Tag Archives: environment

Vacations and Holidays

IMG_3739“What is the purpose of your visit?” the English customs officer asked as we approached his window 20 plus years ago on our first visit to Europe. “We’re on vacation,” we said.

“Oh, on holiday,” he corrected us. I’m not sure I know the difference between the two even now, but  these last couple of weeks I’ve definitely been away from my regular life. Traveling with my husband to several Scandinavian countries we’ve taken a cruise up the coast of Norway and into the fjords, and flown and driven to visit our grandson who is playing soccer this summer in Sweden. That reality was the inspiration for the whole trip.

It sounds easier than it is, to cease and desist working. My “To Do” lists are quite long and there are always multiple projects in various stages of development. When the clock and calendar indicate that I must let them go and pick them up when I return in two weeks, it’s definitely a challenge. I took some files with me, just in case there would be moments to mix some business with pleasure but it’s lucky I didn’t count on this happening. When I felt the energy to reconnect with my work life, the travel schedule or access to technology didn’t cooperate.

The travel brochures don’t mention it but with a six-hour time difference, jet lag is a real thing. We arrived in Copenhagen at 7 am their time, 2 am for us. We disembarked, and in our middle of the night stupor, found the train station, figured out how to buy tickets, where to get off, and which direction to walk to find our hotel. We had only one small mishap, leaving a borrowed tote bag in the overhead storage of the plane. We realized it just after going through customs but this mistake turned into one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We reported our difficulty to the information desk at the airport and they called the gate. The next thing we knew a young man from behind the information counter was on his bicycle traveling through the terminal on our behalf. He returned in lessthan 10 minutes with our reclaimed bag.

boy on bike

My visit to parts of Denmark, Norway and Sweden was greatly enhanced by intermittently dipping into a book recommended by a Pittsburgh friend who had just returned from the region. British author, Michael Booth’s “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” explored the notion that on multiple self report measures, people in these countries turn out to be the happiest in the world. As Booth paraphrased Lady Bracknell, “to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.”

Moving through small villages and medium and large towns I found evidence for much of what Booth was pointing out from his experiences living and interviewing people in each of the countries. In spite of punishing weather, extremely high taxes, and an uninspired diet of fish, sweet rolls, and beer, Scandinavians find happiness supporting one another socially and financially from cradle to grave, taking frequent time away from work, recreating on weekends with family members at summer cottages, respecting, protecting, and staying close to nature, and honoring and practicing ancient and modern art forms.

In visiting the historical amusement park, Tivoli in the center of Copenhagen, we found it outfitted with features for people of all ages. Besides the modern amusement rides for kids and teenagers, there were beautiful gardens, restaurants and an amusing, artfully costumed ballet performance of Cinderella that had me laughing out loud.

We visited the inland city of Orebro, the 115,000 person Swedish town where my grandson is living. Instead of finding a dull backwater town as I had expected, I was delighted by a vibrant city, awash in art instillations in every nook and cranny of the city as they celebrated their 6th annual OpenArt Festival. http://openart.se/2017/en/about-openart/

The primacy and beauty of design in modern architecture had me photographing container buildings, green roofs, and intricate tile surfaces – even the enormous waste composting plant on the waterfront in Copenhagen. Instead of being an eyesore on the riverbank, when completed it will be covered with green vines in the summer and an active ski slope in the winter.IMG_3719

As traveling often does, I found myself making comparisons to my home country. The nearly religious fervor for protecting the environment in the three Nordic countries we visited had me feeling embarrassed to say I live in the U.S. The large middle class, and the lack of extreme poverty in these counties reminded me of a former time in the U.S. when our country felt “great “ to more of our citizens. I’m betting that the state of happiness in these countries is affected by their emphasis on gender equality, consensus building, and looking out for the common good, all values that I personally hold dear. I’m not ready to move to Scandinavia, but I’d love it if we could imitate more of what they do.


Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

The Cost of Our Current Conveniences

kinzua-damHere just before Thanksgiving, a national holiday that encourages gratitude for the gifts of plenty most citizens enjoy, I’m reminded of the First Peoples who lived here before European refugees, settlers, and immigrants arrived.

This past fall representatives of over 300 tribes have been gathering in prayerful demonstrations in North Dakota at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Their aim is to prevent an oil pipeline from crossing their land, threatening their water and the sanctity of their sacred lands. My grade school images of the first Thanksgiving where white and native peoples supposedly sat down together did not foretell the environmental racism that still continues 300 years since.  

All this and the fact that I now have a granddaughter who is Native American has caused me to look closely at where I stand and what I am willing to stand up for. The following piece is the result of what these experiences are making of me.

Floods No More

“Aren’t you afraid of flooding?” people ask

when they visit our home on the Allegheny River.

Floods can be monsters claiming everything you own and hold dear.

