Orchid

By Candice Mast

You appear always poised midair
Ready to take flight, butterfly like.
Your roots put down, but attach to nothing much,
No grounding dirt, you feed on bark, attach to trees,
Survive on droplets.
I wish I was more like you,
No need of roots curled deep in dirt.
Living beautiful, needing little.
Ready to fly away on the wish of God.

Orchid

a trilogy of moments

By Ruthie Voth

i. unexpected

one time
you looked at me
and there was a strange shifting of my tectonic plates
the world around me turned, briefly, to shades of gray
and then
you were gone
and I couldn’t bring myself to look at you.

that was the first time you said I love you.

ii. anticipation in repose

you, lying cradled in my arms
a dark night
— we’re laughing

iii. temporary

I promised
to love, honor and cherish you
until death.

maybe the cherishing part
didn’t kick in
until after the day I thought you were dying.
that might have been the point when I realized
that life is short,
the end will be unexpected,
and a lifetime with you is not a given.

or maybe it was the morning I felt your skin
loose over your muscular arms
and in the darkness
I imagined you covered
in wrinkles and age spots,
balding,
thin…
you’re slipping away from me
faster than I realized.
(oh, to be wrapped in a skin that is not frail and
time-dependent.)

Old Stories

By Cherie Lee

old storiesI fear getting old far more than I fear dying. Because of this, I have an insatiable fascination with the elderly; the octogenarians creaking along in walking frames, their life stories written on their faces. I’ve seen two common types of old people: one is warm, oozing love from every pore, joking about being spring chickens. The second is bitter, the grumpy old bastards who yell at bus drivers. I’ve known both types, particularly more of the grumpy old bastard variety who frequent coffee establishments, like the one I once worked at, and berate teenage baristas. As I grow up and draw closer to joining their ranks, I wonder which type I’ll be and if my story will be worth telling.

To me, old age is a woman with white hair; a Lithuanian migrant who lives five doors down the road and sits on her front porch. She hates doctors and loves whiskey. Her name is Stasi and we met one random day 18 years ago.

I can see the thick lines in her face, leathery and folded with an abundance of brown sun spots, framed by elegantly curled hair that sometimes saw a hairdresser. Her response to a simple “How are you?” always the same: “Oh Cherie, I am done. I want to die now.”

The first and last time I ever saw her laugh, a delinquent rooster was running around her front yard. I was summoned to remove it. The sight of me chasing the warbling bird around the topiary had her in stitches. She had to wipe tears from her eyes with the corner of her sleeve. This was a rare exception because usually, Stasi was not happy. She was one of the bitter ones.

Stasi complained all the time. She would sit and tell me about her latest backache or the arthritis. I would dutifully listen while eating my slice of cake and orange cordial, not sure how to respond. When you’re seven, a slice of cake can pay for anything. Yet I would be back, almost every day, for a visit. Perhaps it was my lack of playmates. My brother and sister were much older and had better things to do. For someone to give me the time of day was a luxury. I guess we were both lonely.

I met Stasi when a fellow neighbor had lost a ginger corgi. Everyone on the street gathered to walk around and try to find the absconder. I was walking next to Stasi. I must have thought she was having trouble walking because I reached out and took her hand. She never forgot this.

From then on, Stasi’s house became a physical fixture in my world. I can still picture it so vividly: the black and white photographs of people she would tell me about, the musty lace tablecloths, an agonized Jesus on a silver cross and her huge Alsatian dog Rofy (possibly Lithuanian for “woof”) slobbering over everything. Then there was her backyard; a child’s paradise. It was a place teeming with life. Large stone pebbles led from the back door leading to a menagerie down the back. A huge walk in birdcage packed with tropical parrots and rainbow lorikeets, a fishpond made of stone, full of catfish with their comical open mouths. This yard, with its overgrown vines and exotic plants, was an Eden to my young self.

As I grew up, my interest in Stasi waned. I would still say hello to her as I walked past her house on my way home from school. But some days I was a bad Samaritan and crossed the road so I didn’t have to. She would say “Cherie—I no see you anymore. Why you no visit me?” I would explain that things were different now. Year seven was very demanding. I had all these friends and a part-time job at a local fruit market. It sounds lame, even now. She would sigh glumly and take a sip of the whiskey her doctor had banned her from, hiding the glass under a pile of Kmart catalogues. At the end of a visit she would kiss me on each cheek, her breath heavy with the stench of alcohol, and say “God bless you” as I walked down her front path.
This was my first experience of old-people-related guilt. The promise of cake and cordial was no longer enticing enough to my teenage self. I would visit her because it was the right thing to do. She was lonely still, even as I was now not.

