FOUNDER’S LETTER by John de Graaf
REFLECTIONS: Follow the Drinking Gourd, by Vicki Graham
SPOTLIGHTS: International Dark-Sky Association, National Park Service, Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Initiative, Audubon Societies
KARA'S CORNER: A Poem Inspired by Autumn
NEW BLOG POST: Poems by Gus Speth
John de Graaf
Well, our newsletter is a bit delayed again thanks to me. I’ve been swamped lately, first with a two-week trip to the East Coast to talk about beauty, justice and sustainability in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Burlington, Vermont and Buffalo, New York, where I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the annual World on Your Plate conference and make some wonderful new friends. Buffalo is justly proud of its glorious string of Olmsted parks, begun in 1868 as the first integrated park system in any major American city. The drive through New England from Boston was amazing as fall colors were in their full glory, especially in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. I returned to Seattle where, on my daily walk today, I was overwhelmed by colors as vivid as those in the East—this seems to be a special year for them here.
DESIGNING WITH NATURE
I continue to be inspired by the possibilities of cities designed with and for nature. In Hungary, I was introduced to Naturvation, a marvelous European Union program. Check out their web site to see 1000 ideas for natural solutions in cities from about a hundred different European cities. Several of them are featured in this well-made if a bit dated film, THE NATURE OF CITIES.
Check it out. The idea is called biophilic (life-giving cities) and a new book VACANT TO VIBRANT explores the idea even further.
“SEWER” SOCIALISTS DEMAND BEAUTY
Speaking of vibrant cities, the New York Times recently ran a wonderful piece about the long Socialist or Social Democratic history of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was governed by the Social Democratic Party (an offshoot of the US Socialist Party) from 1910 until 1960.
I was especially struck by a quote from the article, from Milwaukee’s first socialist mayor Emil Seidel’s memoir. In the heady early days, during the Progressive era (the time of “Bread and Roses” that I wrote about recently), Milwaukee’s socialists were called “sewer socialists” because of their attention to the immediate health and sanitation issues that faced work, but as Seidel put it:
“Yes, we wanted sewers in the workers’ homes; but we wanted much, oh, so very much more than sewers. We wanted our workers to have pure air; we wanted them to have sunshine; we wanted planned homes; we wanted living wages; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational education; we wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness. And, we wanted everything that was necessary to give them that: playgrounds, parks, lakes, beaches, clean creeks and rivers, swimming and wading pools, social centers, reading rooms, clean fun, music, dance, song and joy for all. That was our Milwaukee Social Democratic movement.”
If political leaders believed we could have these things 100 years ago, why do so few talk about them now when we are so much richer? Why are we obsessed with material things and economic growth when these things mean so much more to our health and happiness? The early 1900s were the period of the City Beautiful Movement. I believe we very much need a movement today animated by the desires that Emil Seidel writes of. Let’s go!
I don’t know about you but I think that instead of a Libertarian or Liberal Party, we need a Limitarian Party or movement—understanding that the good life requires limits to economic growth, population expansion, ugliness, over-consumption, carbon, etc., to free up space and time for beauty, social connection and immersion in nature. We can’t have everything; we have to decide.
Right now, we need limits to overwork, so people have time to appreciate beauty and smell the roses. So I’m excited to be connected with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff in NYC, who are about to launch the first paid vacation law in any American city. I hope Seattle will be number two, and that you will think about it for your city. I’m also working with Jon Steinman, the former director of the Congressional Ethics Office on an effort to win a 4-day work week. With eight extra hours for play and friendship and gardens and walks in the woods, all Americans will be happier!
Finally, here are some new articles I’ve been reading that might interest you. The article "What Makes Art Beautiful?" is from my favorite conservative publication, THE FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC, a publication I am proud to write for.
And here is a thoughtful defense of wilderness by David Guterson, who wrote the beautiful novel SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS.
And here is a ringing defense of more nature in our cities:
Happy reading and may you walk in beauty!
REFLECTIONS: Follow the Drinking Gourd
Photo of the Big Dipper from NASA's website, courtesy of Jerry Lodriguss
“I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh
Every clear night, I fall asleep in starlight, drifting into the exquisite beauty of the night sky, tracing constellations familiar since my childhood—The Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, Cygnus… Depending on the time of year, the visible constellations of the Northern Hemisphere change, but the Big Dipper remains constant, the polestar a steady light in the sky, pointing the way north.
And inseparable from the image of the Big Dipper is a song I learned when I was a child:
Follow the Drinking Gourd
When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.
We sang this song at summer camp. I heard Pete Seeger and the Weavers sing it. It is part of our heritage, one of many Underground Railroad songs sung by slaves—songs of hope and comfort, songs with coded directions for escape from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom: when to leave—spring, “when the sun comes back”—and what path to follow—north, pointed out by the Big Dipper.
When we lose our night sky, we lose not just the awe-inspiring beauty of the stars, but essential elements of our history and culture.
For all of human history, the beauty of starry nights has inspired art, literature, music, and philosophy.
Photo of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”
The patterns and shifting positions of stars and the phases of the moon have shaped religious and cultural practices. Early navigation—local as well as global--depended on the stars. And in recent times, astronomy has opened our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
Photo of the Spiral Galaxy, courtesy of Hubblesite
And yet, today, 80% of Americans live where the night sky is almost invisible, washed out by city lights. Places once dark and ideal for observatories are no longer free from light pollution.
