Water and Trash on the Sea of Cortez

Do you check out the messy side of the places you visit?


When we travel, tidy arrangements for visitors are much appreciated on my end, but it doesn’t seem right to go away without lifting the carpet. When we went to Disneyland, it was all I could do not to open the “employees only” doors, to peek behind the scenes. In New Orleans, we took side trips to quiet neighborhoods where people live and work, despite tourist-book warnings about safety.

Life is both glorious and grubby. When a man-made place looks perfect, it means the people who constructed and maintain it are hiding something. Maybe it’s a good something. Maybe not. To uncover the secrets of a place, I generally try to find out (1) where the water comes from and (2) where the trash goes.

In Singapore, surely one of the tidiest countries on earth, we learned there are almost no native sources of water. That’s pretty amazing for a country with 5 million people squeezed into an area about half the size of Los Angeles. How do they do it?


Botanical gardens, Singapore

Singaporeans are largely dependent on Malaysia for water. They supplement with catchment basins for rain, water recycling, desalination and set aside estuaries for water storage, but for the most part the water has been, at various times, shipped and piped in.

And trash? Very complicated. There is one landfill, on an artificial island.


Photo source: Singapore NEA

Household recycling is voluntary and complex, since most people live in high rises.


There are a lot of construction cranes in Singapore.

Some industrial waste is repurposed. Waste that can be burned is sent to incinerators, which generate energy; also pollution, but apparently not very much. The ash is transported to the landfill. Their goal is a 60% recycling rate, which is phenomenal given how most of the rest of the world deals with trash.

But enough about Singapore.

This week we visited a small outpost on the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular. Remote.


Trash? Most of it dumped, covered with palm fronds, just out of sight of the resort.


Water comes from the mountains, which also supply Cabo San Lucas, about 4 hours from where we were.


It is filtered for drinking, and post-use, processed in a septic field. Or so we hope.

Efforts in Mexico are underway to capture trash for recycling, but as anyone who walks along storm tossed beaches can see, that battle is only beginning. In an hour of trash-collecting on the uninhabited island of Cerralvo, we gathered a full bag of plastic: water and soda bottles, tooth brushes, shampoo bottles, shoe soles, umbrella handle, twine, tubing, and many dozens of bottle caps.

If you are traveling to the La Paz area and are interested in minimizing the impact of the trash you leave behind, check out this post by Fives on the Fly.


What’s going on in your neighborhood in the water and trash departments?

Four Grasses

The other day the newspaper featured a story about two local guys, Charles Wilson and Omar Ellis, who just launched a cricket flour business.


Not this kind. Photo source: ardanea

Knowing me, and in light of my recent post about the benefits of entomophagy, my husband pre-empted any discussion of the matter, saying if cricket flour appeared in any of our cookies, there would be, well, trouble.


I’m not running out to buy a bag of cricket flour. Marital bliss takes priority. Also, cricket flour doesn’t sound very appealing.


We westerners are pretty specialized in our diets. We depend on four kinds of grasses: wheat, corn, rice and millet.

Also, we’ve got a mind set that insists these crops be grown in a certain way, which is expensive, sterilizes soil, puts bad stuff in water and releases a lot of carbon into the air.

What happens if even one of those four species, is wiped out, despite our best efforts to fertilize, water and inoculate?

Maybe put some money in Cricket Flour stock?

If you try Peruvian chocolate cricket flour, I’ll try it. You first.



eeyore1Peering out from under my rock to mark the day. Groundhog Day, yes (six more weeks of winter here, which is good since we have the lowest snow pack in decades) but before Punxsutawney, the day was known as Imbolc. Halfway between winter solstice and vernal equinox. file0001433376679 Peak Perspective (featured this week on funny bloggers page) provided a poem in honor of the day:

The serpent will come from the hole On the brown Day of Bríde, Though there should be three feet of snow On the flat surface of the ground.

For those who prefer their Gaelic straight:

Thig an nathair as an toll Là donn Brìde, Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd Air leac an làir.*

Now if that doesn’t make one want to go out and do the town …

Happy Imbolc.

file4011270140426   *Translation straight from Wikipedia, which means it must be correct.

Farm versus Factory: Battles for open space

Where are the fights over land use in your part of the world?


Seavey Loop farmland. In the fog: a proposed addition to the city of Springfield, Oregon’s, growth boundary. Agricultural land would be rezoned as industrial.

Cities are required by law to incorporate enough land to accommodate future growth. In accordance with the law, the next town over from mine is proposing expanding its boundary. The proposal swallows up farmland in several regions.


One of the businesses looking to expand if Seavey Loop property is rezoned. Photo source: No Industrial Pisgah

It has set off a firestorm of criticism, particularly in one area with several small farms, that borders an arboretum visited by about 500,000 people a year.


