Sunday, December 3, 2017

Non-partisan communication in a partisan world

This article appeared in print in the Asheville Citizen-Times on November 26, 2017:

Non-partisan communication in a partisan world

We live in an age of partisanship. We feel it at our core, and research supports our impression that Americans are more divided now than at any other time in recent memory. For example, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans the same ten political values questions seven times since 1994.
Today, there is a 36 percentage point difference between Republicans and Democrats across the ten questions, whereas in 1994, there was only a fifteen-percentage-point difference. Worse still is that the gap appears to be on an exponentially-increasing projection over time. 
But this does not have to be our destiny, and I argue that this cannot be our destiny if we want to pursue anything together that will have lasting and positive effect for all.
Last week, I returned from Washington, DC, where I had traveled with five other Asheville-area residents for the semi-annual conference of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the nonpartisan organization for which we volunteer. After one day of training, planning, and educational sessions, more than 600 citizen volunteers from around the country lobbied our members of Congress once again to enact the revenue-neutral carbon dividends proposal of CCL, which the world’s top economists agree is the most effective means for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Before I made another such trip to Washington, DC in June 2017, I was told by a few close friends and associates that I was wasting my time, that Congress would never act on climate change, and that our elected officials would not even listen to me. I heard similar whisperings before the most recent trip. However, our data and our experiences suggest that Congress is listening to us, and that there is a chance that Congress —divided as it seems to be when we peruse the newspapers and our partisan news sources — will indeed act in a bipartisan manner to correct the nonpartisan issue of climate change. It all comes down to creating political will, that elusive notion which requires us to bridge the seemingly cavernous gap that separates us.
Bridging the gap will require some old-fashioned tools latent within each of us, such as the desire to seek first to understand the other person’s viewpoint, to listen first not for differences, but for common ground, and, most important, to enter these conversations with empathy. For CCL, interacting with our friends and neighbors and with members of Congress in this manner is slowly but surely leading to progress on the issue of climate change, which has historically divided Americans and has been the source of some serious partisanship.
CCL volunteers have had productive and respectful meetings with the offices of each member of Congress representing WNC — Representatives Mark Meadows and Patrick McHenry, and Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. It certainly helps that CCL’s proposed solution to addressing climate change is a market-based system for placing a price on carbon emissions, and then returning all proceeds to Americans, rendering the proposal revenue-neutral. But it is equally important that we have entered these conversations with the staff and members of Congress themselves with the desire to seek to understand their positions and values as related to this sensitive issue. I have said in public writing before that for years I just wanted to scream and shout, “Why have you all not done anything yet to address climate change?!” But to what end would I continue to scream into the abyss? Seeking solutions to address climate change and many other big issues requires not shouting, but hard work and dedication to continued engagement with others, plus a lot of patience.
If we can engage in respectful dialogue and seek common ground, others — even those with, on the surface, completely opposing viewpoints — will likely seek that common ground with us. This “common ground communication” can begin in our homes with our loved ones, with our colleagues at work, with family and friends over the holidays, and, yes, even with members of Congress. It’s the only way forward if we are to heal the deep wound that divides us.
Michael Hill, Ph.D., teaches mathematics and environmental science at Asheville School.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shout-out to our Republican Members of Congress

This appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the Asheville Citizen-Times on June 20, 2017:

I’m writing to give a huge shout-out to Congressmen Mark Meadows and Patrick McHenry, and Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, and their Washington staffs. I was fortunate to travel to DC recently with ten other Asheville-area residents, all volunteers with the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
Along with more than a thousand other volunteers from around the country, we descended upon Capitol Hill on June 13 to lobby for our market-based, revenue-neutral proposal of carbon pricing that would send a monthly dividend check to American households. If the CCL proposal were enacted at the federal level, studies show that climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly reduced — more so than with an enactment of the regulatory Clean Power Plan — and that the U.S. economy would improve, with jobs created and growth in GDP, along with decreasing national security threats.
Our Republican leaders and their staffs were happy to engage with us in respectful dialogue about our proposal to address climate change, which would help transition us towards renewable energy systems and improved energy efficiency. But you don’t have to take my word for it — please call their offices and see for yourself.
Michael Hill, Asheville

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Working towards climate change solutions: Why do we do what we do?