Photo courtesy of Todd Carlson
Like air and water pollution, light pollution interferes with the physical well-being of all life on earth. Wildlife and healthy eco-systems suffer from excesses of light. Migrating birds become confused, and die, endlessly circling artificial light. Improper lighting creates glare and dark shadows, making city streets more dangerous rather than less. Light pollution wastes energy-- According to the International Dark-Sky Association, “30% of outdoor light in U.S. is wasted. This adds up to $3.3 billion and the release of 21 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.” Artificial light affects our health by increasing risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, and breast cancer. It affects our circadian rhythms, inhibiting production of the hormone melatonin, which boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol and helps the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes, and adrenal glands. Blue-rich white light, as in LEDs, computer screens, TVs, and electronic displays, is particularly detrimental to human health.
Unlike air or water pollution, light pollution is completely reversible. All across North America there are organizations focused on preserving our night skies.
International Dark-Sky Association
Photo Rainbow Ridge, a Certified Dark Sky Sanctuary, courtesy of the IDA
Since 1988, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has been dedicated to protecting the night sky for present and future generations: “IDA’s mission is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. Goals: Advocate for the protection of the night sky. Educate the public and policymakers about night sky conservation. Promote environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. Empower the public with the tools and resources to help bring back the night.”
Photo of Massacre Rim, also a Certified Dark Sky Sanctuary, taken by Richie Bednarski and published by IDA
Every year, IDA organizes a Dark Sky conference. This year, the theme is “Shooting for the Stars,” to be held November 8-9 in Tucson, Arizona.
Individual chapters of IDA: Many states and cities have organized Dark-Sky chapters (web site for how to find or start a chapter in your community: darksky.org click on “join a chapter” in the main menu). A good example is Oregon Dark Sky. Their mission: “to preserve Oregon’s magnificent dark skies and to diminish light pollution for the health, safety, and well-being of all life.” Currently the chapter is working to help designate Oregon’s first International Dark Sky Park.
National Park Service: Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division
According to their website, “America's national parks contain many cherished treasures. Among them are captivating natural sounds and awe-inspiring night skies. The joy of listening to the quiet symphony of nature and the wonderment of seeing the Milky Way stretching overhead are unique experiences that can still be found in many of our national parks. Natural sounds and natural lightscapes are essential in keeping our national treasures whole. They are magnificent in their own right and inspirational to the visitors who come to national parks. They are vital to the protection of wilderness character, fundamental to the historical and cultural context, and critical for park wildlife.”
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Check the Park Service’s web site for National Park Service Night Sky Events.
Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Initiative
The Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative hopes to lead the way in protecting natural darkness as a precious resource and create a model for dark sky protection. The Dark Sky Cooperative does not have a legal boundary, but is instead a geographic region where public lands, tribes, communities, businesses, schools, clubs, and citizens join to support a set of principles resulting in mutual benefits and the long-term conservation of our starry night heritage.
Light pollution negatively affects birds, both their home habitat and their migration patterns. Audubon Society members have been working for many years, educating their communities and initiating local light ordinances. Examples of local chapters: Portland, OR, “Lights Out.” (audubonportland.org search for “Lights Out). Kalmiopsis Audubon Society in Port Orford, OR. (check menu on their web site for Dark Sky).
From the Department of Workforce Services, Utah, a 48 page guide, “Dark Sky Planning: Guidance and Best Practices, An Introduction for Local Leaders.” An excellent resource for planning. Department of Workforce Services of Utah.
Consortium for Dark Sky Studies founded in 2015 at the University of Utah.
City lighting ordinances. For information on how to advocate for and initiate a lighting ordinance in your community, see (darksky.org click on “lighting ordinances” in the main menu.)
For a world map showing levels of light pollution and places of dark sky, see: lightpollutionmap.info or
blue-marble.de/nightlights. (Photo of Blue Marble map of US.)
Let There Be Night, editor Paul Bogard. An informative collection of compelling essays by nature writers, poets, scientists, and other scholars on what we lose when our night skies vanish. The book includes personal experiences as well as practical advice on how to restore night skies to our cites.
The End of Night, by Paul Bogard. In this book, Bogard describes his travels throughout the world to find night, blending personal narrative with natural history and science.
Photo courtesy of Kara Patajo
A poem inspired by autumn:
During a walk in the fall
A distinct chill in the air greets me when I step out of the door
Signaling a transition away from the comfort of summer sunshine
And towards winter's refreshing, icy touch
My eyes and ears notice leaves tumbling to the ground
Leaving the trees bare, but the ground colored
As I look around at how the familiar looks so different, a sense of urgency sparks in me
To see as much of the changing colors as I can before fall ends
To hike on cloudy days, to walk my dog in the rain, to ride bikes through leaf piles
Certainly there is beauty in the changing seasons,
with some sadness at the inevitability of change
To part ways with the comfort of the warm sun
Yet, I realize that fall marks a new opportunity to experience beauty in places we know well
Places transformed by the season, shaded with bright red, orange, and yellow
A reminder to look for beauty everywhere you go
In your town, neighborhood, and yard
Pause to admire a transitioning tree or a single leaf
Recognizing the beauty of the small breeds appreciation for Mother Earth overall
Photo courtesy of Kara Patajo
Photo courtesy of Gus Speth
Gus Speth, a prominent proponent of the environment, has shared two poems from his new book "What We Have Instead: Poems by Gus Speth" to our blog this month. Speth recently served as dean of Yale's school of environment and forestry and as professor of law at Vermont Law School. At the United Nations, he headed the UN's Development Program. Prior to that, he was co-founder of both the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the World Resources Institute (WRI), where he led on many environmental issues over a period of 17 years. During the Carter years, he served as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In jail in Washington DC with Bill McKibben and others on a climate protest, Speth said the following of his 3-day stay, "I've held a lot of important positions in this town, but none seems as important as this one.”
The poems Speth shares in his blog post offer a glimpse into his own personal concerns for environmental protection. Writing from the perspective of a mountain in “Thinking like a Mountain,” he invites us to imagine what it would be like to be a mountain, helping us to better understand and appreciate not just its beauty but its complex role in the web of life.