Monday, September 14, 2020

Life from an Ecosystems Perspective

Florida Native Ecosystems have rich biodiversity, clean water and air

The topic of ‘ecosystems’ has been a feature of countless news reports and YouTube videos lately.  It is considered ‘P.C.’ and ‘en vogue’ to be an ecosystem advocate. The term is also used on bumper stickers, in tweets, as part of streaming documentaries and in so many other places.  But honestly, do we really understand what the concept of an ecosystem is all about?

Here are a couple stock ecosystem definitions taken direction from the web:

  • Merriam-Webster; the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit

  •; a system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment

  • and, (I like this one personally) again from; any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts.

In the purest ecological sense, the Merriam-Webster definition may be useful to describe natural ecosystems, those historically only minimally impacted by human activities.  But today most people are more so surrounded by the many human inventions of modern urban life than they are a part of native longleaf pine or hardwood scrub forests. This transition from a rugged hunter-gatherer way of being to a highly specialized indoor lifestyle has shifted human’s first hand awareness and knowledge of bushcraft to now greater familiarity of keyboard and automobile.  

The ecosystem definition, any system or network of interconnecting and interacting parts, may be much more relatable today than definitions involving mainly biotic complexities such as in the Merriam-Webster definition.

Debate of whether this fundamental shift may be good or bad is a topic for other discussions.  The purpose of this post is to encourage consideration of everyday life as participation in a complex cycle of interactions.  Perhaps, if we can set aside the notion that we humans are the center of what exists and think in terms of our everyday life being part of a larger, complex equation then maybe we will become more aware that each of our daily decisions and acts carries the potential for very significant resulting consequences, both to our bodies, the earth and future generations.

Maybe, the first step towards greater awareness is embracing the ecosystem concept of life.  It’s not just about how life fits into my plan, it’s how I fit into the ecosystem immediately around me.  So what is my ecosystem?

To begin with, everything around us may comprise our immediate ecosystem and that includes almost an infinite number of variables, both biotic and abiotic, natural and manufactured, imagined and tangible.  There are broad, all encompassing ecosystemic groups such as country or state or even communities in which we live.  There are also smaller, more specific ecosystemic groups in which we function, such as our immediate family or house and yard.

So what Is Your Ecosystem About?  Ecosystems usually function when all the components are in balance.  However ecosystems are constantly changing.  The rate of change for ecosystems can be fast if the ecosystems are unstable, or very slow when inputs are limited and internal homeostasis is somewhat stable.

There are almost an infinite number of ecosystems in the universe.  Some scientists suggest multiple sub-ecosystems can exist in the same place at the same time.  Moreover all ecosystems are constantly changing and have been changing since the beginning.  Importantly, over the past several hundred years Homo sapiens have introduced changes into the earth’s ecosystems that have exponentially increased the rate of ecosystem changes.  Much of this hurried up change is a result of increasing population pressures that may be nearly impossible to manage.

We humans too are so intimately a part of our surrounding ecosystems that we can not remove ourselves from these ecosystems, even if we try.  For instance, dropping a piece of litter on the road is not negated by driving away.  With each and every one of our actions we ultimately create a series of long term consequences.  Though we may think we’ve had no measurable impact on the ecosystem around us from seemingly insignificant acts, in fact we may very well have created a cascade of significant future events.  Each and every thing we do is causative to an endless chain reaction impacting the ecosystems in which we are a part of.

So what Is Your Ecosystem?  The following are my ideas of a couple over simplified ecosystem examples:

Native Ecosystems:

  • Established native plant populations

  • Wildflowers

  • Soils that exhibit complex life formations

  • Native wildlife

  • Clean air

  • Clean water

  • Nature sounds 

  • Earth tone colors

  • Strong earth energies from unmined buried minerals

  • Food from wild caught fish, trapped animals, nuts, berries, grasses, birds, roots and eggs

  • Earthen-centric structures

City and Neighborhood (Human-centric) Ecosystems:

  • Mix of native plants and imported or genetically modified horticultural plants

  • Mostly horticulturally hybridized flowers with a few native wildflowers

  • Significantly urbanized, abiotic soils showing little signs of life but pronounced presence of concrete, asphalt, trash, hydrocarbons and adulterants

  • Air containing raised levels of particulate matter, acidic compounds, ozone depleting substances and potentially cancer causing compounds

  • Degraded surface and groundwater quality polluted with hydrocarbons, significant levels of lawn fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide contamination, fish kills and high turbidity levels

  • Industrial, city, traffic and boom box noise with a small mix of bird songs

  • Bright fluorescent colors, night light pollution and flashing lights, Internet, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Cable

  • Cell phone tower, microwave and power line EMF energies

  • Fast food fried with inflammatory vegetable oils, antibiotic fed meats and vegetables inundated with pesticides, fungicides and preservatives and processed foods based on GMO type foods

  • Metal, glass and vinyl structures

Interestingly, the City and Neighborhood Ecosystem types diverged from the Native Ecosystems only very recently in terms of the age of the earth.  Native Ecosystems have existed, slowly refining themselves over millennia, since the beginning of life on earth.  City and Neighborhood Ecosystems however have only existed as we understand them today for a few human generations.  That is a time difference of three or four billion years compared to three or four hundred years.

