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Adventures with Wind on Water March 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, book review, Buddhist concepts, earth cycles, geology, learning differences.

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Earth Dharma: “Planned Outage”

Yesterday I stepped onto the volcanic terra firma of St. Vincent, though I hesitate to call it that given the spate of earthquakes in the first quarter of 2010, after having sailed down the Grenadine islands with my partner, our two kids, and their grandparents. Chris, the skipper of our Barefoot Charter, was a forty-something nice guy who had recently checked out of Washington (state), left behind television, telephone, and internet connection, to follow his dream of skippering sailboats in the Caribbean Sea. When I saw that the name of our fifty-foot monohull was Planned Outage and glimpsed Chris reading The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, I felt delighted about the experience we were about to have.

The book I’d taken with me on the three-day sail was Saltwater Buddha, Jaimal Yogis’ memoir about learning the lessons of Zen Buddhism while living a surfer’s life. I have to admit that after reading a brief excerpt I didn’t see immediately the appeal of the book. I thought to myself, “What is this guy going to teach me about lessons learned along a meandering course of thrill seeking?” I’d done my own share of thrill seeking and meditating and I’ve lived a lot longer than Yogis, encountering my own piece of disillusionment. But as Charles Darwin surely thought about James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, his choice of reading material aboard the Beagle, “this book is great!”

I didn’t know Yogis’ tale and had no idea he ended up at the Columbia School of Journalism but I wasn’t surprised to find that out because Saltwater Buddha is a good story. From California to Hawaii to France, India, Brooklyn and finally back again, with richly described characters like a sagacious Hawaiian insurance agent immobilized by Elephant Man disease, leather-skinned commercial fishermen in dock-side bars in Montauk, red rubber-suited Santa Cruz “Surf Nazis”, and a hilarious caricature of Yogis as a bliss-seeking surf bum who gets closest to having a real job when as a barista in San Francisco he gets “really good at making the thick foam with the little leafy designs,” Yogis shows his readers how lessons of dharma abound in life experiences that range from the mundane—caring for a sick friend—to the absurd—surfing in a snowstorm in Brooklyn.

I was attracted to the book because I’m living seaside, having run away from professional responsibility with my family at the age of 50, so that we all could recover from the two-year ordeal of dealing with schools, psychologists, doctors and lawyers while negotiating the rough surf that’s called education for kids with learning differences in the U.S. Not to mention the exposure of our difference as a family with queer parents. I’ve been seeking the healing balm of the sea spray myself—an escape from the samsara caused by narrow conceptions of intelligence—meditating daily and interspersing my days and those of my kids with windsurfing and sailing. My whole family has taken to living in the present, and the blue waters surrounding this chunk of coral in the eastern Caribbean have certainly helped. As my friends say, it’s been a skillful move.

What I loved about Saltwater Buddha is the way Yogis easily accesses earth dharma. His observations about wind and water resonated for me as a geoscientist who alternates periods of sitting and adventures with wind on water. For example, Yogis describes the earth science related to surfing: creation of tides as the moon tugs at the ocean; materialization of waves as water feels the seafloor on its coastal approach; and, formation of wind owing to temperature differences between land and sea. Yogis sees the poetry of the earth system.

Of the four spheres of the earth system—rock sphere, biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere—the latter two, as fluids, are especially available to sentient beings as dharma teachers because they move and change in time frames quick enough for us to perceive them. Living this year at the edge of the sea, I walk daily along the shore and watch the fluctuating character of the air and water. When previously I’d been for short periods to places where I’d hoped for placid seas, it always seemed that my timing was off—according to the locals the sea was calmer or the wind more gentle just before I’d arrived. But living at the waters edge this year, I see that the ocean—the biggest reservoir of the hydrosphere— and the atmosphere change constantly. They manifest fluidity.

In Saltwater Buddha, Yogis quotes Suzuki Roshi: “waves are the practice of water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves, is delusion.” My shore walks reveal that we can say the same for the atmosphere; wind is the habit of air and to speak of the two apart from one another is fantasy. The ways of water and air bring home the Buddha’s fundamental teaching of impermanence. As Yogis recognized, each different face of the sea offers episodes of samsara and nirvana. Lately Caribbean breezes have taught me lessons that Brooklyn surf taught Yogis.