I remember her telling me about her life once. She was born in the 1920s in Lithuania during a time of newly re-established independence. This was not to last long with Stalin invading and occupying Lithuania in 1940. A year later Nazi Germany had primary occupation followed by the Soviets again in 1944. Stasi, in her 20s, was one of the thousands of people forced to flee for their lives during a period of war against the Soviets by Lithuania, leaving behind a son she was never going to see again.

She recalled being terrified and running for days on end without food, praying to a God who didn’t intervene. Caught by Russian soldiers who raped her, she begged God to let her die. This was not to be the case and she ended up in a displacement camp in Northern Germany. It was there she met her husband, wed in the camp itself in the clothes on her back and bare calloused feet.

The house, five down from us, was bought by Stasi and her husband in the 50s after migrating to Australia. Matt was a tradesman while Stasi worked as a maid for an awful woman. She remained in the house even after Matt’s death in the 90s, his study remaining exactly the way he had left it to the day they knocked her house down.

As I grew up and finished high school, I saw Stasi less and less, and one day she was moved into a retirement home. Apparently she was a nightmare to the staff. She had no visitors except Mum who would try and coerce me into joining her. I was just too busy, Mum; I have to wash my hair; I have to clean my car. I really just wasn’t sure if I could stomach Stasi’s death-wish talk.

Then, the inevitable happened: she got her wish. Five people turned up to her funeral; myself and Mum included. The priest (or minister?) said the last rites while I squirmed away with guilt. I imagined my final conversation with Stasi.

“I’m really sorry I didn’t visit you before you died.”

“Is OK Cherie. You busy. I know.”

“No, I’m really really sorry. I’m sorry I was one of the few people in your life that knew you and I failed. I’m sorry.”

“No worry Cherie. I know you care. I just happy now to die. Thank you for saying goodbye.”

She closed her eyes and went back to sleep in the coffin. The minister told us he was going to play her favorite song. We waited for some well-worn Catholic hymn. “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” jingled from the CD player. In my mind’s eye, I saw her laughing; wiping a tear from her eye with the corner of her sleeve.
Toward the end of her life, Stasi looked like a bitter old woman. But her story made her who she was, and it was terrible and fascinating.

I found a silver hair not long ago. Nestled among the brown, the embodiment of my inevitable demise. I plucked it out straight away, hoping to sabotage the aging process. Then I Googled “Is it normal to turn gray at 25?”

The old people are drawing close, drawing me into their fold … and I’m terrified. I start to wonder what song I want played at my funeral.

Old age is my Grandpa, Papa, whose being didn’t contain a single trace of bitterness. He was a 70-something with energy to boot; bursting with enthusiasm for life. Every visit to our house was heralded with a long ‘helloooooo’ as he made his way in through the back door. He would come over to do our gardening, or drop off medicines from the pharmacy he owned or talk about his worm farm with glee. He loved visiting his customers who were too ill to come in and pick up their prescriptions themselves. Every morning he swam laps in the pool followed by a cold shower.

He died suddenly, without fanfare. His death was so unceremonious; it was as though he planned to sneak out the back door as quietly as possible, so as not to upset anyone. I never got to say goodbye. My Grandma, Mama, was distraught, and still is to this day, although she never lets on. Her positivity waned, as though it was borrowed from him, and now every conversation is sprinkled liberally with complaints of her latest ailments. Cue dramatic pause, then: “I just don’t know darling, it’s not looking good …” she says with a hint of hope after a detailed account of her various “illnesses.” We all know she’s really just suffering from a broken heart and would give anything to join her beloved husband.

After Papa died, I started to experience the old old-person guilt with Mama. As her outlook on life became more and more depressed, she became less palatable to me and my rosy-eyed view of the world. I felt the anxious apprehension of regret. I knew how it would end.
But Mama was on my case. She started asking about me. “When is Cherie going to come and interview me? Preferably sooner rather than later …” She wanted some kind of record of her life. And I was the writer, so obviously the family custodian. I was not keen. Knowing Mama, she would rattle on about her life, just the facts, with no emotional depth … when I was young yada yada yada.