Photo source: No Industrial Pisgah

City officials say that the arboretum, waterways and most farmland will be protected. Farmers, hikers and residents cry foul.

Fights like these are going on everywhere.

“We are like people living in the penthouse of a hundred-story building. Every day we go downstairs and at random knock out 150 bricks to take upstairs to increase the size of our penthouse. Since the building below consists of millions of bricks, this seems harmless enough … Eventually — inevitably — the streams of vacancy we have created in the fabric of the walls below will come together to produce a complete structural collapse.

When this happens — if it is allowed to happen — we will join the general collapse, and our lofty position at the top of the structure will not save us.”  Daniel Quinn, “The Danger of Human Exceptionalism”

With economic growth a priority and population growth on a steady upward trajectory, it’s inevitable that we’ll chip away at forests and farmland.


Still, many are willing to question, and push back.


Proposed expansion area marked in red. Photo Source: Friends of Buford Park

As discouraging as it may seem, small-scale fights like these help everyone think about and remember how important open space, clean water and the survival of other species is.


Farm land, industrial land, from Mt. Pisgah arboretum.

Have you been involved in land use planning? Have you worked to save open space, or to change zoning for or against industrial use?

The World According to Me

Do you have a theory about how the world works? Can you boil it down to a few sentences?


Photo Source: TZA, from flickr

MY THEORY OF THE WORLD: What we think we are:


 The best creatures anywhere, ever.

What we actually are:


Image Source: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE on Flickr

Recently evolved bipeds.

What we think life’s purpose is: IMG_1641a

To improve our lot.

 What our actual purpose is:

Staphylococcus aureau Magnification 20,000

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Photo Source: NIAID

To reproduce. Evolve. Host bacteria.

How we think we improve our lot:


By rearranging things and making ourselves comfortable.

What we actually do:

Copy nature.

What we think we’re uncovering:

planet eclipse

Secrets of the universe.

What we’re actually learning:


Photo Source: USFWS on Flickr

Nature does everything better than we do.

We are bit players. Nature is the boss.

We live on a rock in the middle of nowhere. The important stuff — life, air, breath, companionship, joy, consciousness —  is absolutely free. Our own brains are the most complicated things we’ve ever discovered. We have no idea how this happened, or why. It’s a miracle. And geologically speaking, we’ve just gotten here. What’s next? My suspicion is that whatever is coming, it’s going to be a wild ride.

How do you think the world works?

Nature, Nurture, Free Will and Edward O. Wilson

What is free will, and do we have it?

In February, 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism interrupted a talk by biologist and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson. They ran on stage, yelling “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and threw water at him.


E. O. Wilson (Painting — National Portrait Gallery)

Wilson is a naturalist and an entomologist, specializing in ants (technically a myrmecologist — considered the world’s leading expert). In 1975,  he published a book called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In it, he showed how natural selection influences not only the physical form of animal’s bodies, but also their behavior. No problems there.

In the last chapter, however, he proposed that natural selection also shaped human behavior. He predicted that a new science, “sociobiology,” would connect physical sciences and social sciences, to help us finally understand ourselves. He was critical of some of his Harvard colleagues, including John Rawls, a revered philosopher, whose 600-page A Theory of Justice had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

“We … look in vain at current academic philosophy for the answer to the great question, the great riddle. … Professional, secular philosophy long ago gave up trying to answer the overall question, what is the meaning of life? Most of the history of philosophy is strewn with the wreckage of theories of the conscious mind. [W]hat science promises, and has already supplied in part is that there is a real creation story of humanity, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out, and tested and strengthened, step by step.” April, 2012, lecture by Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

Critics shot right back that Wilson didn’t know what he was talking about. His ideas flew in the face of much of what we thought about reason. It stank of the kind of thinking that brought us forced sterilization, concentration camps and other horrors (hence the protestors at Wilson’s speech). If our biology determines our actions, wasn’t that the same as saying that we do not have free will?

Wilson wasn’t, and isn’t, a proponent of eugenics, a mass murderer or a racist. He has written dozens of books and essays on human behavior, philosophy, natural science, and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. His work and theories deal with, as he readily admits, unsettled questions, and he also admits he might be wrong.

His theories are hotly debated to this day by writers, psychologists, geneticists, philosophers like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.


E.O. Wilson and Bill Clinton, 2007. Photo Source: Class V on Flickr

His big idea, however, that science will help us understand ourselves — has held up. Every, day neurobiologists, geneticists and social psychologists learn more about how brains work, changing our perception of why we behave the way we do.

Even more important is Wilson’s certainty that understanding the biology of behavior will help us finally see how we depend on the physical world, on our environment. This, in turn, will help us reverse our part in the destruction of ecosystems all over the globe.


But — do we have free will? The protestors at Wilson’s 1978 lecture probably felt that standing up for their beliefs was an exercise of free will. Probably the millions of protestors who marched in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack did too. But was it?