Huge swells and shifting winds have caused me to be caught up “in irons” on my dinghy and capsized in a mooring field; but I’ve also had the chance to ride winds on a beam reach while hawksbill turtles lift their heads for subaerial breaths above teal blue waters. As the surfer merges with his medium, so the sailor melds with hers. Connecting with our surroundings in these ways fosters the natural inclination to live with harmony on Earth.

Too, both pastimes are good metaphors for life. Since environmental conditions are mutable, attachment to any one set of circumstances causes suffering. Yogis’ book in combination with my Caribbean sailing adventures reminds me of a slogan on the door of the West End Racing Club in Provincetown, Massachusetts: “You can’t direct the wind but you can adjust the sails.” Or, as my dyslexic sailing instructor cautions, “you can only sail where the wind will let you.”

Read-aloud sessions are my family’s book habit. These past three days aboard Planned Outage we listened to sections of Saltwater Buddha. As sharp-eared dyslexics, my kids recognized a good story. They said they’d like to see the movie and were delighted to learn that the visual version is in production. No doubt we’ll all relish seeing the film when it’s released, but for the time being, we’re living Yogis’ lessons together in the present.

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

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This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 19, 2010 at 8:58 pm and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Growth of Mountaintop Mine, West Virginia, 1984-2009 March 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in coal mining.
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If a picture is worth a thousand words,  what’s the worth of these two pictures?

The change in this landscape near Coal River, West Virginia (the meandering line towards the right quarter of each image) is due to the expansion of surface mining operations over 25 years. Why have the mining operations so scarred the land? Is it just that we humans don’t like to clean up after ourselves? If that were so, perhaps we’d have a solution to the problem (for the land if not for the atmosphere). But the fact is, extract solid resources from the earth, crush them, remove what we want and leave the rest (the gangue material), and we have increased the surface area to volume ratio of the original solid. Hence, the gangue can’t fit back in the hole from which we took the mined mineral:

Surface Area of cube with 2 unit length, width, height is: 6 x (2 x 2) = 24

Volume of cube with 2 unit length, width, height is: (2 x 2 x 2) = 8

Surface Area to Volume Ratio is 3:1

Surface Area of  8 1-unit cubes: 8 x 6 x (1 x 1) = 48

Volume of 8  1-unit cubes: 8 x (1 x 1 x 1) = 8

Surface Area to Volume Ratio is 6:1

The point? Surface area increases more quickly that volume. Breaking up a once solid material and trying to fit it back into the same area that it once occupied causes the waste material to expand beyond the hole that originally contained the original resource. As a result, the waste materials must be draped over  the surrounding landscape.

For more information on this West Virginia location, visit NASA’s Earth Observatory site that provides further details about these images.

Green, Inc. March 11, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, John Burroughs.
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Democracy Now has a good piece on Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, by Christine MacDonald. 

In short, MacDonald is a journalist who worked for Conservation International (CI), an organization whose stated mission, paraphrased, is to build on a foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration in order to empower societies to care responsibly and sustainably for nature for the well-being of humanity. Though founded in the late 1980s, I hadn’t heard of this environmental nonprofit; from information on its website, it seems to strive towards a people-focused environmentalism.

In her interview with Amy Goodman however, MacDonald charges that CI and other major environmental groups, essentially operate satellite public relations offices for polluting corporations. I’m not surprised by the claim. Robert Gottlieb, years ago pointed out in his book Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, that there was an “Iron Triangle” between government agencies, corporations, and congressional leaders that sets the framework for policy based largely on economic interests. It sounds to me like MacDonald in Green, Inc. might offer some 21st century proof of Gottlieb’s contention.

What MacDonald had to say reminded me of the fact that President Teddy Roosevelt took nature writer and bird enthusiast John Burroughs on a camping trip to Yellowstone in 1903  in order to soften TR’s image as a large-mammal slayer. Burroughs seems to have allowed his persona to be used by Roosevelt, as well as by industrial titans E.H. Harriman, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Thomas Edison on other excursions into Nature. Perhaps Burroughs justified being coopted in the same way that environmental organizations today soft-pedal their ‘collaboration’ with corporations, as being for the greater good.

In any case, I want to read this book.

Chile, Haiti, and “Govinda’s Bridge” March 4, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, Buddhist concepts, Chile, disasters, earth community, earth cycles, earthquakes, environmental justice, geology, Haiti.

