Monday, October 25, 2010

Abundance and Diminishment, Diminishment and Abundance

This afternoon I shopped at Whole Foods, the aisles just brimming over with the beauties of the world: rare and tasty cheeses, the finest carefully-chosen organic vegetables glowing in artfully arranged piles, forty different artisan breads made by hand from stone-ground flour, Fair Trade chocolates from around the world (chocolate and lavender, chocolate and chile, chocolate and espresso beans). The food of gods and goddesses, and I'm one of them, grateful and amazed, even as I know that this abundance can only be temporary, in a world of such disparities, where so few have so much and so many have so little.

When I was a kid growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, we shopped at the A&P grocery on 9th St - Wonder Bread, Hostess Twinkies, old wilted broccoli (who wanted fresh vegetables when canned and frozen lasted so much longer?), Folger's instant coffee.

"Organic" didn't exist.

The Wabash River flowed through town and an abandoned park on the river was my favorite haunt, but the river was so polluted that in all my years there I never dreamed of touching the water. Now my hometown has a restaurant where all the food has been grown or raised within one hundred miles, people catch and eat fish from the river, and The Nature Conservancy is working to protect the riparian forests of the Wabash which is - to my astonishment - the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, an ecological treasure, a jewel.

Meanwhile, every day there is another story about the disappearing fish stocks in the world's oceans. Meanwhile the song birds are coming back from migration in fewer and fewer numbers. Meanwhile...well, you know the stories, you read them too. When I'm with a group of like-minded friends, sometimes we trade these stories, a badge of our shared despair. I've begun to wonder if this is helpful, for the song birds or for us.

When I was working in Southeast Alaska this summer, I saw abundance that seemed far beyond anything I'd ever known. The inlets and waterways were filled with diving murrelets (endangered south of Alaska), auklets and puffins; the streams were full of silver salmon; humpback whale spouts could be seen in all directions; every kelp bed was filled with flipper-waving sea otters. On land the deer barely bothered to lift their heads when we entered their rich sedge meadows; bear sign was everywhere (I would have been happy with a little less bear sign); and sandhill crane pairs trumpeted from their nests in secret muskegs.

It was wonderful and encouraging, and it would be easy to stop here, to write a few elegiac words about how the whole world must have once been like this - but it's not so simple. Here are a few examples of the not-simplicity of the abundance I saw....

Until a few years ago, there had been no sea otters in Sea Otter Sound for a hundred years or more - they had all been hunted out by the Russians and the English and anyone else who appreciated the warmth and value of otter-skin coats. Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and tireless work by biologists and others, they're back, more every year, but the local people say that they're eating all the shellfish, and the shellfish beds are barren and empty now.

The bears and deer move through a landscape that has been decimated by some of the most rapacious clear-cutting ever seen on this planet. The Tongass National Forest was, between the late 1960's and the late 1990's, nothing short of a national sacrifice area, its vast dark forests of old growth hemlock and Sitka spruce merely fodder for two huge pulp mills on the mainland, its landscape scarred by thousands of miles of roads. Our national heritage was sold for a pittance, a tiny fraction of its worth, to keep those two mills turning out toilet paper and newspaper - toilet paper no doubt sold at the A&P in Terre Haute, Indiana - and to keep the owners of those mills providing large donations to Alaskan politicians.

A small group of activists. local subsistence-based people, biologists and foresters fought to stop, or at least mitigate, the damage, and they won. The cutting on Prince of Wales Island has largely stopped (except, ironically, on native-owned lands.....that's a whole other story).

One biologist I know, who has been working on Prince of Wales for eighteen years, said he had never seen so many bears before. The bears are coming back, the forests are coming back, with each storm the land reclaims another road.

Some of the salmon I saw in such abundance are hatchery stock, moving upstream to where they were born, where they will be milked of their eggs before being hit over the head and their carcasses dumped nearby. The bears like this a lot.

Our fingerprints are everywhere, doing good, doing harm, one step forward, one step back. Sometimes we don't even know if it's good or harm, or both. Even as I write this on this rainy night, I look out on to the dark slopes of Mount Tamalpais. I am spending the winter here again because I love being in a place where open space is a stone's throw from where I sleep, where mountain lions and red-shouldered hawks are my neighbors.

Mt. Tam from outside my window

But Mount Tamalpais was - and continues to be - saved from urban sprawl by generations of wealthy or influential (or both) peope who fought and fought to protect it, some of whom are probably shopping at Whole Foods right now, debating with themselves about which fish is most "sustainably harvested" for their Saturday dinner.

The world of owls and whales and otters may be in big trouble. I suspect it is. We, goofy troublesome primates that we are, may be in very big trouble, and I'm almost certain we are. But some of us have the will and energy to fight for the world, and the world has immense powers of recuperation, of renewal, even as we mess with it in our various ways. I don't even pretend to understand what's going on, but I suspect that abundance and diminishment, kindness and rapaciousness, damage and renewal walk together.

I do know this: the rain and wind that soaks the hills tonight and that brings such misery to those without homes in the streets of San Francisco will also bring the salmon up the streams to dance their old dance above their redds again. And the willow saplings planted along those streams by a hundred volunteers will take root in the wet, take hold, begin to grow.

P.S. Let's continue the conversation...if you post an online comment, I promise to respond.


  1. Are comments private to you, or public to all your readers? For a shy person, it is necessary to know before posting comment

  2. Dearest Firenze, old childhood chum, friend, and fellow "goofy troublesome primate." (Only a troublesome primate would try to convince her friend to unknowingly sit on a bidet without explanation. Yes, Firenze, you were troublesome to exploit my ignorance. Are you troublesome still?) I have truly enjoyed escaping life's required readings: reflecting on your experiences and releasing my own mind's musings, at least for a moment. And another. And another.