So I changed my perspective. Instead of being the granddaughter listening to the grandmother regale me with tales of “the good ol’ days,” I was a writer, investigating the incidents that made this woman who she is today: the good and the bad.

I would use her as a channel through which to understand my own life. All the questions I imagine asking myself at the other end of my life looking back. Had I lived well? What were my regrets? What difficulties shaped me as a person?

So my cousin and I sat down with her, held up an iPhone to record and started chatting. As she started talking, a whole world opened up and I could picture this place, this time that she was a part of: Sydney in the 1940s.

Roseville bridge was small and wooden. Horses and carts were around (but mainly for people who made deliveries, it wasn’t a symbol of socioeconomic standing as I had thought), Sydney harbor bridge was opened. Papa was there. The same Papa who “hellooooo-ed” his way into our house had actually witnessed the opening of the bridge that now singularly defines the city of Sydney.

She talked about the war and how it changed everything. How Japan bombed Darwin. “Were you scared?” I asked. “No darling. You just got on with it. We were all in the same boat.” We talked about her family, the dynamics of a having three girls. Her father and his utter devotion to them. Her sisters and their illnesses. The one time she remembered him getting upset at her (they were playing “weddings” and their youngest sister was always relegated to the role of the minister and never got a chance to play the bride, until intervention from their father).

I pictured myself in her shoes. She was heading into teenager-hood. What was she thinking at that age? Had she wanted to get married? How did she learn about sex? Did anyone actually talk about it? Did she ever want to pursue a career? Why did her mother-in-law make life so difficult for her?

We talked for over an hour. I thought she would get tired after 20 minutes but the longer she talked, the more energized she became. Eventually I called it a night. She grabbed my hand and said “You’ve opened up a whole world for me.” I felt overwhelmed and all of my old-people-guilt dissipated.

It was a new level of connection. She wasn’t just my hope-less grandmother, but a fellow human being, made of the same DNA as me, living through completely different circumstances and now at the end of her life, a place that I’m heading as time rolls on and the silver hairs multiply.

In the end, all we have is our stories. Our life stories are like maps, charting the people that we have become. Older people, particularly those in the West, are rarely taken seriously. We bundle them off to retirement homes so that we can get on with our lives and try not to feel too guilty about not visiting them. But my Grandparents, Stasi, and even the grumpy old bastards I used to make coffee for, have had a profound role in my life—even if it’s taken me this long to realize it. Their lives force me to examine my own, and question my foundations: what makes a meaningful life, and how can I live in a way that will prevent me from yelling at bus drivers when I’m 80?

Of Carbon and Consequences

storm

By Jared Stutzman

I am about to utter a heresy — a cringe-inducing, social embarrassment of a statement to those who consider themselves intelligent. Here it is: the level of carbon in the atmosphere is not a moral or religious issue. The use of fossil fuels is neither evil nor good, and it should not be preached about from your church pulpit. Gasoline does not deserve to be the primary focus of your duty as a Christian or even as a secular humanist. But wait — before you pull out your hockey-stick charts and accuse me flat-earthism, let me explain.

It is our moral duty to care about earth around us—the trees, the dirt, the water, the animals, the air, the Mississippi river, the Magnolia tree, and the Monarch butterfly. It is also our duty to care about the quality of life of the seven billion people on the earth, and these two duties are, to some extent, intertwined. The problem is that we have become obsessed with catastrophic global climate change as the face of all environmental concerns. It is a fallacy — a terrible, divisive distortion — that the duty of conserving the natural beauty of the earth is limited to concerns about climate change. Because of the near-insoluble nature of this problem, and because of the ignorance, impracticality, and ineffectiveness of the solutions proposed to it, this issue has alienated the segments of society who would normally be most concerned with environmental issues — farmers, ranchers, hunters, and others who live closest to the earth.

If impending climate change had a definite, clear cause and a definite, clear, practical solution with little or no human cost, then taking steps to avoid its consequences would be our moral duty. But that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. Instead, the solutions we see are driven by moralistic fervor, born out of first-world arrogance, are extremely unlikely to have any real impact, and would likely cause as much human pain and suffering as the problem they’re trying to solve.

