The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The Tears of the Earth: A Hike on Sólheimajökull Glacier July 21, 2019

Sólheimajökull

Sólheimajökull

It was our final day in Iceland before returning back to the US. We so many great experiences visiting this country of beautiful extremes, but more than anything, what we wanted to see on our last day was a glacier. We talked about it, and decided that we should see a glacier, as we might never be able to see one again. We booked a beginner glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier, a hike that took you way up into the glacier.

 

Where the glacier used to be, 2010. Where I am standing and taking the photograph is where it was in mid 2009.

It was a misty and cool day; small droplets of rain pressed against us at the parking lot at the base of the glacier. Before us, the Sólheimajökull glacier loomed, white and black and gray. After getting fitted with safety harnesses, helmets, crampons, and pick axes, our group of twelve set off to the glacier hike. Our guide, who was originally from the Alps and who had been hiking glaciers his whole life, first took us to a sign as we walked along the edge of an enormous lake. He stopped and said, “In 2010, this is where the glacier was. Each year, it gets smaller. In the winter, it stops melting but never regrows. But we’ve still got quite a hike to get to the glacier as you can see.” The sign he showed us had many different numbers with years. Last year, in 2018, the glacier receded more than any other year: 118 meters. And so, we continued our hike, which took about 15 minutes, walking along the edge glacier’s melt pool.  This link offers a video that shows the melting of the Sólheimajökull glacier from the years 2007- 2015.

 

One of the tours they now advertise in Iceland the “kayak the glacier” experience. There is a kind of horseshoe shaped lake that is made when a glacier reaches its largest size and then begins to melt. You’ve seen this shape before on a map: its reflected in the bowl-shaped bottom of Lake Michigan. That bowl shape is created by the melting of a glacier. As a glacier advances, it  moves earth itself, pushing up stone, soil, and bedrock; the powerful edge of it creating a wall of stone. As the glacier recedes, it leaves that wall of stone behind, and as it melts, that stone creates a natural dam, and the bowl-shaped area behind the dam fills with water. Water that tourists can kayak in. Water that is created, in part, by the 2600 miles it took me to fly to Iceland. Water that is, for all intents and purposes, the tears that the earth cries.

 

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

As I stood at the bottom of the glacier, I realized how small I was in comparison to the massive block of ice. The Sólheimajökull glacier took up all the space, moving into our field of vision, white, black, and sometimes blue, daunting in its appearance. As we got close, you could see the shimmering of the melt water coming off of it, moving into the lake below.  Icebergs, also, floated in the lake–our guide explained that those icebergs crack off the glacier frequently and will likely be gone by the end of the summer.  So much ice.  So much to melt.

 

We carefully put our crampons on our feet and, single file, began our ascent into the glacier.  As soon as we stepped foot on the glacier, my heart grew heavy with sorrow. The most striking feature of the glacier wasn’t the beauty. It wasn’t the black ash from various volcanic activity, or the white and blue ice. The most striking feature was how fast it was melting. Everywhere the glacier was melting. The day we were there, it was around 50 degrees, now a fairly common temperature for Iceland this time of year. And everywhere you looked, the glacier was glistening. Little drips became streams, streams became bigger streams, and eventually, they flowed into quite large rivers, running down the glacier. Standing anywhere on the glacier, you could observe this and watch the ice melt and take milennia of black and gray ash along with it.

 

At one point, our guide stopped and pointed to a mountain quite far off from where we stood. Less than a decade ago, he told us, the glacier reached up to that nearby mountain. Now, that mountain isn’t reachable, the glacier is much lower, and there is a glacial river between us. I stood there and thought about it: that must have been millions of gallons of water in that short time, all melted away into the lake and eventually, ocean nearby.

 

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

The amount of melting made the Sólheimajökull a bit difficult to traverse. The tour company maintained a trail on the glacier, but it was an ever-moving target. As we hiked, we two people working on the trail on the glacier. They would cut a set of stairs, and then, within an hour or two, the stairs would melt and become dangerous and they’d have to cut new ones. This ever-evolving trail was now just part of the experience of walking on a glacier, as our guide explained.

 

The walk was a walk of extremes. The solid white and blue ice. The black and gray of the volcanic ash becoming unlocked as the glacier melted. One of the folks on our walk asked, “can we tell what volcanic eruption this ash came from?” Our guide said, “No, it all just melts together.” You could be standing on ash and melt from 10,000 years ago or even 100,000. Scientists with specialized equipment drilling core samples could tell, but we could not.  Here is an image of the entire glacier, Myrdalsjokull, from 1986 to September 2014.  The glacier we walked was one “arm” of this larger glacier.  You can see how massive it is, and you can glimpse the volcano that sits beneath.

 

Throughout our week in Iceland, I didn’t get a strong sense that the spirits of the land were welcoming or open to outsiders. Icelanders certainly capitalize on their island’s natural beauty as part of their tourist industry. And while you might enter a lava cave and be told of rooms called “the banquet hall of the elves” or “the troll’s den”,  or, you might see the stone stacks throughout the land that are there to appease the little people, the Icelandic people are not willing to talk about those aspects of their land.  They don’t speak of their relationship to the land spirits with outsiders. And neither do those spirits of the land seem interested in saying hello.  So I spent the week in Iceland not engaged heavily with the spirits of the land; things were just quiet.  Thus, I was certainly surprised when even before I walked up to it, the glacier immediately reached out to me and wanted to convey a message.

