buildings.  Many plants will grow where only their very basic, minimal needs are met.  A walk through an old neighborhood will present the observer with a wide array of tenacious hardy plants thriving (or, at least, growing) in such unusual places and in such peculiar conditions that you can’t help but wonder how.  Some years ago, I saw a long healthy string of field bindweed (Convolvulus spp.) thriving on a windowsill – no nearby soil to be found.  I was impressed but not surprised.

On my exercise route, I have watched the progress of a young pine growing in a unique place.  About 10 years ago, a dead tree was removed from the street-side of a large, well-manicured yard.  (The tree had died from years of incorrect and unnecessary pruning.)   A 2-foot tall stump was left behind.  A few annuals would be planted around the base of the stump each spring/summer, but the stump was left intact.  After approximately 3 years, I noticed a tiny pine tree growing from a crack in the middle of the stump – right on top.  I was amused by the tough little tree and wondered if the children who lived there had found the seedling somewhere and moved it to the stump.  The family moved away before I had the opportunity to ask them.

When new owners moved in to the house, I was afraid that they would remove stump and seedling from their yard in their new landscaping plan, but the stump and its occupant remained in place.  Apparently, they appreciated the uniqueness of their little tree enough to allow it to live.  Over time, the young pine developed a sturdy trunk, splitting the old stump right down the middle and creating for itself a protective covering for its young bark.  A good home for a youngster.

Now it is a healthy tree, between 6 – 7 feet tall (on the garden side), and presents a unique and interesting focal point in an otherwise unimaginatively landscaped front garden.  I take a moment to inspect the tree on a monthly basis, and I am always encouraged.  Plantsmen and women with much more knowledge and experience than I tell me that regardless of how we damage our environment, something green will survive.

And, I think they’re right!

pine-2                         pine

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The Intolerance of Religious Belief

Until this week, I was a member of a Unitarian church.  Since 1988 – my entire adult life – this church has been an important source of religious, intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth for me.  During the past 29 years, its ministers have guided me through personal and family tragedies, the challenges of parenthood, and the annoyingly frequent questions of my evolving religious life.  In this church, I have made some very good friends; some remain and with some, grown apart.  I have been among the many proud teachers in its Sunday school to watch our students grow from toddler-hood to thoughtful, active young teens and on into adulthood.  I have been a member of many different groups and have attended countless classes – some very enlightening and some simply fun.  I have volunteered in different capacities, and from those activities, gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the wide variety of beliefs and practices within world religions – many of which are represented in the Unitarian denomination.  In short, this church was a primary force in my life and until a few days ago, I could not imagine ever wanting to leave.

But over the years, I noticed one uncomfortable factor which was the basis for my feeling of being slightly on the outside of the congregation.  I believe in God.  I am neither Christian nor Jew.  I am not Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim.  I am not Humanist or Atheist.  Simply stated, I am a person who believes in God.  I don’t proselytize or advertise this belief but I will answer honestly when asked.  And my ‘confession’ has resulted in some very surprising and sometimes judgmental responses.  “I thought you were more intelligent than that!”  “Belief in God is just magical thinking.”  “So why do you come to this church?”  “I outgrew God when I was a teenager.”  “You mean, the man with the white beard?”  “You should go back to school.”  “That’s an immature and simplistic belief system.”


Every congregation has some opinionated people.  In my personal life, I have strong opinions about some religious beliefs.  But a few of those opinionated people feel compelled to set others on the path they believe is ‘the right one’.  And in a large congregation such as in the church I just left, many of those individuals apparently feel very free to judge another’s beliefs if they are long-term members of the church.

With time, I became more withdrawn around many congregants at church.  I curtailed my social time at coffee hour, and eventually decreased my socializing to just a few people.  For the past 2 years, I taught Sunday school during the first hour and attended the service and sermon during the second hour.  During my free 30 minutes or so between services, I would rush into the social hall, gulp down a cup of coffee and have a snack, then rush into the chapel and wait until the service started, thereby avoiding socializing completely.  I wasn’t entirely aware that I had developed this practice until an episode occurred in a group I attended twice a month.  This group was created to be a safe, non-judgmental place where topics discussed are based on specific themes which change from month to month.  As a group, we covenant with each other to listen without judgement; to avoid arguing, analyzing, or correcting; and to be a safe place for the exchange and examination of thoughts and beliefs.  A few years ago, I joined one of these groups and the experience was outstanding.  However, it didn’t turn out that way for me this time.  During our discussion, a member turned to me in anger and said that what I was saying was “immature and simplistic, like a belief in Santa Claus.”  The member continued pointing out the flaws in my thinking until he ran out of steam.  I stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the meeting.

