Martin Luther King Day offers a time to reflect on the impact of the great civil rights leader and his legacy of respect. A corollary to respecting other human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color is respect for nature -- respect for other leaving creatures and the ecosystems that support them.
Respect for nature, like Civil Rights, is rooted in the notion of "inherent worth." In the context of environmental ethics, Paul W. Taylor, in his groundbreaking book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, describes "inherent worth" in this way:
Our duties toward the Earth's non-human forms of life are grounded on their status as entities possessing inherent worth. They have a kind of value that belongs to them by their very nature, and it is this value that makes it wrong to treat them as if they existed as mere means to human ends. It is for their sake that their good should be promoted or protected. Just as humans should be treated with respect, so should they. (p. 13)
There are a range of ways to regard nature, many of which ultimately are about what nature can do for people. Nature can be regarded as a resource to be exploited (e.g., "natural resources"), focused on energy, agriculture, timber, and extraction-oriented activities. It can be experienced as a playground for outdoor activities. Perhaps more nobly, nature can be considered a refuge, an escape from hectic modern life. It can be engaged with aesthetic appreciation and with scientific curiosity. Yet, all of these, notes Taylor, differ from the attitude of respect for nature grounded in a moral sense of nature's inherent worth.
A sense of nature's inherent worth is central to a biocentric outlook on nature and the attitude of respect for nature. From the perspective of a biocentric outlook, writes Taylor,
[O]ne sees one's membership in the Earth's Community of Life as providing a common bond with all the different species of animals and plants that have evolved over the ages. One becomes aware that, like all other living things on our planet, one's very existence depends on the fundamental soundness and integrity of the biological system of nature. When one looks at this domain of life in its totality, one sees it to be a complex and unified web of interdependent parts." (p. 44)
Environmental ethics is not an obvious legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Civil Rights work. Yet, there are interrelated threads, rooted in the notion of inherent worth and an awareness of the inter-dependencies of living creatures. As King himself said,
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.
On MLK Day, we can reflect on the wisdom and courage of the great Civil Rights leader, and the broad impact and application of his vision.
The Verdant Cross
Christmas season has arrived, and with it decorated trees and wreaths, harkening back to earlier, pagan traditions. In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama describes these traditions in the context of a "verdant cross", a blending of tree symbolism and Christianity with ancient origins. Writes Schama,
"Tree cults were everywhere in barbarian Europe, from Celtic shores of the Atlantic in Ireland and Brittany, and Nordic Scandinavia, all the way through to the Balkans in the southeast and Lithuania on the Baltic.... Why should Christianity have denied itself the irresistible analogy between the vegetable cycle and the theology of sacrifice and immortality? Had it been adamantly ascetic, Christianity would have been unique among the religions of the world in its rejection of arboreal symbolism. For there was no other cult in which holy trees did not function as symbols of renewal. Even a summary list would include the Persian Haoma, whose sap conferred eternal life; the Chinese hundred-thousand-cubit Tree of Life, the Kien-mou, growing on the slopes of the terrestrial paradise of Kuen-Luen; the Buddhist Tree of Wisdom, from whose four boughs the great rivers of life flow; the Muslim Lote tree, which marks the boundary between human understanding and the realm of divine mystery; the great Nordic ash tree Yggdrasil, which fastens the earth between underworld and heaven with its roots and trunk; Canaanite trees sacred to Astarte/Ashterah; the Greek oaks sacred to Zeus, the laurel to Apollo, the myrtle to Aphrodite, the olive to Athena, the fig tree beneath which Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-world, and of course... [the] fatal grove of Nemi, sacred to Diana, where the guardian priest padded nervously about the trees , awaiting the slayer from the darkness who would succeed him in an endless cycle of death and renewal"
Noting how Christianity followed in this tradition he states,
"It was to be expected, then, that Christian theology, notwithstanding its official nervousness about pagan tree cults, would, in the end, go beyond the barely baptized Yggdrasil of a twelfth-century Flemish illumination where the boughs of the world-tree support paradise. But it was only when the scriptural and apocryphal traditions of the Tree of Life were grafted onto the cult of the Cross that a genuinely independent Christian vegetable theology came into being." (219).
