Environmental Observations

What makes a good landscape design? Are those flowers edible? What grows best where?

Monday, June 15, 2020

Learning about Intersectional Environmentalism

Trail through northern rainforest in Alaska
Trail leaving the northern most point of the 
Pacific Temperate Rainforest in Girdwood, AK.
When I see acres of rainforest burning, or the scarred mountainsides of clear cut forests clogging streams, and bull-dozed parcels for yet another strip mall, my heart breaks. When I see troops ordered out against people protesting the XL pipeline, fracking, and nuclear waste dumps, I cry for those who will be polluted, and the beautiful earth we are abusing. I am screaming out “It’s 2020 for &hit% sake! Why do white people, old white men in particular, still think they have to dominate other groups and the earth!!!” And really, don't we have better ways to create the products we need, or, reduce our use.

Mountain top removal eastern US.
This month as my heart breaks for yet more lost lives at the hands of dumb-4ss white police officers, I found refuge in a few writers I will be learning from and want to share here. 

Leah Thomas’s article “Why Every Environmentalist Should be Anti-Racist” appeared in Vogue on June 8, 2020. vogue.com

Open vista trails in the Chugach Mountains, AK.

Leah, an environmental scientist, discusses the effects of environmental pollution and politics against people of color and lower economic status. Her article references studies showing black neighborhoods carry a burden of suffering from 1.54 times the particulates in the air they breathe than the general population. This leads to higher disease rates in affected populations. Leah’s article in Vogue introduced me to the term Intersectional Environmentalism. 

Burning forest Appalachians, eastern US.
This effect is something I have seen in many places I have lived, and in many photographic documentary artworks, yet did not realize it had a name and should be called out. I just thought people lived in areas of degradation because they were lower priced due to the poor quality of the environment. But that is no excuse for why someone should have to live in a polluted environment, it is not an excuse to make polluted environments. Leah can be found on Instagram at @greengirlleah

High desert trail lower NM.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast were I saw many poor communities, especially around refineries, ports, and chemical plants. I was in the generation of school kids after segregation so my classes were mixed and I saw that as normal. I did not realize BIPOC had relatives, and generations going back for decades, that lived in degraded conditions. As I matured, I realized toxic manufacturing was placed in certain areas for a reason: the white men in power saw the communities as lesser-than. 

Militarized police Anchorage, AK.
As a nature-lover, it is painful to see any species taken advantage of, that is why I have become a writer, to hold up that which we should cherish. But I need to keep learning from forceful writers and advocates in regards to the US heritage of dumping and pillaging without regard to the environment or human life. Another series that brings this problem to light is the Guardian’s “Cancertown Louisiana” a year-long series from Reserve, LA where cancer rates are 50 times higher than the national average. And despite the awareness, LA recently approved a new plastic manufacturing plant in the area. 

Let's build bridges. Garden Seattle, WA.
See also this Guardian article by Megan Mayhew Bergman, “‘They chose us because we were rural and poor’: When environmental racism and climate change collide.” Her research is about her home state of North Carolina choosing to build a toxic PCB waste dump in Warren, a small predominately African-American town.

Riverside industry, Oregon,
but could be anywhere across the US.
As a hiking enthusiast, I am most interested in Carolyn Finney's June 3, Guardian article, “The perils of being black in public, we are all Christian Cooper and George Floyd.” She is responding to the utterly shameful and racist actions of Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper in Central Park, NY. Finney was not surprised due to the way she has been treated as a black woman. I will be reading Finney’s book, Black Faces White Spaces, Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Find more about Carolyn at her website: 


Come to the outdoors, it soothes. Walden.
The continued appropriation of land from Native Americans for resource extraction; the institutionalized theft of property from black and poor neighborhoods through imminent domain used to bisect cities with highways, bridges, and train tracks, are embarrassments to a country that claims to be the best on Earth. A country that pretends to have the best health care, the best jobs, and the best housing on Earth, news flash - does not. 

It will be a hard row,
but we can make it,
we have so much to offer each other,
and so much to treasure.
Come on, can’t we learn from history? This kind of behavior does not end well. Can’t we learn from nature? Partnerships and mutualism create a thriving environment. Mycorrhizae and plant roots, pollinators and flowers. Just look at lichens. Half the being is from the land of sunlight, the other is from the land of dark and damp. Yet when they met, and realized a partnership where one feeds the other and one houses the other, some stunning life forms were created. Those lichens not only are fascinating to look at, they are food, housing, and decomposers helping to recycle the environment where they grow. 

