Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

By now most people are aware of the fact that honeybees are facing the very real threat of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honeybees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honeybees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries. Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honeybees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honeybee dies.

In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honeybees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances. In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators: 1) I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible; 2) I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy; and 3) I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard. Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honeybees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honeybees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honeybees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

Another pollinator plant in my yard — that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon — is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honeybees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival. To that end we need to do a few things. 1) We need to hold biopharmaceutical corporations — which are primarily responsible for manufacturing pesticides — accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities. 2) We need to stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops. 3) We need to support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people. 4) We need to get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can. 5) We need to show enough love and appreciation for those essential pollinators in our own backyards to help them in whatever way we can. For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare for all of us.

Image Credits:

1. Honeybee at Work (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Bee Balm in Bloom (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. I Can Almost Smell the Peony Perfume (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. White Clover Dances in the Wind (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Pink Woodsorrel Steals the Show (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Batsakis, Anthea, “What Is Colony Collapse Disorder — and Is There Hope for Bees?Cosmos Magazine, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Ellis, J., “Why Are Honey Bees Disappearing?” University of Florida, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Sarich, Christina, “List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees,” Natural Society, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Shell, Robbie, “What We Know — and Don’t Know — about Colony Collapse Disorder,” excerpted from Bees on the Roof, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Late Frost with Early Flowers

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in central North Carolina fluctuating between 80° F and 40° F depending on the day of the week, it’s difficult to decide what season we’re in. This is further complicated by the fact that we had frost in March (and may have it again in April), but we had 70° temperatures in January and February. On the whole, one may be inclined to assume that somebody with lots of money and no conscience is presently reverse-engineering the climate.

Still the plants are generally in agreement that spring, however fickle and indecisive this year, has arrived. Truthfully there were distinct signs of it by January, so this should come as no surprise to anyone with half a brain. And while many plants and trees have been damaged or stunted due to the late frost, plenty of others are in full bloom, which recently led me to take photos of the resulting botanical beauty.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has always been a favorite of mine. From my earliest childhood, I’ve made a habit of picking the small crimson fruits in late May to taste the color of the season. (At the rate they’re growing this year, I may be able to pick them by late April.) They tend not to be terribly flavorful in this region, but I wonder if depleted soils are partially to blame for this. Additionally the leaves of the plant have been used to treat cough and diarrhea in historical times.

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Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is considered by many to be a pest, and there may be some validity to that assessment in some circumstances. However the plant is also a great source of nutrition for many foraging animals, including chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Historically chickweed has also been used by humans to treat coughs, hemorrhoids, and sore eyes. Personally I find its most redeeming quality to be the delicate white flowers which are so small they can almost be mistaken for specks of stardust.

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I must admit I’d never seen this particular plant before my March hike at Eno River State Park. Once I’d spotted it, however, I saw it everywhere. In fact it was hard to take a step in some parts of the park without risking the life of one or more of these dainty flowers. Only after a bit of research at a later date did I find the plant’s identity. Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a native to this region and also goes by the name fairy spud. The name alone would be enough for me to love the plant, but there’s more. All of the aerial parts of the plant are safe for human consumption and have been eaten by the Algonquin people, among others, for centuries.

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In my yard, I have two examples of peony (Paeonia spp). Due to the late frost and early spring, the leaves and blossoms are frail and skinny, but the plants are doing their best to compensate for their diminished size with an extra dose of magenta along the stems, leaves, and buds. I have a feeling the blossoms will also be diminished in size this year, but that won’t change the fact that peony petals can be steeped in hot water to produce an herbal infusion that’s reputed to be a delicacy in China. To top it all off, certain species of peony have even been used historically to treat convulsions, which makes it the most beautiful anticonvulsant I’ve ever seen.

Image Credits:

1. Strawberry Delight (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Chickweed Has Me Seeing Stars (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Fairy Spud Strikes Again (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Peony with Eager Ants (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Dwyer, James and David Rattray, eds.; Magic and Medicine of Plants (Pleasantville, NY, USA: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1986); pp. 138, 339.

Love Breaks Down the Walls of Difference

by Mark Miles

Sometimes it’s tempting to believe that living separately from others who are noticeably different is a good thing. This idea has been present in our society for a long time, and under the current US presidential administration it’s gaining renewed emphasis. While the wall that Trump plans to build along the Mexico-US border is superficially about keeping immigrants out, it’s also about keeping the rest of us in — in boxes, ghettos, suburbs, strip malls, and prisons of our own making. It’s about making sure that all of us color inside the lines, think inside the margins, and live inside the repressive excuse for a free society that our leaders have built. In short, it’s about turning our entire society into a giant penal colony.

But there are other ways to live. There are ways to live that integrate people of other races and ethnicities without degrading anyone’s quality of life. There are ways to live that respect the distinctness of each culture without requiring that members of each culture live in clearly defined and virulently policed ghettos. There are ways to live that are close to nature, that embrace the importance of diversity, and that engender harmony among people of many backgrounds. For my own small part, I’ve tried to model this way of life with my cat Heidi and my dog Bella.

