The Lonely Corn Field

July 13, 2012 by Categorized: Restorying the Sacred.

Once upon a time, and for as long a time as most could remember, the field was a bustling neighborhood. All manner of plants lived in it. Around them lived teh insects that pollinated them, the minerals that fed them, and they animals they fed. Season after season they cycled ’round. It kept the field interesting and made it feel alive.

Then one day, as these things are reckoned, one of the Upright Folk came to the field and tore up all the plants who lived there. In their place, ze planted Corn. Just Corn. Ze planted Corn the next year, too, and the year after. The year after that, ze cleared out an adjoining field and planted Corn there, too.

Around the edges of the field, the plants and animals and insects and minerals who remained looked on in dismay. They loved Corn, but two fields filled with Corn and nothing else? Who ever heard of such a thing? They felt sorry for the animals and insects who weren’t getting fed, for the minerals who’d packed up and slunk away, and even for Corn itself, who must be lonely with only itself to talk to.

After many years of this, a stranger came to the field. A bacteria. That bacteria had a look around and made straight for the field. “I’m mighty hungry,” it said.

“What do you like to eat?” asked that generous corn.

“Corn,” said that hungry stranger.

The plants and insects and animals and minerals on the fringes looked on in horror. They had among them plants who could’ve given Corn a warning about that hungry bacteria, minerals who could slow it down, and insects who could eat it right up. But they could do nothing. Some simply could no longer enter the field. Others found the all-corn environment quite hostile to their needs. They could only watch as that hungry bacteria ate up their friend Corn.

When the Upright One saw what had happened, ze wept and cursed hir fate. Ze vowed next time to plant special Corn that had been made to resist the

Corn fields with path

“Corn Fields” by Victor Bayon. Some rights reserved.

hungry bacteria. The community on the fringe shook their heads. Ze hadn’t learned. Another hungry bacteria, or virus, or fungus, would come along soon. Preparing to face your next opponent by making yourself invulnerable to the last one? Who ever heard of such a thing?

At last, after many years, the field was exhausted. And Corn was exhausted. The farmer called the soil “dead” and abandoned the field.

The community began to return. Slowly at first, creeping in at the edges so the Upright One wouldn’t notice. Then in droves as the minerals spiffed up the soil and the pollinators started carrying messages again. Once again it was like once upon a time.

And I am happy to say that when the Upright One saw the field thriving again, ze learned about companion plantings and crop rotation now only sees fields of endless Corn in hir nightmares.

The field was a bustling neighborhood again. The field felt alive again.

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Disturbing the Bones of the Beloved Dead

March 12, 2012 by Categorized: Nature in the News.

Now don’t forget me, little darling, while I’m growing old and gray.
Just a little thought before I’m going far away.
I’ll be waiting on the hillside on the day that you will call,
On the sunny side of the mountain, where the rippling waters fall.

- “Sunny Side of the Mountain,” old folk song


This month’s issue of Sierra features “Move Not Those Bones,” a heart-wrenching story about a consequence of mountaintop removal coal mining that is often overlooked: the destruction of centuries-old family cemeteries nestled among the wooded hollows of the Appalachian Mountains.

Making the land uninhabitable is only one consequence of destroying it to pick it clean of coal. Burying drainages with rubble causes flooding, just as releasing particulates into the air and poisons into the water leads to a variety of illnesses. A 2011 West Virginia University study shows that communities near mountaintop-removal sites have a cancer rate double that of more distant towns. On top of all that, mountaintop-removal mining is destroying the people of Appalachia’s connection to their history. Most of the cemeteries here predate the arrival of the coal companies; some were established before the founding of the country.

Many of the small communities scattered throughout Appalachia, where mountaintop-removal mining has done so much damage already, face the destruction of cemeteries that have been part of the wooded wilderness for centuries, left to become overgrown and sometimes forgotten as younger generations leave the area. These grave sites might not be officially registered or marked on any map, leaving them vulnerable to destruction from mining companies that buy up property and indiscriminately strip the landscape bare in an effort to reach the valuable coal deposits underneath. What minimal laws there are protecting cemeteries only apply to registered sites marked off by a fence and regularly maintained by a caretaker, and the historical value of family cemeteries can be difficult to prove, especially in cases where graves are unmarked or headstones have fallen into disrepair.