 

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

As we climbed Sólheimajökull, I connected deeply with the spirit of place. The glacier itself, and the spirit of the mountain—between two active volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. Sólheimajökull first shared with me its anger, so angry that it was melting away. So angry at humans. I could feel the stress and strain as it spoke to me: to tell people what you have seen here. Tell of how the melting will flood their cities. Speak of the truth you have witnessed. I felt the anger in its voice, the anger radiating out of it, as it knew it was dying.

 

We continued to climb the glacier, witnessing its tragic beauty among the melting ice. Then a second voice emerged from Sólheimajökull, this one of sadness. I am losing myself, the glacier said. I am crying tears for the world. How many people who climb me today will speak of what they have seen? How many will change because of it?  How many have made me cry further just to walk upon me? I cry for us, the glacier said, and I cry for the world.

 

We had to climb over a large crevasse with water rushing through it. Our guide explained that this kind of crevasse was very dangerous and could easily drown you if you fell in.  Eventually this crevasse would literally crack a large chunk of the glacier off into the melt pool. As I navigated the crevice, I heard the glacier speak once again, this time, in despair. What is happening is happening. There is nothing to be done.  Our melting will reshape the world. I have been here for so long, and someday, I will be here again. But in the meantime, my waters will travel far and wide.

 

Upon meditation on this experience after returning home, I realized that I was hearing the many voices of this glacier working through the many stages of grief.  I was experiencing the grief that this sacred place was experiencing, conveying to me, perhaps so I could convey it to you.

 

Crevasse in melting glacier

Crevasse in melting glacier

We got to a high point on the glacier where you could see it continue to rise up for many miles into the mist.  Here the glacier flattened out quite a bit. It was here that our guide swung two pickaxes in the ice to create handholds and let us kneel down on them to drink the fresh glacial melt-water. Pure, cold, refreshing. As I drank the water, thirsty from our climb, I could feel the energy of the glacier. As I drank, the emotions that the glacier was conveying to me welled up within me, overflowing. Anger, fear, sadness, despair, acceptance. All at once, those feelings spread throughout me. As we made our way back down, I simply allowed myself to experience the myriad of complex feelings of this place.

 

The next day, on our flight home, we flew over Greenland and the lower part of the Arctic before landing back in the US. I looked down, out of the window of the plane, and saw so many small chunks of ice participating in their own complex patterns of melting, this time, with nobody to hear or witness up close.

 

Melting ice from the plane

Melting ice from the plane

How much damage did this trip to Iceland cost the earth? That’s the part that has been perhaps the hardest for me to process, as I’ve been thinking about and meditating on this experience. I went on this trip for pleasure. I’ve had little chance to travel, and I wanted to experience new things and visit somewhere completely different. But my very engagement with this glacier, my presence there, was part of why it was melting. Sure, you can say, but Dana, you can always offset your carbon for this. And yes, I always do offset my carbon from travel at the end of the year (most of it work related). But does that  offset matter? In the end, I chose to engage in an activity that speeded the melting of this sacred place.helped this glacier melt. One article, I read recently suggested that each trans-Atlantic flight, like the one I took, melts about 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  So for myself, my round trip contributed to 60 square feet of ice melted in the Arctic.

 

Just like the glacier, I’m full of a myriad of complex emotions. I’m glad to have this experience. I’m saddened by it. I recognize my own part in this.  I feel sorrow and anger and acceptance. We are all on the front lines of climate change, the 6th extinction happening, the age of the Anthropocene.  Every one of us is living in a time where we are aware of the problem, many of us trying to do something about it. At the same time, by participating in modern life, we can’t help but contributing to it.  This is the great Catch-22 of our age.  To see the glacier is to destroy the glacier.  To use fossil fuels necessary for modern life is to burn them.  How can I afford solar panels for my home without commuting to work each day in a fossil fuel powered vehicle?  The glacier weeps as I write.

 

But the other thing that this lesson has powerfully taught me is the power of experience. How many people, in seeing that melting glacier could really deny the truth of climate change? How could it be denied that these things are happening, powerfully and directly, before our very eyes?  This experience has changed me. I “knew” about the glaciers melting before.  Knew as in I intellectually engaged in an understanding about the fact that glaciers worldwide were melting. But it was not till I stood upon one, till I connected with the spirit of that place, and until I confronted my own contribution to that melting, could I really have wisdom surrounding it.

 

The glacier

The glacier

As I write these words, I’m attempting to convey some of that wisdom, that direct experience, but my words cannot have the impact of that weeping glacier. Book knowledge is what we engage with intellectually and logically, what we read or hear in order to better understand something. Book knowledge is mitigated by human language, words on paper or spoken aloud. These words, as I write them, are read by your eyes and processed by your brain. But they are a pale representation for the experience of standing there, of seeing the glacier weep, drinking its meltwater, and feeling its pain. But I’ve done my best, dear reader, and I hope it gives you a small piece into this experience and into that of one melting glacier. Can we find these same kinds of changes in our own ecosystems, and use them as local teaching tools? Perhaps we can, and perhaps that’s a message I can leave you with today.

 

PS:  I’m excited to announce that I just signed my first book contract a few weeks ago!  Because of this, I will be taking a few weeks off of blogging so that I can prepare my manuscript to submit to the publisher (which is quite a bit of work).  I’ll keep you updated on the progress, release date, etc.  Thanks for your understanding!

 

The Silence of the Hive October 1, 2015

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.

 

This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.

 

This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.

 

Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.

 

There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.

 

Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.

 

In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.

 

Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.

 

Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.

 

When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.

 

Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.