I'm at the Citizens' Climate Lobby national meeting in Washington, DC, which runs today (Sunday) through Tuesday, including lobbying our members of Congress on Tuesday. I plan to make a few posts during my stay here, between meetings and presentations.

We were greeted this morning at 9:00 a.m. with a rousing performance by the Howard University Gospel Choir--"When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Hold On, Change is Coming, You Can Make It." A thousand people in attendance stood and clapped, an uplifting beginning, to be sure.

CCL Executive Director Mark Reynolds had the opening remarks. One question he asked us to answer for a neighbor or two was, "Why are you here?" Basically, why are you choosing to work with CCL to affect change?

A few answers from nearby:

  • "The climate deserves the very best we have to give."
  • "For biodiversity ... for all the plants and animals of the world."
  • "For the most vulnerable among us ... for the people of the world who'll not be able to pick up and move if it is too hot or dry or the sea levels rise to far ... who'll not be able to simply crank up the A/C or drive to the supermarket for food. (This was my answer.)
  • "For all the children and our grandchildren across the globe."
Mark showed a video of his two-year-old grandson. Little Elliott was standing seaside, squealing with joy as he ran towards the incoming water. What shear joy he showed! I know that this is how Harper sees the world, and how Claire and Aggie have also seen it, and still do from time to time. THAT'S why we are doing what we are doing.

What do you think? Why is this a worthy cause? Why should we work to engage every member of Congress to implement a carbon fee and dividend plan that will lead to lower emissions and a quicker transition to a zero carbon future? Why talk, write, call about climate change? What do you value most in the world?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Listen up: Escape the effects of noise pollution

This appeared as an original post for Blue Ridge Outdoors on May 17, 2017:

I’m awake early this morning, and I walk to the end of the driveway to retrieve the papers. The sky is clear, the air fresh and cool. But the drone of the highway hangs in the air, too, the monotonous, dull sound of trucks, cars, and motorcycles passing through Asheville on I-40, just a few hundred yards to the west of me. Even through a dense forest of mature trees, the drone is continuous and palpable. My neighbor and friend has begun recording birdsong on our campus, and the resulting sonogram reveals that, even at times when we are not quite conscious of the highway sounds, the drone is present, ever titillating our senses at a deep level. And I wonder: What effect has this had on me and my family over the past thirteen years?

Environmental health researchers report that tens of millions of Americans suffer adverse effects from noise exposure, including sleep disruption, stress, hypertension, and even cardiovascular disease. Many readers of this magazine are probably especially susceptible to noise exposure, given that we live in the populated eastern United States. Our exposure to noise is unrelenting, stemming from road and rail traffic, air transportation, and industrial and occupational sources. And, of course, there’s always the ubiquitous leaf blower and the yapping dog down the street.

Mostly, we are not even aware of some or any of the effects, as we have become desensitized at a conscious level, accepting noise exposure as a tradeoff for the benefits of modernity. The good news is that many people are working at all levels of society to help reduce noise exposure for Americans, too. For example, the technology exists now for quieter leaf blowers, and police and fire sirens are being developed to focus on horizontal sound, so that people in high-rise buildings will not hear them. There are nonprofits dedicated to the cause of reducing noise exposure, such as Noise Free America. Of course, when we all drive electric cars—and some day we will—there will be almost an overnight transformation of the urban soundscape.

A recent study published in Science and summarized by the national news outlets, found that almost two-thirds of protected areas in the continental United States suffer from significant human-induced noise pollution. Still, these wilderness areas, national forests, and urban parks may be our only reprieve from the unrelenting noise we hear in our urban/suburban residential and commercial areas in which many of us spend most of our lives.

