We loved our trees and waters

H Patricia Hynes

Originally published in The Montague Reporter, October 31, 2019

Last summer I saw a young man standing by a large dusty gray turtle on the Turners Falls bike path, shielding this fellow creature from oncoming bikers. I recalled the Native American poet Joy Harjo’s words I had read that morning:

…We loved our trees and waters
And the creatures and earth and skies
In that beloved place,
Those beings were our companions
Even as they fed us, cared for us…

I remembered, too, my neighbor Sally Pick’s sheer joy showing me the container in which she was raising now endangered Monarch butterflies from larvae and caterpillars, which she would release when mature for their 2,000-mile journey to Mexico. And I thought of my brother Ed, a prize-winning gardener in Lewes Delaware, who sent his sisters milkweed seeds to plant for the Monarch.

How many of us, myself included, knowing of immense insect losses in recent years, carry spiders and other insects to the door, rather than crush them in our homes?

Within the last few years, the crisis of plant and animal extinction has hurtled into the foreground after decades of human disregard, inspiring a torrent of actions and activism. Pollinator gardens are emerging all over western Massachusetts. Last spring Greening Greenfield, with the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice as co-sponsor, offered the forum, Pollinators! Silent Spring and Rachel Carson’s Legacy to launch a season of pollinator garden education and planting in Greenfield.

Over the last months the Wendell Forest Alliance arose to oppose logging for profit on 80 acres of an old oak stand in Wendell state forest, using non-violent tactics to block equipment from entry into the forest and also appealing in district court to stop the logging. Though unsuccessful they are championing House Bill 897, An Act Relative to Forest Protection, proposed legislation that designates state owned land, comprising 20 percent of forested land in Massachusetts, as “parks” for recreation and “reserves” where ecosystems are conserved. Why?

Older trees remove and sequester more global warming carbon dioxide than younger trees; re-planted logged areas take decades to replace the efficient carbon capture of mature trees. Forests hold moisture in their soil thereby diminishing runoff and soil loss and, thus, replenishing groundwater; and they support whole ecosystems of plants and animals that are lost when logged. Given the extreme rates of extinction currently in insects, other animals and plants, we cannot risk losing the ecosystems in mature forests to logging for
profit-making – ones with the most endangered plants and animals, according to climate scientist William Moomaw – only to wait decades for new forests to replace lost ones.

How critical is the current loss of animals and plants? The 3 billion-bird loss over the last 50 years in North America, as The Recorder columnist Bill Danielson lamented in a recent column, is the just the tip of the iceberg. We are in a new period of extinction – 1000 times the rate before humans existed – called the 6 th Extinction, the first extinction caused by human activity.

 Up to 60% of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have disappeared since the 1970s.
 Over 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction, many of these being food pollinators.
 The once-rich ecosystem of coral reefs is home to more than 1/4 of all marine species: 25 percent of these reefs are virtually dead and the remaining, endangered in the near future.

The primary causes of our planet’s ecosystem collapse are well established: global use of pesticides; burning of rainforest for cattle ranching; logging of forests, including biodiversity-rich US southeastern forests, for highly polluting industrial wood burning plants here and in Europe; and the climate crisis.

Journalist Dahr Jamail, after interviewing climate scientists and biologists across the world on the fate of the planet given the accelerating pace of loss of plants, animals, and glaciers; climate warming and sea level rise, contrasted our Western culture with that of Indigenous cultures. He writes “While Western … culture believes in “rights,” Indigenous cultures teach us of “obligations” that we are born into: obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself. When we orient ourselves
around the question ‘What are our obligations,’ the deeper question immediately arises: ‘From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do we devote our life?’ ”

All of us – parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, librarians, teachers and mentors of youth, journalists, land users and landowners, and politicians – have a critical responsibility to honor our obligations to nature and to share this with children. Nature makes our life possible; living with this awareness, Native Americans address the Earth as our sacred Mother. Without her web/womb of life we humans would not continue to exist as a species.

Let us spend time in nature, restore our sense of wonder in nature and support a lifelong love of and responsibility for the natural world in our children.

Pat Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice
https://traprock.org