I selected the photos illustrating this article purposefully. They don't necessarily match the paragraphs they are with, the photos are kind of an essay on their own. These photos are places I have seen, and but few examples of beauty, and damage. I am hopeful all who want to enjoy these places can, and I will do what I can to learn, defend land, and bring attention to communities plagued by pollution in the name of capitalism.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Protect our Cultural Resources art Fundraiser for Alaskans in Need

My husband and I are both from Texas so Willie is a hero to us! (but would be otherwise, he is universally great!)

The community, country, and world around slipped into illness, fear, and panic. I had been working at home grateful that my husband has a “critical infrastructure” job. The closing of businesses did not affect us in a manner detrimental to our well-being. 

We are fortunate, many around us are not. We live in Alaska. Contrary to mythical stories of state residents receiving subsidies to live here—of big oil, of big fish—salaries in this state are not that high. There are a few exceptions, of course: doctors, lawyers, a few in real estate, descendants of those who started the banks and grocery stores. But most incomes are hourly jobs, the service industry, and seasonal tourism. Many of the oil jobs are filled by out-of-state workers. The top industries are heath care; government and military; grocery and similar services; tourism; fishing; and oil, gas, and mining. That “subsidy” is the Permanent Fund Dividend, and it pays out on average, between $1,000 and $1,800 per year. 2020 is seeing the lowest payout yet, $1,000. In my opinion, that about covers the higher price of fuel and healthcare in the state. 

But the PFD is a subject unto itself. It should be apparent that the PFD would not make up anyone’s income that lost their job during the pandemic. The PFD, in most cases, would not pay one month’s rent in this state. The PFD would not cover yearly dentist exams, a trip to the ER, or health insurance payments—especially for a family. 

I had been thinking of what I could do to help those less fortunate than myself. All the food servers I rely on, the movie theater workers, the bus drivers, and airline attendants. All the people soon to be and already homeless. I shied away from volunteering because I didn’t want to get sick and transmit the virus to my husband. Though we are financially secure, for now, we cannot afford to lose our income. One day my husband and I were talking and he expressed an interesting concern. He said: “We need to watch out for Willie!” As in Willie Nelson, as in the virus is most detrimental to our elders and those with health issues. 

This is my poster version on velvet art paper
(I know you can't tell that,
but it's nice and heavy, and smooth!)

I took his idea and ran with it, applying the concern to other cultural resources: Jimmy Carter and the dedicated first responders and health care workers. I hoped, if I made some fun artwork to sell to others who also have secure incomes, I could take the proceeds and donate them to Alaska-based resources. Like many other middle-income Americans, I have been watching the late night shows and the regional and world-wide fundraisers. But unlike most states, those big nonprofits promoted nationally do not have much, or any, reach in Alaska. 

So I created these art pieces which anyone can purchase and have imprinted on an item of their choice: poster, t-shirt, mug, tote bag, and more. I will take the proceeds and donate right here in Anchorage, Alaska. Proceeds from the sales of “Watch Over Willie” will go to our food banks, Bean’s Cafe, and Children’s Lunchbox. Sales from “Shelter St. Jimmie” will go to the Downtown Hope Center which houses women and children. Sales from “Support the Front Line” will go to restaurants—keeping their workers employed—to give to businesses in the state that have transformed their operations to produce PPE. I have more works in progress that will be just as fun and attention-grabbing. 

My husband is a medic and I know nurses and doctors.
I have spent many hours as a volunteer *victim*
so I am well aware of their valuable skills!

I look forward to public support and helping more where I can. Thank you for your support!

Stickers coming soon.

Face mask choice on Fine Art America is pretty nice,
and for me was 11-day turnaround. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Vitamin Packed Alaska Spring Greens

Fresh picked spruce tips. Prepared for use on the left. On the right see the brown husk over the ends of the tips to remove.

Where would you get your food if you lived over 4,000 miles from the nearest commercial distribution center? Or nearest major farming center, or nearest clothing manufacturer (actually, most of us live that far away from where clothes are made these days). This is the situation for almost one million people living in Alaska; and places such as Hawaii, and Iceland. When a natural disaster hits—like a volcano eruption, earthquake, or a pandemic—that threatens to interrupt shipping lanes, people worry. People realize they have put a lot of faith into transportation networks that connect everyone across the globe. After the initial panic, I’d like to invite folks to sit calmly and think about what the store outside your doors offer. You’re not going to find boxes and bags of food and pantry staples just off in the woods, but you will find raw materials to sustain yourself, whether for an emergency, or to enhance your well-being.