On the drive home, for the second time in two years and in two very different situations, I ‘heard’ the word Leave.  I don’t understand this phenomenon.  I don’t know its origin.  But, after 29 years of membership, leaving this church is difficult and painful.  I can’t imagine my life in any religion other than Unitarianism; it is an open-minded, thoughtful, and fulfilling religion.  But as with any religion, it can become intolerant.  And when that happens, when it pushes away those with differing beliefs and prevents sharing of those beliefs, it fails its adherents and leaves them homeless, and it becomes just one more failed belief system.

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The Tenacity of Life, Part VIII – In the deep midwinter.

A line from my favorite Christmas hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter, tells of a season when “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.”   Winter is a season of extremes: extreme beauty, extreme hardship, extreme joy or suffering.  We fill this season with festivals of brightly colored lights and decorations, solemn religious services, and gathering around those we love and who love us.   Humankind and most other animals survive the winter months by wit, force of will, and luck.  If you are lucky enough to have a warm, safe home and protective clothing you can make it through the coldest of days with ease and comfort.  Non-human animals fend for themselves; or if lucky, share a warm safe home with their human companions and observe the icy world outside through the safety of a window.

What of plants?  Many trees and some plants have the ability to withstand subzero temperatures, even for extended periods.  Woody plants can survive being coated in ice, even when losing limbs to breakage from the weight of ice or the strong winds of a winter storm.  Some of the ways trees and hardy plants survive winter is by flooding their cells with sugars to prevent the cells from freezing, and proteins to inhibit ice from forming within the cells.  Other plants allow all above-ground growth to die to ensure that the roots survive.  Deciduous plants drop their leaves in autumn (by a process called senescence) thereby completely avoiding the problem of having to protect foliage from freezing during winter months.  Many broadleaf evergreens will curl their leaves to help prevent water-loss via the stomata, to allow snow and ice to fall readily from the leaf, and to help prevent cells from freezing.  I think it may, also, help prevent sun damage on cold, clear, and sunny days.  Conifers coat their needles with a wax-like substance on the epidermis to help alleviate desiccation and protect the cells within, and to allow snow and ice to readily fall from the needles – less weight on the tree overall.  Of course, these protections can fail at extreme temperatures; during prolonged periods of deep cold; or from repeated freeze-thaw periods.   And, these self-protection methods occur in plants that have evolved to withstand such weather.  A plant adapted to warmer climates will not develop protection from temperatures much colder than those of their native habitat, which is why ‘tender’ plants need additional help from the gardener to survive winter weather.

Damage from freezing weather can be readily apparent, as seen in the pictures below, or it may not present until spring.  The gardener can help plants weather the season by a variety of methods: storing tender plants in a protected, enclosed area like a shed or garage (or even in the crawl-space under the house); covering the root zone with extra mulch; or wrapping the plant in protective covering such as landscape fabric, bubble wrap, or even blankets and plastic (to keep the covering dry).  If tender plants are grown in-ground rather than in containers, situating the plants close to a wall, hedge, or a house will provide extra protection.  Sometimes, this is all that’s necessary to ‘winter over’ a plant that otherwise would not survive the season.  If tender plants are grown in containers that can not be moved, make sure the plants’ water needs are met before winter arrives as the combination of desiccation and freezing temperatures will kill a plant that otherwise could have survived freezing weather.  Also, wrap the container and plant in protective covering, and remove the feet (if possible) from the container and set it directly upon the deck/patio surface.

The pictures below show leaf curl on Viburnum rhytidophyllum and a rhododendron; freeze-burn on a Asplenium scolopendrium, and leaf damage on a primrose and dusty miller.  These plants will recover if history repeats itself, and if an extended or deep freeze doesn’t occur in early spring.  I am always impressed and surprised by the tenacity of plants – no matter what deep midwinter brings or how climate changes.  Most plants will find a way to adapt.  Some plants will die, of course, but overall a majority of plants will survive.  I have deep faith in our green world – and great faith in its gardeners!

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The year in review: defiant love.

This rough-and-tumble, donnybrook of a year has reached its end!  And not a moment too soon for most of us.  The year 2016 will be remembered by many as one of hostility, aggression, the ascendancy of us-against-them mentality, the triumph of bully tactics, flagrant dishonesty, and as floating a boatload of gossip.  The general attitude has been mean-spirited and vindictive.  And, as mentioned above, one of deep and pervasive dishonesty.  No wonder we’re tired.

So, how do we proceed?  The year ahead looks grim for most of our troubled planet.  As we move away from what will most likely be the hottest year on record world-wide, from a year immersed in the horrendous suffering of immigrants and war victims, and a year of idiotic, narcissistic denial of our planet’s countless problems, we have a decision to make.  A decision of such importance that, if made incorrectly, will lead to suffering on a scale beyond any world war.  A decision with such momentum that once started it won’t stop.  A decision that will affect everyone and everything around us.

