Can We?

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It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits.  This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we–and if we can, how can we–make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know?  This obviously can not be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought.  Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all. – Wendell Berry, The Jefferson Lecture

So can we?  Who really can wrap their heads around the collective and massive agony of a planet gone mad?  And even if we could, would we be capable of the herculean effort that it would require to correct the situation?  Do we even know how?  And even if we did, how many people would care enough?

And is it even up to us?  The Bible says that it isn’t:

I well know, O Jehovah, that man’s way does not belong to him. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step. – Jeremiah 10:23

So what does God really expect of us?  Do we just stand by and watch as the world goes up in smoke?

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”+37  He said to him: “‘You must love Jehovah* your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul* and with your whole mind.’+ 38  This is the greatest and first commandment. 39  The second, like it, is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’+ 40  On these two commandments the whole Law hangs, and the Prophets.”+ – Matthew 22: 36-40

So, although God promises to step in and handle the things that we cannot fix on our own, he has always expected people to show love.  Most of what destroys and hurts people and other living beings is behavior that is the opposite of love.  We can, as Gandhi so famously said, “be the change” we wish to see in the world as we wait patiently for God’s intervention.

Why are we unable to stop the destruction?

Will Man Ruin the Earth Beyond Repair?

Simplicity of Wellness

The Vital Lie

Photo by Majd Mohabek via Flickr creative commons

Photo by Majd Mohabek via Flickr creative commons

“The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen coined the phrase “vital lie” for the comforting story we tell ourselves that hides a more painful truth.  When it comes to the full costs of ecological ignorance in the marketplace, we endorse the vital lie what we don’t know or can’t see does not matter.”  – Daniel Goleman
Our world is undergoing unprecedented change.  For the first time in history, man, through his activities, has become a serious threat to the continued existence of life as we know it on planet earth.  In his book, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy, Daniel Goleman highlights one of the many challenges to change, and that is our inability to perceive ecological damage as an imminent threat.  This makes it easy for people to believe “the vital lie” that because they can’t see or feel the damage, can’t perceive a threat, that it doesn’t matter, or even that it doesn’t exist.
“Psychophysicists use the term “just noticeable difference” to describe the merest amount of shift our senses can detect in sensory signals like pressure or volume.  the ecological changes that signal impending danger are sub-threshold, too subtle to register in our sensory systems at all.  We have no ready-made detectors for, nor instinctive response to, these hazy sources of harm.  The human brain adapted to spot dangers within its sensory field.  But to survive today we must perceive threats that are beyond our threshholds for perceptions.  We must make the invisible visible.” – Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence
But there are people who are so exquisitely sensitive to chemical and electromagnetic exposures that they seem to have almost superhuman abilities to detect toxins with the potential to harm humans, animals and the earth as a whole.  I believe that these people, at least to some extent, may represent an exception to the rule spoken of above. It seems to be the assumption of many, even sufferers of chemical sensitivity themselves, that the chronically ill are maladapted to our world.  But if looked at through the lens of ecological destruction, just the opposite may be true.  Those who know they are ill from the toxins in our environment have adopted the name canaries in the coalmine because they believe they are a warning to the rest of the world.  They live each day unavoidably aware of the damage to our planet.  They feel environmental damage in their lungs,  joints, muscles,  brains.  They feel the pain of the destruction like no others.  For them, Toto has pulled aside the curtain so that they can see the humbug wizard behind the madness of our world.  They exist in an alternate reality not seen by others, and it can be maddening.  The world is burning, but though they scream fire at the top of their lungs,  the audience is mostly deaf.
No, canaries are not maladapted, they are hyper-adapted.
 When a person is aware of what and where pollution is,  and is also aware of the fact that they are indeed being made ill by pollution, there are certain things that they are unlikely to do.  They would be unlikely, for example, sit in a moldy house drenched in artificial fragrance and toxic cleaning chemicals and wonder why round after round of antibiotics doesn’t clear up their repeated sinus infections.  They probably would not wear clothes reeking of fabric softener while wondering why their asthma keeps getting worse.  They would not own a vehicle with a leak in the gas line and wonder why they have migraines every time they go anywhere.  They would not spray their yards with Roundup and then wonder why they just cannot get well.   They just wouldn’t do those things.
The problem with being a member of a group of people who are hyper-adapted to a toxic world is just this: they are a minority.  For now.  And because they are a minority, it means that the pollution proceeds unabated.  It means that because the destruction is “beyond the threshhold for perception” of most people, canaries will often be viewed as crazy malingerers.   It means that no matter how many adjustments to their lives that they make, they will never completely escape the pollutants that are making them ill.  It means isolation.  It means frustration.  It means heartbreak.
So what is the answer?  It is Daniel Goleman’s contention that if more people begin using their cerebral cortex to make decisions about what’s dangerous and what’s not rather than relying on their amygdalas, that we might have a chance to turn this ship around.  We just need to get the word out, he says.  I disagree.  Our best efforts will continue to fail.  The cards are stacked against us because those with the most money and the most power seem for the most part to be guided not by accurate information coupled with altruism, but by greed.  They are morally bankrupt.  This will not change because all the good ideas and good intentions in the world cannot root greed out of the heart of man.
I’m a Christian.  And as such, I do not believe that we are alone in this.  I believe the bible when it says that God will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth.” (Revelation 11:18)   I believe Jesus when he said that the “meek… shall inherit the earth”. (Matthew 5:5 KJV)
So if I’m right, if it’s true that God is going to stop us from annihilating ourselves, does that absolve Christians of the responsibility to care for the earth?  No, far from it. Wendell Berry wrote that we“have no right to destroy what we did not create.”  God did not put us here to become a plague, but to care for and protect our home. (Genesis 1:28)  And aside from that, it is the responsibility of all Christians to imitate their God who is love.  Love should guide all of our actions.  Wasting resources, polluting the air and water, spreading garbage everywhere, and generally making ourselves pests is far from loving.