Homo sapiens evolved hand in hand with Native Ecosystems.  We humans are today what we are due in large part to the forage and shelter and health interactions we’ve had with Native Ecosystems over deep time.

With today’s subtle divorce from nature humans are venturing into the unknown.  Land development, horticultural landscaping, agriculture and permaculture are so rapidly dismantling Native Ecosystems that the land in which our ancestors fashioned our DNA has all but disappeared.  There may be no turning back.

Humans are replicating and expanding City and Neighborhood Ecosystems with each new day, fueled onward by the loss of time spent in nature.  The few remaining Native Ecosystems across the land are rapidly disappearing, bulldozed and burnt for future concrete and electronic complexities.  

Will Native Ecosystems soon be only a memory?  Except to exist as isolated, small conservation and preservation tracts and parks it is possible Native Ecosystems may soon become extinct.  What does the loss of Native Ecosystems hold for future human generations?  Only time will tell but recent data suggests that current population demographics are indicating more illnesses and shorter lifespans in City and Neighborhood Ecosystems.

The momentum of change is seemingly insurmountable.  Sometimes it feels as though any little contribution towards supporting Native Ecosystems is insignificant and useless.  

One way to start is to begin thinking of our life as a very real part of a complex equation where every decision we make impacts the world around us in a significant way. Humans can return to considering life as ‘me and the world’ rather than just ‘me’.  Thinking in terms of life in an ecosystem brings us closer to the natural world we came from and hopefully haven’t totally left yet.  Asking ourselves about our ecosystems we live in each day can create useful perspectives that may help us navigate the future.  What do you know about your ecosystem?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finding Healing in Native Plants and Nature

Finding Healing in Native Plants and Nature, Oakleaf Fleabane


This post is not about seeking empathy, it is about the healing power that nature offers. I want to tell you how my time spent with Florida’s wilds, native plants and wildflowers has provided me with so much healing. Even so, there is no scientific proof of healing by native plants presented here. Instead, I hope to share how spending time in Florida nature convinced me in no uncertain terms, that ‘no matter what, everything is ok’. Not only does this reassurance carry powerfully healing but an appointment with native plants can be much less expensive than doctor’s office fees.  Give me native wildflowers, leaves and berries any day over any bottled pill or closed door examination room.

Medical studies have well documented the ability of nature to possess strong healing power to manage all types of disease.  Spending time outdoors in our native ecosystems can help us maintain and strengthen health, no matter the level of our malaise.  Healing energy emanates from the sky, earth, water, fire, minerals, wind and air we breathe but especially from native plants in their historical settings. We do not have to import, buy or order nature’s healing. We can rather just go for a walk in our local natural areas to freely receive substantive plant magic.  

Since grade school we’ve also been taught that plants are extraordinary because they take in carbon dioxide, water and dirt then ‘eat’ sunshine and then synthesize healing and complex medicinal substances.  Through trial and error based use, Homo sapiens have developed skills in applying the healing power of the plants for millennia.  Beyond the medicinal alkaloids and compounds that plants photosynthesize however there also lies another important modality in nature, that power of healing for ‘heart and spirit’.

Other terms could be used here too, such as; positive aura, spiritual help, earth energies and transformative power.  Through my time spent hiking into, studying, photographing and sharing Florida’s wilderness, native plants have become some of my best friends and have helped me navigate some serious health challenges.

I do appreciate all the real and virtual hugs and love sent over the years and will always continue to accept those, for human touch heals so effectively also.  Now I want to pass along what I found for free and hope in doing so I could maybe help even one other person navigate a life difficulty. There is power found in a short walk or sit down meditation along a trail somewhere in nature.  It is good to share the joys of healing and the good power of native plants.

Shout out to all the amazing health care providers.  You saved my life numerous times and for this I am grateful.  The praise of the healing power of native plants is no slight to modern medicine .

Throughout the past decade I’ve had different parts of different body parts removed for tumors while surviving an aortic dissection where the main artery leaving my heart tore from the aortic valve down into my legs.  Only part of it is fixed today.  As I am still relatively young, I used to ask myself all the time, ‘why is this happening to me?’  

