Ancient Beech Forests in Germany

Buchenwald_Frühling

Beech Forest Buchenwald Frühling by Nasenbär (Diskussion) / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

I just learned this week that the ancient forests of Germany were beech forests. They were the first trees to grow in the land about 11700 years ago as the ice sheets retreated after the last ice age. If there had been no human beings or human agriculture, the beech forests would have covered the whole of Europe. But human development reduced the forests to a fraction of their former acreage. In 2011 five beech forests in Germany were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites to conserve them. 

I learned this after watching a movie called ‘Call Of The Forest – The Forgotten Wisdom Of Trees,’ a documentary featuring scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Along with other people around the world, she interviews Dr. Silke Lanniger and Meinrad Joos, who are involved in German forest preservation. One of them said that Germany is committed to keeping 30% of its land forested. It is a beautiful movie, and I was heartened to learn about the German commitment to its forests.

Mostly, however, I was intrigued because of my own connection to a copper beech tree in Boston, which I have previously written about. The copper beech tree was a primary spiritual anchor for me during the time I lived near to its location in the Forest Hills Cemetery.  I was also intrigued because of my more recent reaching out to my ancient Germanic ancestors.  I realized that they were living in these primordial beech forests, likely during many generations of my relatives. Sometimes the beech trees were considered fairy trees, or a link to all that is magical.

And isn’t it ironic, or magical, that, knowing none of this, I found the beech tree in Boston, or perhaps the beech tree found me?  There are so many synchronicities here. When I wrote about the beech tree, I also wrote about the magic of the runes–that ancient alphabet of the Northern Europeans which has been another link to my Germanic ancestors. Now, when I imagine my ancient Germanic ancestors, I see them in this beautiful forest.

Going back to the film, its message was wider and more universal than merely a link to my own ancestors. In her visits to forests around the world, Beresford-Kroeger speaks so eloquently of the gifts that trees bring to human beings, and also how important they are to the balance of all life on our planet. How important they are to the climate.  Perhaps they might be the most important being for maintaining our life on this earth. My spirituality is a tree spirituality!

Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

Too much water, too little water

I have been thinking about the flooding in Houston, and all the other devastating ways the planet is adapting to our carbon in the air, with changing weather patterns, intense storms, different water patterns.  Thankfully, my sister and other family members in the Houston area are safe.  Meanwhile, we have drought here in Maine.  It hasn’t rained for over ten days. I don’t have answers for what to do about the new reality of flooding in our land, but I thought I could talk about what we are doing to address drought here in Maine.

So, last week, we were able to finish the rest of our rain barrels!   One of the useful aspects of rain barrels is to preserve water in the landscape to be able to weather the ups and downs of water flow.  We now have rain barrels gathering the run-off from each roof on our land.

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The final rain barrel is finished!

Measure the downspoutI want to post about the learning session that Dave led on the 23rd to finish our rain barrels and teach a few of us more about how to install rain barrels.  I will talk today about how to attach the barrels to the downspouts of our gutters.  Once the rain barrels themselves are positioned, you can measure and mark the downspout about 8 to 12″ above the top of the barrel.

Unscrew the downspout attachment

 

 

Then remove the downspout by unscrewing the fastening screws on the wall and to the gutter.  Once those are unfastened, you can pull the vertical downspout apart from the connectors to the gutter.

Unscrew the connector

 

 

The fun part is cutting the downspout itself to the right length with tin snips, using both right-handed and left-handed snips.  (Right handed are red-handled, and left are green.) The basic idea is to mark the downspout with a pencil line all around, and be aware of the part you are going to keep, and the other part which will not be part of the finished downspout (the scrap side–but you can save it for other uses.)  Then punch a hole with the point of the snips near your line, but in the scrap side, and start cutting around the marked line.  But, also, about an inch further into the scrap side, you start another cut, so that you can work both those cuts at the same time.  It makes it easier to go round the downspout.  If you are right-handed, you use the right hand snip for your “good” cut, and the other snip for the helping cut.  This picture shows a left-handed person making the good cut.  As you go around the pipe you can cut off that little strip so it doesn’t get in your way.Cutting the downspout

Once the downspout is cut, you reattached it to the gutter, and reattach the screws, or make new ones as needed to attach it to the wall.  Then, attach a plastic downspout extension piece that you can buy at a hardware store in large or small sizes, and position it to end over your rain barrel  (see first picture).  Hurray!

 

Loud Machines and Climate Silence

The other day I read an article in the Guardian, The Great Climate Silence by Clive Hamilton.  I found it easy to agree–no one is really talking about or dealing with the coming catastrophe of climate change.  Having had these issues on my mind for a while, I moved on to other things that day.  But sometimes it is the little things that break through to our hearts.

This morning, I was planning to walk over to Evergreen Cemetery for the Warbler Walk sponsored by Maine Audubon, but though I searched everywhere, I couldn’t find my pair of binoculars. So I left the house feeling that sense of frustration I am sure we all feel when we can’t find something.  As I walked, I opted to forego the warblers, and go by Capisic Brook near the Hall School.  I wrote previously about the cutting of trees that is going on for construction of the new school.

Hall School Tree Cutting 1The big loud machines are still there, but today I was startled to see that they have also cut trees between the school and the brook, a whole section that I thought should be safe. The wide swath of trees that made for a little wilderness in the city, is being narrowed so that the sanctuary is no longer as much a sanctuary.

