Working Bicycles of the Netherlands

We are visiting the Netherlands and learning a lot about this small, densely populated country. One of the most obvious sites (besides the windmills) in both urban and rural areas is bicycles.

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The Dutch have the most bicycles per head of population in the world. (1.3 per citizen old enough to ride) Many Dutch own more than one—one for everyday use and a “best” one for cycle trips. According to Wikipedia, 27% of all trips in the Netherlands are made with bicycles.

 

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And the Dutch have bicycles adapted for any use. They are used to transport dogs, children, groceries, even suitcases!

 

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There are two primary reasons for this high usage: the flat Dutch countryside and the excellent availability of cycling paths that are well-maintained and well-lit.

 

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Seventy-five percent of secondary students cycle to school. In order to increase safety they must pass a traffic exam to be awarded their Verkeersdiploma. Interestingly though, the Dutch do not wear helmets for their numerous cycling trips—that safety piece of equipment is used only by racers and mountain bikers.

 

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With so many bicycles, parking them can be a problem. Some public facilities have fancy bicycle parking ramps, but sometimes passing train station, it was clear that where to park a bicycle is a big problem. I cannot imagine this problem happening in the U.S. We could learn a lot from our European neighbors about public and self-propelled transportation.

 

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Signing off from an Amsterdam cafe,

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Wilderness Quest

For months the Olympic Mountains had been beckoning. Sometimes veiled by layers of gray clouds, sometimes towering in snowy glory, their many moods called to me across the waters of Puget Sound.

 

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Massive rainforest trees, thundering waterfalls, wandering bear and cougar, no highways or roads penetrating their wild interior—I knew it was a perfect place for a rite of passage to mark the transition into my 65th year, and to honor the death of my father and son this past year.

 

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Following the pattern of the vision quest, I entered the separation phase of the journey: preparing my backpacking gear, completing office and home details, saying goodbye to family and friends. Once I left the trailhead and began the 3.2 mile, 1300 foot ascent to Lena Lake with my backpack, I stepped more deeply into separation from the comforts of civilization.

 

 

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My simple, beautiful camp provided the threshold or launching place for me to imagine and create a ceremony to honor my father and son.

 

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On day two I entered the Brothers Wilderness and hiked another three miles and ascended another thousand feet in elevation.

 

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I found the perfect place to sit and be with their memories—a place nestled in moss, watched carefully from above by the Brothers Peak.

 

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The ceremony I created is a private one, partly based on some of the traditions of the threshold phase of the vision quest and partly generated by my own soul and relationship with these two dear men.

 

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Time alone in wilderness heightens my awareness, reminds me to look within, and stirs my creativity. It restores my soul. I am home now slowly, carefully entering the longest phase of the vision quest—incorporation. I made the journey to the “sacred mountains” on behalf of myself and my people. Now I must learn how to make real in my daily life the wisdom I discovered there.

 

Superheroes

 

“Grandma, I want to be a superhero with super powers,” said our 9-year-old grandson as we headed outdoors to play baseball.

 

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The previous night we had watched “How to Train Your Dragon”, a DreamWorks animation film which features a young Viking boy (Hiccup) who defies convention by training, rather than killing dragons.

“It would be so cool to have a super power,” Jaden said.

“What kind of super power would you like?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, something that helps me do good things for people’” And in the way of 9-year-old boys, moved quickly into the task of setting up bases in the middle of our dirt road.

I thought about all the Superhero movies I’ve watched with Jaden—Astro Boy, Frozen, Spiderman, Batman. Superheroes are important to him. They help shape dreams of who he might become and what he might do for the world.

One of the things Jaden was required to do with us during his spring break was read aloud every day. One of the books he read to us was Rachel Carson, Friend of Nature.

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I told him she is my Superhero, that she never gave up trying to educate people about the dangers of pesticides. She truly inspired me to use my scientific training to educate people about the importance of protecting the beauty of nature.

Fifty years ago this month Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and launched the modern day environmental movement. With her carefully honed ability to explain science to ordinary people, she helped us understand that the unquestioned, widespread use of pesticides was not necessarily the good thing we in the 1950’s and 1960’s were led to believe.

I was a high school student when that book was published in 1964—six years older than Jaden. I read newspaper criticisms and watched television interviews. And I have since read nearly every biography that has been written about her.

Just like Jaden’s superheroes, she met with furious resistance from powerful foes—chiefly big chemical companies and their scientists. And also like Jaden’s superheroes, she had to bring to bear great skill and determination to “save” people.

Our dear grandson has returned to his third grade classroom in Los Angeles now. He is probably not thinking much about Rachel Carson, but he is still thinking about superheroes. And maybe, just maybe, he has a little deeper understanding of how he might use his fine young life to become a super hero.

 

 

Daffodils and Garlic—the perfect send off

It is mid-March— that time in the northern hemisphere where the sun is once again beginning to have some warming power and the southern hemisphere is moving into shorter, cooler days.