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When Heidi came to live with me in October of 2014, she was an antisocial mess. She peed and pooped where she wasn’t supposed to, tore up my bedsheets, tried to attack Bella, stayed up at all hours of the night, drew blood from my arm, and generally made life miserable. Under the circumstances I was tempted to put her in her kennel and never let her out again. It was my moment of angst, in which repression seemed the more manageable solution and integration seemed untenable. But something inside me rebelled at the thought of locking up a living being for any duration longer than absolutely necessary. I wanted to do the right thing; and so I allowed myself and Heidi and Bella to continue to interact without resorting to boxes and barriers in general, making sure that boundaries were respected at all times.

It wasn’t always pleasant or easy, but it was the right thing to do. Whereas Heidi and Bella would frequently come within a hair’s breadth of mauling one another in the first weeks after I got Heidi, they did eventually begin to mellow. Over the course of months Heidi began to sit on the couch and the loveseat with Bella in a state of calm attentiveness from time to time, and Bella allowed the intrusion on her furniture without too much fuss. As months turned into a year, they could occasionally be found sitting within inches of one another, tentatively inspecting one another and always keeping one eye peeled for a sudden move from the other. Then, after two years, something slightly miraculous happened.

It was a month ago. Heidi and Bella were sitting on the couch drinking in the early morning sun, at closer proximity than usual. Heidi as usual was the one to initiate a move when the sunlight started to shift position. Bella was too relaxed to make any objection, and I was too preoccupied with making breakfast to take note of how things were going on the couch. Then I happened to walk past the two of them on my way to the front door, and I saw this unprecedented sight. Heidi was spread out right next to Bella, side by side, with her head on Bella’s forelegs, licking her sister with the affection of a puppy. It was hard to believe what I saw, but that was when I knew my love for both of them — which had prevented me from walling them off from each other — had paid off.

And that was also when I began to appreciate in greater depth how love stands in direct opposition to fear. It’s fear that motivates us to avoid others who look different, who wear unusual clothes, who speak other languages, or who simply don’t have the money to buy all the worthless junk that our society considers essential for success. It’s fear that motivates us to build walls, to shut people out of our lives, to live in socioeconomic bubbles in which the only kinds of people we come into contact with are carbon copies of ourselves. It’s fear that lies at the heart of Trump’s Wall, and the only answer to fear is love. For it’s only when we love one another from the depths of our souls that we find the strength to tear down any and every wall that stands between us. And it’s a love I know because of my darlings, Heidi and Bella.

Image Credits:

1. Loveseat Dropkick (Mark Miles, 2015)

2. Sisterly Love (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

American Psychological Association; Ethnic and Racial Minorities and Socioeconomic Status; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Semuels, Alana; “The Resurrection of America’s Slums”; The Atlantic; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Unruh, Bob; “Pew: Divide in America Deeper than Ever Before”; WND; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Vaidyanathan, Rajini; Why Don’t Black and White Americans Live Together; BBC News; accessed March 22nd, 2017.

Honoring Nature in the Spirit of Leonardo, the Unbeknownst Animist

by Mark Miles

I’ve always known the earth is alive. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been prone to explore any patch of forest or meadow I can find, searching for any and every indication of life. Frequently as a child I would go outside for hours on end merely to look for insects — with which I was and still am immensely fascinated — and would occasionally collect them for my improvised terrarium. I’ve often collected leaves in fall to identify them by my field guide, and I’ve learned names for clouds which most people ignore altogether. I’ve always been intent on finding the deeper meaning, the ultimate purpose, the overarching spirit behind nature in all its forms. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been an unbeknownst animist.

It turns out there are many societies — most of which are being encroached by industrialization and impoverished by capitalism — which are still animistic. Aborigines in Australia, Bushmen in the Kalahari, Inuit in Alaska, and Cherokee in my own state are merely a few of the ethnic groups who were, and still to some degree are, animistic in their religious practices. Based on the recognition of life, spirit, and intelligence in all beings, animism is essentially the root to every branch of human religion. It’s the way our most distant ancestors viewed and interacted with the world; and it’s still relevant to this day in the way it provides a familial relationship to all creation, motivating the preservation of the earth for future generations. While the name itself is a construct of European anthropologists working in an academic setting that’s been largely antagonistic or indifferent to anything outside the domain of scientific materialism, the word nonetheless conveys a sense of the mystery at the heart of any meaningful religious practice, in which the divine is recognized to be immanent within all creation, waiting only for our willingness to listen closely to the world with all our senses.

