Notes Composed in the Dark of Our Time

By Priscilla Long

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Guest Editorial

Dreams of a better life are inseparable from the good life…
— Karsten Harries

Where are we going? What are we doing? What do we know?

Every day, every 24 hours, dozens of species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals become extinct. This according to the United Nations Environmental Programme. Seven out of ten biologists consider that our current massive loss of species (the Sixth Great Extinction) poses a major threat to human existence in the next century. This according to the American Museum of Natural History. We know what the problem is: Global warming. Pollution. Loss of ecosystems to agriculture and to urbanization. Excessive harvest. Invasive species. There you have it. We know it.

Bald eagles on nest
Bald eagles on nest photo by Jo Crebbin, courtesy Shutterstock.

What about hope? Is there anything to hope for?

Is it crazy or naïve to hope for a world replete with tadpoles and turtles and bluebirds and butterflies and bald eagles and wild salmon and sea otters? A world replete with forestlands and grasslands, prairies, deserts, salt marshes, mountain meadows. A world replete with diverse ecosystems—ecological niches not coated in concrete, not covered in monocrop. Cities lush with trees and gardens as well as people. Clean water. A world where people can live with respect, good food, sanitation, education, shelter, health, liberty. Dare I mention beauty?

Pretty hopeless, wouldn’t you say?


In March 2013 The New York Times reported that the number of monarch butterflies to complete their annual migration to Mexico was the lowest in at least two decades. “Ominous” is a term Google brings up under a search on “monarch butterflies.” Drought in the Midwest decimated the monarchs. Their wintering-over forest in Mexico is shrinking due to logging. Midwestern farmers have planted corn and soybeans genetically modified to tolerate herbicides so that farmers instead of weeding can poison weeds without harming the crop. In the process they are poisoning milkweed—monarch food, the only plant monarch butterflies lay their eggs on, the only plant monarch caterpillars can feed on.


If there’s any hope for the monarch—that beauty, that king of the butterflies—it is in the Kansas-based Monarch Watch and in other conservation groups, gardeners, school children, and regular people who are planting milkweeds in order to save the monarch butterfly. And people in Mexico who are working to conserve what’s left of the forest. And so we live between hope and despair.

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed
Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed.
Photo by Carter Henry.

The largest single monocrop in the United States is the American lawn, divided between private yards and public parks and other public spaces, 31 million acres, according to visionary landscape architect Diana Balmori (A Landscape Manifesto). This suburban and urban disaster for ecological diversity amounts to as many as 40 million acres, according to the entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home). As Tallamy insists, we need insects, and not only butterflies and honeybees. We need insects because birds need insects. For birds, nectar and berries are not enough. Birds need insects to nourish their nestlings with protein.


Douglas W. Tallamy: Habitat destruction as a result of anthropogenic changes is a huge problem everywhere for life on earth. That is precisely why we can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity. Instead, we must restore native plants to the areas that we have taken for our own use so that other species can live along with us in these spaces. We can start by restoring native plants to our gardens.


The planet is heating up faster than expected. According to Cooler Smarter, a book published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the decade 2001 to 2010 was the hottest decade on record. In April 2013 Nature reported that carbon dioxide levels are set to soon reach 400 parts per million at a measuring station in Hawaii, “a value not reached at this key surveillance point for a few million years.” Fact disbelieved by many: The prime engine of global warming is excess carbon put into the air by our use of fossil fuels. The particular isotope of carbon in the carbon dioxide building up and over-warming the earth is distinctly that produced by our use of fossil fuels, not from sun flares or volcanoes or whatever. Also it’s the troposphere—the lowest level of the atmosphere—that’s getting hotter, not the stratosphere, as would be the case if sun flares were over-warming the planet. All of which needs to be repeatedly repeated due to public confusion over climate change, resulting in part from an enormous disinformation campaign funded by ExxonMobil. What the campaign spreads is not contrary facts but “uncertainty” about the science. Go to a report available online titled “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Change” published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Go there and weep.


Without hope, it’s difficult to take action or even to function. It’s difficult to get out of bed. When things seem hopeless, they are hopeless. Action begins with hope. Here are some reasons for hope.