A majestic swath of white spruce, sitka spruce, and hemlock in Girdwood, AK—the northern tip of the Pacific Coast rainforest.
Wild foraging is a necessity humans have been practicing since we sprang to life. I can’t begin to cover the history, all the opportunities, reasons, or processes here, there are books and guides available for that. But I will wax the virtues of being outside, of looking closely at what grows around you, and having a curious eye to see all the critters and their connections to the same plants we enjoy. Get your body outside and moving around. Foraging for wild, natural, clean foods will boost your immune system and sense of self sufficiency. This is true for the adventurous and for those of us who live far from conventional food distribution centers. 
Spruce standing tall above a cultivated garden with
clematis,maltese cross, and peonies.

It’s a race to capture all the fresh greens Alaska has to offer before the plants mature into blooming, lush, reproductive specimens. The first shoots of ferns, devil’s club, cow parsnip, spruce tree tips, and other common spring greens pack an array of vitamins and minerals—in addition to great flavors they bring to other foods. 

Spruce tips too far gone for picking, they will be bitter.
Spruce tips offer vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and carotenoids—like beta-carotene, the colored pigments in vegetables that provide anti-oxidant properties. Fresh tips are harvested while their brown, sticky, papery husk is still on the very tip of the new cluster of needles. Once the covering has come off, the needles start to spread. That means the nutrients are also spreading and not as concentrated—the tips will not tase as good. These vibrant chartreuse  clusters are commonly pickled, steeped for tea, used in baked goods, dried for later use, or eaten fresh. The Dena’ina name for spruce tips is Ch’wala; the Tlingit name is Shéiyi. Squirrels and porcupine eat spruce cones and bark and needles. Squirrels eat so many seeds out of cones that large piles of pulp and pith build up under their favorite trees. These soft piles make a good picnic spot, and favored rest area for moose.

Young fronds of wood fern sautéed with garlic.
Young, just emerged fronds of wood and ostrich fern are delicacies in northern climates. Tender shoots contain potassium and a lot of vitamin A—also a carotenoid. Tight coiled fronds of ferns with brown papery coverings are best, not ferns that are brown and fuzzy. It cannot be emphasized enough: DO NOT harvest all the fronds from one plant. Unlike tree and bush leaves, the fern will not grow another frond in the same year. The brown husk should be removed before processing. Do not eat fern fronds raw, they must be cooked or pickled. A popular serving method is sautéed, seen here with garlic. The names for fiddleheads in Yu’pik are: cetuguar (aq), nengqaaq, ciilavik; in Dena’ina the names: elnen tselts ‘egha, uh ts ‘egha; the Tlingit name is K’wálx. Birds like to use fern leaf bits in nest construction.

Devil’s club is a prickly plant to use, literally and figuratively. To eat the spring greens, IT MUST BE HARVESTED right when it pokes out of the old stalk—BEFORE any spikes begin to appear. Devil’s club is closely related to ginseng, as its latin name implies: Oplopanax horridus, horridus indicating the threat of the spikes and toxicity of the berries. Despite the potential threats, devil’s club is an invaluable medicinal plant providing many remedies for infections, inflammation, and much more. Please consult experts on the use of or for properly prepared products. The Dena’ina name for devil’s club is heshkeghka’a.

Of course there are the other common “weeds” that are beneficial to our health that can be eaten raw, in salads, prepared as vinegars, or made into tonics. Those plants include: dandelion greens, nettles, chickweed, cleavers, and more. Harvest in clean habitats, not by the sides of roads where car exhaust has blanketed the surroundings. The plants offer the freshest, densest nutrients early before they bloom. When plants are blooming, more energy and resources are sent to the flowers, and that is fine, if the flowers are what drives your tastes.

Where ever you live, there are native and naturalized plants gracing your community ready to offer their tasty and useful constituents to your palate. Everything we eat now originated in the wild. The land around us has always provided what our bodies need.

Note that information provided here is for informational purposes only. Please explore the resources below for further details.


