From time to time I play a thought experiment that involves reflecting on what it took to arrive at a certain moment in time in my life—the people, circumstances, choices, and opportunities that led to my doing something as routine as commuting to work or sending a text to a friend. Perhaps I owe this way of thinking to Carl Sagan’s comment, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
I found myself engaging in this experiment while walking among the crowds that had gathered in lower Manhattan on Friday, September 20 to bring attention to climate change. What has it taken for us to arrive at this point?
With a nod to Sagan, first we needed a universe--a Big Bang, and the creation of Earth 4.5 billion years ago. Fast forward to the appearance of Homo Sapiens 300,000 years ago, and in time the emergence of new technologies, from the use of fibers to make baskets, clothing, and bags 26,000 years ago, to pottery for food storage and cooking 20,000 years ago. The first city, Jericho, emerges 11,000 year ago. Cattle are first domesticated 10,500 years ago, and the first depiction of a wheeled vehicle appears 5,500 years ago.
Fast forward again to the industrial revolution, 250 years ago, and the rise of machine tools and manufacturing, chemical and metal production, factories, and steam and water power, which led to unprecedented population growth. It took over 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion, and 100 years for it to reach over 7 billion, leading to increased urbanization and a growing appetite for ever more natural resources.
Metals, ores, petroleum--refined, purified, rarified, smelted, condensed for our use. Plants and animals cultivated and bred for our consumption. Land devoured for our agricultural needs, roads, and sprawling mega-cities. Styrofoam and other throw-away plastic containers replace bags and baskets made from woven leaves or strips of carefully selected and tended wood. Cars and planes replace travel on foot or horseback, and even in many regions by train. Our reliance on petroleum, derived from ancient decayed plants and all the carbon they harvested, now releases that same carbon into the air.
So how did we arrive at a moment when thousands of children all over the world would be protesting inaction against climate change? There are infinite strands that lead us to this point, and I have provides the lightest of sketches here. The bigger question is, "What will it take to change the course of this ever accelerating and alarming trajectory?"
When planes struck the Twin Towers 18 years ago, New Yorkers and the world witnessed the perverse deployment of one type of human invention—airplanes—against another—skyscrapers. Of course, it was not the human-engineered aeronautic and architectural innovations themselves that resulted in the horrific loss of life, but rather al-Qaeda’s heinous scheme to appropriate them for harm.
Yet, the scale of loss could not have been achieved without the capabilities made possible by human innovation. And, while we know that airplanes and skyscrapers derive from metals and petroleum harvested from the Earth, these materials, once smelted, shaped, and refined on an industrial level, hardly appear recognizable as “nature”. On September 11th we witnessed a Frankensteinian deployment of natural resources.
What a contrast to that sinister application of human invention is the Ground Zero Memorial. With water cascading into hollowed imprints of the former sites of the two towers, names of the murdered etched into stone, and trees interspersed along the pavement, the memorial site brings together sustaining elements of nature: water, rock, and trees.
I do not know what theories underlie the planner’s vision for the memorial site, but with my office just a few blocks away, I frequently stroll through the site and am regularly taken by how comforting it is. The continual rush of the sound of falling water as it catches the daylight; the solidity of stone holding in perpetuity the names of the deceased; and the color and fragrance of shade-providing trees, along with the musical sounds of the birds they host, offer strong reminders of the solace offered by elemental nature, particularly in contrast to technology gone rogue.
However imperceptible day-to-day, nature’s seasons are always changing, until one day it becomes apparent. In these waning days of August I have noticed how twilight comes earlier. To quote Emily Dickinson, “The Dusk drew earlier in”. As I walk around the City, I see increasing hints of what is to come. Not only does the sun sets earlier; we encounter more frequent cooler days—welcome refuge from debilitating heat, yet also a reminder of waning summer—and a few leaves are starting to change colors, with tinges of yellow now mixed in with deep greens. Here and there, an occasional yellow leaf floats to the ground.
With these early harbingers of Autumn come the awareness of the changes that loom in our human ordering of time, conventions and rituals that align with nature’s cycles. Though seemingly removed from nature in our built environments, with temperatures regulated by air conditioning and heating system and artificial light tricking our circadian rhythms, our bodies unavoidably sense the changes in nature around us.