Indeed, writes Schama, consider "the timber history of Christ": "born in a wooden stable, mother married to a carpenter, crowned with thorns and crucified on the Cross." Even lore around Christmas mistletoe has ancient tree cult origins. Schama notes that "according to Pliny, the druids believed mistletoe to grow in precisely those places where lightning, dispatched by the gods, had struck the [pagan] oak [of Jupiter]."
As many celebrate the Christmas holiday with verdant symbolism, think about humans' long tradition of venerating trees.
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.
Pride and Prejudice
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.
Invasive species upset the delicate balance of natural ecosystems. They disrupt food chains, destroy nutrient-providing resources, and overwhelm native species. Though invasive creatures can be introduced by storms and climate shifts, more frequently they are introduced by humans. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, it can seem close to impossible and perhaps futile to attempt to eradicate invasive species. Yet, responding to them is necessary.
New York City is particularly vulnerable to invasive species as an international city. Visitors arriving from around the world sometimes accidentally carry seeds lodged in the soles of their shoes. Cargo ships inadvertently carry other stowaways. A number of invasives can be found in our parks. Tea Crabapples, a native of China is found in woodlands such as Central Park's North Woods and has been described as "the little apple that ate the Big Apple without careful management". Japanese Knotweed, grows so rampantly that it can crowd out other, more desirable plants. English Ivy wraps around tree branches, making it more difficult for native trees to receive the sunlight they need to grow.
As with natural ecosystems, the delicate balance of a nation can be upended by hostile intrusions. Such attacks can require aggressive responses, at great sacrifice. On Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives protecting and defending our country and its allies from militaristic threats and intrusions. We pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice and the unfathomable loss felt by their loved ones.
They stand tall, nurturing their offspring to enhance their chances of growing steadily and sturdily. They support their neighbors, transmitting messages across vast and intricate networks to ensure the community’s safety and well-being. They have withstood the cycles of many years, including challenging conditions, yet persist with grace and beauty. They are mothers – mother trees.
Much attention has focused lately on the networked nature of forests. Trees exist not simply as individuals but within a highly collaborative, interconnected system, communicating through elaborate circuitry of fungi and root tips. "Forests", notes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies" Key to this interconnectedness are "Mother Trees", a notion pioneered by Scientist Suzanne Simardin (who appears as a fictionalized character in Richard Powers' The Overstory, the subject of the prior blog). The dominant trees in forests, Mother Trees function as central nodes for extensive underground networks of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. They nurture young trees by spreading fungi to them and conveying needed nutrients.
Mother Trees also restrain the unfettered growth of young trees so that they can grow in ways that make them sturdier and more resilient.Writes Wohlleben:
" Young trees are so keen on growing quickly that it would be no problem a all for them to grow about 18 inches taller per season. Unfortunately for them, their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth. They shade their offspring with their enormous crowns, and the crowns of all the mature trees close up to form a thick canopy over the forest floor. This canopy lets only 3 percent of available sunlight reach the ground and, therefore, their children's leaves. Three percent--that's practically nothing. With that amount of sunlight, a tree can photosynthesize just enough to keep its own body from dying. There's nothing left to fuel a decent drive upward or even a thicker trunk .... [S]low growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age. ... Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking in storms."
Slow growth also makes trees resistant to disease-bearing fungi,, which has difficulty penetrated the their tougher trunks. In the meanwhile, over a period that could last 200 years (the equivalent of 40 human years), the Mother Tree passes along sugar and other nutrients to the offspring. "You might even say they are nursing their babies," notes Wohlleben.
Thanks to the attentiveness of Mother Trees, young trees can grow up strong and resilient, and forests can thrive. The same can be said for the roles of mothers (and fathers) within human families and communities. On this Mother’s Day, consider the Mother Trees around you.
Trees invite expression of love, especially beech trees. With their smooth gray bark, it's difficult to find an older beech tree that does not have a heart with initials carved into its trunk--at least in Central Park.
Much as hearts are among the more popular tattoos inked onto human skin, the tendency to etch hearts onto the elephant hide-like bark of beech trees suggests that memorializing love comes from a place deep within us. There is something that impels us to mark our feelings of love in ways that pierce below the surface, perhaps because love itself is so deeply felt.