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

When I turned as part of my daily practice to today’s page of Offerings, a compilation of Buddhist quotations, I read a comment by Lama Anagarika Govinda that registered as particularly meaningful in light of the recent earthquake in Chile:

“A bridge is revealed which connects the everyday world of sense perceptions to the realm of timeless knowledge.”

Oddly enough, given the topic of collapsed infrastructure as a result of recent high magnitude earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a visible viaduct has emerged which connects the agonizing reality of these events to the timeless truth that economically and educationally impoverished people are disproportionately vulnerable to risks posed by life on a dynamic planet.

How is it that these two seismic events in the first quarter of 2010 have together exposed Govinda’s bridge?

In order to answer that question we must compare geologically these natural events. Both earthquakes occurred at lithospheric plate boundaries. Geologists have come to expect earthquakes at these locations because such boundaries, which are delineated by earthquakes and often volcanism, are the relatively flexible seams that connect pieces of comparatively inflexible crust comprising the skin of the earth. When rigid crust moves, it releases energy stored in the rocks causing them to break abruptly. This is a fundamental geological reality that all human beings must understand, as a starting point, if we are to lessen the catastrophic human consequences that follow from such natural events. Both temblors were massive — Chile magnitude 8.8 , Haiti 7.0. In fact, the Chilean event ranks among the largest quakes ever measured.

A substantial geological difference between the Chile and Haiti tremors was that the former originated deep in the Earth’s crust, 35 km, while the latter one had a shallow focus, 13 km. The difference in the depth of the rupture relates to the type of plate boundary at each site — sideways sliding in Haiti versus downward thrust in Chile. And though to the geologically uninitiated the difference between 8.8 and 7.0 may seem negligible, the Richter scale is logarithmic, not linear, and that means that the Chilean quake was substantially stronger than the Haitian one. These geological details beg the human question, why do the numbers of Haitian deaths and catastrophic injuries eclipse Chilean ones?

The answer to the question has socioeconomic, rather than geologic roots. An adage well known to geologists reads, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Many Chileans were spared crush-injuries and death because Chile constructed quake-resistant buildings after experiencing a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in 1960. In this recent event, buildings shook but did not collapse into stacks of flattened concrete, minimizing the chance that Chileans might be killed or trapped inside them. Too, the Chilean quake struck near Concepcion, a region of much lower population than Port-au-Prince.

We can build earthquake-resistant structures with adequate know-how and financial resources. Concrete, a common and relatively strong masonry material consists of cement — primarily heated limestone that is finely ground and mixed with the mineral gypsum—that binds together sand and gravel. But concrete doesn’t stretch or extend very well when stressed by shearing horizontal forces. It can be reinforced with steel bars or pre-stressed for use as an earthquake-resistant building material. Other elements of an earthquake resistant building include a good-quality foundation and high quality cement.

Living on land prone to shift, Chileans endure constant reminders of the need to utilize high quality building materials and enforce strict building regulations. Haitians also receive portentous jolts. But Chile, not Haiti, is one of the most earthquake-ready countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Why are buildings in Chile more stable than those in Haiti? While 98% of Chileans are literate and 18% of the population lives in poverty, the respective numbers for Haiti are 53% and 80%. These numbers may explain why Haitians have used brittle steel without ribbing and poor quality cement to hold together concrete. And using cement too sparingly for mortar between concrete blocks or in the production of the concrete itself reduces the earthquake resistance of the structure built with it. In Haiti inferior building materials and poor building practices have been replicated from the foundation up. As a result, the Haitian earthquake left more than 200,000 people dead, nearly one million people homeless, and an indeterminate amount of pain and anguish; in Chile we may hope that the death toll will not reach four digits.

When we examine a geologic map of the world, an unfortunate reality becomes clear: the earth’s most populous cities exist along plate boundaries. Plate boundaries coincide with shorelines and sources of water hence our earliest civilizations arose there and grew to be villages and towns. Today large population centers in places like Tehran and Istanbul are disasters waiting to happen. Though geologists cannot predict when an earthquake will occur, we can forecast, in decades-wide windows, the inevitability of such events. Haphazardly constructed communities in vulnerable mega-cities put millions of people at risk for the suffering that ensues after a large earthquake in a poorly prepared region. The Buddha taught that suffering is endless yet one must vow to end it. Anyone who subscribes to this principle must reject as unacceptable the disproportionate vulnerability of the poor and under-educated to the earth’s perpetual processes.