People fortunate to vacation out of town return home, packing away beach chairs and flip flops. Children return to school. It will soon be time to exchange shorts and tee shirts for sweaters and other warmer clothing, and work has a way of ramping up. Like the harvest season that is to come, our energies shift from a state of greater languor (why hurry when it will be light out until 9:00?) to a feeling that it is time to hunker down and focus more fully on work – even for those of us working full time through the summer.
But as Dickinson’s poem suggests, with the waning of Summer, and the Summer’s waning light, we transition not into grief but rather, with the coming of Autumn, another season of beauty.
As Imperceptibly as Grief
By Emily Dickinson
As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away –
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy –
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon –
The Dusk drew earlier in –
The Morning foreign shone –
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone –
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.
With longer daylight hours and more time spent outdoors in the warmer air, Summer offers an opportunity to consider the play of sunlight and how it interacts with other natural features.
Consider the magical, filtered light of the sun distilled through a canopy of trees. Shafts of light beam down like spotlights, capturing particles moving in the air. The light feels awe-inspiring and effervescent. The Japanese have a word for this: "komorebi".
Consider too how sunlight interacts with water. If you find yourself near a body of water--one of New York City’s beaches, like Coney Island/Brighton Beach, the Rockaways, or Orchard Beach, a pond or lake, or even a pool (I am a great fan of NYC’s public pools, like the one at John Jay Park), take note of the light and its dazzling, crystalline clarity. Observe how it reflects off the surface of the water, and how the reflecting changes if the water is still or choppy. Slices of light--patches and dancing light--offer a full-on light show. Notice how the light reflects off the water onto nearby objects--rocks, trees, and other surfaces, offering shimmering reflections of continual movement, with almost cinematic effect, like an experimental film.
If immersed in the water, notice how the light filters through the water--a variation of komorebi?--and the shadows on the bottom. Shape-shifting forms moving with the smallest of waves connect the features of light and water. Even raindrops gathered on tree leaves and branches offer a dynamic show as light filters through these tiny translucent reflecting chambers, like small mirrors or lights.
Take a moment during these Summer days to notice the light shows around you.
Running around the Central Park Reservoir in the warmer months, I often eye the milkweed plants along the north side of the path, wondering when the monarchs will arrive. These beautiful orange and black-patterned butterflies, seemingly delicate, make an epic annual migration over four generations in the course of a year. To my delight, this morning I noticed a number of monarchs, likely the year’s third generation.
Averaging 50 miles a day for four to six weeks, monarch Generation 1 begins its migration in early September from as far north as Canada and travels as far as 2,100 miles to cool regions east of Mexico City. Arriving by the end of October, they hibernate until March, when they awaken, mate, and migrate to the Southern United States where they lay their eggs on milkweed and die.
Generation 2 hatches, feeds, metamorphoses, and migrates north where it lays eggs, reaching the New York City area in late June. Generation 3 survives for 4-6 weeks, into late July/mid August, the monarchs we observe now around New York City. Their offspring, Generation 4, will arrive in Canada by August, where they will store energy to prepare for their September flight to Mexico.
Milkweed offers monarchs important protection. Monarch larvae ingests the milkweed leaves and with them the plants toxins, which are poisonous to monarch predators, such as birds. On eating a monarch, birds learn of the toxin, vomiting up the butterfly and subsequently avoiding ingesting it. Other species of butterfly even mimic the monarch’s colors, nature’s way of helping them avoid predators who may confuse them with monarchs.
Milkweed might look like an innocuous plant, standing without fanfare in a patch along the Central Park Reservoir. It takes on a different level of significance when one thinks about its role in the epic annual, multigenerational migration of monarch butterflies
Shadows evidence physical presence--the instantiation of our bodies and of other creatures and structures. Bathed in daylight, our corporeal forms have the power to block the Sun's rays and cast dark reflections on the ground, what David Abram calls our "shadowflection". Even nighttime, as Abram notes, is nothing other than a hemisphere of the Earth enveloped in its own shadow.
