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


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.


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

060 Eric of Garden Fork Returns


Kelly has jury duty this week and I had no guest. Coincidentally, Eric Rochow of the Garden Fork Podcast also had no guest or host this week so we both agreed to be guests on each other’s podcasts. This is the second time we’ve had Eric on and in this episode he discusses tapping maple trees and making syrup, grilling steaks on coals, crowd funding, pie crusts and meditation apps. Here’s the rundown:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Our Amazon Problem

FeuerbachAmazonenSchlacht copy

For years now this blog has earned a small income from Amazon sales–not much, just enough to cover our hosting fees and pay our webmaster.

Meanwhile, Amazon has grown to proportions that would make a 19th century robber baron blush. The New York Times reported this month on Amazon’s poor treatment of white collar employees while BBC’s Panorama showed the hellish conditions at the bottom of the Amazon pyramid. For years Amazon avoided paying local sales taxes, gaining a discounting advantage that put small local bookstores, unable to compete, out of business. I could go on. If you’d like to know more read this roundup of Amazon’s sins in Salon.

And yet, I suspect, few of us (including myself) have had the moral courage to delete our Amazon accounts like Rob Hoskins, founder of the Transition movement, did and blogged about it recently (Thanks FR for tipping me off to Hoskins’ post). Those Amazon discounts are just too tempting and their comprehensive selection of goods too convenient to bypass. And for bloggers, such as ourselves, those associate referral fees provide one of the few viable sources of funding for our efforts. Even less appealing than loss of income is clean-up work: our site is now riddled with links to Amazon which, if we want to divest from Amazon, we will have to remove one by one, by combing through more than 2000 posts.

We’ve considered using other advertising models, but found those to be even more potentially offensive. Face it, most of consumer culture is offensive.  Should we push factory-made clothing? Toxic electronics? Cars? Credit? Click bait? We’d like to have small businesses as sponsors, but finding them, negotiating with them and wrangling their ads is a part-time job that neither of us wanted to take on.

Regarding alternatives to the Amazon model, there was a period when Amazon dumped all associates in California after the state went after them for not paying sales taxes. During this time, I tried using Portland-based bookstore Powell’s associate program, but it proved unpopular with our readers. There were maybe one or two orders total in the six months I went with Powell’s.

I believe it to be unethical to write for free. It’s not fair to our fellow authors and I don’t want to be part of the race to the bottom that’s destroyed the music business and is currently destroying publishing and journalism. That’s why I feel morally compelled to find a funding model that keeps Root Simple free while providing us with a modest income.

I’ve long been an admirer of the folks at the Idler in the UK. Like us, they teach classes. But they also self-publish beautiful books. What if we were to do the same and sell them through our website rather than through Amazon? Marshall McCluhan noted that when a new technology takes over, what it replaces becomes an art form. I have a sense that, with so much time devoted to staring at screens, people will increasingly want the peace and focus that comes with holding a beautiful book in one’s hands.

This is where you can help by answering, in the comments, a few questions I have:

If we were to start self-publishing short how-to books would you want them in an inexpensive ebook format or would you be willing to pay more for a physical book?

Do you think we should cut all ties with Amazon?

How many of you have gone as far as Hopkins and have deleted your personal Amazon account?

Would you be willing to support us through donations?

How about online classes? What subjects would you want us to tackle?

What are trees worth?


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.

Bird’s Nest

bird nest

I’ve been wishing I would come across an abandoned bird’s nest for a while now. They’re just such marvels, so clever, so sweet–one of my favorite things in nature, and that’s saying a lot. I imagined how I’d display a nest if I had one, how I’d keep it safe from the cats.

Then, the other day I found this one sitting on the coffee table on our back patio.

Just sitting there, right in the middle of the table, as if someone put it there on purpose, all strange and gorgeous. I assumed Erik had found it. And since the table sits under our grape arbor, and a few grape skins were in the nest, I figured the nest had been up in the grape vines, and Erik had discovered it whilst up on the ladder, trying to defend our grapes from sundry critters.

Nope. Erik knew nothing of the nest.

Logic tells me it must have jiggled out of the vines on the arbor — perhaps a rat dislodged it?– and it happened to land face up on the center of the coffee table.

But my heart tells me that it was a present.

I’m particularly fond of this nest because it is made up from pruned materials from our yard. In fact, I think most of it was filched from the greens bin that I let sit on the back patio for far too long this spring.

I see bits of twine from our bean trellis in there, and some grasses which look familiar. That ferny stuff around the perimeter are clippings from this asparagus fern that I’ve been trying to eradicate for fifteen years. (At this point, I admire its persistence so much that I can only bow to it as a respected enemy.) The fern is beautiful in this nest. The soft fluff in the middle may have been sourced from a silk floss tree about a block away.

The grape skins in the nest are interesting. Could be that the birds were eating grapes, but I doubt it. Instead, I imagine a lazy mouse lounging in the nest, sucking on our grapes in luxury and spitting out the skins.

Or the skins may have fallen into the nest once it was already on the coffee table. There is, unfortunately, a rain of grape skins onto our patio every night, as we steadily lose our war with the nocturnal creatures for our grapes. But that is the subject of another post.

Anyone have any guesses about what kind of bird made this nest? The bowl is about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across.

ETA: I’ve been looking at this great page of bird nests–it’s heaven for the bird nest enthusiast. So many types of nests! Wee little eggs! Baby birds! One bird even made its nest in a sweatshirt hanging on a laundry line. (That’ll teach you to bring in your laundry promptly):


And as of now my uneducated guess is that it is the nest of a house finch.