We can choose to be angry, vindictive, and to lash out at those who we believe support the mean-spirited direction of our world.  After all, didn’t ‘they’ get us here?  We can choose to respond in kind with lies, gossip, and threats – after all, isn’t that how ‘they’ act?  We can choose to shut down compassion and replace it with indifference.  We can choose to wall ourselves off from the rest of humanity and let ‘them’ deal with their own problems.  Who cares if they are victims of war?  Who cares if they are fleeing violence, corruption, and hopelessness?   This is our country!

Or, we can choose to be kind.  We can respond to insults with compassion, to lies with honesty, to violence with amity, and to environmental harm with hard work and peaceful demonstration.  We can walk away from gossip and, instead, spread truth.  We can welcome the immigrant with open arms and a good job.  We can hold ourselves to a higher standard than we see practiced by our imminent leaders.

The choice is pretty simple, really.  We can treat our world and all beings as we want to be treated, or we can take the easy way out.

Be a rebel, be defiant: choose love.

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The year in review: Science.

Science is how the mechanisms of our world, and of the cosmos, are understood by people interested in the Why and How of life.  We learn through observation, experimentation, reading, and if we are lucky, through the language of mathematics (I’m not lucky).  The following are examples of discoveries either made this year, or culminating in 2016.

Of the methods listed above, observation and reading top my list.  And in the world of botany, observation is of primary importance.  For example, in the 1950’s, botanists observed that lichens seemed to be directly affected by air pollution.  Eventually, botanists determined that lichen diversity declined and some specimens died as the level of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants increased in the surrounding air.  These observations and discoveries led the U.S. Forest Service to collect data from lichens in thousands of sites throughout this country for almost 25 years.  These data will be made available to the public in 2017.  Lichens are much like the canary in the coal mine in that they are immediately and directly affected by their environment.  In my unscientific observations while working in a public garden I steward, I have observed a difference in health when comparing lichen growing near the parking lot, and of those growing farthest away from the parking lot in the shelter of large, old conifers.  Though subtle at times, these differences are always easily observed.  I didn’t understand what I was seeing until this year.

Botany has demonstrated that plants communicate with each other.  Within the past 5 years, research in old growth forests of Vancouver, B.C. has demonstrated that Doug Fir mother trees share nutrients with all their offspring – even giving the lion’s-share of nutrients to the weakest youngster of the group.  How the mother tree knows which seedling is weakest is not yet known.  We know that plants communicate with nearby plants when under attack from insects or animals by the chemical signals they send – both through the soil and via air.  In my garden, I have observed that a particular plant put up such a fight when attacked by chewing insects that when the second flush of growth appeared in late spring, the insects that remained on the plants’ limbs scattered.  Later on, I observed the same insect infestation in my neighbor’s garden but not on my plant.  The plant, Ribes rubrum, ‘Glorie des Sabions’, was ignored by these insects for 2 years after the initial attack.  Spring 2016 was the first time I observed a return of the insects on the Ribes after a few years absence, and the insects did much less damage this time.  This tells me that plants have ‘memories’.

In February of this year, astronomers announced the detection of gravitational waves created approximately 1.3 billion years ago, when two black holes collided.  These waves demonstrate that spacetime stretches, ripples, and warps in response to energy created from celestial phenomenon.  This discovery will help astrophysicists understand the nature of black holes, what happens when two merge into one, and may allow a greater understanding of the collapsed stars from which black holes are born.  (This discovery may also bring us a deeper understanding of the nature of time, but I could be getting ahead of the game.)  Yes, Einstein was right!

Also, this year biologists achieved something truly remarkable – an engineered bacterium that has only 473 genes – the smallest number of genes needed for an organism to exist and to reproduce (as far as we know now).  Did we make life?  Well, if the sole purpose of life is to exist and reproduce, we succeeded.  I have mixed emotions about this achievement but I do see that ‘minimal genome’ cells could have tremendous benefits if used ethically.  They could be used as models or templates for new medicines or vaccines; new and less toxic chemicals; or possibly, new materials to be used in product testing, thereby eliminating the need for animals in such testing.  Since we have apparently decided to ‘play god’, why not mimic God and utilize compassion in science?

This year introduced us to the self-driving car.  This controversial invention is celebrated by many proponents with claims that safety is greatly increased when a human driver is removed from the picture.  Maybe so.  But one concern I have is that a self-driving car removes one more reason to be attentive to the world around us.  Also, I have found driving (especially driving a car with manual transmission) to be a distinct exercise in prediction, distance estimation, calculation, and patience.  Much patience.  I live in a city with many hills.  I have learned how to predict where on a hill I may be stuck (especially in heavy traffic); how much distance to leave between me and the car ahead (I have no control over the car behind me); and how to engage the clutch without ‘burning rubber’ or killing the engine.  These are skills I take pride in.  Also, I tell myself that a certain amount of math is used when driving, and so far, I’ve not flunked a test.