Let’s be clear. It is entirely logically consistent to hate the idea of dead fish floating belly-up in a stream while also questioning the efficacy of the Kyoto treaty. It’s entirely possible to love being in the forest, to love Yosemite and the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Everglades, while also hating the idea of a carbon tax. There is no reason that someone who decries the use of artificial preservatives in prepackaged food must also decry the use of gasoline. No one supports factories dumping noxious chemicals into rivers. No one is celebrating overflowing landfills or littered roads. No one likes it when topsoil erodes. Farmers and environmentalists alike are opposed to suburban sprawl, and no one wants a side of pesticide with his salad. No one is happy about high mercury levels in streams that prevent us from eating the fish we catch.

But these kinds of conservation concerns no longer match our concept of “environmentalism” because that word now refers almost exclusively to catastrophic global climate change. The older term, “conservation,” fits better. Most of the people who are opposed to environmentalism feel differently about conservation. They can appreciate localized, common-sense solutions to known problems — they want to take care of the land we live on while appreciating and cultivating its long-term beauty and health. But they also want no part of the sweeping hubristic global predictions, the arrogant self-righteous fervor, and the futile, silly, thimble-in-the-ocean solutions of environmentalism.

In 1975, Newsweek magazine published an article about climate change — it was entitled, “The Cooling World.”

“There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically … The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it … the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded. … To scientists, these seemingly disparate incidents represent the advance signs of fundamental changes in the world’s weather. The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down…they (meteorologists) are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century … satellite photos indicated a sudden, large increase in Northern Hemisphere snow cover in the winter of 1971-1972. … Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. … The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become a grim reality.”

Sound familiar? The article even speculates about possibly melting the polar ice cap by covering it with black soot. It’s all there—the scientific consensus, the data, the satellite photos, the extreme weather, the dire consequences. The only item that doesn’t fit the climate-change discussions of 2013 is the detail—admittedly tiny and insignificant—of the direction of the thermometer’s imminent precipitous shift.

Thanks to climate-change deniers, it has become the single most-quoted article in Newsweek’s history. The fact that a single article has achieved such notoriety is evidence of its rarity, and contemporary environmentalists justifiably point out that the article’s claim of consensus was drastically overstated — that our current consensus on a warming planet is far more universal than what amounted to the collective educated guesswork of the 1970s. A single mistaken article in a popular news magazine 40 years ago in no way proves that global climate change isn’t occurring.

But, while the Newsweek article hardly invalidates the entire field of climate science, it does give us some things to think about:
First, and most obviously, it illustrates that predicting a century’s worth of global weather is, to put it mildly, an inexact science with a high degree of uncertainty — and that localized severe weather events (tornadoes) have been used before as evidence for such predictions.

Second, it demonstrates that doomsday scenarios play well in magazines, newspapers, books, PowerPoint slides, and movies, but that their ubiquity or popularity does not necessarily correspond with their reliability — I’m looking at you, Mr. Gore.

Third, it raises questions about confirmation bias and group-think — there was at least some kind of consensus about a wrong-headed prediction in 1975 — how did that happen, and how should that affect our trust in current predictions produced by computer models created by climatologists, which use and produce data interpreted by climatologists, which is compiled into reports written by climatologists, which are peer-reviewed by climatologists?
Fourth, and most importantly, it shows that our proposed solutions to these types of scenarios—that is, sweeping global environmental catastrophes dependent on millions of variables forecasted decades into the future — are poorly understood and ineffectual at best and downright harmful at worst.

It is this fourth idea that brings us back to my original distinction between environmentalism and conservation. Conservation proposes simple, common-sense solutions to localized problems where there is a clear understanding of cause and effect. It takes into account both the human cost and the effectiveness of any proposed solution. Use zoning to protect farmland from suburban sprawl. Prohibit companies from dumping chemicals into rivers. Fine litterers. Encourage terrace farming to protect topsoil in hilly areas. Plant trees in riparian buffer zones next to streams as a haven for wildlife. These are common-sense local solutions, the outcomes of which are well-understood and predictable, and the human cost of which is low. Covering the polar ice-caps with soot, in contrast, is laughably wrong-headed and impossible, and we may well one day look back on current attempts at carbon restriction with the same feelings of mirth…if we aren’t crying. Environmentalism prescribes sweeping national and international policies which may or may not be effective in preventing a future catastrophe, but which often have an immediate and definite human cost in the present.