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It turns out Leonardo da Vinci was also something of an unbeknownst animist. Throughout his life he had a reputation for purchasing birds in the market not to slaughter them but to release them. He was perennially mesmerized by the power and beauty of water, which he captured in many of his works of art. In his writings, he frequently imbued natural elements with human qualities in what would today be considered the most blatant anthropomorphism. And while he never would have applied the title of animist to himself — if only because the title didn’t exist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when he lived — he nonetheless worked throughout his life to find the underlying holistic principle that united his pursuits in art, engineering, anatomy, design, and optics. Most people are unaware that his interests were so varied, and they’re similarly unaware that one of the reasons for this diversity of interests was the basic tenet of his religious and scientific outlook, expressed by this quote from what’s now known as his Codex Leicester:

“We might say that the earth has a spirit of growth, and its flesh is the soil, its bones [are] the arrangement and connection of rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage [is] the tufa, and its blood [is] the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies around the earth’s heart is the ocean, and its breathing… is represented in the earth by the ebb and flow of the sea; and the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which pervades the earth, and the seat of the earth’s soul is in the fires.”

Leonardo was also homosexual, which put him at variance with the ideology of the Catholic Church and resulted in the most traumatizing event of his early life, the Salterelli affair. This took place in 1476 when he was accused by one Jacopo Salterelli of committing sodomy along with three other men. Despite the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Florence at the time — Florence was a vibrant artistic center that was effectively the San Francisco of its day — the full legal penalty for homosexual behavior at this time in Catholic Europe was death by burning at the stake. While the charges were most likely fabricated for political reasons and were eventually dismissed, the period of two months during which the threat of burning at the stake hung over Leonardo’s head must have been enough to awaken him to the brutality of life in the city amongst powerbrokers and their pawns.

Despite living much of his life in the city, Leonardo was nonetheless a country boy at heart, raised by his Uncle Francesco and his grandparents in the sleepy Italian village of Anchiano. Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, had conceived Leonardo out of wedlock in 1452 and consequently regarded his firstborn in the manner of unwanted luggage. Uncle Francesco however regarded the young boy with love and affection, showing Leonardo the hidden secrets of life in the Italian countryside. It was indeed Uncle Francesco who instilled a love for the land in his precocious nephew and gave Leonardo the first inkling that he might indeed be good for something after all.

Despite his Uncle Francesco’s efforts, however, Leonardo was largely estranged from his family in later life. He took to the road after his apprenticeship in Florence came to a close and forged a new life for himself with a small band of travelling companions who formed the nucleus of his improvised family. There was Luca Pacioli, one of the foremost mathematicians of his day; Salai, the “little demon” who took up residence with Leonardo after the latter recognized the surpassing beauty of the young man; and Francesco Melzi, a young aristocrat with artistic talent who idolized the genius of Leonardo and may have been his lover in later life. It was in fact to Francesco Melzi that Leonardo bequeathed the greatest portion of all his worldly goods when he died in 1519.

Long before his death, however, Leonardo distinguished himself as the foremost polymath of his generation. Most people know that Leonardo painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but he also painted numerous other works of art that were revolutionary in their time and hold up to scrutiny to this day. He was an engineer of weaponry for military campaigns in the service of Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia. He created schematics for flying machines, scuba gear, a primitive tank, musical instruments, and party favors. He was a skilled musician who was sent by Lorenzo de Medici in the capacity of musical ambassador, so notable were his skills. He was an anatomist of the first degree, a man who risked charges of heresy to better understand the physical form of his own species and who advanced medical knowledge incalculably because of it. He was an endless explorer of the potential for visual perception, demonstrating principles of light that foreshadowed the work of physicists centuries later. He was in short the original Renaissance Man.

For all these reasons, I admire and empathize with Leonardo. In terms of religious outlook, sexual identity, cultural affiliation, familial dislocation, and polymathic propensity, I find a man after my own heart, a man who was successful in ways most people can’t even imagine yet who wanted nothing more than to explore the intricacies of nature in peace and quiet. I take inspiration from the life he led and the passion that drove him to greatness despite so much hardship. And I dedicate the following piece, depicting creatures of the water — the element which Leonardo revered throughout his life in his artwork and designs — to one of the few people in history whom I’ve ever adopted as my personal patron saint. This is for you, Leonardo.

Image Credits:

1. Bridge to Tranquility (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Self Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1512)

3. Neptune and His Watery Mounts (Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1504)

References:

Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco, CA, USA: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York City, NY, USA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966.

White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York City, NY, USA: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000.

So There’s a Dog in My Floorboards

by Mark Miles

Before you start to think Bella has somehow gotten lost and found her way under my house, don’t worry. She’s fine, apart from some minor digestive complaints she’s had lately. The dog to which the title of this article refers is another one entirely, one I only discovered recently due to unusual circumstances and close observation. But before I get to that, I have to do some explaining about a particular piece of art.

