Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dog-hairs in the woods (3/16/2017)

Walking in the woods behind our house this past Friday, I realized that I wasn't exactly "forest bathing."  Daily life and politics came rushing back to me while I was still looking and trying to enjoy nature (truthfully I will always enjoy nature, even when distracted), but this time I did not gently push these thoughts back as I am supposed to do; I did not tell it “some other time please.” 
I found this word on and it really describes who I am, the essence of me (at least when I am not on the water on my kayak or my sailboat) 
Why didn’t I?  I was walking my regular trail with the dogs; on one side was a “dog-hair” stand of pines on the other side a more mature forest.  What does that mean, a "dog-hair" stand?  

When we moved into our neighborhood, now 17 years ago, and we walked that area, the trees were freshly planted.  At that time we could literally look over the tree canopy to the other side.  They were very dense, so dense that you could barely move through them.  That became increasingly clear when the trees got bigger.  The trunks were so close together that you had to move sideways between the trees to get through the stand of trees.  They were as close together as the hair on the back of a dog, hence the words "dog-hair" stand!

Slowly some of the trees started to die off; they died from the lack of light and room for their roots and branches to grow.  Now the trees are relatively large; I would think at least 30 feet.  They are still dense and the trunks are thin and spindly.  A forester would say that the stand is ready for a thinning cut.  They thin the forest out to reduce the competition, reduce the number of trunks per acre (or hectare) and this allows the remaining trunks to thicken and the trees to thrive.  It is called forest management.

The "dog hair" stand of trees in the woods behind our home.  This stand is maybe 20 years old and ready to get thinned.
If foresters do not thin the forest, forests and all types of vegetation in general, does this on its own.  We ecologists know this as the self-thinning rule, and we even have a fancy mathematical formula for it that I will not bother you with.  But what happens is we get a lot of mediocre plans first a lot of trees dying, spreading of diseases in the woods, maybe even a higher likelihood of forest fires, all together a potentially unhealthy situation.

Actually we ecologists may find it more natural, but for foresters it is a terrible situation.  Foresters want to produce board-feet, poles and wood that can be used to make lumber, paper, and other useful things.  Herein lays the rub and this brought me back to daily life and politics: this whole conflict between two philosophies in the management of these woods.  The trees are marked up by a forester and ready to get their first thinning cut.  Walking by there made me think about these foresters imposing rules on the forests and only by imposing their forestry rules can they make them grow quickly, create a more prosperous forest and probably a more diverse forest.  While if we ecologists stand back and let things go without human-imposed (management) rules, nature may eventually get there too, but who knows with how many casualties in the meantime, and probably less useful lumber for the foresters.

The trees in this "dog-hair" stand are all fighting to capture the light and not really investing in infrastructure (or the trunk) to support them (and us).  If left unchecked there will be many casualties and those remaining will produce mediocre wood.
So what is good and what is bad?  In the old days I would have said that any human intervention in nature was necessarily a bad idea.  However, things have changed.  We humans have impacted nature so tremendously, that most philosophers, scientists, biologists and ecologists now tell us that we have entered the Anthropocene or the geological period during which we humans impact the earth’s geology and ecosystem more than they impact the humans.  The Wikipedia article I reference here is fascinating to read, it tells me how future geologists will be able to read the rocks and tell what went on in our time.  In other words, we have impacted nature so much by bringing in exotic plant species, encroaching the area and living right next to them, having removed all the predators that would hunt the deer, suppressed the wildfires, that we probably need to manage these woods, otherwise we really do not know what the results will be.

But back to my walk; I was really upset about what is going on at the EPA, the Department of the Interior, NOAA, the Department of Education and so many other government agencies at the moment.  I like to compare it with the "dog-hair" stand that I was walking by (and really, that's what I was thinking about).  Without management (read regulations) that "dog-hair" stand will develop into a forest, I am not worried about that.  First very poorly, without any understory, it will be very susceptible to fire, a lot of small trees will die and only a very few big ones will survive, and the quality of the wood of those trees maybe very poor.  Kind of like a society without regulations, the rich and the powerful will get richer and damn the poor and the weak.  With management (regulations) we thin the forest sensibly and it will thrive (oh my god, birth control), the remaining trees will grow good and create good wood that we humans can use to build our homes, furniture and make our paper products from (now he is preaching socialism). 