Native Alaskan traditional wisdom: Plants That We Eat, by Anore Jones
Harvesting and uses of a wide variety in northern regions: Discovering Wild Plants, by Janice Schofield
Alaska school program that matches a cultivated plant with a traditional native plant each month:
Identification in the field with some uses and cautions: A Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, by Verna Pratt
Peer-reviewed scientific research into plants used in herbal medicines: 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Tulip Season in Anchorage

The candy rich colors of tulips are popping all over town. Actually, a few started in early May—those located on southern exposures where warmth reflected off buildings helped the buds push up. Tulips make great additions to northern gardens: easy to plant, easy to tend, lovely to enjoy. But they come with one caution, don’t plant them where the moose tread. As delicious as they appear to us, the flowers literally are savored by the large, hooved beasts. 

Tulip tarda
Just look at these rich cups of color! It’s a good thing they are not aggressive in the garden. Tulips do grow easy here, yet they do not last for more than two or three years. The soil is not rich enough for their taste. However, Tulip tarda, a species tulip, with roots in the mountains Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northwest China may return for Alaskans year after year. Since the little darling grew up in sub-alpine habitats, it only makes sense that it could live here. Only  in the past few years have folks in Alaska have tried it. Tulip tarda is the yellow and white variety seen here. 

Once upon a time I lived in Texas where tulip bulbs had to be kept in refrigerators most of the winter before planting. Imagine if you wanted 50, or 100, or 200 depending on the size of your flower beds. You’d have to get a separate fridge or freezer to winterize your bulbs. In Alaska bulbs are received in the early fall and planted by October at the latest—before the ground freezes. Folks in Alaska prefer their extra fridge or freezer hold salmon, moose, or berries.

One of the tulips shown here, the yellow and red variety, gains its coloration because it is infected with a virus. Commonly called tulip breaking virus, the pathogen leads to either fading or intensifying of color pigments. Dorothy Cayley, a horticulturist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, experimented with tulips and the virus until she discovered it was transferred via aphids that carried sap from one plant to another. 

Though the bulb can live with the virus for a year or two, eventually the bulb falls victim to the pathogen and the plant dies. Such short lived excitement lends another cause to our collective romance for the fleeting beauty of flowers. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Successive Blooms and Co-Habitation

Perennial crocus in Anchorage, AK

No variety of plant thrives in solitary confinement, contrary to what folks who want perfect lawns might desire. Look at a native woodland edge, horizontal lines can practically be drawn across the vista as the species step down in size: canopy topping evergreen or deciduous trees, medium height trees with lower canopy, large shrubby evergreens or deciduous plants, herbaceous perennials, grasses, woodland wildflowers, short grasses and sedges, ground covers and vines, fungus, and the soil layer—too many strata of life to list here. 

Tended gardens benefit from co-habitation showing off for their human parents nearly all year. Here is a lovely example of a small flower bed in Anchorage. The crocuses planted in fall bloom first at the end of April through first of May. Some varieties of crocus are perennial and return year after year. Fritillaries, also known as speckled lilies, spike up midway through the crocus season and, like a blown-up balloon, out pop the dangly speckled lilies. There are hundreds of flowers called fritillaries, even a native variety in Alaska: Fritillaria camschatcensis, chocolate lily—that’ll show up here when it’s in bloom. There are even butterflies named fritillaries too. This variety is most likely Fritillaria meleagris. Surrounding and covering the crocus and lilies is a fine mat of creeping thyme. The thyme is evergreen acting as a blanket in winter, then as a mulch in summer. Most thyme thrive in the sun and in beds with good drainage. This little spot is slightly raised, about eight inches above grade, allowing sufficient water run-off.

Fritillaria meleagris surrounded by creeping thyme.

Underneath the bed is an old tree root from which mushrooms occasionally sprout. Not that it was planted there on purpose, the tree’s demise came long before the homeowner arrived. There are some cases where a tree root or log may be placed purposefully, it could be for a hugelkulture project, or fungus growing operation. Hugelkulture allows property owners to keep tree material they have removed from their property, on their property. Logs and limbs are piled largest on bottom to smallest on top with leaf material, twigs, and other organic matter filling in. As soil bacteria, mycelia, lichen, grasses, and insects move into the new hill of a home, co-habitation works like a charm and over time the pile becomes a natural berm. 

Plants in isolation suffer attacks from predators more often than vibrant ecosystems teeming with varied species. Monocultures are weakened by lack of biodiversity. Species in diverse landscapes support each another whether through decomposition into appropriate nutrients, symbiosis, shading, or simply holding each other upright. Working together, now that is a perfect environment.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Meanwhile, Spring Arrives in Alaska

The classic dream, a white picket fence and a rich bloomer, here it is Forsythia.

