Ecological spirituality workshop, day two

Description of today’s session is below.

My iNaturalist observations for today.

While waiting for a few participants who were late, we spent a quarter of an hour figuring out iNaturalist. We also reviewed basic taxonomic ordering — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species — and talked about how to define “species.”

Hands-and-knees activity

Yesterday afternoon, Sky had found some interesting organisms near where we meet for the workshop. I invited participants to look at photos of the organisms that I had posted on iNaturalist. Then we went looking for them in person.

I told participants that the only way they’d see these organisms is if they got on their hands and knees. Everyone quickly found two of the types of lichens: the lichen in genus Cetraria, and a lichen in genus Cladonia (possibly C. rangiferina?). After a bit of hunting we found another Cladonia species, C. cristatella or British Soldier Lichens. But we were unable to find the other species of Cladonia that Sky and I saw yesterday.

We saw lots of other interesting organisms as well, including earth stars (a type of fungus), beach heather (a flowering plant), and others.

The real point of this activity, by the way, was not to identify lichens, but really to get participants to look very closely at what was directly under their feet.

Field trip: along the beach to Ferry Beach State Park

I introduced participants to the problems of beach erosion along the beach from Camp Ellis, at the mouth of the Saco River, to Ferry Beach State Park. Beaches along Saco Bay get eroded during winter storms. The beaches then get replenished by sands that wash down the Saco River all year long; in fact, the Saco River brings enough sand that over tens of thousands of years the beach has gradually moved out into the ocean. But in the 19th century, the Army Corps of Engineers built a mile-long jetty to help keep the Saco River open to navigation. This jetty pushes the sand out into the ocean, and eventually the ocean currents bring it to the beaches of Saco Bay — BUT the sand bypasses the stretch of beach closest to the jetty. For more information about this process, and about dune recovery efforts, go here. I’ve been coming to Ferry Beach since 1995, and in that time I’ve seen a stretch of waterfront road disappear, and a number of houses disappear, washed away by winter storms.

So what can be done? If we get rid of the jetty completely, then navigation in the mouth of the Saco River will have problems, which will impact the small commercial fishing fleet that still moors there. Now we could say that we should just get rid of the fishermen. But when upper middle class college-educated people say things like that, that’s both elitist and it really annoys people who may not have many other options for work. And it would affect related industries, such as working boatyards and restaurants that depend on locally-caught fish.

Furthermore, how do we balance the needs of the owners of summer homes that are in danger of being washed away, against the needs of the commercial fishing fleet? Whose interests are more important? This gets at the whole idea of ecojustice. I like to sum up the ideals of ecojustice by saying, “We believe humans can have a positive impact on each other, and on the natural world.”

This is a corrective to some environmentalists who say that human concerns should be less important than the needs of other organisms. But in practice, that approach often means that college-educated elites, mostly white people, get to decide which human concerns are most important, whereas the priorities of working class communities and communities of color are not listened to. Ironically, it’s often the working class communities and communities of color that have to put up with the worst effects of environmental problems — toxic waste dumps, air pollution, global climate change, etc. — because they have less political influence than college-educated elites.

Again, ecojustice means we believe humans can have a positive impact on each other, and on the natural world. This becomes a spiritual matter, because it relates to some of the big questions spirituality tries to address — questions like, What ought I to do? and What is the source and nature of suffering and evil? and How do I know what is true?

Plant communities in Ferry Beach State Park

We walked from the ocean up the trail to the parking lot of Ferry Beach State Park, and then around Tupelo Trail. This was a way to see and experience several different plant communities.

Using the terminology of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, we walked through or past the following plant communities:

For more information about the trail we walked, go here.

One of the things we talked about on this walk was time, and how we experience time. I told what one of my mentors, Dr. Robert Pazmino, said in a class on teaching practices and principles. Bob pointed out that when we’re doing classes or workshop, we often ask people to be on time — we respect time. Yet in Bob’s cultural background, it could be more important to respect persons than to respect time. I said that we probably had to try to balance between those two: respect persons, and at the same time as persons we each should be aware of how what we’re doing affects the whole group.

As we were walking, the pace we took most often was what naturalist Claire Elliot calls “naturalist’s pace.” That is, very slow, because we stopped every few feet to look at something. Jessica showed us gold thread, plants in the genus Coptis. They did indeed have a golden thread-like root, and Jessica said they taste something like aspirin or acetaminophen.

What we experienced today

Some of the sensory experiences I had on this walk, which I talked about with some of the participants:

  • tasting blueberries (a bit sour, not quite ripe)
  • smelling wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
  • seeing plant communities
  • listening to bird songs (Wood Thrush)
  • touching ferns

I’ve asked workshop participants to post some of the things they experienced today in the comments….

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