The piece in question is The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s a double portrait of two Frenchman, Jean de Tinteville and Georges de Selve, who visited the court of Henry VIII at the same time Holbein was making his second visit to London. The piece is widely considered to be the most ambitious of this phase in Holbein’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of detail invested into every seam, fiber, and surface is astonishing. The garments of Jean de Tinteville, on the left, are enough to make a status-conscious individual in any era start salivating. Similarly the artifacts — which include a globe, a lute, and an astrolabe among other things — are testaments to the wealth of the two men portrayed and the skill of the artist who portrayed them.

But not long after looking at this painting, you’ll probably start to realize that something isn’t quite right. In fact it seems as if Holbein has made a gigantic goof — which looks like some sort of inartistic smear — and has had the ill luck to place it at the bottom center of the painting. “How could anyone with his level of skill and experience make such a catastrophic blunder?” — one might reasonably ask. The question, however, is immediately resolved when the viewer adopts a very awkward angle at the extreme top right or bottom left of the painting. When the viewer does this, something emerges out of the apparent blunder.

The meaning of the skull on the floor sitting in plain sight between two powerful men regaled by symbols of wealth and status is easy to infer. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is in your vault, no matter how many fur coats you have, no matter how many signifiers of wealth and power you possess, you too will ultimately die and leave it all behind. It’s a sobering message, and its presence in the painting assumes added significance when one considers the swathe of bloodshed left in the wake of Henry VIII, at whose court Holbein worked during his stay in London.

“Now how in the world does this relate to a dog in your floorboards?” — you might be asking at this moment. The answer will make more sense if I explain how I came to it. As it turns out, I was sitting on the couch in my living room one day in January, eating a snack before recorder practice, when I happened to glance toward my practice room, which is about fifteen feet from the couch’s position in the living room. Because I was at such a low angle and because there’s no wall between the two rooms at that point, the apparent texture of the wood floor in my practice room was dramatically skewed. It was so skewed in fact that I noticed something I’d never noticed in the ten years I’ve lived in this house. There, in the floorboards, staring back at me with lopsided ears and a silly grin, was the likeness of a dog.

It may be hard to believe, so I’ve included three photos of the wood floor in my practice room, starting with a perpendicular angle and moving to a more sharply acute angle with each frame. (Basically I went from shooting a photo while standing up to shooting a photo while lying on the floor.) The effect is startling.

How exactly this came about is beyond me. I would have to guess it was done by accident, though I suppose there’s a very small chance that the placement of the two boards which comprise the dog’s face was chosen specifically by the foreman who oversaw the installation of the floorboards as a kind of practical joke or Easter egg for anyone living in the house. Perhaps he was imitating Holbein, perhaps not. It’s impossible to say for sure. At the end of the day, nature must take the greatest share of credit for this portrait, which demonstrates more clearly than ever that the best way for us to gain a new appreciation of our surroundings is to adopt an unconventional angle from which to view them.

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Image Credits:

1. Cutest Face in the Room (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533)

3. Tilted Close-up of The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein, 1533)

4. The Face Emerges I, II, & III (Mark Miles, 2017)

Spring Arrives Early, Stupidity Stays Late

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by Mark Miles

It amazes me that there’s any debate whatsoever over the existence of climate change. So much evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that our world is changing for the worst and doing so at an alarmingly unanticipated rate. Let me give a short list of examples. The polar ice caps are melting. Forest fires are becoming increasingly common and increasingly dangerous. Birds are migrating earlier in winter and later in spring. Cold-dependent species are being forced to higher altitudes and are becoming smaller in size. Plants are blooming earlier and losing their leaves later. Parasitic organisms that thrive in warm climates are slowly but steadily expanding their range into previously uninhabitable territory. In short, the world is being radically and detrimentally altered in front of our very eyes, and yet corporate media and the political establishment continue to engage in the highly refined art of calculated stupidity. Even the newly elected American president refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the devastating effect it’s already having on millions of people globally.

I’ve witnessed this change firsthand. In previous stories I’ve mentioned how I’ve been noticing the earlier arrival of warm temperatures, the earlier emergence of hibernating animals, the earlier growth of plants and trees. This year is no exception. On the contrary, it’s been a bigger verification than any year previously. Despite the shortlived snowstorm we had in mid-January and occasional bursts of cold in general, daytime temperatures in North Carolina have lately been hovering in the 50°-70° F range. This is unreal. In the months of January and February historical highs for the state of North Carolina have been in the range of 30°-40° F. Any temperature exceeding 50° F at this time of year is a veritable heatwave. Yet temperatures have exceeded that threshold by 20° F on at least three separate occasions thus far in 2017.

I’m seeing plants blooming now which aren’t supposed to be blooming until March at the earliest. I’ve taken a few photos over the past few weeks to give examples of the unseasonable conditions. Though I’ve tried to make the photos as appealing as possible, the fact remains that warm temperatures at this time of year promote the growth of parasites that can harm or kill plants in the coming year. Additionally the stress which plants endure by virtue of violently fluctuating temperatures can be damaging or fatal with repeated incidents.