After my dissection I couldn’t  walk from the bed to the bathroom without help.  But learning to walk again and chronic pain were easy compared to the PTSD lots of my doctors freely dished out.  Words cut deepest. Honesty from the doctors will always be appreciated by me and I do not blame those physicians who were genuinely surprised I was still alive.  But today there are few comments that could come from doctors that I haven’t already heard.  At first I would cringe each time I heard a new version of the same iteration.  Finally, after being inundated for a decade with dire predictions and still waking up each morning these words no longer caused a fight or flight response.  Today I almost think of the words as just plain ill-informed blurbs of a doctor who really does care but doesn’t have the right words at hand when talking with me.  

Over the past decade I could fill a book with quotes such as;

  • ‘You are supposed to be dead’

  • ‘No I can’t help you get your driver's license back because you are not supposed to be alive’ (kudos to Cleveland Clinic for their help in proving I was really alive)

  • ‘If I didn’t see you sitting here and talking with me, but just looked at your CT scan I’d think you were dead, or on the operating table’

  • ‘Your heart was covered in green slime, probably from your first open heart procedure’

  • ‘How bad is the tumor on your kidney?  Just imagine it’s a quarter to midnight and someone has a gun stuck into your forehead’

  • ‘You could drop dead at any moment’

  • ‘You need to wear a vacuum pump on your chest’

  • ‘Don’t ever lift anything over two pounds’

  • And so much more.

Having doctors repeat words such as these over a decade can lead to hand wringing and lack of sleep and rotten moods.  Usually it was worse at night when all the doctor’s words would torment me in unison.  Enter native plants.

The beautiful part came when I found out how to move past some of those doctor’s words and accept the fact my body was going to be an ongoing challenge.  About a month after I was released from my second open heart Judy drove me to Bulow State Park and we sat on a bench under the 400 year old Fairchild Oak.   I poured out of my soul as I told her of the sadness I was feeling because at the time I truly believed I’d not live to see our two children who were teens, grow up to be adults.  Thankfully, in more ways than one, they are beautiful grown adults now and out on their own doing well for themselves.  During that visit I noticed those sad feelings were gradually growing less painful as I reached out and touched the heavy, moss covered outstretched limbs of Fairchild Oak .  No way could I put my finger on the source of comfort at that time and even today I can’t adequately describe that deep sense of belonging to the earth.  However I can emphatically say the sense of belonging and the feeling that everything was going to be all right was strongest there in the coastal maritime hammock, among all the plants that had grown there forever.

Over the years since I’ve spent as much time as I could soaking up this unexplainable but very real healing force from plants in their wilds.  Each ecosystem and unique community of native plants here in Florida provides different modes of healing power for me.  Interestingly, while I certainly ‘feel’ good energies coming from horticultural gardens of non-native plants, the level of this healing power my body felt while in a native plant community was and is always much stronger. 

My undergraduate education is in biology so I usually don’t give much credence to theories based on ‘feelings’ or especially mythologies.  I am a scientist who believes in facts and peer reviewed research.  Quantum thoughts may provide somewhat of an explanation to this magical healing power, but I think that the resonance of well-being I feel when spending time with the native flora and wildlife around me has more to do with a subconscious level of familiarity nested down inside my ‘DNA’.  My immediate ancestors and then my ancestor’s ancestors all lived lives surrounded by the native plants in the Appalachian mountain chain.  Before then they foraged across the Central Pangean Mountain chain, within the ridges of Ireland and Scotland that were once connected to Appalachia.  I’ve come to rely on that ‘deep, unexplainable and ancestral connection I feel’ with Florida’s native plants as an important part of my healing journey.

Native plants, such as the purple thistle,  wax myrtle and the Fairchild oak and Carolina jessamine all make me feel at home, like a homecoming, right away, as soon as I walk into their midst.  Being at home sure does beat listening to a doctor fumble with words in a small room with glaring egg-shell white walls.  The feeling that, no matter what happens it’ll all be ok because I am grounded and part of something worthy and good and established makes home the place to be when feeling down or ill.  Yes, there will be times when I still seek the interventional refuge of the hospital or ER. But when I do it is not soon afterwards that I am always ready to be back home.  However, when out on the trail or in the swamps hiking with Judy, I feel no desire to rush back to the house, for I am home too in the wilds with healing plants surrounding me and wrapping me with their magical splendor.  In the wilds I understand I am at home.  I am where I came from and there is no better place to be.  My body and my mind are then so healed.