But our safety is insured by the Kinzua dam constructed upriver in 1965 on

Seneca tribal lands. 10,000 acres were flooded including ancestral burial grounds.

This broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, signed by President George Washington.

The lake behind the dam is known as Lake Perfidy (treachery and betrayal).

Unaware of this cost, from the edge of our newly expanded deck

I’m convinced we have the best backyard in all of Pittsburgh.

That’s White Privilege.



My focus on eggs started with the picture my daughter-in-law sent of my twenty month-old granddaughter, Kyra Joy. She’s outfitted in a pink princess-like dress and tiny white shoes.

kyraShe’s standing in a park in the high desert of California to participate in her first Easter Egg Hunt and she’s holding an empty basket. My daughter-in-law said the event started at 9 am and by 9:05 the older children had collected all the eggs in the field with help from some of the parents. The look on Kyra Joy’s face tells us she hasn’t yet figured out what the game is, let alone how to play it.

Now here is her grandmother in Pittsburgh, searching for eggs in my backyard, which contains the Allegheny River and its shoreline.  Having lived here for nearly ten years I noted this year the sea gulls were exceptionally numerous. They say it was due to the long winter freeze on Lake Erie. But they’re all gone now, except for one lone gull. We noticed him (or her) splashing in the water and swooping back and forth overhead, sometimes landing to perch on the pole at the entrance to the small harbor beside our home. I wondered what was keeping him here after all his buddies had flown home. gooseflight.images

Canadian Geese return each spring to the place of their birth to begin their new families and for a community of twenty-five or so, our waterfront is that home. Each spring we try to see if we can discern where some of the nests might be. Once we identified a nest in the rubble of an old dock, alerted to its presence by a male goose circling slowly in the water near the shoreline. This year a goose is stationed in an odd spot near the road, not necessary a place to hang out, so it’s clear he’s protecting some eggs nearby.  

egg imagesTwo day ago I went for a walk on the river trail just before dusk. I walked further than people usually do unless they’re intent on fishing. I followed the curving trail around to the harbor and was startled to see in plain sight, a large white egg. It sat not in a nest, but amidst twigs and brush, and seemed to be totally unprotected from predators. There were no papa or mama birds around, no geese or that single gull, though this could have been a reason for him to stay behind.

On line research ruled out the gull as the parent because their eggs are speckled. But the size and color of the egg is consistent with the photos I found of goose eggs. I learned the mother doesn’t sit on the eggs until she’s laid them all, usually one a day until she has five. I visited the spot again yesterday and the one egg was still there by itself.

goose-eggs-in nest-in-southern-wisconsinToday I found it again, still alone but this time a large goose circled over my head and landed in the water nearby. I got the message. He wanted to be sure my basket remained empty.

Sacred Water

228976_217256544990433_4221304_nWalking on the beach this morning on the Florida shore of the Gulf of Mexico my husband and I agreed that we’re both water people. For more than twenty years we’d walked the beach on Padre Island, three seasons of the year. Before that, in spring times we’d strolled the edge of a manmade lake in landlocked Lincoln Nebraska. Our present home backs up to the Allegheny River where the geese, ducks, sea gulls and an occasional hawk or eagle, provide entertainment and an education about our place in the web of life. 

 Perhaps we’re all water people, given how crowded the beach communities are this March. Or maybe people are just there to get away from the ice and snow of this particularly challenging winter, or like the students on spring break, needing a respite from the stress of how they usually spend their days. The waters of the bay and gulf provide recreation for many vacationers; fishing, boating, parasailing but I wonder if these people have the same respect for water as the commercial fisherman do. I liked their sign I saw in the fishing village of Cortez: “Don’t teach your trash to swim.”

 13GRANDMOTHERSWe certainly haven’t treated water as the precious element, most essential to life that it is. Between oil spills in the gulf and the elimination of wetlands to hold the rain we’re left with a cycle of draughts and floods in many parts of our country.  And our agricultural industries grow strains of plants that are wasteful of water our communities don’t have. The future for water and we people who need it doesn’t look good unless we change our ways.

 The International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers who have taken the protection of the earth as their main mission suggest a spiritual solution. As was done with Earth Day many years ago, they are holding a World Water Day on Saturday March 22, 2014. As they go into ceremony they’re asking in the name of the Mother, that we join them in spirit from wherever we are.  Friends of mine will be most likely at the Point where the three rivers come together at Pittsburgh. What place in your community could you honor and bless water on this special Water Day?   




Dance of Destruction: A Response

A particular pleasure in the early morning hours, when I visit my family in the high desert of California, is to walk the labyrinth my son and daughter-in-law built in their desert-landscaped backyard. I didn’t see the space before they began what must have been a mammoth construction job – removing debris, pulling weeds,  relocating sand and rocks to create a smooth level surface.  Walking the curvilinear pathways of their version of this ancient ritual space this morning I marveled at the careful and painstakingly precise placement of rocks and solar lights directing my footsteps.


