Lost from the cradle of connection: the high price of driving

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P32 investigates a camera, February 2015 (National Park Service)

On August 10 of this year, sometime in the early morning, a young mountain lion known to us as P32 was killed on the Interstate 5 near Castaic.

He had been tracked by researchers for two years–and appeared on the local news now and then– as he traversed the borderlands of our civilization, crossing our roads and slinking through our backyards as he made his way from wild space to wild space, traveling all the way from the Santa Monica Mountains to Pyramid Lake. Cameras caught him making four freeway crossings in the past, and certainly he made more  He had to cross highways. An adult mountain lion needs about 200 miles of home range to make a living.

State officials call his death “Sad, but not surprising.”

On August 10th, P32 became “roadkill.” Roadkill is an odd term, isn’t it?  The road didn’t kill P32, a driver did.

There’s some odd blameshifting going on there. The term roadkill implies that no one is at fault. It also seems to indicate that roads will kill, inevitably, and any creature hit by a car was stupid to be on the road in the first place. They should know the rules: step on our roads and you die.

After the collision, the animal is denigrated by the means of its death to a nonentity. P32 ceased to be a lion and became roadkill–and roadkill is a joke.

How big of a joke? According to the Humane Society, one million animals die on U.S. roads every day.

Yes, one million every day.

It’s a hard number to get your head around. It’s a hard number to come to, because most animal deaths are not reported. Animals tend to make the stats only  if they’re large enough to damage a vehicle, or must be dragged from the road to clear the way for traffic. No one is counting all of the flattened rabbits and possums and squirrels and the sparrows and turtles and snakes, so I’m not sure how the Humane Society is calculating this number, but I don’t doubt it. It’s probably low.

And what about insects?

Researchers in the Netherlands estimate that 800 billion insects die on the hoods of automobiles every six months in the Netherlands alone. British research brings in similar numbers in terms of bugs killed per distance traveled. Treehugger extrapolated that number for the US, and reckons we kill about 32 trillion insects a year while driving.

(An aside, I once heard Emily Green comment that planting the median strip of a busy boulevard with flowers was like parking an ice cream truck in the middle of a freeway. In other words, how many pollinators die trying to cross traffic to get to our beautified medians? Talk about being killed by good intentions.)

How much of the food supply for birds and frogs and other creatures is lost on our hoods and under our wheels? And while few people would mourn the passing of a mosquito or a fly on the windshield, but what about the night pollinating moths, what about the Monarchs, what about the bees?

We’re all up in arms about CCD, about pesticides and dying pollinators–how many bees are we killing all by ourselves as we drive?

In the same way, we decry shelters which euthanize dogs and cats, we abhor animal testing, but we kill more animals on the roads than we do in the shelters and the labs.

But let’s get more anthropocentric. What about human deaths?

In 2013, in the U.S. alone:

  • 32,719 people died in car-related accidents (This number is significantly down from past years, but sadly seems to be going back up this year.)
  • 4,735 of these were pedestrians (i.e. people trying to walk around–I kind of hate the word pedestrian) A further 22,000 people were injured by car drivers.
  • 735 of the dead were cyclists

FYI, 3,551,332 people have died in the US in motor vehicle accidents since we invented cars. The chart of this year by year progression is grimly interesting.  As is this chart of countries by traffic related death rates.

In sum, every year I’ve been alive, an average of 45,000 people have died–in the US alone–simply because they needed to get to work, or school or the store.

Why is it acceptable to us that so many people must die just because they needed to get somewhere? Do we live in a war zone? How many casualties are acceptable in this engagement?

And beyond the lives lost, there’s the money. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that highway accidents cost $277 billion dollars a year in straight up economic costs ($900 per person in the US) and a more fuzzy $594 billion in “societal harm,” meaning pain suffered, decreased quality of life, etc. The total is $871 billion in losses per year.

And all of the above is simple an accounting of deaths and money. Stuff which isn’t abstract. Blood on the pavement is hard to spin. I haven’t touched on climate change, air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, habitat loss, urban sprawl, songbird harassment–all of the rest of indicators of the unspeakably high cost of the personal automobile.

So, okay, this is all depressing. What’s my point?

The point is:

What are we thinking?