“Violence against one is ultimately violence against all. The willingness to abuse other bodies is the willingness to abuse one’s own. To damage the earth is to damage your children.” – The Body and the Earth, by Wendell Berry

What can we do?
 We can refuse to believe “the vital lie”.  We can pull our heads out of the sand and educate ourselves.  We can make a genuine effort, once we know better, to do better.  We can believe those who feel the pollution in their bodies, the canaries.  We can refuse to  do avoidable harm.    It matters. 
.
 

Canaries in the Coal Mine: Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Myth Vs. Reality

Photo by Majd Mohabek via Flickr creative commons

Photo by Majd Mohabek via Flickr creative commons

When people find out that I am sensitive to the chemicals in everyday products, I almost invariably find that they believe one or more of the many myths surrounding MCS. First, what is MCS?  I’m constantly surprised by the fact that almost no one knows what I’m talking about when I use that acronym.  MCS stands for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.  The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation defines it this way:

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a medical condition characterized by a heightened sensitivity to chemicals. People who have MCS become ill when exposed to a variety of chemicals, many of which are commonly encountered in everyday life. Some people have only mild chemical sensitivities, while others have a more severe form of the illness called MCS.

Now that you know what it is, I imagine some of you are probably thinking, “Ooooh, I think I know somebody with that problem”.  With a lot of help from some of my fellow MCS sufferers, I have identified some of the more common myths associated with the disorder:

Myth #1:  People who say they have MCS really have chemophobia (fear of chemicals), anxiety, or depression and probably need psychiatric help (medication).

Most people who have MCS didn’t have any idea that everyday chemicals could be dangerous or cause life-long problems until they became ill.  Many didn’t find out what was making them ill for a long time, going from doctor to doctor looking for a solution.  Much of the time, it is not until a person begins to avoid chemicals that they begin to see the connection between their symptoms and the chemicals they had been exposed to.   It is possible that some people with MCS develop chemophobia, but it’s usually long after they have had many bouts with chemical-induced illness.

Some people with MCS do suffer from depression, but evidence suggests that the depression usually occurs after the onset of the illness, which would also suggest that it often results from the misery and social isolation of chemical sensitivity, and not the other way around.

Also, MCS causes physical illness.  It is known that physical illness is very often accompanied by mental illness.  The brain is a physical organ which, like any other organ, can be affected by toxins and disease processes.  Many of the toxicants which make us ill are known neurotoxins, which could also explain much of the anxiety and depression experienced by people with MCS.

Because of liver-function abnormalities often seen in people with MCS and a general hypersensitivity to many different chemicals, psychiatric medications are often not well-tolerated and are most definitely not a cure-all solution to this problem.

Myth #2:  People with MCS should just take antihistamines or allergy shots so they can live more normally and not have to avoid contact with common chemicals.

Standard allergy treatments often fail with MCS.  That is because the disease mechanism appears to be different from what happens in allergic illness.  In a true allergic reaction, the immune system begins to tag harmless substances as harmful invaders.  That sets off all the classic symptoms of allergies: sneezing, runny nose, coughing, hives, etc.  Many people do react in that way to chemicals, in which case allergy treatment may be beneficial.  But many others react in ways that are not typical of an allergic reaction.  Often, neurological symptoms such as pain, dizziness, brain fog, slurred speech, and tremors  are dominant.  These types of reactions will often not respond to common treatments for allergies.

Myth #3:  Common personal care and household products are mostly harmless and people with MCS are just hysterical.

Environmental Working Group would beg to differ.  They have created several databases including the Skin Deep Database which exposes not only the ingredients of common products, but also their potential toxicity to humans.  Many of the most commonly used household and personal care products listed received an F on a scale of A to F, F being a “fail”, or most dangerous. – Test your knowledge of cosmetics safety: 8 myths debunked

Myth #4:  People with chemical sensitivities just have a strong sense of smell and are bothered by odors. 