I am fortunate to live less than an hour’s drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Driving to the crowded Clingman’s Dome or Cades Cove areas will not suffice, but obtaining a backcountry permit and spending a couple of nights deeper in the wilderness may. Most of us have access to a quieter area in our region, even if it takes some effort to get there. A few days of hearing cascading brooks and wood thrushes may be just the antidote to modernity all of us need. Go outside and play … and listen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


This appeared as an original piece for Blue Ridge Outdoors on May 9, 2017:

About three years ago I was introduced to phenology, the study of the cyclical timing of natural phenomena. One interested in phenology looks at the exact timing of the emergence of milkweed shoots from the soil, the bursting of leaf buds on a red maple, and the sudden appearance of the black-throated green warbler from its Central American winter breeding grounds. Stated simply, phenology is the study of nature’s calendar.

I was introduced to phenology during a trip with a colleague and our environmental science classes to the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center, located on the eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sitting at just over 5,000 feet in elevation on Purchase Knob, the center offers educational programs for students and houses scientists collecting data on air quality, salamander health, phenology, and other topics. In addition to its functional capacities as a research site, Purchase Knob is beautiful, affording visitors stunning views of the Southern Appalachians.

I read the supporting pre-lab materials offered by the program, but it took a while for me to grasp the essence and importance of phenology. “Why would anyone want to spend time studying phenology?” I wondered.

Here’s why: Climate change is not only about warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and stronger storms. Quite subtly, climate change affects the timing of spring and fall events, such as when oaks leaf out and flower in spring—and then drop their leaves in the fall—and when insect larvae (caterpillars) hatch. Climate change threatens to alter these timings, and scientists are already gathering evidence of phenological mismatches. For example, what happens to worm-eating warbler populations if, after their long flight across the Gulf of Mexico in spring during their annual northerly migration, they encounter forests with decreased populations of caterpillars, which have begun their reproductive cycle earlier due to climate change? It may be that the worm-eating warbler may alter its timing, too, but it may also be that the warbler cannot adjust as rapidly as events change due to climate change. Hence, the study of phenology.

After the trip with my class to Purchase Knob, I returned to Asheville School and set up our “phenology circuit,” a 20-minute walk with six forest trees tagged for us to monitor over the years. Throughout the school year, my classes and I walk the loop with clipboards and pencils, and we note the various phenophases of each of our trees—flowering dogwood, two red maples, Northern red oak, American hornbeam, American beech—looking closely at the leaves, flowers, and fruits. We enter our data on our Nature’s Notebook page, run by the USA National Phenology Network, which organizes the phenology data collected by students, researches, and volunteers, and then makes the data and developed models available for use available to the public.

Here are some reasons why I like this simple project, and why I encourage you to consider participating, too:
  • We are participating in citizen science, collecting data with thousands of others across the country for the greater good. Through studying years of collected data, scientists will be able to understand the effects of climate change on many different living organisms.
  • The project is a great excuse to get outside. Inevitably, many other observations and learning opportunities arise during a phenology walk.
  • One’s observation and estimation skills are sharpened. For example, it is not enough to note the white “flowers” of the flowering dogwood, because these are not the reproductive parts of the tree. What we generally consider to be flowers are leaf-like bracts, and the flowers are the small reproductive parts in the center of the bracts. As shown in the figure above, our flowering dogwood had 25-49% of its flowers open on April 13, and 75-94 % of its flowers open six days later.
  • These observations allow us time to appreciate the trees. One of our trees is a small Northern red oak, and I have enjoyed simply watching it grow since the fall of 2014.
Participation in this project is easy, and I encourage everyone to participate. Find a tree (or herbaceous plant or even animal) in your yard, neighborhood, or a nearby park; sign up on the Nature’s Notebook website; print out some data sheets; and get started. You’ll have one more excuse get outside, have one more reason to practice mindfulness through observation, and you’ll collect valuable research data all the while. The climate is changing, and we can all take part in helping to understand the impacts of climate change on the other living organisms in our midst.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Response: Climate of Complete Certainty