The year 2016 has seen an exponential growth in our understanding in the fields of biology, botany, physics, and technology, in addition to other fields.  Our knowledge of the intricate workings of these fields, and of the connections within and among these fields, has enhanced the lives of people throughout the world.  It is my deep hope and prayer that our compassion towards all other life on this planet will grow in concert with science.

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The year in review: politics. The Ascendancy of Greed.

Cattle and other domesticated animals, grain and seeds, shells and beads, tools, stone, metals and alloys, leather, paper: all have been used at some time in human history as currency.  Currency is defined as the accepted medium of money used within a group or society to conduct business transactions within that group or society.  The value placed upon an item to be used as currency is determined by the item’s importance and availability to the population using it.  Often, the rarer and the more useful an item is, the more value will be placed upon it; however, availability did not/does not always result in an item being used as currency.  Societies and individuals use currency, money, for many different reasons: to purchase materials (resources) not readily available, to buy freedom, to extend influence over another group, or as a means of displaying power.

Money is a neutral creation; it has no intrinsic moral value.  Money is not the root of all evil as is often stated, nor is it the means to every happiness.  How money is obtained, how it is used, what humans do to keep it and/or to remove it from others determines its moral value.  Income disparity has long been a hallmark of developed societies; those individuals or groups without wealth historically have been judged as morally inferior, lacking in creativity, intelligence, and/or motivation, and responsible for their own poverty.  Rarely have the actual causes of poverty been addressed by those with the means to correct these causes. Often, those groups or individuals with the means to address poverty are the very causes of that poverty.  History is filled with examples of the damage that individuals and/or groups with large amounts of money have done.  It is, also, true that an altruistic population of wealthy individuals or groups have done tremendous public good with their wealth.  There are fewer examples of the latter than of the former.  Money may not be the root of all evil, nor is it the path to every happiness, but it does influence how a society treats those struggling through poverty.  And money’s influence is pervasive.

Today, world currency is not coin and/or paper money, nor any of the materials listed above.  It is fossil fuels.  Oil, coal, and natural gas power our world and create unimaginable wealth for a small number of companies world-wide.  And these companies (between 20 – 200 depending upon which source you use) that obtain fossil fuels control these substances for the approximately 7 billion humans living today.  These companies, and the even smaller number of individuals at the helm of each company, dictate where and how this resulting wealth is disbursed and used.  It is realistic to believe that no more than 500 individuals control most of the wealth resulting from fossil fuel companies world-wide.  These individuals have demonstrated the ability – and desire – to determine political and environmental policies in countries they do not live in but extract their source of wealth from.  And the wealth from fossil fuels continues to grow despite the awareness of environmental harm resulting from these energy sources.

How much money is needed in today’s world for one individual to live a productive, healthy life?  Of course, the answer involves many factors – country, available opportunities, resources, health – to name only a few.  But, I believe the amount needed to live a productive life with physical and emotional needs met is far less than most believe.  When health, educational, and desired employment needs are met, most people are happy with their life.  I don’t believe the need for more is inherent to humankind; the need for enough is, the need for more is not.  At what point does a person move from working towards meeting his own and his family’s needs to the desire to obtain so much wealth that it can’t be spent in a lifetime?  This is not a naive question.  How does an individual develop the desire to gain wealth to such a degree that harm to others arises?  How does this need grow and thrive when damage occurs in a place that is the source of the individual’s wealth to such an extent that he refuses to live there, and that the lives of people he has no desire to meet are harmed by his remote decisions and actions?  How does this develop?  Does this desire develop in increments, in slow but constant steps towards a single-minded, intended goal?  Or does it happen because of a life lived with little insight and reflection until one day he realizes he has achieved a level of wealth and power that surprises even himself?  And at what point does this wealth and power grow so immense that it becomes self-contained and immune to the laws and constraints around him?  Is having so much wealth and power that one individual can influence a government of millions to act in a self-defeating manner fill some unmet need in that individual?  At what point does that individual say I have enough.  What need is met by harming, and potentially destroying, a delicately balanced, fragile environment on which vast numbers of beings depend?  What need is met by having so much power that one individual can instruct others to drill deep into underground rock and fill the spaces with toxin-filled water which generates earthquakes?  What prevents him from holding back, what prevents him from realizing his actions harm not only others but himself as well?  What motivation can an individual find so compelling and seductive that having the power to destroy the beauty of creation would not give him pause?

Greed.  Simple, lethal greed.