People with MCS can often react to odorless chemicals, so it’s not about the smell.

“… It should be clear … that chemicals in MCS are not acting on the classic olfactory receptors (15,16), but rather are acting as toxicants. This is opposite many published but undocumented claims that MCS is a response to odors. There is additional evidence arguing against the view that MCS is a reaction to odors. MCS sufferers who are acosmic, having no sense of smell, people who have intense nasal congestion and people whose nasal epithelia have been blocked off with nose clips can all be highly chemically sensitive (1,4). This does not necessarily mean that MCS never impacts the olfactory system. It simply means that MCS is not primarily an olfactory response.”

~ Martin L. Pall

Myth #5:  MCS is a rare disorder.

 Possibly up to 25% (depending on the study you read) of people in the US report symptoms of chemical sensitivity.  It’s likely that most of the statistics on MCS prevalence are shots in the dark, as many people who suffer with MCS go undiagnosed.  Many others who are sensitive to chemicals simply don’t know what it is that’s making them ill. – MCS statistics

Myth #6:  MCS is controversial. 

Dr. Ann McCampbell, in her article Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Under Siege, had this to say about it:

“Like the tobacco industry, the chemical industry often uses non-profit front groups with pleasant sounding names, neutral-appearing third party spokespeople, and science-for-hire studies to try to convince others of the safety of their products. This helps promote the appearance of scientific objectivity, hide the biased and bottom-line driven agenda of the chemical industry, and create the illusion of scientific “controversy” regarding MCS. But whether anti-MCS statements are made by doctors, researchers, reporters, pest control operators, private organizations, or government officials, make no mistake about it – the anti-MCS movement is driven by chemical manufacturers. This is the real story of MCS.”

The controversy surrounding MCS is not real.  It is manufactured by chemical industry leaders with a profit-driven agenda.

Myth #6:  “If I can’t smell it, it’s not there.”

If you put it on, ever, it’s there.  Often we cannot smell our own odor because of something called olfactory fatigue .

Myth #7:  The dose makes the poison.

Many people assume that “just a little won’t hurt”.  But check out what Philip and Alice Shabecoff had to say about it in their book, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins are Making Our Children Chronically Ill:

“Chemicals capable of disrupting endocrine hormones… are now understood to be a different kind of toxin.  None of them follow “the dose makes the poison” dictum.  Even at tiny doses they can alter the way the immune and endocrine systems operate, leaving the body vulnerable to sickness or developmental damage.  Pthalates, bisphenal-A, dioxins, flame retardants, and some pesticides as well as long-banned chemicals persisting in the environment, such as DDT, are major hormone disruptors.”

Incidentally, pthalates are found in many fragrances, which also means that it’s found in many if not most fragranced products.

Myth #8:  MCS is just an excuse to “opt out of life”.

I have spoken to and read about many people who have MCS, and not one has ever seemed happy about their isolation.  In fact, what I hear most is despair approaching desperation.  Nobody wants to be shut out of life.

Myth #9:  People with MCS behave in contradictory ways.  Sometimes they say they react and sometimes they seem fine.  This must mean they are not telling the truth about their symptoms.

Symptoms of chemical sensitivity can wax and wane depending what level of health the sufferer is experiencing at the time.  When a person with MCS is feeling particularly strong, perhaps because of their efforts to heal their body, they may not have such obvious reaction to chemicals.  On the other hand, if the person is feeling run-down, it’s possible that their reactions will be more severe and long-lasting.  Things that affect sensitivity levels include stress, sleep, nutrition, and whether or not they have been able to breathe clean air in recent days.

Or…maybe they don’t want to tell you every time they start feeling ill because they are tired of be told that it’s all in their head?

Myth #10:  People with MCS just need to stop thinking about chemicals and symptoms and they will be fine.

It’s true that thoughts can be very powerful.  But as I mentioned before, most people with MCS didn’t even know that they were being made ill by chemicals at first.  Obviously, thinking about chemicals could not have played a role in the etiology of their illness if they didn’t even know to think about them in the first place.

Myth # 11:  “Normal” people shouldn’t have to worry about the products they use if there are “safe” areas set aside for those with sensitivities. 

It might seem like a good idea to provide an area set aside for people with chemical sensitivities at social events such as religious services, conferences, conventions, and concerts, but there are a couple of problems with it.  We all would like to participate fully on social occasions.  Segregation does not feel good.  It’s frustrating and disheartening.  Also segregating people with MCS away from others in a group tends to give people a false sense of having done the right thing.  They often feel that because those with sensitivities have their “safe” area, that it won’t matter how much fragrance they use or what the building is cleaned with.   It is very difficult to keep a small area of a building completely free of scent when the rest of the building is full of it. This is often due to common ventilation systems and the opening and closing of doors. It’s similar to the absurdity of setting aside non-smoking sections in restaurants.  The non-smoking section may be slightly less noxious (or not), but it will never be completely free of the presence of smoke or tobacco residues.