This sense of order may have seemed particularly satisfying to me because a recent event had caused me to become extremely aware of its opposite. Text messages, emails and phone calls throughout the weekend were continually informing me of the details of the vandalism and destruction that had taken place in a condo that a group of us had recently remodeled in northern California. After the verbal descriptions came the images of towel racks ripped from the walls, a floor covered with broken glass, and blood splattered on furniture, fixtures and walls. Just viewing this senseless devastation brought visceral pain to my stomach and a taste of disgust to my mouth. A man who had done repair work on the place told me when he entered the room and saw the scene, he felt as though he had been raped. vandalism.IMG_3121

My mind darts about to understand why someone would do such a thing. What could be gained by destroying what others had so carefully and lovingly assembled? A woman who has stayed in the space while visiting her brother in a nearby hospital described it as a “quiet Oasis,” another guest used the words, “comfortable and elegant.” Where does the impulse come from to replace beauty and order with filth, ugliness and disarray?

Does the drug paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime hold the answer? Just as I walk the ordered space of the labyrinth to access my own inner peace, others use substances to change their brain chemistry in a different direction.  As a culture, we all pay the price for actions taken under the influence of recreational drugs gone awry.

297713_465971046766643_1940077911_nFortunately there are people willing to work to clean up the mess and reconstruct the space back to its previous orderly condition. If we use a wider lens to view the impact of drug use on families, communities and nations, reconstruction teams aren’t going to be short on assignments any time soon. But as one friend texted me in the midst of that day’s discouragement – “Remember, there is not enough darkness to overcome your light.”  


Joshua Trees

Twisted, spiky, almost grotesque appearing trees proliferate in the high desert where my new granddaughter lives. Mormon settlers named them when they spotted the trees in their migration west. To them, the trees appeared as the biblical character Joshua with his arms outstretched, urging them on. Joshua Trees can only grow in a narrow range of elevations in California’s Mojave Desert and in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, alongside the Saguaro cactus.

Regarded as a treasure and with a national forest named after them, there are serious penalties for removing Joshua Trees from public land. But the property where my granddaughter lives looked naked and forlorn, the only lot for miles around without a single Joshua Tree. The trees had been removed several years ago, before her mother bought the house, and her father found their remains buried in the back yard before she was born.

As a person who looks for opportunities to celebrate life with rituals, the baby blessing of my one-month old granddaugher seemed a made-to-order occasion I couldn’t resist. And the lack of Joshua Trees at the baby’s house seemed to call to me as a condition we could remedy with a ritual. I enlisted the baby’s other grandmother who had baby Joshua Trees on her property and she said she was willing to bring them to plant during our grandparents’ ceremony.

Restoring native plants to the land seemed a worthy way to mark our granddaughter’s birth. And Joshua Trees demonstrate that, just as with a human baby; there is a delicate reliance on relationships in one’s surroundings. In this case a yucca moth must assist the plant to pollinate, and the tree provides food for her young who are born in its flowers. 

With songs and laughter, we planted one Joshua Tree in the back yard and one in the front, while spelling out our visions for the world we want our granddaughter to grow up in. “I see the world as a place of peace for all peoples.” “I see girls and women of all ages, being treated with dignity and respect in all countries around the globe.” 

We did our part to encourage a playful world as we juggled colorful scarves singularly and together in anticipation of the time Kyra Joy will be big enough to come and play with us. And as Krya Joy and the tree grow up together, we will all be reminded that the land, the trees, and, we the people, are all related.   

Working Birds

I don’t think of birds as workers. Bees perhaps, “worker bees,” but birds? When I went to close my front door the other morning after walking through it on my way to take my dog for his morning constitutional, I gasped in surprise. There in the small space between the door wreath and the door was an elegant, architectural wonder constructed in a single day and night.

The size of my two hands cupped together, it demonstrated a masterful use of recycled found objects held together by minute repetitive drops of mud.  I noted its construction materials included twigs and grasses, leaves and tiny plant limbs, with a strip of silver tinfoil artistically woven through it all. 

I’m not tall enough to see inside, but later my husband tells me there are no occupants as yet for this home propped up by mine. Realizing that it is the middle of May already my mother worry gets activated. Isn’t it late in the season for building a nest, for starting a family?

Several years ago another bird, or perhaps the same one, made a nest in that very spot. Our wreath must invite such inspiration since, even though its small pink blossoms are made of fabric, its frame is constructed of actual slender tree limbs, wound and wrapped to create a circle. That time, earlier in the season, we were honored to help protect that home leaning for support on our home. While the birds were incubating and during their early bird rearing period, we used another entrance. We placed a sign on the porch column a few feet in front of the door, “Shh, baby birds sleeping.”