I strongly feel that like that forest that need management our country needs sensible regulations, health care and education.  The cutting of programs and deregulation is not going to work for everyone, just like that "dog-hair" stand,  In 1798 Malthus wrote about an eventual over-population that would result in famine and disease that would cause the end of human civilization.  Many conservatives have always counter-argued that human inventiveness would keep up with the population explosion (I am oversimplifying here).  I don't know, but why even argue?  Some scientists say we are close to reaching the carrying capacity of the earth or the number of people that the earth can support.  Why turn our future generations into that human "dog-hair" stand on earth and put them all at risk?  I believe we can avoid this, but not in the spirit of less regulations and everybody for themselves, but instead with more education, better healthcare for everyone, science, a cleaner environment and empathy.

And that is what I sometimes do when I walk in the woods, I think and brood, and then I ramble.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet (3/7/2017)

The Buddhist philosopher/scholar/Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book “Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life”: 

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”   

That is what I try to do when I walk in the woods behind our house.  I just love to linger, look around and be mindful.  At times I enjoy the blue sky, look at the clouds, or how the sunlight plays with the bark on the trees.  Other days it may drizzle or it may be misty.  You often hear birds, sometimes there are swans in the ponds, sometimes you hear them flying over, and often you see deer darting off the path especially early in the morning or around dusk; no day is the same.  When I can, I will do it: I let my feet, eyes and senses kiss the earth.

I took this picture during our most recent walk in the woods behind our home.  I ventured of the regular path to  look at this pond and liked how the trees lined up.  When I arrived home, Google had somehow enhanced the photograph into what you see here, and actually I liked it and want to share it with you all.
Thich Nhat Hanh is also reported to have said: 

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Recognizing that miracle, savoring it, and protecting it is so important for us and that curious child and all future children.  I would like to add that we need to live as if we are kissing the Earth with our souls.  

Naturally there are days that I or we cannot linger and enjoy our walk as we should.  We are on a mission, we have to walk the dogs and then go to work, go to church, run errands, or go do something.  Let’s walk to the pond, the green woods, the "cookie tree" (that is the tree where the dogs always get a treat in the hope that when they get lost in the woods that they will return to), or the road we tell each other.  We may even put the dogs on a leash so they don’t doddle.

Sometimes those days can be frustrating, the dogs did not cooperate.  They ran through the mud or went swimming; they were sniffing too long and we were in a hurry, you name it.  Other times, even though we were in a hurry, you come back recharged; you saw something in the woods, you experienced something, or there was something intangible that flipped that switch that made you feel good (anyway).

But the other thing can sometimes happen also: a well-intended walk gone bad!  We had a few.  Recently one of our dogs disappeared.  We split up and spend a frantic hour looking for him, to be called by someone that they had found him and were at our home to drop him off.  This weekend we came upon a place where someone had been illegally cutting firewood in the woods behind our homes.  Instead of ignoring it and continuing our walk, the firewood hoarders we are, we stole two good looking pieces of wood that had been split and carried them home.  All the sudden our mindful walk in the woods became work and heavy lifting in the woods and much less enjoyable.  Gone was the meditation.  On top of that our deaf beagle all the sudden seemed to lose sight of us and did not know where we were and my wife had to chase her down.  There went our nice enjoyable meditative walk kissing the earth with our senses, out of the window.

In his book “Being Peace” Thich Nhat Hanh writes:  

“An oak tree is an oak tree. That is all it has to do. If an oak tree is less than an oak tree, then we are all in trouble.”

