Last week I saw
"Ansel Adams in Our Time,"
an exhibit at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
It was totally cool.
It is clear
that Adams witnessed
and understood a whole lot more
about the human condition than his reverent
landscapes had ever revealed to
me on their own.
this intimate portrait
of a Mexican boy, this stunning
close-up of a fern, and this panoramic
view of human development.
It gave me
the chills. Adams
understood our reciprocal
relationship with the natural world and
the fragility of our co-
There I was,
reflected in the glass,
paying attention to these imaginative
re-imagings of Ansel Adams's world. In Abelardo
Morell's exploration of the microcosmos and the macrocosmos
I saw the tenuous balance between individual
rights and collective responsibility
necessary in any
And I laughed
when I saw myself in Mitch
Epstein's "Altamont Pass Wind Farm."
So funny how we play games with
each other, with nature and
I loved Luis
Faglio's reflection about beach
restoration, how it celebrates the "hope
and the irony that we are able
to move sand."
to feel at home
in a large, meandering
exhibit in an even larger museum,
but the message of these works was close
to home. Yes, we can move sand. Yes,
lupine does grow after a fire.Yes,
we have the power to renew
not just ourselves, but the
planet as well.
How did I get here?
Why does it matter?
If you read my
post, "Why By Degrees"
you have some idea. But what's the
real story behind this blog and this site?
If you've known me for any length
of time, you've witnessed
A blog called
It sounded exotic. Ataraxy stands
for "serene calmness." I needed that. For
a bunch of ancient Greeks, Ataraxia was a lucid
state of robust equanimity. Heaven.
That's me. In the garden.
I wanted to share.
Then I found
Rufus and George.
Why not let them speak for me?
Our global problems are all about consumption
and our need for objects of all kinds. What insights could
a ruffled 50-year-old Steif Chimpanzee and a broken
china pug share about our relationship to all
our belongings, big and small?
So I briefly had a blog
called "Rufus &
a problem, though.
I had more to say than Rufus &
George understood, about how stuck we seemed,
caught between 20th century expectations and 21st century
realities. It hit me when I forgot to pull up instead of push down when
I peed. It's so confusing, changing a habit I'd had my entire life.
Flush the toilet. Push down. Until now, when everything
was a hybrid. So I created a blog, a business,
and a book, all called "Our
But I was stuck.
Why would anyone care?
Who was I behind the blog, book
and business? What was I trying to prove, and to
whom? So I got help. When my new business coach asked
me those same questions, I knew, in my heart, that I
was a photographer. When she asked me what I
loved, I knew -- compost and being outside
and noticing light and texture and
beauty. So I ignored all I had
been doing, got my
I kept exploring,
while taking small steps
forward. A web site. A business card.
A trip to New York City to photograph compost
& a few months later, have a 'pop-up' show where
I stood by my work and told people I was a
photographer and that I was into
compost, which kept inviting
me to go deeper, beyond
the soil, and into
I kept diving.
Saboteurs yacked on
my shoulder, but I kept going.
A visit to my sister in Idaho gave me time
to process. Compost, it seems, has the answers for me.
Pay attention. Be patient. Honor micro- dramas.
Allow for the mess and complexity
contained in any story, even
my own. Change "by
My work inspires joy and
new ways of being by celebrating this
magical convergence of creativity and climate action
that I experience every day. Who knew?
Welcome. This is going to be fun.
Maybe we'll meet in person
some day and you can
share your story
So that's how I got here.
It matters because you matter and your
story matters. Even if, like mine, your journey includes
false starts and stops and takes you this way
and that, it's relevant and of value.
Because, in a democracy,
we all matter.
The re-imagined Hood Museum of Art re-opened
last weekend at Dartmouth College.
Among the treasures, I saw
this work by Elias Sime.
Undulating. Pulsing. In motion.
Alive. And yet it's made out of castoff
motherboards, toxic contributors to multitudes of e-waste.