People like Dustin White and Larry Gibson, whose anti-mining environmental activism in West Virginia centers around the protection of family cemeteries and grave sites, have been marginally successful in protecting some hallowed ground. These cemeteries remain like small islands, grave-studded copses of trees surrounded by acres of bare rock and debris. They are often inaccessible to family members who want to visit the graves of their deceased loved ones. The proposal suggested by coal companies to consolidate family graveyards in a single public cemetery, freeing up mountains for demolition, would likely mean only moving a few remaining headstones and maybe a dirt sample, as some of the older graves would be almost impossible to exhume.

Mountaintop Mining: Aerial View 5
Image courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

It is a painful irony that so many of these small cemeteries were originally planted on high ground because such places were considered especially safe and sacred.

It’s no accident that many Appalachian family cemeteries are on the tops of mountains or other high ground. People wanted to be buried high so that floodwaters couldn’t reach them, ideally in graves facing east to catch the morning sun. In the past, mountaintops represented safety. Today they represent easy access to coal.

My family’s roots are firmly planted in the rural, working-class coal country of central Pennsylvania where for generations small communities have thrived, or floundered, because of the mining industry. There is an uneasy relationship with the influence that coal companies have had in the region over the decades. Traveling east to west along the turnpike over beautiful forested mountains, it isn’t uncommon to see billboards celebrating coal as a source of energy and jobs for a region that has often struggled with poverty, but with little acknowledgement that mining operations can often make these landscapes dangerous or even uninhabitable for workers and their families. This cognitive dissonance has led to an abiding sense of bitterness for many people in the area that once led Obama to make his now infamous comment about folks in coal country clinging to their bibles and their guns. As flippant as that comment was, it’s not entirely untrue. Central Pennsylvania, like much of rural Appalachia, tends to have very conservative, very Christian small-town communities.

Yet reverence for the land where our ancestors are buried is something common to almost all spiritual traditions, transcending the dogma of any one religion. I never knew my great-grandparents or even my grandparents all that well, but there are certainly ancestors of mine somewhere among the unmarked graves of Pennsylvania coal country. Those graves were dug reverently by conservative Christians who, though they would probably be pretty uncomfortable that their great-granddaughter has turned out to be a tree-hugging dirt-worshipper, nonetheless wanted their final resting places to face the rising sun. Though it might seem impossible for the modern Pagan to find common cause with conservative Christians, stories like this show us how poignant the grief is for all of us, regardless of our religion, when faced with the loss of history and our connection to the past as the lands of our beloved dead are desecrated by callous self-interest and exploitation.

In the image of those lingering islands of trees protecting old, half-forgotten cemeteries in the midst of miles of desert-like strip-mined mountains, we can also discover a poignant metaphor for the spiritual work of reconnection and restoration:

Dustin White looks back at the clump of trees that rings the small island of Cook cemetery. “The good thing about having a cemetery up here is, that’s where things will start over,” he says, already looking forward to the day when Cook Mountain is mined out and the reclamation work starts. “The seeds from these trees will replant the forests here.”

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News & Link Round Up: April 2011

April 25, 2011 by Categorized: Nature in the News.

Welcome to our first round up of links for nature & earth centred news, interest stories, blog posts, podcast episodes and much more!


A tornado ripped through the Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport in Missouri Friday night. The airport was mostly back to business this Sunday morning. The tornado also damaged many homes but oddly (and thankfully) caused no deaths or major injuries.


A new study shows that many children in England know very little about where their food comes from. Including thinking at pumpkins grow on trees and that cucumbers grow in the ground. Some are encouraging gardening to be taught at more schools.


The Great Elephant Poo Poo Paper Co. sells a unique product: Paper made of elephant poop. The owner of the company tells AOL news how his products are safe, sanitary and environmentally friendly.


The hole in the ozone layer is getting some news coverage lately. Researches have found that the hole in the ozone at the southern pole is having adverse effects on weather patterns in the southern hemisphere. Australia seems to be the most affected.


