Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Everyone Under the Sun

 For a number of years, I’ve been convinced that we’re all stronger together- regardless of topic. 

When we work together, we capitalize on each others’ strengths and can support each others’ weaknesses. We can pool resources. We can build things we can’t by ourselves.

I live in the City of Waukesha, which is the county seat. Waukesha County sits between Madison, Wisconsin further to the west, and is immediately adjacent to Milwaukee County to the east.

I’ve been reading many things recently about people and their connections to, or lack thereof, their natural environments. For those who are impassioned, they ask "How can we get kids and adults to care about plants, animals, soils, clean water, and clean air?" What could make it all “matter” to them? How can we all move forward to become “less expensive” in terms of natural resource costs and have sustainable lifestyles?

I’ve also read some sobering histories of how people have come to have the lifestyles we do. Books like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. There are also all those books about the industrialization of food and the negative effects associated with that. Even movies like Morgan Spurlock’s SuperSize Me can show parts of these issues that affect us all in terms of what we do and how we do it.

Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass gave me another frame of reference to examine all these issues. As a professor, she learned that her students didn’t think that humans could ever have a positive relationship with their natural environments. They believed all human activity is inherently detrimental to or exploitative of what’s around people. That discovery turned her approach to teaching. Through a review of her Native American cultural history, she suggests that this “fact” can be fiction. She uses science to prove it via a few specific examples that open the door to further exploration from modern perspectives and sensibilities. We can both give and take. The environments we find ourselves in do likewise: give and take. There are few deadends in an ecosytem and people are part of all ecosystems.

Then, a friend shared an article by Cassidy Randall in the Huffington Post, The Incredibly Simple Way To Get People To Care About The Environment. Bingo. A modern approach to connect people and their outdoors is to accept additional science discoveries that doing so improves our health and our daily actions that can help our environments.  It’s a healthcare issue- worthy of prescriptions. It’s a societal issue- worthy of a variety of small options everywhere to appeal to a broad range of people.

Alas, there’s always a “but”.

Mabari Byrd, Sierra Club’s Delaware Watershed community coordinator, says in this piece:
“When we talk about the environment, we also have to talk about the personal environment,” explained Byrd, describing his own upbringing in North Philadelphia in a community dealing with food security issues, the war on drugs, unemployment and mass incarceration. “There’s a hierarchy of needs before you can even think about saving the Arctic,” he said.”

Some people spend all their energy just trying to survive- if you have more time and energy, you can look beyond that. That’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So, it’s important to ask oneself as one complains about a lack of interest or connection to our natural world: are the non-engaged that way because of disinterest, ignorance, opportunity, or hardship? I was fairly sure I knew part of the answer from my own experiences in recent years, but I wanted to take another dive into the reality around me to make sure.

Data from Data USA 2018.

Waukesha County
City of Waukesha
Milwaukee County
Total Population
Median* Age
Median* Household Income
Poverty Rate
Median” Property Value
Percent of population US Citizens
Percent of population Born Outside US
White Alone
Hispanic Alone
Asian Alone
2+ Ethnicities
Black/African Alone
Native American Alone
*Note: “Median” means there are just as many above as below the number given.

*Note: “Median” means there are just as many above as below the number given.

These data do not express all that the area's populations represent. It says nothing of religious beliefs, personal interests, sexual orientations, languages spoken, or (directly of) political beliefs.

What they do speak of is opportunities. For the overall county of Waukesha, there are proportionally more older people.

The following detailed population age demographics were gleaned from the US Census Bureau QuickFacts website:

Persons under 5 years
Waukesha County: 5.2%
City of Waukesha: 5.9%
Milwaukee County: 6.9%

Persons under 18 years
Waukesha County: 21.5%
City of Waukesha: 21.3%
Milwaukee County: 24.0%

Persons 65 years and over
Waukesha County: 18.7%
City of Waukesha: 13.4%
Milwaukee County: 13.6%

That aging trend is increasing in most locales- Waukesha County is just further into the trend and its future opportunities are leaning more in that direction. They have significantly more income than the city of Waukesha or Milwaukee County residents (remember, half of the household incomes for each group is above the number listed- so half of the households in Waukesha County are making 1.75 times or more than half the households in Milwaukee County). Their properties have significantly more value (although there are properties in both counties that have million-dollar-plus values). With fewer children and higher values, tax revenues and general funding are extremely different between the counties.

It’s heartening to see from these figures that if you’re born outside the US, you tend to become a citizen while in the US, wherever you live. It’s saddening to realize descendants of the original peoples of this area represent less than a percent of our current populations. It’s also a point to recognize that we continue to be very divided by race, with the city of Waukesha representing a midpoint of sorts between the counties.

The poverty rates of the 3 locations cover a significant range although they all could be troubling: 1 out of every 20 people, 1 out of every 10 people, and 1 out of every 5 people. It’s eye-opening to picture those ratios in a classroom to put into perspective. According to DataUSA, the most common racial or ethnic group living in poverty in Waukesha County is White, followed by Hispanic and then Black, which may relate to the overall low numbers of other ethnicities. In comparison, in Milwaukee County, the data show the most common group is Black, followed by White and then Hispanic.