I mean, seriously, what are we thinking? Can we step back from this?

I doubt it. We can’t talk about giving up the personal automobile. We can’t even think about alternatives, no matter what it costs us, anymore than an Easter Islander could stop chopping down trees.

Our blindness is intractable, and all-encompassing. For us, cars are not merely a convenient transportation device of fairly recent invention. They are magical talismans. They represent us: our souls, our freedom and self-determination.

I don’t know if we can escape this kind of blindness. I speak for myself. I drive. I live in a car-centric city. I know better. And still I drive.

But I do wonder why, and I wonder what it is doing to our souls.

The road is an ugly place and it makes for ugly people. I was on the freeway today, and as usual had a few scary moments and did my obligatory bit of swearing at my fellow man. You’d think the roads were stuffed with sociopaths rather than decent people trying to get through their day. We change when we’re on the road.

We don’t look one another in the eye. We’re anonymous. We’re armored. We’re more powerful than we are on our feet, so we feel invincible.

Life, real life, good life, is about connection. Connection with ourselves, with nature, with spirit, with each other. It’s about relationships. And relationships are formed face to face. Our freeways and boulevards are places of anti-connection, anti-relationship. Taken out of the cradle of connection, we turn into monsters.

The dead by the road, or on it, testify to the presence of man. Their little gestures of pain—paws, wings and tails—are the saddest, the loneliest, most forlorn postures of the dead I can imagine. When we have stopped killing animals as though they were so much refuse, we will stop killing one another.

But the highways show our indifference to death, so long as it is someone else’s. It is an attitude of the human mind I do not grasp. I have no point of connection with it. People drive in such a way that you think they do not believe in death. Their own lives are their business, but my life is not their business. I cannot refrain from terrific anger when I am threatened so casually by strangers on a public road.  – Timothy Findley,  from Journeyman: Travels of a Writer, 1965

If there were any grown-ups in this world, they’d take our cars from us, because we’ve been very bad with our toys.

I’ve been trying to be a grown-up. Which means I’ve been thinking about bicycling, even though I’m afraid to even get on a bike in this city. I feel like a huge hypocrite for not doing so, though, and the balance of moral incentive versus fear keeps tipping as I am forced, day by day, to acknowledge the costs of my behavior.

The death of P32 has pushed me a little further toward courage.

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Note: If you’d like to help track animal road deaths so that a) we know the actual numbers and b) so we could maybe get some money together to build culverts or bridges for animals to use to cross highways, check out:

Roadkill Survey by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

And if you live in California or Maine:

Wildlife Crossing

The best dry toilet ever

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We are fortunate to have talented friends all around us, because they are a never-ending source of inspiration.

Case in point: Our friend, Gloria, needed a toilet for her off-grid compound. She asked our mutual friend, Daniel, to make her one. Daniel is a gifted maker– all his creations seem to have an inherent grace about them. Using the classic text, The Humanure Handbook, as a resource, he built her the most beautiful dry toilet system I’ve ever seen.

See more pics of this system and read Daniel’s story on his book-as-a-blog, The Cabin Dweller’s Texbook.

Also, we interviewed Daniel earlier this year for Root Simple Podcast #044.

How to Water Trees During a Drought

This is a practical follow-up to my scree last week on trees dying because no one is watering them. Thing is, we should be watering them, even if we’re really worried about the drought, even if we’re doing everything we can to save water. We need to invest in trees because they save more water than they use. They are our allies in this drought, and they are dying.

Now, I thought I was going to have to write up all this tree-watering stuff from scratch, but our friend Richard Hayden, the head gardener of the amazing Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, sent me a note with links to these videos produced by the Forest Service. I like these videos because they’re concise, and the info is solid.

Thank you, Richard!
Thank you, Forest Service!

The video at the top of the post is on watering mature trees, the one at the bottom about watering young trees–the two techniques are a bit different.

Also, you can find more learning resources at Tree People.

What are trees worth?

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Trees and people, happy together. The Mall and Literary Walk, Central Park, NYC. Photo by Ahodges7.

Trees are dying all over Los Angeles, because of the drought. No one seems to think they need to be watered.

Trees which are not simply dying of thirst are being ripped out and replaced with “water saving landscapes” of succulents, cactus and gravel.

