“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau
I’m downsizing again, this time into a 10 x 14 foot cabin in the woods. It’s a beautiful space built by a mosaic artist for healing. It has four large skylights, two in each roof. One roof faces the sunrise in the east while the other roof faces the sunset in the west. When I lay down on the slab floor and the cold penetrates my body, I feel the embrace of Mother Earth, even as I gaze up to the stars that peek down beyond the tops of the tall pine trees towering overhead.
I am blessed to find a beautiful place to descend with winter into the depths. There is ancient wisdom in pausing for reflection in the winter and the beauty of this place makes it easier to honor that. The process of moving plays its part. As I try to fit my life into 140 square feet, I have to ask myself time and time again, “What is really essential?” “What is my life about?” “What do I really need to keep and what do I need to let go of to be true to my life?” As I pare down, even what I am asking becomes clearer.
In this early part of winter as we continue to descend toward Imbolc, I do know this… that the real purpose of my life is to serve. In exactly what way, I still do not know. I am listening for the answer. In the meantime, I take inspiration from one of my favorite American poets, Walt Whitman.
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” – Walt Whitman
Blessings to you and your loved ones in this season of transformation.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead
What we do at the Duke School and why we do it:
We inspire learners to boldly and creatively shape their future…. We prepare the next generation of problem solvers for our complex world.
In the seventh grade, our teaching team will be create a three-month long project in the spring. The student projects will focus on Biodiversity. Our intention is to focus on local actions together with the awareness of their global consequences.
At least part of the time, we will be investigating how to restore parts of the local Duke Forest on the campus, which was clear cut to construct new buildings.
Student’s will be asked to identify plant species, observe budding in the spring to collect data for Project Bud Burst. If all goes well, we will create or join an international project to promote student conversations about their restoration work with other students around the world.
Why save the world? Because the world needs you. Our global civilization may be on the brink of ecological collapse. That may seem so far removed from our daily experience here in the United States. But maybe not so far removed as we may think. Please consider this:
The feature article in this month’s National Geographic on Angkor Wat reminds us of the frailty of a great civilization when it overstrips the life support systems that sustain it.
Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. The Khmer kingdom lasted from the ninth to the 15th centuries, and at its height dominated a wide swath of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east. As many as 750,000 people lived in Angkor, its capital, which sprawled across an area the size of New York City’s five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. By the late 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came upon the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat—the most elaborate of the city’s temples and the world’s largest religious monument—the once resplendent capital of the empire was in its death throes.
Angkor, it appears, was doomed by the very ingenuity that transformed a collection of minor fiefdoms into an empire. The civilization learned how to tame Southeast Asia’s seasonal deluges, then faded as its control of water, the most vital of resources, slipped away.
Los Angeles sits in the middle of a desert. Yet over 12 million people live in the greater metropolitan area. How is this possible? Starting in 1913, the Los Angeles Water and Power Department has been draining the Owens Valley and the Mono Basin. What will happen if Los Angeles continues to suffer from a drought?
Two recent videos from Wired Science give pause for more reflection
Southern Utah’s Lake Powell was once teeming with boaters, fishers and vacationers. But from 2000 to 2005 its water level dropped from 20 million to 8 million acre-feet, due to severe drought. Water levels have rebounded a bit, but are expected to plummet to levels even lower than those of 2005 during the next serious drought.
The Aral Sea
In the 1960s, central Asia’s Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world. As a result of irrigation and damming, it had shriveled to 10 percent of its original size (marked by the thin black line) by 2007. It is now three separate, highly salinic, lakes.
Once the Aral sea dries up expect a dramatic increase in poverty, malnutrition, starvation and mass migration.
Mass population movement in the Aral Sea basin began as early as 1966 when a major earthquake destroyed much of Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. From then until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, mass migration was mainly due to compulsory movement of labour from overpopulated regions to new development areas. Since 1991, ethnic and environmental factors have played increasingly important roles in shaping migration. Deteriorating environmental conditions, combined with recurring drought, have resulted in agricultural and fisheries production declining by as much as 50%, spelling economic disaster for almost 3 million people (including those in areas of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan near the Aral Sea) whose main source of income was agriculture. Aggregate losses in Uzbekistan associated with mass migration from provinces near the Aral Sea between 1970 and 2001 are estimated to be above US$20 million. Many people still living in the high-migration areas suffer protein and vitamin deficiencies resulting from malnutrition and extreme poverty. In addition, since the migrants have generally been young, the birth rate has decreased significantly.
Biologists have observed that a population grows to the limit of an ecosystem’s capacity to support it. Individuals will continue to mate and have progeny as long as there are sufficient resources for living. This continues up to the natural limit since individuals typically are unable to accurately monitor general ecosystem health. Up to the limit, resources exceed the needs of the population, but once the limit is reached there is an abrupt change … the needs of the population exceed the resources. The population overshoots the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain it. In one generation there is a population collapse. This has been studied in predator-prey relationships around the globe and can be applied to civilizations (Mayan, Khmer, etc).
But a similar principle can be applied to the growth of economic populations as well, consider how it might be applied to the population of subprime mortgage brokers. As long as individual loan agents were rewarded by the system, they continued to make bad loans. There was no incentive to monitor the general health of the banking system, but since resources were available to continue to make loans, why not? Individual brokers made loans right up to and beyond the capacity of the banking system to sustain them. Once a fundamental economic limit was reached, not only were subprime lenders out of business, the entire banking ecosystem rapidly collapsed.
Could this same principle be applied to the population in Los Angeles and the water ecosystem of the Southwest? You decide.
Einstein suggested that problems cannot be solved at the level at which they were created. To solve the problems like water usage in the Southwest, we must think at level of larger systems. In the old ways of thinking, an individual might decide simply to take a bath based on his/her own personal comfort. Multiply that by 12 million people living in a natural desert and the consequences of that level of thinking will rapidly become apparent. But if an entire society learns to conserve and monitor the larger system, then the most dire consequences can be avoided. I have hope, because the awareness to conserve water has now spread throughout the population of the American Southwest.
The task of our generation is no less than to save the world. Although the road ahead will require hard work and transformations in thinking, I remain optimistic. We are an inventive, innovative, creative species with a can do attitude. So let’s roll up our sleeves, put on our various thinking caps and save our planet for our generation and the generations to come.