On my walk I marvel at this blessing that has arrived on my doorstep. I wonder if this mother bird, being “one of our relations,” as the native people say, knows that my son’s partner is becoming a mother too. And that this house, marked by a bird’s nest on its front door, is also the home of grandparents in the making.


While a good section of the country was being pummeled by freezing rain and one-two- punch snow storms, and people from the northeast and mid-west were dealing with power outages and frozen water pipes, Rich and I traveled to warm, (if not always sunny), Florida. A business associate in Texas told me in our phone conversation, “We’ve had 100 hours of continuous below freezing temperatures, and our pipes aren’t built for that eventuality. We’ve had water main breaks all over Fort Worth.”

On our  connecting flight out of Atlanta, the plane was barely half full as feeder flights from Chicago, New York, and Cleveland had been cancelled due to the weather.  When Rich’s brother picked us up at the airport we weren’t sure whether to gloat or speak humbly of our good fortune in being able to escape the messy climatic conditions.

It is said that no one can do anything about the weather, but in Florida we find ourselves surrounded by people who have done something dramatic about it for themselves. They’ve moved from places more likely to have winter-related weather traumas to Florida. And by hurricane season, they’ll have traveled back north. Lucky for us, our relatives are willing to host other escapees, at least for a short respite.

Checking in with friends and relatives around the country we learn that, while we were lounging on the veranda, keeping track of the white pelicans and a noisy blue heron, another of Rich’s relatives spent the weekend in a hotel in his hometown in Tucson. Due to the freeze in Arizona his 6000 square foot home, worthy of a listing in Architectural Digest, had no water. My sister in North Texas, who lives in an A-frame she and her husband built from a Home Depot kit, fared better because last fall an agency with money from the federal government winterized their home. But later she wrote me, “Seems like Pittsburgh has moved south and is living in our house. I fixed the water line twice so far, and the good news is, I can fix it. The bad news, it’s ruined my nails.”

On the way back to Pittsburgh I overhead some fellows comparing stories of ordeals, delays and flight cancellations as they traveled to the Super Bowl. When ice shut down the DFW airport they rented cars and drove hundreds of miles out of their way to watch their team lose. This may have been why they were questioning everything. “I started out trying to save a couple hundred dollars. It was so not worth it,” one suited 40s something said. “So much for global warming, Mr. Gore,” quipped another blue jean clad 30s something in a Steeler jacket.

I wanted to tell him there’s a difference between climate and weather, and that they’re related but I thought better of getting in the middle of their “ain’t it awful,” conversation. Wonder how they would have responded if I’d told them what I really think – Mother Nature’s mad at the way we’ve been treating her, and she isn’t going to take it anymore.

Cleaning Up Our World

If I lived in Corpus I’d be a Beach Bum. Not the kind that lays around drinking beer and scratching mosquito bites, but one like the gentleman I met yesterday. He was picking up trash on the beach next to his truck and a sign that read, “Beach Bums have adopted this beach.” Not unlike the organizations that adopt a section of a highway, picking up the trash and getting a little publicity for their efforts.

He explained there is always a lot to do since the young “hooligans” party most nights, doing their “wheelies” on the longest stretch of beach in the world that allows driving.  It’s not just the unsettling of the sand; it’s the beer cans, pop bottles, and food wrappers that glisten in the morning sun. And if not for his and others efforts, these objects would be washed back into the gulf, a body of water that’s had more than her share of intrusion of late from foreign objects.

Walking south along the coast, I’m hyper-vigilant for objects that don’t belong in what has become for me through the years, sacred space. I enjoy seeing the sea weed, shells and jelly fish, an orange tangled in the tentacles of the seaweed, a section of tree bark, and the outer shell of a coconut. But the bottles and beer cans, a hypodermic needle, fishing hooks, and those familiar plastic bags that take 5000 years to decompose, if they don’t go home with those that “brung” them, someone needs to place them in one of the trash can that dot the beach’s landscape.

Continuing my walk along the water’s edge, with zigzagged detours to the garbage cans, I lose touch with our dog, Clancy who is frolicking on his own path, pursing smells undetectable to me. We pass a girl and her father constructing a sand castle using a method of dripping wet sand and allowing it to build up like frosting on a cake. I comment that their masterpiece reminds me of the work of the Spanish architect Gaudi. On the way back, before I can stop him, Clancy romps through the edge of the sandcastle, and I am left apologizing to the young girl.

Unlike the recent damage to the Gulf the sandcastle is easily restored. But not so, the natural structures of our vulnerable world. Thank God and Goddess for the Beach Bums and others who work to clean up our messes. I’m waiting for the day when no one would dare to disregard the admonishments on the ubiquitous local signs and bumper stickers, “Don’t mess with Texas.”