An April 29 op-ed piece by newly-hired New York Times writer Bret Stephens, a neoconservative formerly of The Wall Street Journal, has caught the attention of many. Mr. Stephens pretends to accept the claim of climate scientists that the planet is warming and that humans are causing it, but that he is above the fray and holds a healthy skepticism concerning the certainty of scientists as to exact direction we are heading. Here we have the simple tactic used by climate change deniers: obfuscation—let’s use some fancy language and a few strategically-placed statistics to cast some more doubt, delaying our action even further down the road. (Four more years?)

Perhaps the most troubling sentence in the article is this one: “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.” Modest? We continue to pump out greenhouse gases every second of every day, Mr. Stephens, and we are essentially adding to this “modest” temperature increase every day. We are already more than halfway to the globally-accepted target of no more than warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, to stave off the worst possible effects, and we are not doing nearly enough to meet that target.

One more thing: This is not about probabilities, but about basic physics. It is about energy imbalance and energy budgets. NASA’s description of the basic physics is informative:

Carbon dioxide forces the Earth’s energy budget out of balance by absorbing thermal infrared energy (heat) radiated by the surface. The absorption of outgoing thermal infrared by carbon dioxide means that Earth still absorbs about 70 percent of the incoming solar energy, but an equivalent amount of heat is no longer leaving. The exact amount of the energy imbalance is very hard to measure, but it appears to be a little over 0.8 watts per square meter. The imbalance is inferred from a combination of measurements, including satellite and ocean-based observations of sea level rise and warming.

When a forcing like increasing greenhouse gas concentrations bumps the energy budget out of balance, it doesn’t change the global average surface temperature instantaneously. It may take years or even decades for the full impact of a forcing to be felt. This lag between when an imbalance occurs and when the impact on surface temperature becomes fully apparent is mostly because of the immense heat capacity of the global ocean. The heat capacity of the oceans gives the climate a thermal inertia that can make surface warming or cooling more gradual, but it can’t stop a change from occurring.

The changes we have seen in the climate so far are only part of the full response we can expect from the current energy imbalance, caused only by the greenhouse gases we have released so far. Global average surface temperature has risen between 0.6 and 0.9 degrees Celsius in the past century, and it will likely rise at least 0.6 degrees in response to the existing energy imbalance. As long as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, the amount of absorbed solar energy will continue to exceed the amount of thermal infrared energy that can escape to space. The energy imbalance will continue to grow, and surface temperatures will continue to rise.

Have even one climate change denier explain to us how our understanding of this basic process is all wrong—and use decades of peer-reviewed science to back up his claim—and then we’ll stop marching in the streets and go back to our day jobs satisfied that everything will be just fine for future generations, after all.

The conversation has shifted, Mr. Stephens, from “Is climate change really happening?” to “Ok, what do we do about it now?”. We can certainly have intelligent discussions about what policies we should enact to ween ourselves from fossil fuels (and ween we must), but we can’t waste more time questioning the proven science. No climate scientist claims to know to the hundredth of a degree how much we will warm and when, and no climate scientist states exactly where the worst effects will occur, but no real climate scientist will tell us to sit back and wait for it to all play out so that we can obtain this precision. It’s called the Precautionary Principle (“When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.”), and the beings of this planet—and future ones—deserve precaution. We have enough data and enough science to act now, even as the science continues.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Crazy Talk: A Bipartisan Climate Change Solution

This appeared in the print version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on 4.22.17:

Call me crazy, but I think the time is ripe for a bipartisan solution to address climate change, which will help to preserve our wonderful planet Earth. A recent study done by the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication reports that 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and a majority of us acknowledge that humans, through greenhouse gas emissions from our various activities, are causing the climate to change. These numbers show that Americans have come to accept what climate scientists have been telling us for years.
The report also shows, however, that we generally think that climate change is something that affects others, and not us individually. But the people of North Carolina are already feeling the effects of climate change, which will be even more heightened if we do not come together to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Last fall in WNC, we witnessed one of the most severe droughts we have seen in this region, which laid the foundation for the devastating wildfires that impacted thousands of us. Our coasts will be significantly impacted, with rising sea levels and stronger storms, and our 50,000 farmers (cultivating over eight million acres of N.C. land) could see more temperature extremes, drought, and crop-damaging storms.
Daily, we read and hear about the political deadlock in Washington, but there are some promising signs and trends concerning climate change that are flying under the radar. In February of this year, the conservative Climate Leadership Council, led by stalwart Republicans James Baker III, George Shultz and Henry Paulson, all of whom served as cabinet members under Republican presidents, issued a report with a plan to address climate change. The opening line of the report reads, “Mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore.”
In addition, the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives has grown from 10 to 36 members in the past three months. The Caucus, which is made up of 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats, representing districts from Florida to Pennsylvania, Nebraska to Oregon, explores policy options to address the impacts and causes of a changing climate.
Another positive sign comes from a recent survey of 21 college Republican clubs conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The study found that about half of the clubs held views that climate change is real and is largely human-caused, and about a quarter of them described their clubs as having mixed views on the subject; only two clubs reported that their members were generally skeptical about climate change. Nick Frankowski, chairman of Ohio State University’s College Republicans, had this to say: “The evidence is fairly overwhelming that climate change is a thing,” he said. “The biggest debate is, of course, what to do about it.”
What to do about it, indeed. The Trump administration has rejected federal command-and-control action on climate change, with its recent executive order to disassemble the already-stalled Clean Power Plan. However, with strong public support for our elected officials to address climate change, there is room for a bipartisan, market-based solution: a relatively simple system of carbon pricing, with all fees collected, minus a small administrative fee, returned to American households.
The proposal presented by the Climate Leadership Council, led by the group of conservatives mentioned above, would charge a fee for fossil fuels “to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy, meaning the mine, well or port.” The authors continue, “Economists are nearly unanimous in their belief that a carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce carbon emissions. A sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time, sending a powerful signal to businesses and consumers, while generating revenue to reward Americans for decreasing their collective carbon footprint.” Under this plan, the fees collected would be returned to Americans by the Social Security Administration, and the authors estimate that a family of four would receive about $2,000 in dividend payments the first year.
The nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby, for which I volunteer, proposes a similar system of carbon fee and dividend (though the details are slightly different), with a similar border tax adjustment made for exports and imports to keep the system fair for American companies and consumers, and to encourage other nations to adopt a similar system of carbon pricing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — the former CEO of Exxon Mobil — has publicly supported a carbon fee and dividend system, too.
We have a lot riding on the pressing issue of climate change, and every being on Earth is facing it. Though Americans seemingly do not see eye-to-eye on many issues today, there is strong and growing support from all angles of the political spectrum to accept the challenge and act on climate change, preserving our wonderful planet. Current and future generations depend on a clean, stable, environment and climate, and a market-based system for pricing carbon would be a great step to that end. Reps. Meadows and McHenry and Sens. Tillis and Burr need to hear from us, no matter our individual political ideologies, as this plan can and should be supported by Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and otherwise. The rest of the world’s nations remain steadfast in their commitments made at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit to act; it is now time for America to step up and lead, to the benefit of us all.
Michael Hill teaches mathematics and environmental science at Asheville School. His blog on environmental issues can be found at

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Conservatives and progressives unite to fight climate change

This was an original piece for Mountain XPress, appearing in print on April 12, 2017, and electronically on April 15, 2017.