So too, shadows remind us of the sun's presence, and our position relative to it as we stand upon the Earth, our orbital home in continual motion. As the Sun migrates from low on the eastern horizon in the morning, to overhead, to low on the western horizon in the evening, our shadowflections shapeshift by the hour and season. Transitioning from elongated versions of ourselves, as if we were giants standing on the earth, to squat, to long again, they remind us of the continual motion of the Earth relative to the Sun, and perhaps other cycles and changes our bodies experience over the cycles of days, months, and years.
And far more than a two-dimensional surface-restricted image, shadows have three-dimensional depth. Writes Abram in Becoming Animal:
"My actual shadow is...more substantial than that flat shape on the paved ground. That silhouette is only my shadow's outermost surface. The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the paved ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground.
With the summer sun high in the sky, it is prime time for shadowflections, reminders of the our ever-present connection with the Sun, as the Earth turns and turns.
While we celebrate July 4th--Independence Day--with fireworks and barbecues, America's Revolutionary War still can seem like an event in the distant past. After all, 1776 was 243 years ago. Yet, traces of the war are apparent, vestiges written into, if not shaped by, the topography of the landscape itself--even in New York City.
Central Park's steep bluffs overlooking the Harlem Meer were important strategic features during the American Revolution, their elevation and expansive views providing the site for the military fortifications Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, sites still on view today. During America's War of Independence, George Washington defended New York against invading British forces from this high-ground position that is now the northeast section of Central Park. The British defeated Washington in the area and built a series of fortification extending from the bluffs to the Hudson. In addition to Fort Fish, Fort Clinton, and Nutter's Battery, the British constructed a chain of blockhouses, the site of one of which is in Central Park's Northwoods, adjacent to 109th Street. Each of these locations was subsequently used by Americans to defend against the threat of British invasion from the north during the war of 1812.
McGowan's Pass was another key topographic feature during the Revolutionary War in what is now Central Park. Located along the steep hill and switchbacks of what is now the park's East Drive north of 102nd street, it was a Hessian (conscripted German soldiers) encampment for much of the war, from 1776 to 1883. At the war's end, the Hessians and British retreated north through pass, while George Washington reentered New York through the pass.
Gazing at today's runners and cyclists traversing topographies of Central Park that during the Revolutionary War were strategic locations suggests more than weekend warriors. One can, with a little imagination, time travel and conjure warriors of the American Revolution traversing the same terrain and making use of its features. Landscapes carry memory.
Summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, is an opportunity to connect with cyclical changes and embrace the bounty of nature around us. Summer is upon us, a time of abundant growth. The day that provides the most light, it is perhaps then a time for enhanced clarity and insight as well as chance to appreciate the world's plenitude.
Derived from the Latin words "sol" (sun) and "sistere" (to make stand), the word "solstice" connotes an inflection point, a moment when what is before differs from what is after, as is fitting for the day that marks a shift from the sun progressing northward to tracking southward and with this a shift from lengthening daylight hours to shortening daylight hours.
Humans have a rich traditions honoring the summer solstice. Ancient Northern and Central European pagans--including Germanic, Celtic and Slavic tribes--celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, which were thought to enhance the sun’s energy and promote a good harvest for the fall. Early Christians celebrated the day as St. John's Day, commemorating the birth of John the Baptist. The Great Pyramids of Egypt are situated such that, from the viewpoint of the Sphinx, the sun sets directly between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. The ancient Chinese regarded the summer solstice as connected with the feminine force “yin,” and celebrated with festivities honoring Earth, femininity.
The Mayans of Central America built structures to align with the sun's solstice path. And many Native American tribes engaged in solstice rituals, some of which continue to be practiced. The Sioux sun dance entails cutting and raising a tree as a symbolic connection between the heavens and Earth, placing teepees in a circle to represent the cosmos., and participants decorating their bodies in colors of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night).
While many ancient cultures were attuned to the sun's cycles and engaged in solstice rituals, contemporary urban dwellers may fell less connected to this astronomical happening. But as entrenched as we may be in our day-to-day lives, the eternal dance between the Sun and Earth continues, a reminder of the extent of time beyond humanity and forces that are bigger than ourselves.
Far more than a concrete jungle, New York City boasts miles of coastline, which in late May and early June are the setting of an annual ritual that has taken place for nearly 500 million years, one of the oldest rituals to occur among animal species.