More than a week before the first day of February I was taking an evening walk across the railroad tracks to the north of where I live, following the local highway. Passing a law firm, I noticed a shot of yellow to my left between the sidewalk and the road. At first I thought I was seeing things; dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) don’t start blooming in this region until March at the earliest. Yet there at my feet was the first blooming dandelion of the season, a full six weeks early.

On another walk during the same week, I’d made my way past the highway and the local elementary school to the corner of a street leading into one of the first residential districts north of the railroad tracks. I was rounding the corner when I noticed a burst of red to my right. Stopping to inspect, I once again found it hard to believe my eyes. There in front of me at waist-level was new growth on a swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). New growth is rare on these trees before early April. Yet there could be no doubt that new growth was present and that it was a full ten weeks early.

On the same walk I continued toward the local fire station and passed an abandoned house with an uncultivated yard that’s been allowed to grow haphazardly. There are plants of every size and shape, some wild and some domesticated, who’ve taken up residence at this spot. It’s a kind of urban wilderness sanctuary without the usual tending of a garden. By this time I was beginning to expect the unexpected and was less surprised when I saw a cluster of purple blossoms staring up at me. Leaning down to the ground, I found a purple dead nettle (Lamium purpurea)–which is much more eloquently called “purple archangel”–with fresh flowers and verdant stems. Once again the appearance was a solid six weeks early.

During the same week I decided to check my garden for any unusual growth from my herbs. The rosemary hasn’t gone into dormancy for the entirety of winter, which it normally does for at least two months. The sage and fennel didn’t become dormant until December, and with the growth of other plants in the area I expected they would be putting forth their first stems. True to form, my expectation was greeted with confirmation when I looked at my sage (Salvia officinalis) and saw the first new leaves of the season. Sage doesn’t generally start growing until the end of March in this region, so this was a full eight weeks early.

On the same day I decided to check my backyard for any early vegetal risers. It took a little bit of searching, but before long I’d spotted some birdseye speedwell (Veronica persica) between the black walnut tree and my compost pile. I stooped to the ground, in a position that was far more uncomfortable than I care to admit, and took several photos. Despite my happiness at how well the photos turned out, I couldn’t escape the fact that birdseye speedwell normally doesn’t bloom until late February at the earliest, making this appearance a full four weeks early.

All of this is fine and dandy, but there are still people who choose to engage in calculated stupidity by claiming that all of this climate change is merely an aspect of nature, a cycle of temperature fluctuation that has nothing to do with human activity. Either it’s el niño or la niña or a little ice age or a warm spell. Of course this is insanity, but it doesn’t stop people from believing it and from using this calculated stupidity as an excuse to do nothing.

The fact is that industry has collectively reengineered the planet by means of water, fire, and air. By clear-cutting forests and removing the bioregulatory cooling provided by their internal repositories of water, industry has gravely disrupted the natural means of cooling this planet. By burning fossil fuels in refineries, automobiles, and power plants, industry has added an appreciable input of heat to the atmosphere of this planet. And by adding greenhouse-gases to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, industry has increased the insulatory potential of the climate considerably. It’s the equivalent of turning off your air conditioner in the middle of summer, starting a bonfire in your living room, adding a few layers of fiberglass to the insulation in your house, and then pretending everything is fine. It’s complete insanity.

Of course there’s still a significant chance that temperatures will drop before winter officially ends. If that happens, corporate media and the political establishment will hail it as further confirmation that everything is normal and nothing should be done and we can all go home and zone out in front of our phones. Of course that’s what most people in our increasingly dissociated culture do anyway. And that’s precisely what we need to stop doing, because the fact remains that nothing of a sufficient magnitude is being done to stop the ongoing slow-motion cataclysm of climate change. No one in a position of power is willing to risk that power for the prospect of pursuing a course of action that will be beneficial for people but detrimental to profits. And once again the planet will be the one to pay the price.

And that’s why it’s up to us. The fact of the matter is that if we want to stop this planet from being turned into an uninhabitable wasteland with oceans of acid and continents of plastic, we have to do something. We have to hold our leaders accountable. We have to demand decisive action to stop this ongoing cataclysm before it reaches its conclusion in the extinction of our own species. We have to get out on the streets, stop the pipelines, end corporate personhood, defund polluters, and establish that people matter more than profits. We have to rebuild communities, reestablish alliances, regrow local food networks, support local businesses, foster landbased ethical practices, and make sustainability a way of life. We have to do something, anything, whatever it takes to stop this cataclysm before it’s too late. Because if we don’t, then no one will.