And yet the city he envisions is "a sprawling ecosystem
of form and water." It's a huge work, covering a
wall. Is it a tile mosaic? Is it marble?
No. It's a captivating vision of
what's possible when we see beyond
what appears toxic and allow beauty to emerge. Bliss.
And then, on another wall, in the same gallery, this.
El Anatsui's "shimmering tapestry" evoking
material flowing in a breeze, but no,
it's a carefully constructed compilation of
bottle tops and copper wire. Garbage comes to life.
So when I got home with this week's buckets full of
compost from Umpleby's Bakery & Cafe,
I was startled when I saw this.
Lemons. Lots of lemons. I hadn't planned
on taking any photographs, but who could resist the vibrancy?
That's how it is for me. Apparent waste evokes joy. There
is possibility. I wonder if that's what Elias Sime
or El Anatsui were thinking? Or not.
It's just what happens when creativity and
climate action converge at the compost pile or anywhere.
What have you seen or experienced this week
that evokes joy or invites creativity? Let
it happen, when and wherever
it may. It's magical and life-giving and for
me, makes the world a much more interesting place.
Happy January my friends.
Happy New Year!
but I decided to embroider
excerpts from Walt Whitman's
poem "This Compost." While he may
have written about dead corpses following
the American Civil War, I re-imagined
his words and considered waste
instead, and the power of
the earth to renew
We have that
same power. Every
January 1st to begin again.
Whitman's is an optimistic poem
reflecting our innate American optimism.
I celebrate this poem not just because
2019 is the 200th anniversary of
Whitman's birth, but also
because his message
is more important
now than ever.
stitches might be uneven
and the text written on an old pillowcase
may be awkward, but seen from afar, the colors
are bright, cheerful and make me want
to smile. Optimism is all I know.
So here we come 2019,
on stitch at a time...
my online climate
'coaching' class and am
petrified. What if no one is
interested or needs what I have
to offer? But I show up,
one week, one stitch
at a time and
know it is
I came home
from Mexico to find
that my anxious dog had
peed all over the sheepskin rug
I stand on to write these blog posts.
Frustrated? You bet. But what's a gal to do?
A few squirts of soap, some aggressive
massaging of the fleece and some
patience while it dried was all
that was needed. This is
what I tell myself.
New Year. New
So here we are.
It's 2019. The UN Climate
Report says we have twelve years.
Our job is to show up, support each other and
get the job done. For me, that involves
persistence and patience and a
whole lot of bravery as
I creatively try new
"Behold this Compost! behold it well!
Celebrated in the UK. For
most people it means a day to hang
out with family, eat leftovers and enjoy gifts
given and received. But historically, it was also a day
to give "Christmas Boxes" to the servants, who would go home
and celebrate Christmas with their own families after
having cared for you on the 25th.
Or, perhaps the
term 'Boxing Day' comes
from the nautical tradition whereby
great sailing ships carried a sealed box of money
for good luck which, upon return, would be given to a priest
who would distribute the money to those in
need on the day after Christmas.
Here in New England,
we get back to work - - there is
no "Bank Holiday" for us. But over the past
decade, I have created my own "Boxing Day" tradition.
Photographs that are labels on Christmas Day, or beautiful holiday cards
become decorations on a box the next. And all that wrapping
paper gets a longer life, glued to a sneaker
box or packing box and used
year after year.
It started with
a desire to save paper and
reduce holiday waste. But over time,
it became something more - - A kind of compulsion
to fix what I had using materials at hand -
not just cards and paper,
but fabric as well.
One year, I redid
our recycling container.
The next, I created boxes to use
for grocery shopping. They were so admired
at our food co-op, I made some as gifts
for the clerks. Apparently one of
the boxes is now the bed
for a very happy cat.
What makes me happiest,
is that my son and daughter love to
find their custom gift boxes under the tree.
No need for labels. And certainly no
need for new wrapping paper.
It's become a tradition - -
own Boxing Day.