  3. Comments are public...the thought is that the comments can be a continuation of the "conversation" started in the essay. You can post anonymously if that is more comfortable (look under "comment as" at the bottom of your text). And yes, Carter, I'm still troublesome, but hopefully in more helpful ways!

  4. Firenze, are a treasure, I want you to know that

  5. So what if, what if, what if the quantum physicists are right and that what we experience is the direct result of what we think? Then it behooves we troublesome primates to think more clearly, with authority and resolve, that we can change the rape of our dear Earth, thought by thought, and that is it up to each individual to do so. Thoughts of abundance, thoughts of harmony, thoughts of selflessness and peace and kindness and beauty and strength and power. It takes discipline, thought by thought, to move from diminishment to abundance. Our individual experience should be most telling as to where we are in that process. Not goody-two-shoes thinking with Scarlett O'Hara lurking just out of sight. But courageous and forceful thinking that acknowledges (in Greek - to be grateful for) the limitless abundance of Spirit expressed as spiritual man and the universe.

  6. For as long as our planet remains, it will overflow with abundance. The abundance just isn't guaranteed to be primate-friendly. Unfortunately, we don't yet understand how to keep our world a primate-friendly place. The long-term ramifications of halting one occurrence of diminishment and decreasing another area of abundance are still a mystery. I'd like to think that our increasing knowledge-base enables us to make progressively wiser decisions, but the complexity may still exceed comprehension. Should we act for the future benefit of our world without a deep knowledge of what we're doing? Is it any better to simply wait and react to the imbalances that we seem to have caused?

  7. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far, and a special thanks to Glenn and Colleen for your thoughtful offerings. I think maybe part of what I was exploring in the essay (and I couldn't have said this before) is the possibility that whether we see abundance or diminishment at any given moment may be as much about ourselves and our views than about the immense mystery of the world-as-it-is. That said, as a person at the front lines of disappearing species and ecosystems, I am aware that even though we don't know what to do, and even though our views may always be partial, compassionate and clear action (even something as small as getting our of our vehicles for a day) is always a gift to the world and to ourselves. And although despair is widespread these days, I also hope we can begin to see that sharing and feeding each other's despair (based on partial views) may be less than helpful. And on the other hand (there is always another hand) being present with each other's despair is part of compassionate action in the world.

  8. A friend directed to this interesting essay on close to/the same subject written by a Buddhist scholar. Thought I would share it:

  9. Firenze - again, as almost always, I am in complete harmony with everything you said above. What I didn't say earlier is that thought by thought must move to action by action. So that includes getting out of our cars for a day and turning off the laundry room lights and financially supporting worthwhile organizations and causes, while standing with abundance in the middle of diminishment and listening when a friend weeps at the destruction of her favorite stand of cacti as the developers move in. Awareness and active compassion as one surveys the "bleakening" landscape, knowing that, no matter what our eyes tell us, there is much more going on unseen. It is calmness with precision and compassion with wisdom that serve us best. Glenn Portman? I LOVED seeing your name and reading your comments here. It has been decades. Be in contact if you choose at

  10. Thanks for posting the additional URL, Firenze!
    We may not be able to pass on faultless recipes for a better world, but we can keep working on those we have, and, more importantly, strive to be people of environmental good taste. If we and succeeding generations (if so inspired) maintain a strong, humble desire to keep ourselves and our planet healthy, whatever that progressively means, perhaps it isn't naive to trust that this decade's best-of-class concoctions will be carefully and efficaciously reformulated as needs arise.
    (P.S. Hi Colleen!)

  11. Is it too pessimistic to think that perhaps the only way for our Earth to survive is for us "troublesome primates" to do ourselves in--the sooner the better, before too many other beautiful species perish forever?
    Is it perhaps arrogant of us to think that our survival is important? I want desperately for my grandsons to enjoy life and I know that they cannot be truly happy unless they know that their children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren will also be happy. Do the rapists of the planet not love their grandchildren? Can we begin to realize that it is better to have 1 grandchild that is happy than to spawn dozens that will be left holding an empty bag? There is definitely a limit. I admire your poignant optimism that creates this thoughtful venue.
    Lew Hackleman

  12. Hey Florence, talking with Glenn and his mom about your blog and his comments and had to check it out. Ahhh yes, "to do or not to do" along with what, when and how to make a desired difference. When I'm on the edge of depression--it all seems so hopeless and I'm ready to volunteer to become extinct. But even then, I can look up at bright yellow and orange leaves against a brilliant blue sky and be in awe of the beauty this world offers me in any moment in which I choose to look. The pond Glenn built us this summer is providing water to all sorts of critters including our cats adding to our visual and auditory delight. The here and now does not seem so bad--our lives continue better than ever before as you described with fruitful abundance all around us. While we hear of so much struggle and strife, it really does not touch us where we are. Yet my heart cries out when I hear stories or see pictures of some environmental devastation. Even the dead animals I see daily on the roadsides cause me say a pray for their life and death. Another nature guardian/friend, Pat Tulhoske, here in Missouri also has a blog which gives me some perspective at
    As to future generations, I think of our 14 yr old son--what values have we passed on to him? I remember being very afraid at his age of nuclear war. Is he afraid of loosing the earth another way? Again, not that I can see as he has all he needs and more in the present. Snowboard season is the next big thing on his mind and thinking about going to college in Colorado so he can snowboard there.
    The present, past, and future. We shall see what we shall see. In the mean time thoughtful attention is always welcome.