Image Credits:

1. A Drop of Sunlight (Mark Miles, 2017) Order this print

2. Point the Way (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Purple Archangel (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Soft Spring Sage (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Smile for the Camera (Mark Miles, 2017) Order this print

References:

Howard, Brian Clark. “Mountain Goats Are Shrinking—A Lot—Because of Global Warming.” National Geographic. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

Mooney, Chris. “The huge crack in this Antarctic ice shelf just grew by another 6 miles.” The Washington Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s a deadly parasite, and it’s spreading across lakes in the U.S.” The Denver Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

A Lesson from the Crows about Death

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In the middle of December, a neighbor of mine–who I’ll call John out of respect for his privacy–nearly committed suicide. He’s a friendly and well-adjusted guy who I never would’ve expected to do such a thing, but he did. At very nearly the same time this took place, a group of crows began to make recurrent appearances around the neighborhood. I noticed when the crows began to show up and thought it was odd, but I tried not to read too much into it. It was only a week after the crows made their first appearance that I found out about John’s attempt to take his own life.

Though John has a good life and is well-adjusted, he had his reasons for wanting to end his life. His older brother committed suicide last year, leaving a wife and children without a husband and father. John felt guilty for not being able to stop his brother’s death and, in the absence of a reasonable coping strategy, became progressively overwhelmed by alcohol abuse and depression. John also felt a desire to be reunited with his brother, which he thought could be accomplished by his own act of suicide. All of this misguided reasoning conveniently sidestepped the fact that John would’ve left behind his own family to suffer needlessly if he had succeeded in his attempt.

Understandably his wife was distraught and had him put in a local clinic to help in his recovery. There was a great deal of pain and anger on her part, since she felt that John had made an implicit statement about how he valued his own family by his willingness to abandon them in order to rejoin his brother. Of course this had nothing to do with John’s rationale, but it’s easy to see how anyone could draw that conclusion under such circumstances.

A week ago, John returned to his family and seems to have recovered from the incident. He’s now taking steps to address his alcoholism and has outlets for his grief which he can access more readily than before. He’s been forgiven by his wife, and he has a renewed opportunity to honor the memory of his brother without ushering himself prematurely to the same fate.

Meanwhile the crows have departed. I haven’t seen them in two weeks, and as much as I love crows, a part of me is glad they’ve gone. Maybe their presence was merely a coincidence; maybe it was more than coincidence. I’m not inclined to think of them as omens of death, but the thought has certainly crossed my mind.

Another thought has also crossed my mind. Maybe the real lesson of the crows is not so much about death as it is about life and how best to live it. When they came, they were together in one group, cackling and cawing to one another with the relish of children on the playground. They were constantly communicating, interacting and enjoying each other’s company. They were a community, and from that shared bond they derived a strength that none of them would have possessed alone, a strength that gave their lives meaning in the face of death, a strength that we too can share if we will only make room for true community in our own lives.

Photo Titles:

1. Mouthful of Crow (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Helping Themselves (Mark Miles, 2016)

How Bella Got Her Groove Back

Bella is a notorious humper. When she was given to me by a friend of a friend who had a litter of unexpected puppies in 2007, I never would’ve guessed this. I’d never lived with female dogs prior to 2006–when I rescued the german shepherd of another friend of a friend–and I consequently had no experience with such amorous behavior. In truth, I was an avowed cat-man for the first twenty years of my life due to my experience of growing up with cats. Sadly there were no dogs in my family’s household, which meant I had no way of appreciating the finer qualities of canines until much later.

So when Bella started to exhibit her amorous side, I was unsure what to make of it. Also unsure was my dog Sebastian, a german shepherd who I’d rescued in 2006. He soon became the object of Bella’s amorous advances, and once Bella had made up her mind there was no unmaking it. Try as he might, Sebastian had no recourse. He was Boyfriend #1, and that was that. Despite the comical difference in size between chihuahua and german shepherd, Bella would nonetheless come up to Sebastian, sniff at his ears–which were nearly half the size of her whole body–playfully yank at them, jump on his neck, and start humping. Unfortunately I never recorded any of these episodes when they occurred, but I wish I had. There’s no way to see a tiny chihuahua making furious love to the neck of a german shepherd who’s doing his best to ignore her without losing one’s composure.

All of this changed however when Sebastian died in 2012. He’d been sickly when I got him in 2006, but he recovered and was fine for several years after that, and I figured that he’d be fine for many years to come. And then for no apparent reason he started losing weight. Then he lost more weight and more weight and more weight. Of course he’d always been skinny, but he’d never been this skinny. I could see his ribs, and no amount of eating would change that. I consulted my veterinarian, and the diagnosis was cancer. I knew I didn’t want to put Sebastian through chemotherapy, so I did my best to ease his last days. I carried him outside when he wanted to go out and inside when he wanted to go in, fed him by hand, cleaned the messes on the floor when he became incontinent, and finally said goodbye to him on October 11th, 2012. It was one of the hardest days of my life.

Needless to say, it was hard for Bella too. She didn’t express much in the way of emotional distress at the time, but she knew that Boyfriend #1 was gone, and she knew that he wasn’t coming back. Before long, however, Bella was on the prowl. From using Sebastian’s neck, Bella moved to using a candy-cane-striped stuffed bone that a friend had given as a gift. Of course said friend never would’ve guessed the amorous uses Bella had in mind. Soon Bella had Boyfriend #2, and his name was Boney Bone.