Those two pieces of wood were oak and we are happy that they are.  They are heavy and will heat our home for an hour, even though it interrupted our more mindful walk.

This is what I have been thinking and writing about lately: "Forest Bathing" and "Nature Deficit Disorder".  It is so important to spend time in and with nature; whether it is walking in the woods, working in your garden, attending your potted plants (or bonsais in my case), or just standing there, staring at a tree.  It heals, lowers the blood pressure and is good for you.  Go outside, enjoy nature and fight to preserve it for you and future generations!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Forest bathing (2/22/2017)

Wow, I learned a new phrase this week: “Forest-Bathing”.  So, now some of you have also.  It has nothing to do with taking a bath or a shower in the woods, although I have always wanted to build an outdoor shower and in our case the shower would look out into the forest, so technically it could be forest bathing.  No, it is spending time in the woods and letting the woods come over you and improve your health. 

Readers of my blog know that I frequently write about "Nature Deficit Disorder", in fact there are 31 posts (32 with this one ... check the "labels" section) by now in which I mention it or at least somehow write that at times I need to reconnect with nature; just to get my sanity back.  Well, it seems that forest-bathing or shinrin-yoku as it is called in Japan is real!  Shinrin-yoku is a very important national public health program that was started there in 1982.  Now research is showing that regular bathers have lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and less variability in their heart rates.  A Japanese study even showed that it increased the activity of the natural killer cells in the human immune system.  These cells appear to fight off viruses and tumor formation and they seem to be associated with cancer prevention according to an article written by Ephrat Livni in 2016. 
Walking through the woods this past weekend it was so warm that even this early in February the turtles were out sunning.  I wonder what they could find to eat.

A much more detailed article was written in 2012 in the Outside magazine, and it seems that an aromatic volatile substance called phytoncides may be involved.  Trees give off these substances and Dr. Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that when he locked up subjects overnight into a hotel room with this substance piped in the air they also had high levels of the killer cell versus subjects who were locked up without the substance in the air.  Moreover, the killer cells levels stayed elevated in the subjects' systems for a few weeks.  Just breathing the extract from a tree under laboratory conditions gave the author of the article an instant 12 point drop in blood pressure.

But what does forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku entail?  In my eyes it is kind of what you make it.  From what I understand it is a combination of spirituality, meditation, and at the same time a form of aromatherapy.  The phytoncides that the plants give off is a chemical that seems to have a lot of, yet to understand functions.  However, one thing it is sure, it seems to be good for our well-being when we breath it in.  You may not smell it, but it is there.  It is the fresh smell of the forest.  That together with living in the moment the shedding of all your daily worries and concentrating on the beauty around you and being one with nature is what forest bathing is.  It does sound a lot like taking care of the nature deficit disorder, isn't it?

Believe it or not there is actually an organization that teaches you to become a Shinrin-yoku or Forest Therapy Guide.  I would love to do this, but of course it is in California and probably too expensive for my pockets (I really need to start advertising on this blog).  However, I feel I can probably do it without the "formal" seven session training, but it would be nice.  Monica Schwartz took the course and this is the link to her blog about the course.

In her blog about the course Monica details a lot about the spiritual and personal aspects of the program, and her growth as a teacher.  Her website/blog (which is titled Life out of Bounds) is a wonderful place to visit anyway.  The course appears to be on seven Saturdays near the San Francisco area.  It starts with a ritual where people collect a piece of nature (in her case it was a rock from a creek) and put it in a circle, symbolically leaving their worries or baggage behind before spending 20 or 30 minutes just lingering in the woods.  They are called back, share their discoveries and feelings, maybe have a reading and then they go out again for another 20 or so minutes.  Monica brought a camera (she is a photographer) and took photographs, others did other things.  After a third session there was another discussion and that week's session was done.  All very simple and very spiritual.  The leader in her session made tea from the local herbs which they all tasted but I do not think a tea ceremony is a requirement.  One of the members of Monica's group just meditated in a place and played a native American flute.  Wonderful, everybody can experience it in her or his own way.