During a recent stroll on Orchard Beach at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, I came across horseshoe crabs pulling up onshore. Intriguing looking, ancient creatures, they remind me of small tanks, able to ambulate while being fully protected by a hard carapace. Japanese legend too identifies the horseshoe crab with military symbolism. It was said that brave warriors who died honorably in battle were reborn as horseshoe crabs, with their shells like samurai helmets, forever traversing the ocean floor.
Why were these creatures migrating onto the sand? Why now? Thanks to the Historical Signs Project of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, answering my questions -- and more -- was a nearby sign, "Horseshoe Crabs in New York City Parks, Orchard Beach - Pelham Bay Park." This is what it said about the fifth oldest species (after cyanobacteria, sponge, jellyfish, and nautilus), which has contributed greatly to medical science:
Every May and June, horseshoe crabs emerge from Pelham Bay and Long Island Sound onto Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. Female horseshoe crabs arrive on the beach to lay their eggs, with their male counterparts literally in tow. Males grasp onto the back of the female's shell using their specially adapted, hooked legs, sometimes two, three, or four onto one female. When they arrive on the beach, female horseshoe crabs dig a hold in the sand and lay up to 20,000 tiny olive-green eggs . The males then rush to be the first to fertilize.
The process is heavily tied to the lunar cycle and its effects on the tides. The mating begins when the moon's force is strongest and the high tide allows the horseshoe crab to venture further onto the beach. As the force weakens, the water is never able to reach the eggs. Two weeks later, when the moon's force peaks again, the eggs are ready to hatch and the water sweeps the newborns into the sea. While this timing has provided protection from the sea, the eggs face other dangers. The thousands of protein-rich eggs provide a feast for hungry migrating birds, which can eat enough to double or even triple their body weight before moving on. Some birds are believed to time their migration to coincide with this mating ritual and its resulting source of nutrition.
The horseshoe crab...has been around since before he dinosaurs.... This prehistoric creature may resemble a crab, but is actually more closely related to the spider and scorpion. While the horseshoe crab has a tough exterior that has helped its survival, it is one of the most harmless creatures on the seashore. Its high tolerance for pollutants has also allowed the horseshoe crab to thrive where other species have failed. When not swarming on the beaches in the spring, the horseshoe crab stays mainly on the ocean floor, feeding on mollusks, worms, and seaweed. In the winter, it burrows into the ocean sediment. While the lifespan of a horseshoe crabs in the wild is not clear, they have been known to live up to 15 years in aquariums.
This "living fossil" plays an important role in modern medical science. Its blood contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), which is used by scientists for the detection of bacterial toxins. Tests using LAL are required by the Federal Drug Administration for medications and vaccines. Blood from the horseshoe crab is also used to make a variety of products, from fertilizers and conch bait to hairspray and contact lenses. These uses have led to the overharvesting of the horseshoe crab and a decline of its population in the Atlantic. However, the ancient horseshoe crab can still be seen crawling onto the shores of the Bronx, at Orchard Beach, every year.
Botanists call flowers that have either male or female sex organs "imperfect", whereas flowers that contain both male and female sex organs are called "perfect". What a contrast to the negative views about human sexual diversity among all too many communities!
June marks the arrival of "Pride Month", celebrating sexual diversity and gender variance. The month includes parades and other events to foster a positive, self-affirming stance against violence and discrimination toward LGBTQ people. June, 2019 promises to be the largest celebration of LGBTQ pride in history as it marks the 50th anniversary of the rebellion at NYC's Stonewall Inn in response to a police raid.
Tolerance for human gender diversity may be an ongoing struggle, but gender variability is well recognized in the plant kingdom. Some trees, such as white ash and willow, have male and female flowers on different trees (that is, individual trees bear either male or female flowers). Others, such as beech and oak, have separate male and female flowers on the same tree. And others, such as magnolias, serviceberries, and elms, produce flowers with both male and female parts.
That gender isn't binary is apparent in the plant kingdom. And, as the courageous people standing up for LGBTQ rights have shown us, gender isn't binary among humans either. Rather, among many natural creatures, ourselves included, there are variations of gender expression, with gender manifesting along a spectrum rather than black or white.
There is much that plants can teach us, including that sexuality manifests in diverse ways.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.