Though Boney Bone was admittedly inanimate and incapable of reciprocating anyone’s affections, this never dissuaded Bella. For all she cared, Boney was as good as any neck she’d ever had, and there was the added advantage that Boney never got up and walked away just when she was on the verge of having a really good time. In short, he was dependable, and that was good enough for Bella. But once again her choice of boyfriend was stymied. When the stuffings finally spilled out of Boney, there was no way I was going to try to salvage him. Trust me, if you’d seen the amorous adventures Bella had had with him, you’d know why. So into the trash Boney went, and from that moment forward Bella was on the prowl for a new boyfriend.

Then Heidi came into her life. I adopted Heidi in 2014, so it’d been some time since Bella had had someone capable of reciprocating her amorous advances. Heidi, however, has a mind of her own, and it didn’t take long for her to make that clear. Still, Bella gave it her best shot. Whenever Heidi would approach Bella in a friendly way, Bella would adopt her old amorous ways. Ears would perk up, tail would go into frantic back and forth motion, a leg would try to cross Heidi’s shoulder, and that was as far as it would go. Heidi never needed encouragement to stick up for herself, but I would intervene at this point to prevent any fur from flying. And so the prowl continued.

Then along came Pillow-Man. As the name indicates, he’s fluffy, soft, quiet, and entirely motionless. But as far as Bella’s considered, he’s solid gold. The fact that he’s made of cotton, polyester, and assorted synthetic fabrics has yet to bother Bella. All that matters is that when she’s ready to go, he’s there for a good time. As far as Bella’s concerned, that makes him Boyfriend #3. It doesn’t hurt that he won’t be getting up and walking away anytime soon, though how long it’ll be before Bella’s lovemaking leads to the spilling of more fluffy entrails is anyone’s guess.

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Taxonomic Cornucopia

In the spirit of gratitude that ideally characterizes this time of year, I’ve decided to share what I’m thankful for at any time of year, specifically wildlife. Every encounter with a wild animal or plant is a gift and one that’s increasingly scarce in many urban areas. Personally I live in a small town that’s largely rural, but even here you don’t have to look far to find new strip malls, housing subdivisions, and assorted industrial eyesores. Still, there are opportunities to encounter wildlife in almost any region, and each encounter is a reason to be thankful–provided you’re not being eaten for dinner of course.

In September, I stumbled upon this remarkable moth on the siding of my house. I was immediately dumbfounded by the vibrant coloration and markings, though at the time I had no idea what species she was. Despite not knowing the species, I did know the sex from a glance at the antennae–which are thick and furry in males, narrow and smooth in females. It’s easy to remember if you think of antlers, which are morphologically analogous to antennae and which are usually bigger in males than females. In any case, I was able to identify the species after a bit of searching, using the coloration and markings to point me to the orange-tipped oakworm moth (Anisota senatoria).

Though I was thankful to see this little western honey bee (Apis mellifera) a couple weeks ago, I must admit I was pretty stunned. I can’t remember a year in living memory when bees have been active in North Carolina in November. Usually by late September they’ve gone into hibernation. However, with daytime temperatures exceeding 80° F on more than one occasion, it’s not terribly surprising. My rosemary is still more than happy to keep blooming, which gave this worker bee ample reason to make the unseasonal trek in search of pollen to feed her sisters.

Here’s another unseasonal bit of wildlife from the area. In my backyard I have a good amount of sweet violet (Viola odorata) which typically becomes dormant by early October. That’s not the case this year, and it’s only because of last week’s hard frost that most of the flowering plants have started to take the hint that it’s not still summer. Regardless of all that, I’m thankful whenever I see the brilliant white and purple of sweet violet.

For a number of years, the two willow oaks (Quercos phellos) in my front yard have been unable to produce acorns. It started around 2008 when strange markings–which appeared to be holes made by a power tool–appeared on both of them at the same time. For several years after that, my oaks stopped producing any acorns, and it’s only been recently that they’ve become fecund again. Even though these acorns are small for trees that are fully mature, I’m thankful that they’re here to provide food for the squirrels in winter.

Lately I’ve been trying to grow sawtooth blackberries (Rubus argutus) from seed. I gathered some wild blackberries a few months ago, put them in pots with soil, placed them in my sunniest window, and waited… and waited… and waited. After three months, I was pretty convinced those berries were never going to germinate. Then, of all things, I looked at my pots last week and saw–could it be?–actual sprouts. You have no idea how thankful I was at that moment, and I’m not even ashamed to admit it.