Myth # 12:  If my scents were making people ill, they would tell me.

People with MCS have often encountered so much skepticism and ridicule from family and friends about their symptoms that they may give up trying to talk about it.  We sometimes find ourselves having to choose between educating the public about the reality of MCS and keeping our friends.  Some of us suffer in silence. Others choose to try to quietly escape a toxic situation without making a scene.

Some cases of MCS are so severe that a reaction goes far beyond what might be considered typical.  It is possible for a reaction to cause so much brain fog that the sufferer finds it difficult to articulate thoughts and may not be able to tell you that you are making them sick.  Some reactions can include hearing loss, temporary blindness, and may even progress to the point where the sufferer actually physically collapses.  This is extremely frightening for the sufferer and for those standing by.  How would it feel to find out that it may have been your Chanel #5 that caused this to happen to someone?

Myths and Facts About Chemical Sensitivity

Myth # 13:  Everyone should not have to change just to help a small minority.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine had this to say in their Position Paper on Chemical Sensitivity:

It is believed that these chemically vulnerable modern-day “canaries in a coal mine” have an important lesson to teach us, if we would but listen – namely, that the hyperreactivity manifested by those with chemical sensitivity is an early warning sign of the alarming potential for eventual poisoning of our entire population by the numerous man-made chemical pollutants to which we are being continuously exposed. In other words, the fact that chemically sensitive individuals demonstrate exquisite vulnerability to toxic injury should serve to alert us to the disturbing reality that our modern industrial society, despite its many advantages, may ultimately compromise the health of us all.

As noted earlier, MCS is not rare.  And many of the people who are suffering from it are unaware of what it is that is making them ill, so the actual number of sufferers is likely to be much higher than the numbers that are published.  Also, many of the chemicals to which people are reacting are known human toxicants, many of them carcinogens.  We would all do well to avoid them.

It can be much easier to change our cleaning, washing, and beauty routines than many people assume.  Check out EWG Consumer Guides for help in finding non-toxic products.

Myth # 14:  People with MCS seem to get sick from every little thing.  They are over-reacting and need to loosen up.

Toxic chemicals truly are ubiquitous in the modern world.  They are nearly impossible to escape.  People with MCS are not getting sick from “every little thing”, they are getting sick from human toxicants. Often, symptoms are so severe that they cannot simply “lighten up”.  They have to protect themselves from the consequences of toxic exposure. It sometimes happens that people with MCS will go on a trip to the ocean or mountains, breath fresh, clean air, and begin to feel almost 100% better.  What does that indicate about the nature of this disorder?  What does it indicate about our society that we should have to travel many miles away from population centers in order to experience normal health?

Conclusion

The truth is that MCS is a scary, cruel, and relentless thief of health, relationships, careers, and even lives.  Yes, people really have died from it.  It should be taken as seriously as any other chronic, possibly fatal illness.  But it’s not.  And most of that seems to have to do with the greed and political meddling of powerful corporations.  It’s the story of Big Tobacco all over again.  But this time it’s worse.  Imagine what it would have been like if tobacco companies had found a way to weasel their cancer causing ingredients into so many commonly used products that it was nearly impossible to avoid them without educating yourself.  That is what we have now with artificial fragrances and other toxic chemical ingredients.

Some people with MCS have been able to get better.  But many others, in spite of persistent efforts and lots of money spent on healthcare, still suffer and must strictly avoid chemicals.  But whether they are able to recover their health or not, most of them will never be the same.  It’s like going through the looking glass into a bizarre world where nothing is as it should be.  They will never forget what they have experienced, or the people in this world who are still suffering.  To those people, I dedicate this post.  And I pray for their recovery and for the world to awaken to this disaster.

Additional Reading:

 Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, A Mysterious Malady, Awake magazine

When Chemicals Make You Sick

Helping Those With MCS

Extreme Chemical Sensitivity Makes Sufferers Allergic to Life, Discover Magazine

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Toxicological and Sensitivity Mechanisms

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I Can See Clearly Now

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I see now that this place is beautiful.  After 18 years, I see.

I was so homesick when I moved here as a young bride.  I wanted my mom.  I wanted pine trees and yellow bells and buttercups.  I wanted lakes to swim in and hills to sled down.  I just wanted to go home.

The more trapped I felt, the uglier this place became.  Ugly and mean.  Smelly and dirty.  Poisonous.  My ruin.  My hatred magnified every crime, bad smell, or dusty wind a thousand-fold.  I loathed this place.  How many times did I say it?

This place was not my ruin.  My hatred for it was. Those dark ugly feelings about my home. The ground I walk on. The earth that feeds me.  I hated that which nourished my body and could have nourished my soul.  I hated it so much that my wish to leave became a desperation, a frenzy.  And when there were no jobs and the sale of our house fell through, when staying became the only option, I disintegrated.  I fell completely apart at the seams.  My grief for my old dream of that other home was profound.  Eighteen years of striving towards my jail break had come to nothing.