To me, that's what makes our
current time so inspiring. There are opportunities
for the creative re-making of the world as we know it.
As I discovered with a bunch of cards, paper
and fabric, beauty is everywhere.
What might you create or
discover this last
The Spruce: What is Boxing Day?
I don't know about you, but I love the clarity and
focus of a puzzle. I start with the edges and
move on to specific colors or scenes.
Sometimes I have to change my
perspective or walk away and come back later.
It's amazing how even then, it can be hard
to see what is sitting right
in front of you.
Like these gaps.
I spent hours looking...I sorted the
pieces by shape and color and still had no luck.
Then my husband showed up and in
less than two minutes, these
three holes were filled.
At first, I was mad.
How dare he come along and
make it look so easy?
And then, I remember.
That's what makes a second opinion
or a second set of eyes so valuable. New perspectives
make something seemingly difficult
appear simple and self-evident.
How cool is that?
So in my last post
I talked about Reparations and
Carbon Offsets and how excited I am to
share my family's offsets with our local Advance Transit.
It was easy to go online and set up sustaining monthly
donations. We've amortized what we owe, so we'll
pay off our travel debt over time,
while also supporting
an invaluable local
When I think
about climate action,
I realize it's all about sharing -
not just the financial resources we may have,
but also our time, ideas and points of view. It turns out that
collaboration is critical, but so is having a plan, like
strategies for a jig-saw puzzle, or methods for
paying carbon debts we didn't even
realize we had.
I may be an artist,
but I am also a planner and,
rumor has it, a motivating teacher. So I've
created an online 'class' that inspires people to dive
deep, take control, and find joy as they
participate in guided action
If you are looking for a climate action plan, I've got one for you.
the making of amends for a wrong one has done,
by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.
It's been three years since the Paris Climate
Accord. Apparently one of the reasons the Unites States has
withdrawn is that we do not want to pay our fare share of climate expenses.
It really is a puzzle. There are all these messy pieces, but the parameters are clear.
We have to transition away from carbon-based fuels as quickly as possible.
And as the recent National Climate Assessment Report suggests,
we don't have much time. The warnings have been loud and
clear this year, with enormous fires and storms.
But our leaders ignore the signs...
I get it.
I'm now doing physical therapy for injuries
I received during the summer, but ignored. It was just too
inconvenient. But, if I had acknowledged the irregular pains, and if
I had actually rested it right away, my ankle might have healed a lot faster.
Does this sound familiar? Let's just ignore the problem.
It might go away...
I don't know about you,
but I display this kind of behavior all the time.
In my head, I know one thing. In my heart I know another thing.
And then I act as if none of those understandings or feelings existed!
On a trip to Mexico a few years ago, we had a beachside room that was not very romantic - - Each day, the tide came higher and higher and each night I woke to the sound of
waves crashing beneath me. It was frightening. I vowed to never travel
again. I did not want to be part of the problem...But guess who's
going to Mexico with her extended family this year?
It was just too good to pass up...
What about the climate?
Yes, but what about my extended family?
It's a choice many of us make all the time, especially around
holidays. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, like when I first see all those
puzzle pieces in a pile on the table, I took action by gathering data. I may be an artist,
but I value real information. The facts. So I investigated the climate impact of my traveling. Here's what I discovered: When combining all trips I have taken alone and with my
family, beginning with my first international trip to Ireland & England, in
1974, I have traveled 208,674 miles on 105 different trips. That's the
same distance as flying eight times around the equator.
Total Carbon impact: 141.26 tons.
What's a gal to do?
Cross her arms, plant her feet,
and say "so what?" Or, perhaps, get on with it and
take responsibility? I'm tired of ignoring warning signs and not taking
action, so I went online and learned that 'all' I need to do was pay $4,146 to offset
the carbon impact of my family's adventures. (www.myclimate.org).
A carbon offset:
a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases
made in order to compensate for or to offset an emission made elsewhere.