Poverty can fall on anyone. However, if you have more to begin with, the depths one falls will not be as great as those who started off with less to begin with.

Wealth can also drag someone from knowing their environments. In the quest to maintain status via obtaining the latest phones, designer kitchens, or other symbols of trendiness, the affluent can become trapped by excesses. Granted, if we had to choose which prison we would find ourselves, I think I know which we’d prefer: those with means can turn their mindsets and futures with greater ease than those without.

When I hear talk of people having no connection to the natural world, the data give some reasons why and Randall’s article gives us examples of what anyone can do to help provide these links in any situation: from rural to urban. Milwaukee County actually has a history of public works, including setting aside land for public parks. That practice can be applied to any town. Newer ideas like urban housing designs that integrate green and growing spaces also exist and can be encouraged.  Programs can be created that bring people together outside to learn and enjoy both the green spaces and from each other. The reciprocal give and take relationships Kimmerer speaks of can be formed anywhere. But it all takes personal and group desire, long-term concerted efforts, and solid financial backing.

A healthier planet under the sun? An overall healthier and more content people living on it and under that sun, too? Those all sound like great reasons to me for us to try.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Peeping into 2020

I reviewed 2018 in my essay The Mountain That Was 2018, illustrated by the great photography of Brian Crosby. We continue to connect on Twitter and I again asked him if I could use one of his images for this year. I’m grateful for our long-distance friendship! That continuity of connection with others is one facet of 2019’s goodness.

Here are my Twitter profiles for both 2018 and 2019:

I feel the start of a new book in my fingertips- perhaps a biographical/historical one. To me, writing is a need that comes and goes. Perhaps I’m like the nut trees that rest for years and then suddenly, all together, pick a year in which to dump all their reserves into a bumper crop of seeds. (More on that later. 2019 had a lot of connections to the natural world for me- if you haven’t read books like Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, I recommend checking them out.)

While my writing slowed, I did start a new blog in 2019. Leaf Letters is where I plan on writing about my work at Retzer Nature Center. My writing output was low but while I wrote only 5,500 words in 2019, there was a lot going on in the background. There is value in quiet and I was reminded in 2019 that just when you feel things petering out, it could simply be time to evolve like the caterpillar. Life has to first stop in order to go through metamorphosis to something else.

My "pinkie promise" to myself was that in 2019 I would try every day, using all my parts: body, mind, and spirit. That was a tough sell. At the time, I wanted to go the other way; I wanted to stop trying. The song, Promise, that Jimin from BTS posted on SoundCloud at the end of 2018, includes these lyrics, which compelled me to make my promise and write it down as a reminder to myself:

Now promise me, oh, oh
Several times a day, oh, oh
Even if you feel that you are alone, oh, oh
Don't throw yourself away, oh, oh
Oh, oh, oh, oh, hold on for a moment
Intertwine our pinkies
And promise me now, oh, oh, oh, oh

In the spring of 2019, I was given a surprise employment opportunity. To say I was shocked and in complete disbelief that I could bring the environmental science that I had loved in my youth together with the more recent experience I’ve gained in the classroom to be a part-time teaching naturalist is a gross understatement. It’s been beautifully surreal. I had almost cleansed my head and house of all this material, as the last 30 years has given me little to suggest I could apply it anywhere for any benefit to self or others: always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I say “almost cleansed”. There were bits of reluctant sadness to this, therefore proof that there was still longing within.

I was both figuratively and literally packing my things away at the beginning of this year. Then, a hand was extended. That thing I’ve been saying for years now, “We’re stronger together”? Yeah, that truth evidenced itself to me in huge ways in 2019. It’s real.

My intention for 2019? It was just want to witness. I wanted to simply be and do in love and hope. Together. I flagged and faltered after the start of the year, but was brought back by others. Intention fulfilled. There were times when I was (or hoped to be) that hand. I thank those friends near and far for allowing me to be there to witness their own struggles.

My 2020? I want to explore the idea that it’s ALL stronger together. I’ve edited my Twitter profile. Check it out and follow if you’d like. I’m even more convinced we’re stronger together. I want to unite more people to both one another and to our natural surroundings.

I ended 2018 with an essay from my book, Dear Warriors, called Enjoying Life Day by Day. It suggested that everything we do on a daily basis can be viewed as tiny pebbles, which add up to the mountains which are the sum of our lives and give others a basis for theirs.

For 2019 and going into 2020, I’m going back to Dear Teachers. Here's an essay illustrated by my friend and fellow author, Marlene Oswald, from her excursions to my new place of work. Please enjoy one of my few poems: Seeing.


Hold on a second.
Can you see it?

We can march through life, wrapped up in our worries.
We can rush all about, minds set only on our goals.
We can doggedly move on, determined to get it done.

Hold on a second.
Can you see it?

Through the static of everything around us, something emerges.
Amongst the hustle and bustle a presence makes itself known.
It is the tender spirit of Life gently reminding us of our hearts.

It speaks of sweetness.

Is it the warm hug of a loving student?
Is it a tender word of thanks from a friend?
Is it the grateful smile at home as you open the door?

Thinking of Life’s sweetness,

What do you see?

REFLECTION: My heart sees...

Best wishes to all of us in 2020.