To make this point a little clearer, let’s take a detour and talk about DDT. It was one of the earliest pesticides created, and it was used in the U.S. to help eradicate malaria (by killing or repelling the mosquitoes that carried it). It was also used extensively as a farm pesticide. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” pointed out that widespread DDT use was harming birds and insects and having a detrimental effect on the entire food chain. It was a watershed moment—in the U.S., where malaria was already gone, DDT was eventually outlawed. The environmental outrage in the U.S. affected its availability in developing countries in Africa where the battle against malaria was still ongoing. Though several countries had almost beaten the disease in the early 1960s, it came roaring back in the absence of DDT. Today, malaria still kills nearly a million people per year. The World Health Organization finally re-recommended the use of DDT against malaria in 2006—34 years after it was banned in the U.S.

DDT was a harmful residual chemical—it shouldn’t have been in widespread use on farms. But the knee-jerk, global condemnation of it had profound consequences, and probably cost millions of African men, women and children their lives. That’s serious stuff—it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to compare it to genocide.

It is our God-given responsibility to take care of the natural world around us. But our solutions need to take into account the human cost of any action. The earth may, in fact, be warming and the oceans rising. New York City and Florida might be under water in the year 2100. The burning of fossil fuels may, in fact, be a part of the reason. Nevertheless, environmentalism’s solution to this problem—some kind of world-wide carbon restriction—has a high human cost and an extremely low probability of making an actual real-world difference. Carbon restriction policies require costly global cooperation between countries that are not allies in an attempt to reduce one of the many variables scientists believe may affect climate change decades from now—can you see, perhaps, why a policy of that sort might be laughably ineffective? Even if a miracle occurred and the nations of the world cooperated with each other and burned less oil, has anyone proven that earth’s temperature wouldn’t rise anyway due to other factors, such as changes in land use? The world looks nothing like it did 150 years ago. This isn’t a controlled experiment in a science lab where we can change one variable at a time to see what the real culprit is.

More to the point, however, think about the human costs if we succeeded in drastically reducing coal and gasoline use worldwide. Just as occurred with our DDT policy, those who suffer the most would be the poorest in their societies, who would suddenly find themselves priced out of basic heat, transportation, and home electricity. Carbon restrictions like “cap-and-trade” disproportionately hurt both the poorest in any given nation (i.e., the U.S.) and the poorest in the world, who tend to be most dependent on fossil fuels and have the least access to alternatives. Think about how dependent an industrial or developing society is on oil. Think about how environmentally and humanly devastating a pre-industrial society, with its low population density, extremely low crop yields, and archaic tillage methods would be with our current population. Would it really be worth it to return to a pre-industrial society if it drastically reduced the life expectancy of seven billion people? If it caused mass starvation? How is that ethical?

It is nice, if wildly optimistic, to think that alternative energy sources will one day provide the necessary electrical power for the world. But alternative sources aren’t pristine, either … witness the fight over solar farms in California that interfered with a desert habitat, or look at the gigantic armies of wind turbines clawing at the prairie skies of Illinois, with their vast concrete bases forever spoiling a patch of the richest farmland on earth. Nuclear power, which has the most potential as a long-term energy source, has its own, obvious set of objections. It is at least debatable that a world full of enough wind turbines, solar farms, and nuclear plants to meet our electricity needs would despoil the earth more in the long term than our continued use of fossil fuels—it is absolutely certain that it would cause more immediate damage and direct disruption in the short term. The solution — even if it is attainable — might be worse than the problem.

So please … do not preach sermons about global warming and the use of fossil fuels—or at least, if you must, then preach about the human cost of your proposed solutions and do not make it heresy to question the effectiveness of those solutions. Recognize that our moral duty is not to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere, but to care about people and the world God has created, and that decisions about how to carry out that duty involve tradeoffs and are never black-and-white. Do not accuse those who disagree with your particular interpretation of that duty of pillaging the earth, being ignorant, and hating science and God and humanity. They don’t — they just prefer to spend their energies where they can actually make a difference without making matters worse.