I had been petrified to learn what we might owe for our family's amazing adventures
and it was that fear that had kept me from exploring offsets sooner. But here I
am, still icing my ankle and feeling rather stupid. If we had paid offsets
as we went we would not have this debt for which we had not
budgeted. I wonder if our leaders feel stupid too...
Sometimes, as hard as it may be, we have to admit
our mistakes and pay our fare share for the privileges we have.
Given the National Climate Assessment's re-evaluation of our current climate
circumstances, it seems appropriate that we pay the carbon debt we owe
as quickly as possible. It's just the right thing to do.
Thank you, President George H.W. Bush.
Country (and planet) before self.
Next week, in part 2, I'll
talk about how.
"It's a process, steps along a path.
Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor.
Becoming is never giving up on the idea
that there's more growing
to be done."
- Michelle Obama from Becoming
I've always admired Michelle Obama. It's hard not to. She's honest, intelligent and radiant. She promoted organic gardening and healthy food at the White House and inspired us to get our hands dirty, literally, in the garden (check out American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America). She's my kind of woman.
Naturally, I bought her latest book, Becoming, the day it came out and, because I had a bad cold, was able to sit on the couch, drink tea and read it from cover to cover. I love that the keys on my piano are chipped, like the one she learned to play on, and that I would probably feel comfortable inviting her to my house for conversation by the fire. She's that real.
Earlier today, while I was working on my annual 'between-holiday' puzzle, I wondered if Michelle ever does puzzles. And if she does, what is her approach? Does she do the edges first, like me? Does she sort by shape or color? Is she methodical or random? It doesn't really matter, but Becoming was an invitation to consider our commonalities. As she writes at the end of the Epilogue, "Let's invite one another in. Maybe we can begin to fear less, to make fewer assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same."
It was this spirit that inspired my exploration of compost. To me, it was so much more than necessary nutrients for the garden. It became a metaphor for what it means to be an American. Without diversity of the green and brown stuff (nitrogen and carbon), patience and periodic attention, my compost pile would be an unproductive mess. Since diversity is our strength, why, then, do people fear it?
A few days ago, I tore up some recent newspapers (The Valley News, our local paper) to offset all the vegetable scraps from Umpleby's Cafe and looked closely at what I saw in the compost pile. The stories covered everything from immigration conflicts along our border with Texas and deadly runaway fires in California to the dangers of E-Cigarettes and a recent shooting. Among these dramatic issues, each of which deserves our attention, there was an invitation to buy skis and yet another Snoopy carton. There are big problems in the world, but we can't solve them ourselves. We have to move beyond fear and ski if we love to and laugh at Snoopy, because it just feels good. These are ways we get out of ourselves.
"We all play a role in this democracy.
We need to remember the power of every vote.
I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force
that's larger and more potent than any one election, or
leader, or news story - and that's optimism.
For me, this is a form of faith,
an antidote to fear."
- Michelle Obama from Becoming
Thank you, Michelle, for your invitation, your inspiration, and your optimism. You give me confidence to build this blog, By Degrees, and to share practical ways we can become the people are meant to be in a society that celebrates all of us.
Our one true connection is Harvard. You went to law school and I earned my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts there. I wonder what you would think of my degree collage. For each of us, that experience in Cambridge, MA contributed to our capacity to share our stories with others and to have the confidence to put ourselves out there. I'm sorry that I won't be able to hear you speak in person, but I love your Instagram posts. With gratitude, Lyn
"It's not about being perfect.
It's not about where you get yourself in the end.
There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard,
in owning your unique story, in using your authentic
voice. And there's grace in being willing to
know and hear others. This, for me,
is how we become."
- Michelle Obama from Becoming
Why is this blog called By Degrees? Because...
Change happens in increments...until it doesn't;
We need to look at the world from many angles;
More people experience damage to their tissue because of the sun's increased power;
There are many educated people with lots of diplomas,
yet we still can't get along or figure out how to solve our current climate crisis;
There is a difference between 2 and 1.5 degrees celsius.