Two plants have been lifelong harbingers of spring for me: daffodils and garlic. The daffodils shown here were planted in my neighbors yard decades ago before she arrived. Every year they come up faithfully in spring—early bursts of color and life in the midst of a winter often reluctant to let go of its power.

 

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Garlic is a stunning garden plant. The cloves are carefully put in the ground in the fall and all winter, even while blizzards and sub-zero temperatures rage, they do their remarkable transformation and sprout hopefully in our garden beds in early spring.

 

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The cycle of birth/death/resurrection is everywhere around us as we move from winter to spring or summer to fall. Nature teaches us profoundly that life continues.

This is the lesson I carry to Colorado this week. My son’s ashes are carefully packed in my suitcase. We will scatter a portion of them on the soils of the Ranch my family visited for 50 years. Tradition matters. Our place in the great cycle of life holds us even when we are struggling to break new ground and create new life.

Tracking

We rarely get snow at sea level, but this morning we awoke to an inch of new snow. I realize this is almost laughable for my Minnesota, east coast, and Canadian friends. But it brought out a huge sense of wonder for me.

On my morning dog walk I made quite a discovery—a raccoon walked down the middle of our road sometime during the night! Maybe we have had a raccoon around for quite a while, but since they are often nocturnal we had not seen it. The other day I actually told a neighbor I did not believe we had raccoons around.

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Raccoon tracks are fairly easy to identify. Both front and rear paws have five delicate thin toes, which we know work in almost human hand ways to grasp and manipulate.

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By contrast, the tracks of my little dog reveal four roundish toes with claws—no prying off lids for her.

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Another set of tracks came from the little bunny that lives under the cedar bushes in the front yard. Note the staggered back two small paws and the larger staggered front paws.

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The snow has put quite a damper on our brave tulips, but it will likely melt with the predicted rain this evening. I am grateful for the world of tracks and the stories they reveal and my ability to get out and enjoy them before neighborhood cars obliterated them.

Who Won?

Nature teaches us many lessons. We tend to like the nice ones with inspiring scenery or cute animals. We don’t talk much about the more disturbing scenes that leave us unsettled.

This is the story about a hybrid seagull and a female bufflehead duck. It is a story about a predator that is 7 or 8 times the size of its prey. And I am still not sure “who won”.

Watching birds on a winter, open water pond, I was looking at a flock of several dozen black and white bufflehead ducks. These are the smallest North American ducks—cute, tiny, compact, and determined.

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All of a sudden one of my birding buddies said, “Look at that!” I put down my binoculars and watched as a large gull swooped down on the flock of buffleheads and scattered them in all directions. It methodically separated out one of the females and chased her. She was frantically trying to get back with her flock, but the gull forced her down to the water.

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Immediately the little duck dove to escape. The gull stared at the water and swam around. As soon as the little bufflehead came up for air, the gull was right there waiting to pounce. Down again went the little duck. They repeated this dozens of times until the little duck was so exhausted she HAD to stay on the surface. Then the gull opened its beak and tried to chew on her neck and pull on her wings. It seemed like the end for the bufflehead.

But somehow she escaped—a bundle of sheer determination and will. The gull pursued her relentlessly. At least four or five times the cycle of gull pulling on duck and duck escaping and diving repeated itself. I spoke aloud to my friends. “How can she keep this up?” At this point we had been watching the pursuit for 15 minutes.

Suddenly the gull flew off and an immature bald eagle took over the pursuit of the bufflehead, who promptly dived again. Twice more the eagle tried to catch its stolen prey, but it was no match for the feisty little duck and gave up.

Looking through our binoculars, we judged that the tiny duck was swimming OK. Within a minute three buffleheads—two females and one male— flew in to check on her. They swam circles around her, and then swam quickly in the direction they had come from. It was obvious she could not keep up with them. When they flew off, she flapped her little wings, but did not appear to be able to fly.

Slowly she started to swim towards the dock in front of us. We remained completely still, not wishing to add further trauma to her afternoon. When she disappeared under the dock, which was about twenty feet in front of us, we slowly walked away.

“We must let her be,” I said. “She has either gone there to die or recover. We will never know which. We just got to watch one of life’s ordinary little creatures in a truly brave, remarkable moment.”

Sometimes it is not about winning or losing. It is about giving life your all. None of us know how life is going to turn out or when we might be asked to exert extraordinary energy on our own behalf: we just do what must be done when it’s asked of us. Coming through this winter of death and mourning, of going on with my half-healed heart, I know what it is to be buffeted and buffleheaded. And I know you also carry such moments. May we keep swimming and surviving.

 

 

Companionship

She ran circles in the house upon our return from the state park. At our house we call it frapping—frantically running around playing. She was so happy! She had had such a good time on the hike.

And I did, too. It was a dreary Northwest December day. Gray, light rain, temperatures not much above freezing. The high tide of despair was rolling in fast. Often the only container large enough for my grief is nature. “Come on, Gracie,” I said. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Gracie outside the Hobbit Tree

Gracie outside the Hobbit Tree

We hiked the Upper Loop trail at South Whidbey State Park—lots and lots of dripping moss, giant old growth trees, and eerie shapes and forms. Gracie immediately got busy sniffing for evidence of who or what had used the trail since our last visit. I got lost in the reverie of quiet, subtle beauty.