I am not in on any of the planning or decision-making, so I feel very helpless and sad and angry about all of this, wishing there were someone I could yell at, like, Really, you have to cut those trees too?  Isn’t it bad enough that you destroyed the trail on the other side of the school?  Meanwhile the big machines kept digging up the earth near the pathway, now widened to a road, that goes over the brook.  As I walked back over that pathway, I heard the plaintive chirps of a woodpecker that I have often seen in this little ecosystem.

On my way home, I thought about the article about climate silence.  But this time, my frustration and grief and anger were open, and I felt for the earth as a whole what I had been feeling for my little brook and its trees and birds and newly blooming trout lilies.  Why are we doing this?  Isn’t it bad enough that we’ve already caused extinctions, and destroyed so many ecosystems?  Why do we just keep on destroying more and more?  We’ve got to get out of our denial, face our grief, and break our silence.

And for some reason I also thought about the proposal to borrow money to re-build four of the other elementary schools in Portland.  Most progressives I know are in favor of that proposal, but when I think about climate change, I have misgivings.  It is not about particular trees or construction damage, or not wanting the best schools for our kids.  But just as Clive Hamilton suggests, no one takes into account the coming catastrophes as they go about making plans for the future.  The new Hall School is slated to be a “green building.” So yes, that is good.  But there are other issues, too.

The one that came to my heart today is debt.  I think about cities in Michigan that are under “emergency management” because they went bankrupt from debts they could not repay.  Those managers, with no democratic accountability, can close school districts, sell off common resources like parks and museums, and change public water systems, such that the children in Flint were poisoned by lead.  If we take into account the coming climate catastrophes, wouldn’t it be wise to get our cities and ourselves out of debt?  So that we can preserve local control when things get worse?  Do we really want the banks to be in charge when everything gets more chaotic and difficult?

Everything shifts when we include climate change and the earth ecosystem in our conversations about the future.  What questions might you start asking, that you haven’t been asking up until now?

Loud machine

[Forest City Trail sign, with big machine digging up the earth]

Colonization Stories

Broken Tree DSC01792The theme at my congregation for November is “What does it mean to be a community of story?” Of course, stories can be truth-telling, or truth-hiding. For example, I have mixed feelings about the Thanksgiving holiday. I am very much in favor of gratitude. But the stories American culture tells about the holiday have been used to hide the truth about a deep crack in the foundation of our nation, and have distorted and corrupted the high ideals many cherish as the basis of our American democracy.

I am speaking about the colonization of this continent, a destructive process unparalleled in history. Millions of Indigenous people were killed, or died from disease unknown to them. Land was stolen. Treaties were signed and then broken, and then never talked about again. Most of our senators and representatives in Washington know nothing about the legal responsibilities of our federal government to the Indigenous nations within our borders.

Why should we care?  Those of us whose ancestors were among the settlers of the continent?  We have benefited from this colonization, but we have also been harmed by it. Colonization is at the root of the many of the problems that all of us are facing now: the destruction of the natural world, climate change, oppression of one group by another, the overarching greed that has bankrupted our economy. (There is a longer list I could make.) I don’t believe we can fix any of those problems without revisiting our history.

Sadly, churches were/are a large contributor to colonization. I am part of a new project here in Maine, called “Decolonizing Faith.” A few clergy colleagues and I, under the auspices of the Wabanaki REACH program, are exploring the history of colonization, and the role of the churches in it. We recently spent a long weekend with a few partners from the Wabanaki people, having deeper conversations about the impacts of colonization on Wabanaki people, and building trust for future work together. We hope that we might begin to envision how people of faith could help in the process of de-colonization, non-Indigenous people joining together with Indigenous people for the benefit of all people.

Our next plan is to create and hold day-long workshops for people in faith communities to explore these questions together. But we realized this topic is so huge, that perhaps we should start by encouraging people to attend the Ally workshops that are already being offered here in Maine by Wabanaki REACH. These workshops look at the history of U.S. Government relationships with Native people, explore the dynamics of systemic racism, and ask what non-native people can do as allies. Once people have this basic foundation, they will be better prepared for looking at how churches were involved in the problems, and how we can be part of the solutions.

I would encourage folks in Maine to sign up for the ally trainings–you can find out more at the Wabanaki REACH events page.   These trainings will be a prerequisite for the first Decolonizing Faith workshops we hope to offer this winter or spring.

Solar Energy

Solar Energy LeavesToday, as I walked in the woods, I was suddenly seeing all the leaves budding open as if they were little solar energy panels for the plants and trees–only much more beautiful and efficient than the solar energy panels we humans are able to make.  We are in those weeks when the plants are waking up and starting their solar production once more.  And our own celebration is to make a decision about solar energy, so that panels can be put on our roof as soon as possible.

Last week, we had a roofing company come to replace all the worn shingles, so the roof would be ready.  Then we read solar proposals and asked questions, and tried to decide between some great local companies who are installing solar panels in our area.  That was the toughest part of the decision.  We also took into consideration the total life cycle environmental impact of the panels themselves, and that helped us to choose SolarWorld panels which are made in the United States, and score high on all measures of environmental accountability and worker treatment.  Who knew there were so many factors to consider?

Meanwhile, my time has been very busy with church work, and I am sorry to have neglected this blogging.  Yesterday, I preached on a topic related to Faith Climate Action Week, and found this quote by Gus Speth, a U.S. advisor on climate change:

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

It is good to be serving a congregation that is interested in such a cultural and spiritual transformation!  They support the changes Margy and I are making, and many other families are also asking how they can lower their carbon footprint.  We give each other hope and strength.