My reactions to the protestors holding up “Not Afraid” signs? Pride, inspiration, fervor, indignation — emotions. Here was something black and white, the murder of innocents, defense of free speech. YEAH!


Photo source: Gwenael Piaser on Flickr

I’ve since learned that the French leaders who marched in those protests aren’t exactly proponents of free speech. My response changed to — what was I thinking?

That’s the thing. I wasn’t. My gut feelings hijacked my thoughts. But does that mean my thoughts are always dictated by emotions?

Reading Wilson’s work, and criticism of it, makes it clear that the question of free will is more complicated than most of us lay people can comprehend. There may not be a yes or no answer.

“[T]he … rules of moral reasoning will probably not prove to be aggregated into simple instincts such as bonding, cooperativeness, and altruism. Instead the rules will most probably turn out to be an ensemble of many algorithms, whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices.” (Atlantic Magazine, 1998, “The Biological Basis of Morality”)

But there is big lesson from Wilson, and his water-throwing detractors: we live in a time when we are going to have to hear a lot of difficult truths about ourselves, and make big changes we don’t want to make. We will have to fight the impulse to shut down the voices of people we don’t want to listen to. Whether that’s a decision we make of our own free will, or because we simply feel it’s right, doesn’t really matter.

“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge. … Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments. … The eventual result … will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” April 1998, The Biological Basis of Morality.

Are you an E.O Wilson fan? What do you think about free will?

Further reading:
Consilience, E.O. Wilson
The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
“Some potential contributions of sociobiology to moral psychology and moral education” 

Tribute: Mark Lewis

How many really special people have you met? Place-marker people who help others see their own potential and follow their hearts? How do you honor their deaths?

For many in our town, story teller Mark Lewis is such a person.

He won two Emmy awards, appeared in television shows and as a guest artist on Jay Leno. He provided creative content for Microsoft, Disney Imagineering, Universal Studios, and Silicon Gaming Inc. You can hear him as one of the voices in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.

After settling here, he volunteered countless hours as a teacher and guest performer. He ran Hogwarts summer camps, helped create an arts academy, and made many of us feel like his best friend. He taught journalism students and helped coach another local hero, Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota, for a video to help fight sexual assault on the University of Oregon campus. Mariota called the experience a blessing.


Mark Lewis passed away December 7 of a pulmonary embolism. He was sixty.

Family and hundreds of friends remembered him with stories, jokes, and music. At one point during the memorial, the lights were turned down so we could see sparks when we bit on wint-o-green life savers — magic, Mark used to say. His daughter revealed his fondness for whoopee cushions.

For the weepy, tissue packs were thrown into the crowd. For the heavy criers, it was entire rolls of toilet paper. One of Mark’s mantras to new students: Both feet on the ground. Remember to breathe. Several of the speakers at the memorial invoked it to help get through their stints at the podium.

It’s hard for me to attend memorial services. This one was a reminder of why they are important. As his daughter Katelyn said, it’s a performance. It’s also a reunion of friends, a way to mark a passing so that we remember it, and a reminder of the good things that a particular person brought to us.

Here’s a fitting tribute. You might need a hanky.

Mark Lewis: The Man Who Touched All from Alan Sylvestre on Vimeo.

Thank you Mark.

Did you lose anyone important to you in 2014?


Travel in 2014

Are you a traveler? Where are your favorite places?

This year, as we celebrated thirty years married, we covered a lot of ground.


January, Museum of Modern Art, New York*

Point Lobo

February, Point. Lobos


March, Revelstoke


April, New Orleans


June, Cozumel


Come on in. The water’s fine.


July, Emerald Bay


August, Willamette National Forest


September, Guadalajara.  700-year-old tree.


October, Little Round Top


November, Migrating salmon. Mapleton, Oregon

What do we get from going places for fun?

For me, travel is a wake-up. A trip bookmarks time and place. It humbles.

It’s good to breathe the air somewhere else, and see for myself how big, and how small the world is.

Travel makes me go outside.

Times and places where there aren’t many people, or things made by people, feel the most important: sunset over water, fish in a stream, fog descending over firs.

What does travel do for you? Are there places you want to see in 2015? Before you die?


Happy New Year 

May the year’s journeys be everything you hope for. 


 *”Interior with a Girl,” Picasso

Holiday Cheer

What are you up to for the holidays? Do you celebrate with big parties, or quietly?


My family is kind of private, so even with all of us here, it’s low key.

The family fondness for privacy really hit home this fall when I was on a writers’ retreat in Mexico. The cooks at the facility never stopped talking to each other. It was like cheery background music; and since my Spanish consists of about ten phrases like ‘thank you’ and ‘where is the bathroom,’ it went in one ear and out the other. Still, it was a revelation. Who has that much to say?