There is even beauty in this fallen tree.  It amazed me how well distributed the roots were.  I follow a bonsai webcast and this gentleman always talks about raking out the roots to get an even distribution in the pots.  What a gorgeous example and what a shame for the tree.

Forest bathing is really a way to recharge, a way to meditate, and a the breath in those phytoncides.  I need to do it more often, now I know there is real scientific evidence for its benefits.  Come and join me.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Protest demonstrations, our new way of life (2/16/2017)

We went to the Woman’s March on Washington a few weekends ago and I spent a half day with our 500,000 closest friends.  Close having two meanings here: we were packed in like sardines, but in addition to that we were all philosophically and politically pretty darn close there on the mall.  We had an amazing time and came back tired, but charged.  

The last time I joined a demonstration was a long time ago.  It was in 1973 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  I was 20 years old and the protest was against the U.S. involvement in the military coup in Chile that overthrew President Salvador Allende.  It was a Nixon thing and being anti Vietnam war anyway, nothing better than a good anti-US protest demonstration downtown Rotterdam, as they did everywhere else in Europe.

So you can imagine, it was kind of exciting more than 43 years later; shorter hair, a little less hair, a little grayer hair, and a little pudgier around the middle, we were ready to get on the bus to restart our career as protesters.  Being a guy, I was glad to be in the minority and I absolutely do not wish to hijack the movement or what happened that Saturday.  It was a beautiful thing.  Our estimate was that approximately 30% of the attendants were male, some of them holding signs in support of their sisters or mothers who could not come; of their wife, or one sign the said “I support her” with arrows pointing in all directions.  

Most of the signs I saw address the following seven common issues:
  1. Women's rights
  2. Support of Planned Parenthood
  3. Support of a woman's right to choose (which is different from the support of Planned Parenthood)
  4. Trump's treatment of women
  5. The Republican threat to the environment
  6. Black lives matter
  7. LGBTQ issues
There were other signs as well, but these made up the majority.  Then you hear some of the conservatives complaining about some of the obscene messages on the signs and honestly for two or three racy ones that I saw; however, I thought they were entertaining and did not think they were that bad. One involved Donald Trump grabbing the statue of liberty by the crotch, and some may interpret the one below a bit off color.
I still like this sign; although some might think it is a bit off color.
You must be living under a rock if you did not notice the demonstrations during the next weekend.  The major cause for those were the famous Muslim ban that was instated by the President under the motto: "Let's make American lives unsafe again," or at least that is what most experts called it.  At least the demonstrations showed there is still a core of civil, tolerant people out there.  But it really makes you wonder what is next?

A hug anyone?
The question remains, "Is this what democracy is all about."  Many people from the right call the demonstrators sore losers and tell them to get with the program, their guy won and respect what he's doing; give him a chance.  Others tell me he is violating The Constitution in some cases and that is the reason why they are demonstrating.  Boy, four weeks in and ethics violations abound already.  I like to make the argument that this is what democracy is all about, we need to make sure that a lot of the progress that has been made during the past 8 years is preserved.  The problem is that we cannot change the president's mind, but maybe we can change the mind of our elected officials by way of the relentless demonstrations; show them that their heads will roll if they just roll over and do what the president want them to do and look the other way when unethical thing happen.
Hopefully congress will understand that there will be dangerous curves ahead if they just bend over and don't question things or listen to the will of the people
From what it looks like, my demonstration days will not be over.  I'll be walking for science and for the environment in the next few months.  They will all be peaceful and I am sure that again I will be accused of being a sore loser.  But all I can say is that I am vigilant; I do not want to go back to the Middle Ages where scientists are persecuted and the environment is an afterthought.  I have lived in third world countries, witnessed the persecution of free thinkers, seen the pollution and tyranny of dictators.  This is why people try to escape the tyranny they are living in and want to move here to the U.S. and live in freedom.  In their own country they are trying their best to emulate our way of living, but that way of living seems to be rapidly changing and I am not sure if it is for the best.  We need to maintain our ability to be critical observers and thinkers and not just take everything as it is given to us; let's please protect what we have and keep the movement going!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Who is the Common Man? (1/27/2017)

Partially thanks to an article in our newspaper on how Hollywood depicts the “common man” in movies, followed by a letter to the editor on how Donald Trump is stacking his cabinet with billionaires who are supposed to take care of the common man, have I been wondering who the common man really is, and then also what motivates the common man.