Quick: Name an event you’ve attended recently where progressives and conservatives, and everyone in between, have come together to calmly and collaboratively discuss solutions for tackling a critically important global issue. Nothing comes to mind? Well, that’s exactly what happened at The Collider in downtown Asheville March 25-26, when 80 people from Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina came together for the Mid-South Regional Conference of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots group advocates for national policies to address climate change. The focus is on passing federal legislation to create a revenue-neutral, carbon fee-and-dividend program in which companies would pay a fee for extracting fossil fuels based on how many tons of carbon dioxide the use of those fuels would produce. After covering the modest administrative costs, all remaining revenues would be returned to American households in the form of checks from the Treasury Department. We’re proposing an initial fee of $15 per ton, increasing by $10 a ton annually. Studies predict that such a program would result in the creation of 2.1 million jobs and more than a 50 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions over 20 years.
If the Climate Lobby can persuade Southern members of Congress to support the proposal, there’s reason to believe it could become federal law. “If we succeed in the South, we succeed nationally,” Don Addu, the organization’s Southeast regional director, told the conference.
Asheville chapter leader Steffi Rausch and her counterparts from other chapters briefly summarized their groups’ activities. After that, participants were treated to inspirational talks by local agricultural expert and author Laura Lengnick, who runs the consulting firm Cultivating Resilience, and Drew Jones, co-director of the Asheville-based nonprofit Climate Interactive. Addressing the assembled volunteers, Jones, a globally recognized expert on climate change modeling, said, “You all are the right people working at the right angle on the right issue.”

Positive trends

Jones illustrated several scenarios, concluding that in order to prevent catastrophic impacts, humans must start now to first cap and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (To get a better sense of this, check out C-ROADS, Climate Interactive’s free policy simulator.) To that end, noted Jones, 64 national and subnational jurisdictions have enacted carbon fees.
He also highlighted some global trends, including a slowdown in China’s production and consumption of coal, and the plummeting costs of wind (50 percent drop since 2009) and solar energy systems (80 percent drop since 2008). But even these positive developments aren’t enough — and that’s where the carbon pricing program comes in.
The conference included several sessions training volunteers in how to lobby effectively, build relationships and engage the community. Other sessions specifically addressed such topics as reaching out to conservatives, practicing active listening, and holding a lobbying meeting with members of Congress and their staffers. Participants heard about efforts by the Charleston, W.Va., chapter to bring the idea of a carbon fee-and-dividend program to the very heart of coal country.
I’ll be honest: I struggled at first with the idea of proactively engaging with members of Congress, regardless of their ideological bent and party affiliation. Sometimes I just want to scream and shout, “We have to do something about climate change now! What do you mean ‘The science is unsettled.’ Are you kidding?”
Now, however, I’m all in with that approach, because this issue is too crucial for me to hold grudges or think that I alone have the solution. I’m a pragmatist. I want to see the high elevation spruce/fir forests survive in Western North Carolina, see our native brook trout thrive. Most of all, I want my children, your children and our grandchildren to grow up in a world with a stable climate.
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby declares itself to be “relentlessly optimistic,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. I find these volunteers’ positive spirit and enthusiasm to be contagious. I hope you will, too.
To find out more about CCL or get on the mailing list, visit To keep up with the Asheville chapter’s activities, visit
Michael Hill teaches mathematics and environmental science at the Asheville School and volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. You can find his blog at

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cultivating Wildness

This was an original piece published at on 4.11.17.

The title phrase of this essay has been on my mind for some time—so much on my mind that a little over a year ago my wife and I started a small non-profit called 4X4 for Wild, whose mission is to create pollinator habitat in urban/suburban landscapes. This essay is about cultivating wildness in our gardens and landscapes and, extending the concept, also about cultivating wildness of human spirit.

The cold blast at the end of last week notwithstanding, Spring is here. Many of us are avid gardeners, and Spring is bliss for us—our perennials are bursting through the layer of winter mulch, the fruit trees and blueberry shrubs are flowering, and we’ll soon set out our heirloom tomato and pepper plants. Our summer gardens will be set out in orderly tilled rows, our tomatoes caged, perhaps with a couple of rows of sunflowers. I’ll admit that this is an appealing image, the order, linearity, and neatness of it all. But I want to turn our attention to the concept of cultivating wildness, of allowing some “weeds” to grow up around our neat garden areas, of encouraging some natural processes to take place and just standing back to watch nature do her thing.