During that same retreat, we visited the home of one of our Mexican hosts. He and his wife designed their house with only two bedrooms, so visiting grandchildren could share sleeping quarters. “We’re not like Americans. We don’t like it when the bedroom doors are closed.” I cringed. Our bedroom doors are closed all the time.

But the holidays are not a time to second guess who you are, and how you live. Introvert or extrovert, talkative or quiet, love can grab hold of a heart just the same. Our celebrations, although muted, are big ones this year. We are healthy, and doing things we like to do. You can’t ask for much more.

Here are some nice things, from my house to yours:

1. Our son designs art and science projects for kids. Here is one of the customers (to see the clip, click on “Kiwi Crate” at the bottom):

2. Our daughter is getting ready to volunteer with the Peace Corps. Her placement: the home of bungie jumping.


Vanuatu, in French Polynesia. Some people have all the luck. Image source: Vidiani maps of the world

We are relieved that the bungie jumping, formally called land diving, is not recreational but for sacred purposes and only for guys.

3. A random but lovely story sent by a friend, about a woman in Detroit named Veronika Scott, who got yelled at by a homeless person, and then …

Whether your celebrations are big or small, or even if you’re not celebrating at all,
May the water always run under your bench.


May you always land between the spikes.


And may joy shine through, even when it’s cold.

Christmas Berries



Follow-up Friday: Is this who we are?

What do you think about the torture report?


A follow-up on Guantanamo detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian whose story appeared here in Scribbler’s Playhouse. Dhiab filed suit against the US military, claiming that the methods used in Guantanamo for force-feedings were a form of torture. He was one of six detainees released to Uruguay earlier this month. 


Abu Wa’el Dhiab, ISN (Prisoner No.) 722. Photo Source: Eurasia Review

Dhiab, married and a father of four, was in Afghanistan at the start of the post-9/11 war.  He moved his family — illegally — to Pakistan.


He was arrested in a night raid on his house by Pakistani police in 2002. His captors were probably paid a bounty to turn him over to the U.S. He was not charged with any crime. According to Dhiab, he sold honey, traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to avoid war, protect his family and for medical treatment.

US military court documents from 2008 (later published by the the New York Times) state that Dhiab, his wife and four children, received financial help from Al Qai’da. Some witnesses claimed he specialized in forgery. He’d been condemned to death in absentia by the Assad government. He might — or might not — have been part of a Sunni terrorist cell. Dhiab was deemed a threat by US military authorities, who recommended that he be detained indefinitely.

In 2009, that recommendation was reversed. He was cleared for release.

It was a struggle to find a country that would take him. Since he was condemned to death in Syria, he couldn’t return there.

The Uruguayan President, Jose Mujica, a former political prisoner himself, agreed to take six of the detainees who had been cleared, including Abu Wa’el Dhiab.


Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay. Known for his frugal habits, Mujica spent 13 years as a political prisoner, two of those years in solitary confinement. About the Guantanamo detainees, he said. “It’s a very traumatic situation, I can’t transmit how they must feel, some of us have lived through similar things.” Quote from The Guardian. Photo by Vince Alongi

Their release was delayed by US paperwork; and also to avoid it becoming an issue in Uruguayan elections. There are only about 300 Muslims in Uruguay and not everyone was comfortable offering sanctuary to the detainees.

Once the election was over, arrangements were made, and the transfer went smoothly.

Of the six released prisoners, Dhiab arrived in the worst shape. He’s 6’5″, 148 pounds, confined to a wheel chair. He will be hospitalized for awhile. One of his four children died during his incarceration. He is working to have the rest of his family join him.

* * *

When they were released from Guantanamo, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, three other Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian, flew on a U.S. military jet in shackles, “ear protectors” and handcuffs.

When the detainees landed, the Uruguayans insisted that the shackles be removed and that they walk off the plane as free men. They were warmly greeted. They are being housed by the local union, and have been offered jobs.

One, Abedlhadi Omar Faraj, wrote a letter thanking the Uruguayans:

“Were it not for Uruguay, I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today. … It is difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us.”

*  *  *

On torture: we’ll never know if the US courts would have ruled that Dhiab’s treatment was a form of torture, but the recent congressional report on torture in other US prisons is pretty damning.

Scribbler sides with Ronald Reagan, who signed the Convention against Torture. That document declares that torture can be used under “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever.”

Reagan’s aide and George W. Bush’s point man in Iraq Paul Bremer also said: “A major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are – criminals – and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”

John McCain might have put it best this month when he said torture “produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence” and that “we can and we will” win the war on terrorism without torture.  … [T]his question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

A holiday wish: that more leaders follow McCain’s lead and speak out against torture in any form, and that President Obama fulfills his promise to close Guantanamo.

What are your holiday wishes for the world?