Maybe it's time to literally 'reframe' the narrative.
Why not have a proverbial 'do-over' and see what emerges?
We have degrees.
We are separated by just a few degrees.
We can have a 10 degree perspective or a 360 degree perspective.
We feel the heat.
It's time to look within and recompose our shared story.
Because change happens in logical steps and stages...
until it doesn't.
Who knew trees could be so tricky? When looking for shade in a parking lot, I head for the trees. When seeking a place to hang a hammock, I look for trees. When wandering in the woods, I revel in the play of light through the leaves and branches. Trees, and the forests they inhabit, truly are the lungs of the earth. They absorb our poisons and release the oxygen we need to breath. Why then, given this reverence, would I advocate cutting them down in order to install solar panels?
To be clear, I love trees. I also love moving toward a 100% renewable future. If cutting trees allows me to reduce my personal and our collective dependence on toxic fuels, then it's something I am willing to consider, just as I am willing to consider altering mountain or ocean views in order to promote wind power (that's a different conversation). The fact is, I knew nothing about carbon sequestration when we cut dozens of trees to clear a view and to make room for more sun in 2004. It never occurred to me to do a cost-benefit analysis because I didn't know there was a choice. I loved trees from a distance, but hadn't really paid close attention to them.
Our goals were to create a soccer field for the kids, a vegetable garden, and a beautiful near and distant view. It's been almost 15 years and a lot has changed. We've planted a River Birch 'glen,' a bird-friendly hillside and a rain garden. We've installed solar panels and have a great lawn for all manner of sports. Each year, however, I become more and more curious about the trade-offs we made in order to create our own private Eden.
So here's what I've learned. On the most basic level, it's easy to plant new trees that serve multiple purposes but that won't block the sun. Fruit and nut trees, for example, absorb carbon and produce food. Flowering trees of all kinds provide nectar for pollinators and berries for birds. By cutting down all those evergreens all those years ago, we made room for a significantly more diverse landscape the provides food for us and a host of flying creatures.
When I did some research, I learned the following about the tree-solar trade-off. It takes 1.106 lbs of Co2 to produce 1 kwh of electricity so if you install a 5,000 kwh system, that would avoid 5,530 lbs of Co2 emissions each year.
No two trees are the same: A 30 year old white oak absorbs 60 lbs of carbon a year; A white pine absorbs 193 lbs of carbon a year; A fast growing red oak can absorb 240 lbs of carbon a year. In Hanover and much of New England, we have a lot of white pines. 5,530 lbs/193 lbs = 28.65 trees. If you cut less than 28 trees to maximize your solar options, don’t feel guilty in terms of carbon absorption and avoidance - - If you are cutting white pines.
I'm a photographer who loves trees and light. I'm also a gardener who loves backyard biodiversity and a world free from fossil fuel dependence. In my quest for a sustainable future for my family, I am constantly making trade-offs. We needed shade for our terrace and planted a tree whose maximum height is 30 feet, just below our rooftop panels. I had wanted an elegant oak, but needed to compromise as oaks get too large and would shade our rooftop panels. Who knew we would now have more than 15 varieties of trees on our property where before we just had white pines and a few oaks?
In July, we considered electric lawn care and the many alternatives to gas-powered machines, including reducing the actual size of your lawn. This month, we continue the lawn care theme, but address it from the point of view of the trees and solar power. Both absorb the light. Both generate energy from that light. At the moment, however, we need to maximize the rate at which we transition to renewables. If that transition necessitates cutting some trees, I am willing to do so, especially if that creates more light for more diverse plantings and clean energy.
Evelyn R. Swett celebrates
the convergence of creativity and climate action to inspire joy
and new ways of being.
is a weekly newsletter that hopefully inspires joy & new ways of being. It will include links to recent blog posts, updates about my work, and, best of all, inspirational action prompts for you to explore your creativity and passion for the world you love. Oh, and I promise I won't share your information (that would be so uncool) and I don't actually do promotions, but that text is required.