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Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Healing Power of the Ocean

Today I set aside my paints and canvas and took a friend on a hike to one of my favorite shorelines along Maine's Midcoast. When I woke this morning, I knew I needed to be by the sea. I needed some clarity in one area of my life and knew I needed to be outside to get that clarity. Yes, even though the temperature was well below freezing and a snowstorm was predicted I wanted to be at the shore. To think, to meditate, to do my version of praying, to see what visions might come in response to my questions. My friend Eric called me this morning to tell me his girlfriend had left him so I invited him to come too. I hoped the sea would work its magic on both of us.

Whenever I have decisions to make, serious questions to ponder (usually romantic ones), or need space to allow answers to unfold, I go to the sea. Walking along the shore, paddling a sea kayak, or sailing somehow seems to allow clarity to unfold in my mind. I go to the sea too when I have grieved a loss, such as the death of my father or the end of a long term relationship. My friend Alison tells me I go to the sea during these times because I'm a Scorpio, a water sign, but I'm not sure if I buy that* ;) Perhaps it's simply some form of genetic memory.

Recent archaeological digs have found that the ancient Celts of Scotland and England regularly gave offerings to the sea, rivers, and lakes. No one really knows what prayers or questions the offerings held...we just know that at sacred sites througout Britain, the ancients offered gifts of precious possessions to the waters around them. My lineage is mostly Scot, Irish, and English so perhaps, through some quirk of biology, that urge to make prayers to the sea survived and resurfaced in me.

Eric and I quietly walked the 2 miles through the woods and over the marsh, just taking in the stillness of Nature. I could tell he was hurting, badly, so I just offered support by my presence rather than with words (and for anyone who knows me, that's a feat). We heard the crashing waves about 100 yards before seeing the beach. The scent of the salt water made me feel like I was home.

The beach here is quite sandy, but with a granite outcrop near the trail's exit. Rocky islands loomed gray off in the distance. Gulls drifted and played on the shore breeze and occasionally the silence was cut by one of their shrill cries.

Eric and I walked the shore for a bit, then climbed a ways up the granite hill to contemplate the Atlantic....and our perceived problems. We meditated together, then he talked a little about his girlfriend of 8 months. My heart nearly broke for him, going through a grieving, and at this time of the year. But as we sat and watched the water he began to admit the breakup was probably for the best. She was a city girl, he an outdoors, country guy and they could just no longer reconcile the differences. His love of sea kayaking drove her nuts. Her love of shopping in the big city did the same to him. The glimmer of healing started.

Perhaps the ocean heals us because of its vastness and its age. Physically, it's bigger than we can even imagine, covering over 2/3 of the planet. And its age is perhaps billions of years old. The ocean basins have shifted around, but the ocean itself is almost as old as the planet. The first life appears to have originated in the oceans well over a billion years ago. 100 million years ago, large reptiles like the pleisosaurs swam in the oceans. Its age dwarfs a human lifespan and makes me and my "problems" seem insignificant in comparison.

I left Eric and wandered the shore to ponder my own questions, romantic and otherwise. Unfortunately the lightning bolt of clarity didn't strike me as I'd hoped it would. Instead as I walked along the all-sand beach, I said to the Universe that if I ran into a stone in the next several yards I'd tell the stone my requests and throw it (and them) into the sea. And within a few feet was a lone, fist-sized rock on this beach of sand. I picked it up, cradled it with both hands, and told it my three requests. And tossed it into the sea where it belonged.

An hour later, Eric and I walked the two miles back to my car, both of us somehow feeling better. My Celtic ancestors would probably understand.

*There are actually 13 signs of the Zodiac, not 12, so in reality I'm a Libra!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Different Take on Climate Warming

A little earlier this week I discussed the changing climate with a new friend of mine. His background is not in earth sciences but in medicine, so he wanted to get my take on the issues surrounding a changing climate. I could tell he was a bit skeptical about some of the doom-and-gloom predictions, as are so many people. We just don't want to believe we can have an effect on something so large as our Earth. But for me, knowing that the global climate is changing doesn't make me panic-stricken. Concerned, yes, panicked, no.

We talked about the distant past on Earth, 65+ million years ago, back in the Cretaceous when global carbon dioxide levels were 4-5 times what they are now. Yes, the climate was warmer and yes, life on Earth and in the ocean thrived on a warmer planet with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Given that, he asked, why should we be concerned with a changing (warming) climate today? Won't life thrive under warmer conditions?

Yes, it will...eventually.

It finally occurred to me that what's not talked about much in the media is the rapidity of the changing climate versus the relatively slow rate of species adaptations that we see around us.

The species on this planet now have evolved, for the most part, in a climate that is overall cooler and lower in carbon dioxide than existed during the dinosaurs' times. The climate we have now took millions of years to cool from its Creatceous high, and that overall gradual cooling allowed species enough time to evolve in response. Some species didn't survive the cooling climate. Other, new species evolved that were better-adpted. But this all took many millions of years.

The pace of warming today is fairly rapid, much more rapid than scientists even 20 years ago were predicting thanks to our reliance on carbon-rich fuels. The warming is more rapid than what my professors and I, working on glaciers in Alaska and Greenland in the 1990s, ever thought could be possible. So the biggest problem for plants and animals really is that the climate may be changing faster than those species can evolve to cope with that change. Life on Earth will survive our warming planer, but it will look very different from what we know today.

We may have to make peace with some amount of species loss. This isn't doom-and-gloom but reality. Humans have impacted the Earth so much already, not just in terms of greenhouse gases but also by our ever-expanding human populations, that it may already be too late for some plants and animals. Should we try to minimize the impacts? Yes, definitely, but we must also face the reality that with humans around, the Earth won't be what it was 5 million years ago. It doesn't have to be bad with us here, but it will be different.

Pika on granite boulder, Mt. Evans, Colorado

If we choose to try to save as much plant and animal life as possible, we may need to take a more active role in managing ecosystems. For example, the pika, a small, alpine rodent living in North America, cannot survive in warm temperatures. With climate warming, scientists are noting that pika populations are dwindling in places such as California and the Great Basin of the United States. Because pikas can't move from one mountain range to another themselves, if humans want these cute rabbit relatives to survive, we may need to take it upon ourselves to relocate them. This is just one example of the questions we face as the climate warms.

We can (and in my mind, should) take responsibility for minimizing our impact on the environment as much as possible, not just for the plants and animals, but for us too. Whether we realize it or not, our survival is intertwined with our environment: we are a part of nature, and for our own survival, we need a world that is healthy in order to survive as a species.

The real question is: how will we as humans cope while the climate comes to some sort of new equilibrium? We are adaptable, perhaps the most adaptable species on the planet. We have some fairly advanced thinking skills that we will need to employ to solve the problems as they arise. A changing climate will mean that we will have to learn to work together for perhaps the first time in our history. Can we do this? Yes, I believe we can.

Will we? Well, that's up to us...

For  more information, see:

  1. Joseph A. E. Stewart, John D. Perrine, Lyle B. Nichols, James H. Thorne, Constance I. Millar, Kenneth E. Goehring, Cody P. Massing, David H. Wright.Revisiting the past to foretell the future: summer temperature and habitat area predict pika extirpations in CaliforniaJournal of Biogeography, 2015; DOI:10.1111/jbi.12466