Above are samples of hearts carved on beech trees in Central Park (alas, such etching harms the tree, inviting disease and if deep, disrupting the flow of nutrients).
Did the love last? Did the lovers grow old together like the tree that display their affection? We will never know. But the expression of love lives on, preserved for decades on the bark of trees.
Rock Center Tree
Few trees are more celebrated than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a tradition that goes back to 1931, when workers building the area’s structures during the Great Depression pooled funds to buy a 20-foot balsam fir and decorated it with homemade garlands. The first public lighting, of a 50-foot tree, was in 1933, when Rockefeller Center made the tree an annual tradition.
Over the years, the tree’s decoration has taken on various themes and reflected the issues of the times. As described by Dana Schultz:
“During WWII, the tree’s décor switched to a more patriotic theme, with red, white, and blue globes and painted wooden stars. In 1942, no materials needed for the war could be used on the tree, and instead of one giant tree, there were three smaller ones, each decorated in one of the flag’s three colors…. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was once again adorned in patriotic red, white and blue.”
The 2018 Rockefeller Center Christmas, a 72 foot tall Norway Spruce, was sourced from Wallkill, New York, 75 miles north of Manhattan. Following the holiday, the tree’s lumber will be donated to Habitat for Humanity for home building, a practice since 2007.
A media sensation surrounded by gawking crowds and adorned in 50,000 LED lights and a Swarovski crystal star weighing 900 pounds, the 2018 Rockefeller Center tree has come a long way from its more humble origins. Yet, it is a reminder of how every tree is a star in its own way, and how it's in our nature to be awed by trees.
In the Field
September is here, a time of transitions. Children return to school and, with summer vacations now a pleasant memory, work tends to ramp up. With the days getting shorter many of us turn indoors earlier. We are nearing a time of harvest, and here and there we might notice a leaf’s changed color, a harbinger of the radiance of autumn to come.
In the Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar, we are nearing the end of the month of Elul, the days that lead up to the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Whether or not you are Jewish or religiously-minded, there is something apt about this time of year being the New Year, a time of reflection and a time of a long cycle of new beginnings.
A parable teaches that in the month of Elul “God is in the field”. That is, God is not sequestered on the palace throne, surrounded by guards, but rather has ventured into the countryside to meet ordinary people and grant their requests. God is outside and accessible. This time of year thus asks that we be attuned to what is around us and to open our senses to an awareness of a divine presence in nature. It reminds us of the feeling of “what is bigger than ourselves” that we can experience when in nature.
Others have noted the sense of the divine in nature. As Thoreau wrote, “Nature is full of genius, full of divinity. (Journal, January 5, 1856). He defined his “profession” as “to be always on the alert to find God in nature—to know his lurking places. To attend all the oratorios—the operas in nature.” (Journal, September 7, 1851).
Consider the wisdom of opening one’s senses to the divine in nature, to attend its “oratorios” and “operas” and to be reminded of what is bigger than ourselves.
The sun will set on Thursday and Friday, July 12 and 13, as usual, if it can be said that a sunset is ever “usual”, with endless variations in moisture, temperature, season, cloud cover, axis of the earth relative to the sun, and even air pollution making every sunset unique. Those of us living in Manhattan will experience a particularly spectacular astronomical phenomenon: Manhattanhenge.
Manhattanhenge occurs twice a year, in late May and early July, when the setting sun is perfectly aligned with the grid of New York City streets.
It is the continually changing relative axis of the earth to the sun that results in Manhattanhenge. From the first day of winter until the first day of summer, the sun sets increasingly north on the horizon. And, it sets incrementally southward on the horizon from the first day of summer until the first day of winter, rising and setting due east and west only on the spring and fall equinoxes (the first days of spring and fall). With the Manhattan street grid--a design proposed in 1811--tilted at 30 degrees east of due north, rather than exactly aligned north-south/east-west, the alignment of the sunset with our street grid occurs off-calendar from the equinox.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, "For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas." Full sun on the grid will take place at 8:20 on Thursday, and half sun on the grid will take place at 8:21 on Friday.
Think about observing this local phenomenon, how it can remind us of our relative place in the universe and the continual, awe-inspiring cycles that intersect the chasms of our very human-driven metropolis.
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.