Plant life growing on planets orbiting red dwarf (dim) stars might grow black and grey foliage to help absorb more light.


Matt Walker, editor of BBC Nature Online wrote a wonderful blog post celebrating the humble mushroom.


A Coast Guard report has pointed the finger at poor training and lacklustre emergency preparedness contributed to the Gulf oil spill.


Professional chefs are creating ways to make their kitchens greener. Going beyond your typical recycling box, they are trying to reduce waster of all kinds, included wasted foodstuff.


The good people here at No Unsacred Place as well as at news sources all over the world have been following the debate over Mother Earth’s Rights.


Earth Day has come and gone. Wonderful coverage can be found over at the Wild Hunt Blog, Star Foster reminds us to love our Momma, Cam Mather encourages us to celebrate the day at home, and National Geographic posted 20 truly beautiful photographs in honour of the day. Discovery news also honoured Earth Day with photographs and stunning video.


On Earth Day New York state officials announced the purchase of Long Island’s pine barrens to be protected. This land will be preserved for naturalists, researchers and hikers. It is also a source of pure drinking water.


Science Daily brings us a story about how incense might be good for us. A team of researchers suggest this might mean a whole new class of medicine for depression and anxiety.


A disease that attacks wheat, called Wheat Rust, is causing some some serious concern. Wheat Rust has decimated harvest in parts of north Africa, the middles East, the Caucasus and Central Asia.


The podcast The Pagan Homesteader posted a special episode on dealing with our waste safely and sustainably.


The CBC considers the pros and cons of green power projects in Canada and the hurdles they will face in the future.


Hundreds of small islands seem to appear … and then disappear. Scientists are now beginning to map this very phenomenon; some 657 new barrier islands have been counted.


Wildfires continue to rage in Texas. There is hope that the right weather might assist firefighters combat the flames.


Britain’s beaches have been found to be dirtier than last year’s survey. This is largely due to folks flushing small garbage items down the toilet.


Did we miss something? If you have found a noteworthy article, news item or blog post please post the link in the comments section of this article.

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One Year After Deepwater Horizon

April 19, 2011 by Categorized: Nature in the News.

One year ago tomorrow, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven people and spilling 4.9 million barrels of oil, and an equivalent volume of gas, into the sea over the course of three months. For weeks after the disaster, we watched in horror as thick red-brown slicks seeped their way across the blue waters of the Gulf towards fragile shorelines, like blood leaking from a gaping, infected wound. Reports rolled in of dead and dying fish, marine mammals and sea birds coated in black sludge and vulnerable marshlands choked with slime, while debates roared over who should be held responsible for the damage and who could be trusted with the clean-up.

Recovery in the Gulf

One year later, shares a review of clean-up and restoration efforts over the last twelve months, assessing the damage that’s been done and the effects likely to stretch into the future.

Of the nearly 5 million barrels of oil and 9 million liters of chemical dispersants released by BP into the Gulf of Mexico last year, approximately 25% remains unaccounted for, with another 50% forming surface slicks, sinking to the seafloor, washing up on beaches or “dissolving” in the last twelve months.

Scientists report that clean-up and a full assessment of the damages may take another 40 years or more: “[O]il and dispersants are toxic to both shallow and deep ecosystems, according to Larry McKinney […], who predicts the spill’s effects will last for decades.”

Long-term effects will be harder to detect, but more insidious. If oil persists in ocean and marsh sediments, plants and animals will be exposed to its effects, and it will inevitably enter the food chain. “Some bird populations haven’t recovered more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska due to food chain disruption,” says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington DC.

Studies have shown that dispersed oil is more toxic than oil or dispersant alone, and dispersant chemicals had never before been used at depth, so the effects are not yet known. Scientists are also still sorting out the effects of oil on the deep-sea environment.

In the meantime, deep water oil drilling continues in the Gulf of Mexico, after the federal government lifted the drilling moratorium back in mid-October 2010. “We will drill in deep water because that is where the oil is, and we need the oil,” says Tad Patzek, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas, Austin. Ten new permits for drilling have already been approved since last year’s disaster, with three bills pending in the House of Representatives that would require increases in off-shore drilling on both the Atlantic and West coasts.