Though most parts of the country bask in summer—even Alaskan’s call this summer—botanically it’s still spring in the Great Land. Crocus came and left, tulips on southern exposures are blooming while their siblings in cooler spots will dot landscapes by end of May. Peony shoots have been working hard for the past month after snow left early this year—road crews began sweeping streets and sidewalks about three weeks prior to historical timelines. Spring primula are blooming, and vivid yellow pops of forsythia surprise walkers in older neighborhoods. Summers glow with twenty to twenty-four hours of sunlight per day in the north spurring all this rapid growth. The climate taught native and adapted plants to get it on in three busy months.

Primula working it's way up through last fall's leaves, April 22

And here’s a naturally curious tidbit about insects up north, some overwinter. Yes there are the standard flies, some adults live in crevices of buildings creeping out as higher angles of warm sun rays heat exteriors of structures. It’s kind of unnerving to open your curtains to a dozen or so pests frantically searching for an escape route between the window and screen. Tortoiseshell butterfly adults overwinter, the poor bedraggled wings flitting to warm gravel spots to elevate their body temperature. Even spiders, beetles, wasps, bumble bees, and other types of flies in the wild evolved to change their inner fluids to a sort of anti-freeze as they crawl under leaf litter to wait out the cold. Slugs have left pearly beads of eggs in the same leaf litter and anxious gardeners hope those beetles will find the eggs before they hatch. 

Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly, April.

We’re preparing gardens now for planting, in fact some perennials went in the ground at the beginning of May. Homesteaders eager to get their own food growing traditionally planted gardens the first of June in South Central Alaska. Over the past fifteen years planting days crept up about three weeks earlier, depending on who you ask. Gardeners living on south facing slopes, or in warm coastal microclimates are a week ahead of those living in cool swales and at the feet of the Chugach Mountains. Flower cutting gardens, long the envy of plant lovers from the Lower 48, will soon burst with color. Those who moved to Anchorage in the early to mid-twentieth century surrounded themselves with towering delphiniums, plump peonies, and dazzling dahlias. That still happens today, along with trollius, primulas, clematis, and hostas.  

Lawn post snow, April 22

May 15, first watering

Plants are living with the climate adjustment. Thank goodness for all those overwintering insects, the early bloomers will be happy to host them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Do the Trees Fear?

In contemplating our fear of viruses.

I wonder, is this what the trees felt like, when their sisters and mothers and uncles and aunts didn’t wake up in spring? When saw-toothy-edged elm leaves failed to unfurl, and mighty arms fell from the sky? And what of the eagle? Was it afraid, year after year when the safety of a thin calcium orb collapsed on a tiny, helpless chick? Did the bird wonder, what would happen, who would come back to the forest next year to eat mice and squirrels if my babies don’t live? And the prairie dog, the watcher of the plain, what did he think the day he popped up from his underground network, happy to greet his neighbor, yet his neighbor didn’t appear? Was he afraid, when next his grandmother didn’t wake up; and next the coyote that usually chased him home each afternoon? Did he wonder, will my children move to find new neighbors, will I live to teach my grandchildren which seeds to collect? And the coral; the brain, the fan, and the fish in their nooks, do they wonder if they can whisk the warm water away?  

Then I wonder, will I be able to teach my children how to make dinner? How to drive a car? Does my neighbor fear his father may not answer the phone tomorrow? And what of your boss, or auntie, or bus driver? Will you see them at the beach this summer? At the ice cream stand? Will your friends take off their coats and reach for the sun? 

Could the monarch, the manatee, and elephant come together? Do they have research that tells them why they disappear? Maybe there is a coalition with the ocean, the rainforest, and the river to find a vaccine that will cure them of us. 

Will the deciders ever help? Will the helpers get to decide? And I wonder, will we remember, will we be ready next time, and why didn’t we remember? And will there be food, and medicine, and shelter? But before, and after, will we hug? 

Above: An eagle soars over birch and spruce forest along Turnagain Arm, Alaska. Spruce have been in decline for a decade due to predation by the spruce bark beetle. As the climate warms, the winters are not harsh enough to kill the beetles. 

Learning about Intersectional Environmentalism

Trail leaving the northern most point of the  Pacific Temperate Rainforest in Girdwood, AK. When I see acres of rainforest burning, or the s...