There’s a wonderful children’s book about allowing nature to creep back into our lawns. Written by Henry Cole and published in 2007, On Meadowview Street is a heart-warming story about a little girl who persuades first her father, and then, through her great example, her entire neighborhood, to allow her lawn to revert to a wild habitat area for birds, butterflies, bees, and amphibians. She facilitates the process by planting a few native trees and shrubs, and then installing a small pond and a nesting box, but she also assists by standing back and watching as wildflowers begin to appear and outcompete the non-native grasses originally planted in her lawn. Little Caroline is cultivating wildness.

There are many ways to cultivate wildness around our homes. We can follow Caroline’s lead and facilitate the transition of our manicured lawns to habitat havens filled with native trees, shrubs, and flowering herbaceous plants. There are many excellent resources for those so inclined, including detailed planting guides; Asheville’s Bee City USA and the Xerces Society have excellent resources on their webpages. There are also very simple steps a humble gardener can take to provide habitat for a wide variety of animals, such as piling plant stubble in a corner of the garden, leaving a layer of leaves and other organic material on gardens year-round, and leaving the hollow stems from annual flowers in our garden as potential nesting sites for solitary bees.

I have long thought about cultivating wildness in a somewhat different (but related) context. In these most uncertain times of geopolitical upheaval and uncertainty, and with a constant bombardment of images, messages, and information, when we know what the weather will be like every hour, there has perhaps never been a better time for some wildness of the human spirit.

And we can cultivate it, seeking wild experiences in the outdoors in infinite ways. One of my favorite ways to cultivate wildness is to take a few chances while fishing the headwater streams in our area. I was introduced to Tenkara fly fishing two summers ago, and I have become a changed person. On several occasions last summer I got a little wild, took a slight turn off-trail, did some bushwhacking, and ended up in the Nirvana of native brook trout fishing in seldom-fished waters.

On one such occasion, I was on an overnighter with a few friends in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had thrown my Tenkara rod into my pack, just in case, but I did not plan to fish much. I caught a couple of brookies on our five-mile or so hike to our backcountry site, just by fishing just off the trail in a few pools. But when we got to our campsite, I heard the roar of tumbling mountain-stream water a few hundred yards away. I told the guys that I was going to sneak down the trail a bit to see if I could gain access to the stream, but I had on my camp shoes—flip flops—and it took a half hour or so before I could find anything close to an access point. Even then, I had to scale a downed hemlock at a 70-degree angle, ripping my shorts almost off my body, and obtaining several abrasions.

I looked back up the steep incline to the trail, stepped in the water, and it hit me immediately that I was in prime fishing waters. The stream was choked in places with rhododendron, dead hemlocks, and mountain laurel, but the fishing was incredible. I caught about a dozen brookies, all of them good-sized, in just over an hour. It was dusk and I wanted to get back to camp before dark, so I crawled (literally) out of the stream and up a very steep embankment, flip-flopped through a tangle of laurel and wood nettles, and found the trail. When I got back to camp, one of my friends said to me, “The smile on your face says it all.”

One of my favorite authors is the curmudgeon Edward Abbey, who wrote this in his Desert Solitaire introduction: “Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees… When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”

The image and practice of crawling on hands and knees, obtaining a few abrasions and drawing blood, have stuck with me for years. It’s not that I seek to bleed, of course, or to leap over rattlesnakes during my outings (that happened once last summer on a bushwhacking fishing expedition), but that my soul needs some wildness every now and then. When cultivating wildness, whether in the garden or during our outdoor adventures, we must allow for uncertainty, and for natural processes to take over. We may end up with a few weeds, or we may end up with a bloody scratch or two, but we’ll all be better off.