That’s what it took to bust the tough outer coating of my heart-seed so that it could put tender root tendrils down into this soil.  I knew only love could save me.  The hatred finally melted and a veil was lifted.  Finally, I could see:

The lilacs and apple blossoms are heavenly.  The water on the canal sparkles, jewel-like in the sun.  The mallards and the rabbits, the robins and the meadowlarks are enchanting. The smell of sage on a rainy day, how the light and shadows play on the distant hills, the smell of river trees in the summer, and the distant snowy peaks make this place beautiful.

None of God’s creation deserves to be hated.  I may hate what man does to it, but I cannot hate the ground, the grass, the birds, the water.  All nature is capable of healing, and there is beauty everywhere for those with eyes to see and a heart to understand.

Kids Need Nature

 

By Mary Richmond

By Mary Richmond

One wet spring, the hills behind my childhood home came alive.  The usually dry ground sprung leaks so that the hills seemed to be crying for joy.  I discovered one of those leaks, a small hole in the ground from which sweet, icy-cold water burbled forth.  I knew that this ground-level fountain was different from the puddles from which the dog lapped.  This was clean water from deep within the earth.  I got on all fours and took a long pull.  It was the best drink I’ve ever had.

That was the first and last time I ever had the privilege of discovering a spring, and it made a lifelong impression.  It worries me that so many kids are deprived of the opportunity to have experiences like that.  Daily, intimate contact with nature is vital to the well-being of children, a point which Richard Louv brought home in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

In the introduction to the book, Richard Louv describes a conversation he had with his son.  The boy had wondered why “it was more fun” when his dad was a kid.  My own boys wonder the same thing.  They pine for open spaces where they would be free to play and create.  Places with trees.  Places like my childhood home.  What science is beginning to make clear to us, my children seem to instinctively understand: kids need nature.

Nature and Health

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson

I used to run up the steep hills behind my house without getting winded.  My daily tramps through the fields and woods had made me strong.  My friends loved to come romp with me in the hills, but they often could not keep up.  Lives spent parked in front of the television had made them soft.

I know that if I had lived in a suburban subdivision, there would have been little to propel me into the out-of-doors.  What got me outside was not the thought that I needed some fresh air and exercise, but the prospect of all those acres to explore – “scope for the imagination”, as Anne Shirley would have said.  I didn’t care a snit about the condition of my muscles or lungs, or how much my play was increasing blood-flow to my brain.  All I knew is that outside felt good, and that is where I wanted to be.

Nature and Spirituality

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.”  – John Burroughs

I could see out over the plains all the way to the distant mountains from my perch on the hill.  That was where I went to be alone with God.  Above it all, I was able to put my troubles in perspective and gain a sense of peace.  All children should have the opportunity to find a special place, a thinking spot.  They should, but they do not, which is why frequent family outings to the woods or the mountains, the lake or the river are so important.

On one such outing, I had invited a student and friend to join me and my family.  On a trail in Mt. Rainier National Park, she stopped to admire the chain of jagged peaks marching off into the horizon.

“How could anybody deny that God made this?”  she exclaimed in wonderment.

By Mike Baird

By Mike Baird

My own son said something similar once.  When he was 5 years old, I took him on a camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  We could see all the way to Canada from our side of the straight, and daily we would watch the cargo ships, sailboats, and even a submarine pass by.  But what really impressed my son was not anything man-made.  One day we were examining the anemones and starfish in a tide-pool.

“I just love Jehovah!” said my son.

Such is the power of nature to inspire awe and appreciation.

Nature and Intelligence

Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences.  He originally theorized that there are 7 intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.  He more recently added an eighth intelligence:  naturalist.

The core of naturalist intelligence is the human ability to recognize plants, animals, and other parts of the natural environment, like clouds or rocks.

–  Howard Gardner

Transcendent experiences in nature intensify our senses and ability to see connections.  Many of our most celebrated authors seem to owe much of their genius to their attunement to the natural world. Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Barbara Kingsolver are a few that come immediately to mind.

Leslie Stevens views nature as an educational necessity, which is why she has moved her family to the edge of a canyon where her children might be free to roam and play.  Here, she describes how nature taught her about the concept of shelter:

A child who is allowed to run free in a place that is natural will very quickly begin to look around for a special shelter.  The interior framework of bushes is inspected and judged for its suitability to act as a fort.  Trees, especially mature ones, provide towering castles, and the best climbing branches are claimed as “rooms”.  In contrast, the exposure a child feels running across a grassy, sunny, slope or wide, open field allows her to feel the lack of shelter.  It is only through experiencing both opposites that children begin to understand each part more deeply.