At the beginning of November I saw this eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) near the edge of a field that’s been left fallow recently. I thoroughly expected him to run as soon as he saw me, but instead he stared at me with the intensity of a laser-beam. All his senses were attuned to my presence, and I couldn’t help wondering what experiences had led him to be so hypervigilant in the presence of humans. Of course cottontail rabbits have every reason to be terrified of everything since only twenty percent of them survive to adulthood. The vast majority are killed by predators, starvation, poisoning or traffic. In short, their lives are a living nightmare due to the way in which industrial society has decimated their habitats, food-supply, and territorial contiguity. Despite that, I was thankful for the trust expressed by this rabbit who allowed me to be in the same space with him for a few quiet moments.

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Found & Lost & Found

Living with a cat is rarely boring. I’ve known this for a long time, but Heidi has reminded me of the fact in numerous ways in the time I’ve had her. Since the two-year-anniversary of her adoption was last month, I’ve been thinking about those early days lately. It was a time during which I was almost certain I would lose my hair or my sanity or both. I didn’t, but it was a hard road that led to the relationship we now have.

First of all, I was given Heidi by a friend of mine who knew I wanted a cat and took the initiative to help me to find one. I wasn’t picky about the details, so she ended up settling on one from Craigslist who was in a family that already had too many other animals and needed to find someone with the time and energy to devote to her. I’m passingly familiar with Craigslist’s reputation in general, so I was bit a hesitant but relented when I realized the amount of paperwork that many shelters require of potential owners. Consequently I found myself with a new cat, and the adventure soon began.

From the beginning Heidi was a handful. She was thankfully housebroken, but that was basically the extent of her socialization. She was extremely confrontational, rarely made eye-contact, tried to attack me, had little patience for my dog Bella, howled in the middle of the night, refused to eat virtually anything, and was generally a pain in the ass. Nonetheless, I realized that a great deal of her attitude was simply the result of being taken from her home–however overcrowded and neglectful it may have been–and being brought to a new place about which she knew nothing and where she had no reason to trust anyone. I understood the difficulty for her, and I gave her time to acclimate accordingly.

The biggest problem turned out to be her nocturnal proclivities. She was extremely active at night and would frequently jump very loudly from one place to another directly outside my bedroom. She would also howl with the most infernal regularity. As much as I didn’t want to resort to it, I eventually got her a kennel and started to use it at night to keep her out of my hair so I could get some sleep, which I desperately needed.

The kennel, however, presented issues of its own, which I soon discovered. Heidi is extremely energetic, and when I would put her in the kennel at night, she would struggle valiantly to resist my efforts. It was really frustrating for me and obviously traumatizing to her, since she had no way of knowing if I would forget about her and leave her there permanently. Of course I never did and never would, but she had no way of knowing that.

So we continued the nightly charade. I would attempt to round her up using whatever means I could, and she would jump from one surface to another attempting to evade capture with the agility of a trained athlete. By the end I would generally find myself frustrated, exhausted and guilty. At the same time she would be disgruntled and ready to take advantage of any opportunity for payback. Tension was rising, and a breaking point was inevitable.

Finally it happened. I’d been making sure to keep Heidi inside, since I was afraid she’d run away and get hurt, and I’d been successful in preventing her departure until this point. Then the day came when I opened the front door, didn’t pay attention to where she was at the time, and promptly saw her bolt into the wild blue yonder with all the speed that a homesick cat can muster. I was sad to see her go, but strangely I was also relieved–relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with her contentiousness, relieved that I wouldn’t have to clean up her litter box, and relieved that I could get a decent night’s sleep for the first time in weeks.

But I was still worried. The first day passed, and my worry was at a manageable level. I figured that she was scouting the terrain and acquainting herself with the neighborhood animals. By the morning of the second day, my worry was at a moderate level. I was beginning to think of how easily she could be run over and how awful I would feel if that happened. By the morning of the third day, I was basically grief-stricken and had resigned myself to the inevitable. I assumed that I had seen the last of her and that our story had come to end almost before it had begun.

And then, on the night of the third day after she’d left, I heard a plaintive meow coming from my backyard. I was at the back door and started searching for her with the intensity of a blue-tick hound. I called her tentatively, and with hardly any hesitation she sauntered up to me from the shadows and rubbed against me as if nothing at all had happened. In that moment, I was more grateful than words could say.

As a result I stopped shoving her in the kennel at night. Instead I kept her in the laundry room and gave her free reign of all its considerable shelving. I also started making a habit of letting her go outdoors whenever she wanted, since I realized that the danger to her was lessened if she had the experience and confidence to handle herself in the outdoors on a daily basis. If I had attempted to force her to stay indoors, she would’ve resented me, escaped at the first available opportunity, and eventually done something stupid because she didn’t have the experience to know to avoid it. And that would’ve defeated the purpose of everything I’d done.

And so a new peace was established between us which has lasted to this day. She comes and goes as she pleases, and I rest easy knowing that she can handle herself with skill and composure in a variety of situations. She sleeps anywhere in the house she wants except my bedroom, and I get a good night’s sleep without having to hear her howling to the moon. I can genuinely say that we’re the best of friends, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though what she gets out of snuggling amongst my underwear is anyone’s guess.

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