Both of these trends are disturbing, and are the result of ignorance more than bad intent. Our culture as a whole is green blind if not outright biophobic. I’ve come to understand that most people don’t even really see plants, except as a vague green background to their busy lives, and even fewer people understand plants and the value they bring to our lives and the world at large.

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer, taking refuge in green places which restore the soul. Returning to LA has been hard, because all of the plant life here is so very stressed. When I’m outside, it’s almost as if I can hear a constant, low-level cry of misery from the land, and that pain resonates in me, creating a deep sense of helplessness and sorrow. My strategy for dealing with this for the past couple of weeks has been to hide indoors and bury myself in books–to just shut down.

But I seem to have run into the limits of self-pity, and now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to help the situation. This post is a small gesture in that direction. I’m beginning with trees, because they are the lynchpin of the loving landscape.

In defense of trees

Shrubs and annuals come and go. Trees are long term residents of the landscape, surveyors of our lives. Above and below ground they knit together communities on many levels. They deserve special attention. They deserve to be valued and cherished for what they are, more than simply what they do for us. That said, they do a whole heck of a lot for us:

  • In mercenary, real estate terms, trees create street appeal and bump up property values by thousands of dollars. This, though, is the least part of their true value.
  • Trees cast shade, which cools the ground, which cools the environment at large, countering the urban heat island effect. They also cool the air by passing water through their leaves. A healthy urban forest makes for a much more liveable city for us all.  (The city of Melbourne understands this.) And trees clustered around your own house make your home cooler in the summer, reducing your energy bills. Low lying cactus and succulent plants do little or nothing nothing to cool the city, while gravel, concrete and artificial turf make your yard a blistering heat trap.
  • Trees help the land absorb rain, increasing ground water levels and preventing destructive run off and storm flooding. (See this and this.) A single tree can absorb thousands of gallons of rain water as it falls, like a giant sponge. What will happen to the dry slopes of California this winter, when the winter rains come, and our trees are gone, from stress and fire? Mudslides my friends, and lots of them. I’m already dreading it. But this isn’t just a California problem. Crazy weather is the norm the world over now, and trees are one of our best buffers against the worst of it.
  •  Trees don’t only hold water in the ground,  they share it with other plants. Having a big tree in your yard is like having a pump and well which you don’t have to maintain.
  • Trees make for clean water. By absorbing all that storm water, they pull the filth from our streets into the soil, and the soil cleans it, pro bono. (This is one of the many benefits of healthy soil, another important player in environmental health.) If that storm water runs unchecked, it just dumps all of the oil and fertilizer and insecticides and poo straight into the nearest waterway.
  • Trees absorb and store carbon, directly mitigating climate change–and they indirectly mitigate the change as well, by helping to temper the effects of storm water, high winds, high heat, etc.
  • Trees create food and habitat for birds, insects and mammals. We humans don’t like to share resources with the rest of creation, but trees support life of all sorts, with no trouble to us. Or maybe not, if squirrels are stripping your fruit trees clean! So we might have a vested interest in fruit trees–but all trees are beneficial to other life, above and below ground. Think of each tree as a city, teaming with life which is mostly invisible to us, but vitally important to the world.
  •  Trees heal the soul. They give us shelter from the sun and the rain. They give us a place to read and dream.  A place to hide and climb. An anchor in a shifting landscape of time and movement.  We’ve known since the 1980’s that they even speed our recovery when we’re sick.

These points just scratch the surface of what trees do for us. For more, see Tree People’s Top 22 Benefits of Trees.

Trees don’t ask much of us, but offer so much in return. I feel the least we can do is treat them well. They are valuable, long lived, complex entities. It is worth calling a professional arborist to give them a proper pruning, or to consult if they look stressed. Yes, this costs money, but removing a mature tree once it has died from neglect, disease or bad pruning is a much more expensive proposition.

If you live in a drought-stricken area, water your trees--even if you’ve never watered them before. They don’t have the resources they once had, and while they’ve been hanging on like champs for four years, they are beginning to give up. I see it everywhere.

Watering trees in a drought is a long-term investment. It is even reasonable to plant a new tree, as you would light a candle in the darkness. Don’t water anything else in your yard, if you must, but save your trees.