I learned much about shelter from my own wanderings.  A big old ponderosa pine inhabiting some woods on a hill near my home provided the perfect skeleton for my playhouse.  The branches of the tree curved to the ground as if it were purposely sheltering the place around its roots.  I saw that with the addition of some sticks for more support, that I would be able to insulate the framework with bundles of pine-needles to create a cozy shelter.  I engaged the cooperation of my brother and sisters, and we soon had a little house to please any hobbit.  Many happy hours were spent there.

By Mike Petrucci

By Mike Petrucci

Other things I learned from my experiences in nature include the fact that snow berries are very bitter, lichens are edible but taste very bad, maple leaves are edible and taste very good,  red clover is an acceptable substitute for bubble gum, certain types of flowers contain so much nectar that it can be sipped from the blossoms, moss is one of the first green things besides crocuses to appear in the Spring, and tansy flowers taste like pineapple and chamomile.  I also learned that what we do makes a difference to the Earth.  Because I loved to see beautiful things, I deeply resented litter and would never have thought of tossing my candy wrappers on the ground.  For the same reason, I hated to see trees being cut down or streams polluted or the advancement of urban sprawl.

Important lessons I would say.

Nature and Creativity

Natural, more loosely structured environments encourage more creative play.  On the playground at my school, we played tether ball.  In the hills behind my home, we played Crystal Kingdom, Lost, Train-wreck, and Indians.  We created entire fictional worlds up there.  It seems as if this type of play must be the stepping stone to the type of creativity that, in later years, writes great novels, paints beautiful pictures, and sculpts beautiful objects.

I could write pages about all the famously creative people who were inspired by their experiences in nature.  I will, instead, let a few of them speak for themselves.

“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to…The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.” – Vincent van Gogh

“I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains…” – John Muir

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” – William Shakespeare

“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”  William Wordsworth

I wrote poetry when I was a girl.  The inspiration came from trees, sun, wind, and animals.  I don’t think I would have written things like the following haiku without intimate contact with those things.

Silence in the wood

A silence the wind can blow

With me there is peace

How many of our young Shakespeare’s and Van Gogh’s sit languishing in classrooms and in front of screens?

The Problem of Distraction

My kids would sit at the computer or with a tablet like punch-drunk social butterflies connected to the hive mind nearly all of the time, I believe, if I allowed it.  Television and internet have drastically changed the way that we relate to the world.  We are at once connected and disconnected.  I once heard electronic media described as WMDs, weapons of mass distraction.  That seems apt.

Henry David Thoreau had some thoughts on the social media of his time, newspapers and letters, that now seems almost prophetic:

You may depend on it that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

Change that to read “the greatest number of likes”, and you have a profound indictment of uncontrolled use of online social media.  There is nothing inherently wrong with social media, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with newspapers or letters.  But the point Thoreau was trying to make, and the one I want to make, is that those things may become a distraction from pursuits that are much more important.  We should not, as Thoreau, stated, “live for idle amusement.”

In his book, Data Smog – Surviving the Information Glut, David Shenk said this:

Turn the television off.  There is no quicker way to regain control of the pace of your life, the peace of your home, and the content of your thinking than to turn off the applicance that supplies, for all too many of us, the ambiance of our lives.  Millions of Americans have been discovering the serenity and empowerment that comes with using the OFF switch, not to mention hours and hours of newly acquired free-time with which they can begin to do some of the things they’ve never found time for in the past.

The point is this: for kids to gain the benefits of contact with nature, we have to help them unplug.  It’s amazing what happens when all the screens go dark.  The skateboards come out.  The dirt pile outside begins to look more attractive.  Young eyes begin to rest upon birds and rabbits and clouds rather than those flickering pixels.  A child begins to “hear from himself”, and I might add, from God himself as well, as God reveals himself in his creation.

The Problem of Access

I always get stir-crazy in the winter.  I miss green so much that I begin looking for ways to get somewhere, anywhere, that will soothe me.  One winter, after having researched Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife river access points, I went looking for somewhere to walk where I could see water.  Every access point I checked was closed to the public.  The only way to approach the river anywhere near my home would have been to break the law.

I finally found a hill that overlooked the river that was not farmed (quite rare in my part of the world).  I parked my car and took a walk with my dog.  I enjoyed my solitude while Elsie bounded around in the brush, sniffing here and there, long tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.  She flushed a covey of quail out of the sage as we approached the crest of the hill where we could see the sparkling coils of the river below, gray, leafless trees flanking its sides.  I stood for a long while and let the scene penetrate and calm my beauty-hungry heart.

As I was driving away, I saw it.  NO TRESPASSING.

I had done the thing I had been hoping to avoid.  I had broken the law in my attempt to get close to the water.

As a property owner, I understand what it is to feel protective of my patch of ground.  I certainly don’t want herds of teenagers partying on the back forty (or in my case, the back 1/4), tossing their cigarette butts and empty beer bottles all over the place.  I don’t want hunters with their rifles tramping over my pasture in search of pheasants.  But why can’t I go to the river?