Safety regulations for deep water oil rigs continue to lag behind industry practices, while the newly-renamed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) lacks adequate funding, staffing and resources to establish and enforce effective regulatory policies.

A Pagan Retrospective

Last year, I reported on the BP oil spill over at Pagan+Politics:

As a Pagan, the natural world rests at the heart of my spiritual practice, but as a pacifist I feel compelled to turn a critical eye on my own relationship with the earth and its ecosystems to ensure I have not come to rest comfortably with the notion of nature as a luxury item, a religious accessory. To treat the natural world as a commodity or convenience, even if a soul-nourishing one, would be to demean or reduce it, to deny its power, to dishonor it in all of its gory, glorious complexity. In other words, to view the natural world as a luxury is to commit a particular kind of violence against it. We have seen the very real ramifications of this subtle violence in the past few weeks. Few of us today live in a world where we must face the harsh obstacles of untamed wilderness, though many of us are daily confronted with the burdens and injustices of civilization. It can be as hard to care about the tragedies affecting fish and birds a thousand miles away, as it is difficult to appreciate nature in our own backyards for more than its aesthetic and therapeutic qualities.

Yet it is my conviction that in order to remedy our abusive, exploitative relationship with the very earth that sustains us, we must learn again how to live as part of the natural world with awe, with reverence, and with love. It is easy to feel a tug of pity as I watch the pathetically struggling gull gasping in slime, or to feel sentimental regret over the thought that my partner and I might never be able to follow in my parents’ footsteps and see the Everglades as they once were. But there is real sorrow, and rage, when I think on the human species as an animal of nature in its own right, capable of selfishness, ignorance and destruction on such a scale. Confronted with this reality, and the reality of the natural world as itself bloated with strife and death, I swing between despair, and the ugly wish that Mama Earth rid herself of us once and for all and get on with her life. The only thing that can resolve this for me — the only way I can make peace with this reality of the natural world — is through love.

It is a message that bears repeating now, twelve months after the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon spill, when so many other political injustices and disasters have intervened and divided our attentions.

Natural disasters in Haiti and Japan have rallied Pagans from all over the world to contribute their time and money towards recovery and recuperation, and the outpouring of support (headed especially by Peter Dybing and his campaign for Doctors Without Borders this past spring) have been inspiring. Yet aside from the human toll such tragedies take, there are deeply troubling environmental consequences as well. On-going efforts in Japan to prevent a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station, for instance, involve pumping tens of thousands of tons of contaminated water into the ocean.

When faced with natural disasters that wreak havoc on human communities, we often respond valiantly by pledging our time, money, energy and support. Are we as willing and able to do the same when confronted with man-made disasters that put ecosystems, landscapes and other nonhuman communities at risk? Do we engage in the difficult, daily work of establishing the cultural infrastructures and social organizations necessary to respond to environmental crises with swiftness and efficacy? Do we act on and live out our love for the earth that creates and sustains us through advocacy and engagement?

Or do we continue to treat nature as a luxury? A regrettable loss, perhaps, but not worth the uproar or the effort?


The Nature Conservancy is calling for large-scale, long-term restoration efforts of the Gulf of Mexico’s waters and wetlands, funded by the oil spill fines due to the federal government from BP.

Recent survey findings show strong support for this decision. A survey, conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of The Nature Conservancy from April 12-14, 2011 among 2,018 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, showed that:

  • 79% of U.S. adults did not know that the fines BP pays will be directed back to the federal government’s treasury instead of directly to the Gulf states, and
  • 87% think that the fines BP will have to pay for the oil spill should go back to funding improvement of Gulf states and restoration of the lands and waters of the Gulf.

Restoration would include not only oil spill clean-up, but “numerous projects to restore oyster reefs, seagrass beds, coral reefs and coastal forests and marshes,” and would require cooperative efforts from a number of organizations, non-profits, businesses, universities and local communities.

Check out The Nature Conservancy’s website to learn more and get involved.

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