At Salina, Kansas, the people got together and entered into a competition with neighboring cities to see who could lower their energy bills the most. Salina lowered its carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent. Not every Salina citizen was convinced of global warming, but most were convinced that we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lower our utility bills.

The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was the most polluted river in the United States. It was so polluted that in 1969, it caught fire. All the fish in the Cuyahoga were dead. The fire sparked a movement to clean up the river. Today the Cuyahoga River “boasts some 44 species of fish” and provides a haven for picnicking on the shore and swimming and boating in the clean water.

There’s the move to retrofit buildings to make them energy efficient and green. Anthony Malkin retrofitted his building—the Empire State Building in New York City—and made it one of the top ten buildings in the nation for energy efficiency. Its yearly carbon dioxide emissions are down by 100,000 tons per year. The energy bill for the building is down by $4.4 million per year.

These reasons for hope are offered in the book Cooler Smarter. Here are two more reasons for hope: Not one but two of my friends have installed solar panels on their houses. On both houses, the meters have started running backwards. Their home-funneled sun is fueling the grid.

An oil slick in the Cuyahoga River
An oil slick in the Cuyahoga River in 1965.
Photo courtesy Cleveland State Library Special Collections.

There are seven billion people in the world. And just what exactly are we seven billion people to eat? Don’t we need the monocrops and don’t we need the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), each milking 3,000 to 7,000 cows—cows with their tails cut off for easier milking access, cows living on concrete 24/7, cows routinely fed antibiotics to ward off bacterial infections common in overcrowded CAFOs, cows producing too much manure to spread so that CAFO manure lagoons in the Yakima Valley, in Washington state, for example, have grown as big as two football fields? Don’t we need genetically altered, insect-resistant, herbicide-resistant crops? How are we to feed the world’s people?


We Americans throw out 40 percent of our food. Most goes into the garbage, which goes into landfills, which emit methane, which warms the globe. A landfill is not a compost bin.


Here’s a reason for hope. Ron Finley is a gardener from south central Los Angeles, a place of trash, boarded up buildings, vacant weed-lots, graffiti-coated walls, fast food, obesity, and poverty. Finley and a group he helped to establish, LA Green Grounds, gardens in parking strips and vacant lots, many owned by the city. He began a movement to plant vegetables—beans, broccoli, peas, squash, watermelon—and tall sunflowers and fruit trees. The community joins in, the food is free, the neighborhood is becoming downright beautiful, at least part of it is. To hear Ron Finley talk, go to Ted Talks. Hope lies in neighborhoods, communities, and individuals doing something, taking some action, no matter how small. Hope lies in local farms, garden plots, pea patches, yards turned into native-plant gardens, maybe with a grass path.


My Seattle backyard runs narrow as an alley behind the house. A rusted chickenwire fence demarks my plot from my neighbor’s bigger plot. On my side of the chickenwire fence, for the first 22 years I lived here, there grew a row of 20 multi-trunked English laurel trees. This shiny-leaved solid wall darkened the yard and obliterated the view into the adjacent yard. At one point the laurels were so tall and they leaned so far toward the house that roof rats repurposed them as rat roads to the roof. (I should mention that these rats are now gone.) A few years ago I hired a man with a chain saw to cut this so-called hedge down to about five feet tall. Back it grew.

Now I discover that English laurel, sometimes called cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is on the monitor list of the Washington State Noxious Weed List. It’s a “weed of concern” in King County. It’s native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia, meaning that here it has no natural predators. Birds eat its berries and void its berry seeds and spread it. We also spread it by dumping English laurel as yard waste, from which it re-roots and spreads into woods and parks, obliterating one more eco-niche. It’s the second most common invasive tree species in King County, Washington, after English holly.


According to biologist Niles Eldredge, invasive species have contributed to 42 percent of all threatened and endangered species in the United States.

Where I live, a most invidious invasive is English ivy (Hedera helix ssp. hibernica). It’s “Seattle’s worst weed. . . . It strangles trees, smothers delicate native wildflowers, blocks sunlight, sucks up tons of precious soil moisture, harbors rats. . . . Many local ravines that originally supported a rich mosaic of varied wildflowers . . . are now ivy ghettos…” (Arthur Lee Jacobson, Wild Plants of Greater Seattle). Yet you see it everywhere planted in yards and gardens. It covers walls, climbs trees. Nurseries offer it for sale. Low maintenance!