Nearly all riverside land in the 20 miles surrounding my town is privately owned, most of it by farmers who are in the process of completely destroying it.  They plow land right up to the river’s edge, encouraging soil erosion.  Chemical fertilizer and pesticide runoff  cause algal bloom and poison fish so that we take our lives into our hands if we try to eat anything from the river.  These farmers don’t want the general public tramping through their fields, orchards and vineyards to get to the river.  But we shouldn’t have to.  The state owns pieces of land all along the it.

One of the reasons people are denied access to state land is because ecologists want to protect what’s left of wildlife habitat.  Although I agree that protection of wildlife habitat is a necessary and laudable goal, the state shoots itself in the foot by failing to provide year-round access to state land not just to hunters and fisherman, but to all of us who just want to enjoy nature.  If we can’t find places near home where our children can go on a daily or weekly basis, there may be no one left in the future who even wants to protect wildlife habitat.  How can we encourage a love of nature in our children if they can’t even get near it?

It is difficult, but not impossible to find places close-by that might inspire love of nature in children.   We don’t have to go to Rainier National Park or the Oregon coast just to enjoy the natural world. Beauty is everywhere for those who have eyes to see.  Sometimes little patches of leftover wildness can be enough.  On our walks along an irrigation canal near our home, my kids and I often spot ducks lazily paddling in the water.  The blackberry brambles whose juicy, dark purple jewels are a delight to my boys also grow along that canal.  The sycamore in the yard, the flowers in the garden, and the butterflies in the grass all wait outside our door to be appreciated.

 

What price do our children pay for our disconnection from nature?  The price is stunted talent, soft, weak bodies, lost opportunities for learning, and a planet in ruin.  The price is depression, anxiety, and apathy.  The price is disconnection from God and from all he created.  The price is too high.

We must teach our children to unplug, go outside, and open their eyes.  Show them how important contact with nature is by driving them to the wildest places we can find.  Talk to them about what they see, about the significance of it.  Revel with them in the beauty.  Almost nothing could be more important.

richardlouv.com

http://www.childrenandnature.org/

 

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All photos under Creative Commons license

 

 

Behind the Mask

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“We think caged birds sing, when indeed, they cry.” – John Webster

I’m very, very sensitive to chemicals; not just the ones everybody knows are dangerous, but the ones people use every day on their bodies and in their bathrooms and kitchens and on their sofas and in their yards. And what happens to me when I am exposed to those chemicals is not trivial. The sore throat and headache and heavy chest were uncomfortable, but not enough to stop me from living my life.

What stopped me was when I began to lose my mind. I don’t mean that I become overwrought and anxious.  I literally lose my mind when I’m exposed to chemicals. I mean, I lose IQ points. I become stupid. I also lose my ability to function normally due to exhaustion and pain.  Neurological symptoms such as numbness and tremors are also part of the mix. That’s not okay with me, and that’s why I avoid triggering chemicals.

The social implications are enormous. It’s not just that I have to be careful about what I use in the shower, or what I use to clean the toilet, although that’s part of it. It means I have to avoid other people who use the things that I can’t use. I can’t go into their homes or be close enough to them to hold a comfortable conversation. Public areas like places of worship and schools are very difficult places to be.

It seems like some people think, if they are aware of chemical sensitivity at all, that it takes a special kind of crazy to be this way. Because of the skepticism I’ve encountered and because I do not want to be defined by illness, I don’t like to talk about this.  In spite of that, I often find myself doing it anyway, feeling all the while like I’m treading on thin ice.  If I talk too long, eventually something will slip out that sounds like slap on the wrist:

“Yeah,  fabric softener really does me in.  I think it’s worse than some perfumes.”

My unfortunate victim looks away, searching for a graceful escape.  “Oh really?” she says, “I didn’t know that!” all the while thinking, What a loon!  I use fabric softener every day and I’m fine.

My face reddens as I quickly change the subject, mentally slapping my own wrist for creating an uncomfortable moment.

I have not had to stop meeting at my place of worship, the Kingdom Hall.  This is because I am allowed to sit in a back room with my air purifier and my family.  Behind a wall of windows, I am able to see and hear the meeting.  It is a blessing.  But I always wish I could be on the other side of the glass.

Sometimes I wear a mask to keep me well in toxic situations.  It gives a measure of freedom.  Without that little piece of carbon and fabric, driving our new-smelling car, exhaust fumes pouring in through the vents, would be out of the question. Using a fragranced public restroom would be a nightmare.  Even visiting some of my friends is sometimes made possible by the mask, but that is something I rarely do.  I’ll tell you why.