Additionally, native plant communities give me much more healing energies than just the overwhelming feeling of being at home in peace.  Some of the perspectives Florida wilds have introduced me to include;

  • Learning to look for amazing beauty and awe in smallness

  • Opportunities to challenge my art eye with new geometry

  • Learning of how birds, insects and other critters, including myself respond to colors

  • Recognizing from flowers, fruits, leaves and bark of native plants that humans didn’t invent the color wheel, Mother Nature did.  I now see how a plant’s palette of hues defines art theory

  • How plants whisper audibly to me through the way winds caress their leaves and boughs and how my own wooden cane vibrates with tree whispers when run gently across their bark

  • Having more adventures and free spirited fun when out in nature than in the city

  • Being able to breathe easier and trace the subtle differences in scents, smells and plant aroma

  • Becoming familiar with different families of soils under my feet, which are entire living communities themselves

  • Watching parts of a huge eco-puzzle begin to slowly arrange themselves in patterns I could understand and want to reflect in my wildflower art

  • and so much more

Perhaps one of the most illuminating occurrences I’ve learned to recognize about the healing power of native plants and nature is that when I’m in the urban core, inside the house at home or at one of my doctor’s offices I pine for wind swaying palmetto fronds and the scent of vanilla leaf or the fiery blaze of Catesby lily and the crunching of sandy Coccoloba leaves under my sandals.  The calls of ancient earth and endemic herbaceous flowering plants fill my dreams, both night and day.  It is though heart strings really do exist and they are constantly pulling me back into the pitcher plant bog or hidden salty dunes or thick Fakahatchee green.

Daily, after morning coffee and as soon as we decide to head to the flatwoods my blood pressure and pulse subside from their caffeine and Type A personality driven peaks.  Travelling down the highway with windows half down I breathe in ever so deeply, savoring the coumarin scents of freshly mowed roadside Andropogon, wild garlic and turkey tangled frog fruit.

Pulling into the state park vehicle area and placing our pass on the dashboard we both can hardly wait to lock up, strap up our fruit and snack filled backpacks and water bottles and head into the damp fields thick with Sabatia, Sarracenia, Yaupon and all types of Asters and grasses and bushes and trees and sometimes ticks.  This lowland muck we hike in is where life once arose and where my ashes one day will return.  All life here is an amazing cornucopia of free for the taking (pictures of) healing wonders.

With swallow tail kites gliding above and pileated wood-peckers calling out across the Aristida grasslands a deep sense of belonging envelopes me.  I am home.  The nursery down the street from our house has thousands of plants too, but they are horticultural strangers in a strange town.  And although they are considered beautiful in their own right the fact is that I do not respond to horticultural imports in ways of deep soul healing as I do to native plants growing here in Florida’s wilderness.  

After an afternoon of refilling our life’s energy centers with fresh oxygen, vitamin D from the sun, songs from birds and critters and intimate time spent photographing wildflowers we head back to the truck, tired but feeling younger and stronger.  Back at the house we sort through our phone photos and share with others in our family, with friends and on the internet.

Later that night I will take my vitals like blood pressure and such and inevitably the results are all much better than those days we are running errands in town.  Before my dissection my untreated blood pressure was averaging 140/90.  With medication it dropped to 130/80 with a 90 pulse.  Now, almost ten years later my medications are minimal and mostly formulated from flatwoods and swamp nature therapy.  In 2019 I hiked at least 10,000 steps (five miles) each and every day. Today my blood pressure most days is 110/60 with a pulse in the 50s.  I can honestly credit those regular hikes into the magical world of wildflowers and natives with my healing.  

Too excited from being a first hand witness of nature’s grandeur I usually can’t sleep, especially when pondering brilliantly fluorescent purple hues on a tiny aster, oakleaf fleabane, Erigeron quercifolius.  The diminutive native wildflower was growing across the edges of a shallow natural swale carrying a trickle of tannin stained surface water.  On that day of all the wildflower images collected on my old iphone the blooms of this small plant shone the brightest, almost as though I could reach into the screen and touch them.  The royal lavender, purple and yellow color displayed a vibrancy I’ve never seen in my life in a plant nursery or flower shop.  A small diminutive ‘weed’ many times more attractive to me than all of the American Garden Club’s Plant of the Year recipients.

Sketches done I then rub my eyes.  Time for dreaming of the flatwoods and all those pitcher plant hybrids.  So much good healing native plant medicine today is available for us all; has been in the past, is there today and hopefully will be for future generations in the future.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

How A Butterfly May See My Art

Compound eyes (like all eyes) are amazing.  I am always astounded with the beauty and technological finesse Mother Nature provides.

My Florida nature art appears a certain way to myself and other humans but I've always wondered how a butterfly may see one of my linocuts with acrylic featuring Passiflora incarnata.

With a scanner and a little enlightening effort I used a recent block print press with added acrylic pigment to form the basis of the image a compound eye might process.  The result was quite interesting.  For me too many repetitive patterns become confusing after a while.  But I suppose if I had compound eyes I'd get used to the complexity.

As always, I learn so much from Mother nature.  And there is still so much to learn.