Acmon blue butterflies on buckwheat
Acmon blue butterflies photo by Sandra Brockman, courtesy Shutterstock.

I purchase a razor-sharp, razor-toothed pruning saw with two nasty-looking rows of teeth. You might want to know what I have against chain saws. Nothing. I’m just terrified of them. I begin cutting down my English laurel with my hand pruning saw. Seattle Public Utilities collects yard waste each week, and requires branches, trunks, and stumps to be four feet or fewer long and four inches or fewer wide. Many of my laurel trunks must be cut twice. It takes me about three months, working for an hour on most days. I hereby report that the row of laurel trees—20 trees with a total of 120 trunks—are now gone. I further report that my deltoids and triceps have gone hard. My new back yard is sun struck but still stacked with laurel brush, my laurel-cutting fetish having run ahead of Seattle’s collection schedule. Every week I put out a bin of laurel trash, and every week Seattle Public Utilities pulverizes it and turns it into compost.

This is a reason for hope.


I dream of a better world. I dream of a better yard. What if my dirt backyard was ferns and flowers fluttering with butterflies? Butterflies can drink the nectar of any flower but their caterpillars can typically feed only on the plant they evolved with. If I plant dogwood, the butterfly spring azure may arrive. If I plant lupine, it will be the silvery blue. If buckwheat, the acmon blue will arrive. Gooseberry will bring a flock of tailed coppers; dock, the great copper. I could plant violets to lure the western meadow fritillary or asters to draw the northern checkerspot. I dream of a garden fluttering with butterflies, especially the monarch butterfly, orange and black and gorgeous. To draw this most stressed out, most endangered, most beautiful of all butterflies, I will plant showy milkweed.


English Laurel roots run big and deep and they’re difficult to extract without extensive digging, probably with a backhoe. I was going to poison my English laurel stumps with Roundup, but my new neighbor, a single mom named Cristina, insisted that it’s not true what they say, not true that Roundup does not affect the soil around plants it’s used to kill. I don’t know the truth about Roundup, but I promise Cristina I won’t use Roundup or any other herbicide. As new leaves sprout out of the cut-to-the-ground stumps, I crush them. I don’t know how long it will take to kill these stumps, but I do know that trees require leaves to live. This laurel extermination project is, by the way, fun.


What’s next? I plant a red flowering current. I plant a mock orange. I plant a cascara tree. I add a deer fern and a maidenhair fern to the ferns already present (two sword ferns, a bracken fern, a wood fern, and a lady fern). I decide on a serviceberry tree. I plant a huckleberry bush. I plant salal in the shade. Out on the parking strip, I plant Oregon grape and kinnikinnick. All native. This will not be an entirely native garden, which would be a nice fiction in any case, but the new plants will be mostly natives. And next, the butterfly garden, milkweed for the monarchs.

Deer fern
Native deer fern in the author’s garden.
Photo by Priscilla Long.

Howard Zinn: The word “optimism” . . . makes me a little uneasy, because it suggests a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. But I use it anyway, not because I am totally confident that the world will get better, but because I am certain that only such confidence can prevent people from giving up the game before all the cards have been played. . . . Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least the possibility of changing the world.


Will the yardwork I’m doing make the slightest bit of difference?

I have no idea. I do know that it has happened in the past, in history, that enormous changes have burst forth unpredictably from small beginnings. Consider the Civil Rights movement. Consider, for that matter, the environmental movement. And there are many people—how many I do not know—making small and not-so-small beginnings, clearing invasives, creating niches for bugs and birds, restoring shorelines and woodlots and back yards. Planting food and flower gardens in urban neighborhoods. Eschewing insecticides.

Besides, what better place to begin than in your own back yard?



Priscilla Long’s science column, “Science Frictions”, appeared for 92 weeks on The American Scholar website. Her most recent book is The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. Her poems, stories, and creative nonfiction essays appear widely and her awards include a National Magazine Award. Her history book is Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Catch up with her at

Header and home page monarch butterflies cluster photo by Anatoliy Lukich, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.