I hate the mask.  We all wear masks.  But the difference between the mask I wear and mask you wear is that yours is probably socially acceptable.  In his book The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak wrote that “nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.”  The way we dress, the way we do our makeup or hair, and the expressions we wear on our face are all masks.  Sometimes they reveal who we are, and sometimes they conceal, if that is our intention.  But when I wear my mask, the only message I project to the world is one of fear.  The mask says, “I’m afraid.  The world is a dangerous place.”  But that is not what I want to say.

“When we know Love, fear has no value in our presence.  There is no pressure to perform and mask our humanity.” – E’yen Gardner

I don’t want to mask my humanity, I want to reveal it.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said that ” without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.”  I want to reveal the special face I have for each of my friends.  I want my friends to understand just how happy I am to see them.  And just like I want to be able to look into the face of a friend and read his or her emotions and intentions, I would like for my friends to be able to see my face and read me as well.

“Masks were used to alienate and silence prisoners in Australian jails in the late 19th century. They were made of white cloth and covered the face, leaving only the eyes visible.” – Wikipedia, Mask

I would fit in here

I would fit in here

Masks tend to frighten us, and for good reason.  Faces reveal intentions.  We cannot read a masked face, and for that reason we associate masks with bad intentions.  Villains wear masks: Phantom of the Opera, Jason, Hannibal Lecter.  I frighten children when I wear my mask.  There is nothing worse than looking into a child’s eyes, seeing fear, and knowing that I am the cause.  That alone is reason enough for me to leave the mask in my purse.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see someone wearing a mask in public?  The first thing that comes to my husband’s mind is that the person is a thief or a terrorist.  He becomes very uncomfortable if he has to be seen in public with me in my mask, and I don’t blame him.  I’m uncomfortable being seen in public in my mask. Others have told me that their first thought upon seeing a masked person is that the person may have cancer or AIDS and needs protection from germs.  I don’t want people to think that about me.

And as if all that were not enough, carbon filter masks just don’t work very well.  They’re somewhat helpful for nuisance-level pollution, but they’re worse than useless in a truly toxic situation.  I once thought that I could enter a feed store as long as I had my mask on.  I was mistaken.  The mask was no match for the overpowering pesticide fumes.  I was sick for weeks, and it all could have been avoided if the mask had not given me a false sense of security.

When I forgo social opportunities that my mask might afford,  it is not because I like to be alone.  Something that has become more clear to me than ever before is that I love people.  Forced isolation has taught me that.  You tend to appreciate things far more when they are rationed.  If I were I dog, I’d be Dug from the movie Up:

“My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.”

But just like Dug did not like his “cone of shame”, I do not like my mask of shame, and I long for the day when I will never have to wear it again.

I don’t want to be this way.  I’m not trying to make a political statement about chemicals.  My body does that for me.  I am an unwilling “canary in the coal mine” .

In my day-dreams I imagine myself surrounded by people: all my closest friends, my family, and new faces too.  On my face there is nothing but a smile and between me and my friends there is no glass.  I am free.

Helping Those With MCS, Awake! 2000

Good Health For All – Soon!

My Story

Photo by Patrik Jones

Photo of canary by tanakawho

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our World Through the Eyes of Thoreau

 

canoe

“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau

I wonder if Thoreau understood how incredibly privileged he was in his Walden shack?  I think maybe he did.  Even in his much quieter time, he must have known there weren’t many who enjoyed that kind of liberty and peace.  He would likely have been horrified had he been suddenly dropped into our time and into our culture.  If he resented the railroads of his time, what would he have thought of the roaring rivers of asphalt called freeways, never quiet day or night?  If he thought the newspapers of his time full of frivolous gossip and inconsequential happenings, what would he think of CNN, Google, Facebook, and Twitter?  I think he would have taken a stance that might have earned him the Luddite label.  And maybe he would have become a little depressed like a lot of us.

” I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” – Henry David Thoreau

Psychic pain is nothing new, but has it ever before in history been the epidemic that it is now?  I think not.  And it’s no wonder.  We are profoundly disconnected from each other and from the sources of our life and health.  We replace genuine connection with the sedating effects of chemicals, those we can get from a bottle and those that are released in our own brains when we pacify ourselves in front of our myriad of screens.  Even our beloved home, our little jewel in space, reflects our dysfunction and adds to our stress with its strange and frightening symptoms of planetary fever.

My mind is my escape.  I often dream of a little cabin by an isolated and beautiful lake.  All that would be audible there would be the rush of wind through the trees, birdsong, the buzz of insects, the lap of water at the shore.  Every day I would paddle out over the mirror-like water in a little wooden canoe.  I would stare down into the clear, clear water all the way to its brightly green, moss-covered bottom.  I would watch schools of fish swim underneath me.  The cool air would be spiked with the spicy scent of birch, aspen, and evergreens.  Sometimes the warm sun would make the water seem very inviting and I would, like an otter, slip into the cool wet and swim awhile with the fish.  The cold shock would soon become a cool caress, and I would emerge dripping, enlivened, and vibrantly alert.

Coping Joyfully in a Hectic World

Photo by Ryan M.