So what does one do?  You ask professor Google what the definition of a common person is.  Common person, defines it as: “a person who holds no title.”  They have all kinds of different items in their thesaurus, a Bourgeois (a member of the middle class), a Nobody (a person of no influence), a Plebeian (one of the common people), a Proletarian (a member of the working class), and (my favorite) a Rustic (an unsophisticated country person), just to name a few. 

In a 2011 article entitled “10 Terms for the Common People” Mark Nichol listed: Bourgeoisie; Great unwashed (I love that one); Hoi polloi; Little people; Mob; Peons; Proles (from proletariat); Rank and file; and Riffraff.  In the comment section readers added some more, British readers added “chav” a word I never heard off but seems debatable, and “the chattering classes”.  U.S. readers added: the Masses, Joe Blow, John Doe, Yahoos, and Plain Jane.  As the outfall of the latest elections maybe we should we add (a basket of) deplorables? 

All I can say is let them eat cake!  Oh no that was Marie Antoinette in the late 1700 a few weeks or months before her head was chopped off by the common people. 

But walking through town in my lunch hour and looking around; am I looking at “the Masses” or “Joe Blow”, or “the Plebeians”?  They are definitively not “rustic”, and it looks like they did shower recently.  But can I call these bankers and business men, common men?  What about all those government employees; and what about those beggars, what are they, less than common?  Who are the common men or the common women and what motivates them?

When you do an internet search on "the common man" you inevitably hit on the speech by by Vice President Henry A Wallace, entitled: The Price of Free World Victory. Wallace had been Secretary of Agriculture and was VP under Roosevelt, during the time of the second world war at the time he gave this speech. While it was an anti-Hitler speech, it obviously touched the common man, Wallace said: "Men and women cannot be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over. Down the years, the people of the United States have moved steadily forward in the practice of democracy. Through universal education, they now can read and write and form opinions of their own." 

Having worked overseas in dictatorships, I have seen what literacy or the lack of it can do; or maybe the lack of credible information to read, to get from the radio or to watch on TV. We were able to compare various shortwave radio stations and compare it to the local news; things the common folks could not do, because they could not speak any other language, at least not those from the foreign radio stations and the relied to the government sponsored  (fed) news. There was fake news everywhere.  We really need to make an effort to keep our press free and resist the notion by some in the current White House that the press is irrelevant (or what they call "the Main Stream Press.") 

The speech by Wallace was so inspiring to some, that composer Aaron Copland wrote a piece of music after it entitled "Fanfare for the Common Man."  The tune was reintroduced to the next generation (mine) by Emerson Lake and Palmer (click here for a YouTube video of ELP).  

I feel that we have lost that in our society, there is no real inspiration any more, nothing that inspires people or pushes them towards the greater good.  We are all inspired against the other; this country has become one of two polar opposites.  I attended the Women's March on Washington the past weekend; it was very charging and inspiring; it was against the new administration and the fear they install in many of us.  I just wish it would inspire all common women and men to set their differences aside; that we restore civility and make sure this new political experiment we are embarking on does not end wrong; these guys have never run a country before.  But let's make sure that we stay informed and by independent, unbiased, unfiltered news sources.

I took this picture at the Women's March and to me it symbolizes what I am trying to say here.  This sign did not criticize the President or even congress but asked (in her own way) for the restoration of civility and trust in human nature.  I have no idea if she was a lone counter demonstrator or a very spiritual person, but her sign was very out of place, but so poignant.