At one point she was snuffling around the entrance to a large opening at the base of a gnome-like big leaf maple. The mythology about corgis is that they are steeds for the fairies. It did not take much for me to imagine her rider tucked safely into the shadows of the old tree. And it delighted me to be connected to my sense of wonder.

At another point she hopped atop a fallen log that she proudly followed until she was at a height of about 5 feet. “What are you going to do now?” I asked aloud. She promptly jumped into my arms!

Ah, the trust—the sheer, beautiful trust of a well-loved dog. It is an extraordinary gift and on this day I really needed it.

Medicine Walk with my Son

On Nov. 23 my 33-year-old son died unexpectedly in Denver after what was to have been his final surgery on the road to recovery from a terrible accident as a paramedic fourteen months earlier. I am still in shock. To prepare myself to speak at his huge “line of duty” funeral, I sought spiritual readiness in the solace of nature.

dscn56331x300Brian was young and adventuresome. I knew I had to go to a wild place to connect with him. My little corgi dog and I drove two hours up to the Cascade foothills covered in fresh snow. On that day we were the only ones on the Forest Service road. There were fresh tracks of critters everywhere on the trail: snowshoe hare, coyote, pine marten, squirrel, mouse, and deer. Gracie was an unusually quiet companion. Sometimes she would race ahead in sheer joy at being in the snow, but mostly she stayed by my side or directly behind me.

After a couple of hours of walking in the snow, she started boofing at something up ahead. It is her way of talking to me, telling me to pay attention. The hair stood up on the back of her spine and she continued to boof more loudly. I actually got a bit alarmed because we had been seeing a lot of coyote tracks and were a long ways from our parked truck.

Suddenly a dark shape flew low over our heads from behind and landed on a branch in front of us; an elegant, black raven. Gracie fell immediately silent and came over to my side. The raven began “talking” to us. It started to click its bill, and then it puffed up its feathers. Turning its head back and forth to look at us, it continued this routine for about five minutes.

Corvus coraxThe last thing I had spoken to my son at his bedside was, “Fly free, my son. Fly free.”

An enormous calm came over me. I felt certain for the first time since his death that he was OK. “Thank you,” I said aloud to the raven. It peered directly at us. Far away across the valley I heard the ethereal croak of another raven. Our raven lifted off his branch and flew directly at us and then veered off towards the sound of its own kind. That image has held me steady as I move along this unpredictable journey of grief.

 

Medicine Walk Number One

When I really need guidance, I take a medicine walk. Far more than a walk in the woods or a ski on the snow, a medicine walk is deeply intentional time in nature.

Two recent deaths in my family reminded me of the power of this ancient form. My father died on Veteran’s Day (November 11). Several days later I spent the day alone in a nearby state park. Drawing a tarot card for guidance, being smudged with sage, and speaking my intention for the day: to find words to honor him at his funeral, I set off on foot on a rainy northwest late autumn day.  Everywhere the presence and abundance of nurse logs spoke to me of the legacy that my father leaves in place.

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A nurse log is a downed tree or stump in the forest that slowly decays and provides sustenance for the seedlings of moss, ferns, and young trees that will take its place. These nurse logs are critical to the ongoing health of our forests in much the same way my father’s life values and teachings are critical to my ongoing navigation of the world around me.

I used the strength of that metaphor to find words to speak at Dad’s funeral on Nov. 27. One of five stories I shared about him was how I got to fish with him from a very young age . . . and launched my lifelong love of nature.

Next blog: Medicine walk with my son

Orcas!

We were taking a lunch break from office details when I shouted, “Orcas swimming by!” Immediately we headed out the door and toward the beach stairs.

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We could see a group of orcas loblolling and circling as they actively fished for salmon about four miles off shore in a surprisingly calm Puget Sound. These extraordinary animals, sometimes called “the wolves of the sea”, were clearly working together to corral salmon.

Puget Sound resident orcas feed exclusively on salmon. Our resident J, K, and L pods are among the most intensively studied marine mammals in the world and yet many months of the year their whereabouts are a mystery.

Killer Whales

The most famous member of these pods is Granny, (J-2), who will be 102 years old this year! She became a great, great, great grandmother in the summer of 2012 and is the oldest known orca in the entire world. As the matriarch of this pod, she still plays an active part in guiding pod movement, babysitting, and teaching the young.

group of killer whales in the wild

As we headed back to the office, I was lost in my own thoughts. What a privilege to see these magnificent creatures! They represent the wild, spectacular edge of our lives here. But I am well aware of their tenuous status. Salmon are their sole source of food and salmon numbers in the region continue to decline.

And then I think of Granny and I am inspired. Since her 1911 birth here, she has experienced stunning changes—massive amounts of logging, industrial and population growth, and declining water quality. She and her clan have changed and adjusted through it all. I am not planning on living to 102, but I am dedicating my elder years to making this region better for my wild friends.